Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

Table People

Posted: June 20, 2011 in Sermons

Table PeopleSermon preached on June 19, 2011 at Temple Lutheran Church.

Click to Listen

I spent some time thinking about my grandmothers this week.  One of my grandmother’s birthdays was on Tuesday, so I was thinking about these two women that have meant so much to me.

My grandmothers were table people.

Let me explain what I mean by that.  My grandmothers lived in simple houses:  one in south Pittsburgh and the other just east of the city.  Two houses that I spent much of my childhood visiting.  In both houses there were tables–tables that served as much more than a piece of furniture.  At one house it filled the kitchen.  At the other house it was a dining room table along with a picnic table on the back porch.

It was around those tables that life happened.

When I look back through old photo albums and silent super-8 home movies transferred to DVD, time after time I see images of our family gathered around those tables.  Birthday parties, Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas Eve and Easter gatherings.  Not to mention the daily routines that we never took pictures of: meals, conversations, homework sessions and card games.

There was nothing particularly striking about the tables.  No one will want to take them to Antiques Roadshow.  They were simple and modest–covered with the dents and scratches of years of use.  Those tables, however, were at the heart of our family life together.

When you came into the house, there was always someone at the table.  And there was always an open seat and an invitation.  There was always a place at the table waiting.

Our history was created around those tables.  Who we are as a family was formed around those tables.

My grandmothers were table people.

I remembered that particular aspect of my grandmothers as I prepared to gather today for Holy Trinity Sunday–the day that we celebrate the Triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  It was in the 14th century that a Russian monk named Andrei Rublev painted an icon depicting the Holy Trinity.  Many consider it to be the most perfect Russian Orthodox icon ever painted, and among the greatest pieces of sacred art ever produced.

"Trinity" by Andrei Rublev

"Trinity" by Andrei Rublev

In this painting–and the many others inspired by it–the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are depicted sitting around a table.  The way the image is arranged invites you to see a relationship.  The three persons of God in relationship:  love shared around the table.

And what is really striking is that there is an empty place at the table.  It’s arranged so that there’s an opening–a space at the table–for the person looking at the icon.  There is a place at the table for you and for me.

700 years later we are surrounded by interactive images–high definition digital 3-D movies, TV, pictures and video games–but the Russian Orthodox Church was already producing interactive icons centuries ago!   To gaze upon the icon of the trinity during prayer and worship was to gaze upon the relationship that forms the heart of God and to be drawn into the image, and into the relationship, through the invitation offered by the space at the table.

It is so very much like those tables that I remember from my grandmothers’ homes.  Perhaps, I hope, it’s like a table you’ve sat around, too.

As Lutherans we don’t incorporate icons as a part of our tradition–although, as I look around this room, it’s clear that we do appreciate images:  whether painted on a wall, captured in stained glass, or projected on a screen.

While we may not incorporate icons into our faith community in the way that other Christians around the world do, we are, as the icon suggests, table people.  We believe in a God who welcomes us to come sit at the table.  We believe and proclaim an invitation into the very heart of God.  We proclaim a God who is relationship–a God who wants to be in relationship with you, with us, with the world.  We proclaim a God who provides a place at the table.

The idea of the Holy Trinity—the idea that the 1 God is at the same time 3 persons—is enough to make your head spin as you explore it.  Contemplating the Holy Trinity can be a tremendously interesting and rewarding experience while also leaving you confused as every new insight reveals yet another layer of mystery and intrigue.

One of the simple basic truths about God as trinity that shines through all of the mystery and contemplation is that God’s nature is all about relationship.  We hear it from the very beginning of the Biblical story.  In Genesis chapter 1, God’s creation of everything is described–and in the middle of it all, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.”  The first Biblical image of God reflects the Trinity in conversation.

We hear Jesus, God in human skin, in the final paragraph of the gospel of Matthew compelling us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus sends us out to proclaim a God who is relationship; a God who wants to be in relationship with the world.

At its very heart, this command that we call “great commission” is all about being table people.  At its very heart, the mission we share as a congregation:  “To know Christ and make Christ known” is all about being table people.

Every time we approach the table–no matter where we are in our lives, no matter how strong or how fragile our faith is feeling–every time we approach the table there is a place for us.

We are table people because we have a table God.  There is a spot at the table and it is open for you.  Whatever is going on around that table, you are invited into it, welcomed, and expected to be a part of it.  In the words of a wonderful old African American spiritual:  “there’s plenty good room…just choose your seat and sit down!”  It is when we sit down at the table—in a seat already there waiting for us–yhat we encounter the God who wants to be in relationship.

Now, please don’t hear all of this talk about God’s table and think that I’m talking only about Holy Communion.  The radical and beautiful openness of God’s table is meant to be reflected in the meal we share here, but that is only one of many ways that we become table people.

As we gather around the table today we will then be sent out into the world.  We are sent out with those words of the great commission still echoing in our souls:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  As people who have come to know Christ, we are sent to make Christ known.  Having found that we have a place at the table, we become people who extend God’s table.  We create a place for the person looking in from the outside.  We look up from the table and offer a place that is already waiting.

We can do it here at the table of Holy Communion (and we need to).  We can do it in in the fellowship of this congregation gathered to worship (and we need to), but God wants us to be table people every day.

God didn’t send Jesus into the world to teach us how to be good churchgoers.  God didn’t send Jesus into the world to teach us how to do religion right.  God sent Jesus into the world to teach us how to be human beings–how to love one another and extend what has God has given us every single day.  God wants us to find the person looking in from the outside and extend every table that we have found our own place at.

Table people open up their tables to everyone who walks in the door.  Table people make room in their lives for everyone they encounter.  You don’t need a fancy table.  You don’t need a good looking table.  God invites you to extend whatever table it is that you are sitting at.  Table people encounter a God who is relationship.  Table people are drawn into relationship with God and one another so that we can extend that same experience of love and grace to the world around us.

Table people know Christ and make Christ known.  Table people experience and share the love of God.

Table people is what we are called to be, because being table people is at the heart of the good news of the gospel.




Posted: June 12, 2011 in Sermons

Sermon preached June 12, 2011 (Day of Pentecost and “Graduation Sunday”)

Click to Listen

As we gather together today we have the chance as a community to recognize and pray for the class of 2011.  And what better opportunity for a Christian community to do that than on the day of Pentecost:  the day on which we gather around the story of the Holy Spirit—God’s ongoing presence with us–showing up in the world to guide us.

Now, I’ve graduated 3 times (not including Kindergarten), and something that I remember from all three times–something that kind of confused and bothered me, actually–were comments about going into the “real world”.

Are you ready for the “real world”?

As if I had been living in a land of make believe up until the point that I received a diploma and turned the tassel on my cap.

I think we all know that the “real world” is where we live every day.  We don’t earn our way into the “real world”, it meets us on the day we are born.  We don’t leave it in order to go to school (or to church).   It follows us wherever we go.

There is truth, however, in realizing that you have reached a moment that sends you out beyond the walls or boundaries of what you have become used to.  You hear it in the give and take between those two words:  “Graduation” and “Commencement.”  A page is turning.  Something new is unfolding before you. It is a moment of change; a moment of yet-to-be-discovered new things.

There is a part of your life that you are graduating from.  There are things that you will say goodbye to; people you will say goodbye to.  Even though your life will still be shaped by your experience there, it will no longer be the place where you live.  You have graduated.

At the same time, it is also the commencement of a new part your life.  A new chapter begins.

Now, if this were a commencement address, this is the point where I would rouse the graduating class to head out into that “real world” and “find yourself.”

Which is another strange concept:  “finding yourself.”

I suspect that all of our quests to find ourselves end when we realize that, even as we searched for ourselves, it turns out we were right there the whole time.  Not unlike those moments when we search endlessly for a pair of eyeglasses that we are already wearing, or search frantically for a set of car keys that we are holding in our hand the entire time.

There was a fantastic article in the New York Times recently that discussed this moment of graduation–of commencement.  The writer, David Brooks, reflected on all of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-SPAN and the image of graduates hearing the message:

  • Follow your passion
  • chart your own course
  • march to the beat of your own drummer
  • follow your dreams
  • go find yourself

Among all of this talk of finding yourself, David Brooks comes to a conclusion that reflects, very directly, the call of Jesus on our lives.  The article ends with the challenging reminder that “The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

We create who we are not through an abstract quest, but through the real commitments we make.  We make sacred commitments.  We tie ourselves down to whoever and whatever is important to us:  a person we love, a career, a community.  We don’t discover who we are and then unleash that person on the world, We live in the world and pay attention to the needs–the problems.  Our response to what we find shapes who we are.

For Rose Cain, who lives across the street, it was the people she met at doctor’s offices while her husband battled cancer that called out to her.  She made a sacred commitment and the Kevin Cain foundation has come to help family after family.

Right here within our congregation, for a handful of moms, dads and grandmoms, it was a beautiful assortment of children and the hope that this congregation will always be a community where they love to be and know they belong.  They made a sacred commitment and created what the children call ROCK:  the “Really only Club for Kids.”

The same calling leads us to the places where we make careers, to the people that we commit our lives to as families and friends, and to the communities that we belong to.

The world produces the circumstances–the problems and the opportunities–that place a calling on our life.  It’s the voice of the Holy Spirit calling us to live.  Calling us to create God’s new reality.

The story of Pentecost–of the Holy Spirit entering the world to sustain us–is a story of graduation and commencement.  It was the culmination of Jesus’ time on earth, but it was only the beginning of what Jesus came to make possible.  The disciples could have gone back to the life they had before Jesus, But instead, the disciples became apostles.  The followers of Jesus became people who did God’s work in the world.  The Holy Spirit came and launched them into the world to make sacred commitments that would build God’s new reality.  The day of Pentecost is a day of commencement for faith communities.  It is a moment–an event–that sends us out beyond the walls or boundaries of what we become used to.

The Holy Spirit comes to guide and sustain our journey, but the Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems.  Actually, the Holy Spirit creates our problems.  The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to what God is doing and puts a calling on our lives to participate.  The problems and the opportunities are not always simple, easy or small.  Most of what God calls us toward is complex and significant.

That means that setbacks, and even full-scale failures, are going to happen.  There’s no way around it.  The challenges and opportunities that God calls us to are far too great, and far too complex and significant to think that we are going to figure them out easily.  We cannot expect that we will hit upon the best response the first time we try.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t prevent failure, but invites it.  The Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.  Once we’ve identified a worthy challenge we can experiment even if we fail.  We can innovate even if we fail.  We can invent even if we fail.

This is an important and central truth of being a community of faith, especially in a world that is so obsessed with success that we forget that God is present and working through us even as we fail.

God is our creator, redeemer and sustainer.  It is God alone that can bring the new reality we long for and need.  Our job is to partner with God’s work wherever we find it happening.  God’s Holy Spirit has come so that we can Make Christ known.  God’s Holy Spirit came so that our life in Christ can commence!

Where is God calling you today?  What needs and opportunities are seeking your sacred commitment?  What ventures is God calling us to pursue as a community?  These are the questions we must pray and think about as the Holy Spirit calls us to commence.

The Holy Spirit calls us to join God’s work in the world.  The Holy Spirit calls us to create a new reality.  The Holy Spirit calls us to do God’s work with our hands.

Listen and pray, my friends.  This is our day of Pentecost.  This is our day to commence as God’s Holy Spirit calls us to be actively involved in the good news of the gospel.


“Stepping Off” Point

Posted: June 5, 2011 in Sermons

[audio] Click to Listen

Sermon preached June 5, 2011 at Temple Lutheran Church.

Chapel of the Ascension, Jerusalem




In Jerusalem, at the site of the Mount of Olives, stands a building called The Chapel of the Ascension.  It’s considered by many to be a sacred site and is often visited by people traveling through the Holy Land.

The "Ascension Rock"

The centerpiece of this chapel is the Ascension Rock, which is said to bear the imprint of the right foot of Jesus as he ascended.  It is regarded as the last footprint of Jesus on Earth.  The story of the “Ascension Rock” is based upon Acts chapter 1.  Jesus is having a conversation with his disciples about how God’s kingdom will unfold.  As the conversation comes to its culmination, Jesus says:

“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]

The passage then tells us:

“when Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” [Acts 1:9]

And, even today, we can travel to Jerusalem (either in person or via the instant access provided by the internet) and look at “Ascension Rock”.  We can look at the last footprint of Jesus on Earth.

Now, if your mind follows the same path that mind does, there are questions that might arise.  The questions you will have might include:

  • How do we know the specific rock?
  • Why would there be footprint in a rock?
  • Was the Mount of Olives preservation society pouring a new cement sidewalk that day and Jesus messed it up?

To be honest, I’m pretty sure it’s just an ordinary rock.  Even so, it does provide us with an important invitation:  it invites us into the story of Jesus, and a pretty important part of the story, to say the least.

The story of the ascension, it appears, Is the story of Jesus leaving the world.  Forty-three days earlier, it seemed as though the story was over as Jesus went to the cross and died.  Those fears were overcome three days later when the tomb was empty and the savior was risen.  But here we are, once again, witnessing the disciples bidding farewell to Jesus as he is again lifted up off of the ground.  Not on a cross this time, but on a cloud, as he ascends.  Carried away like a released balloon until he is out of their sight.

The “Ascension Rock”, even if it is just another ordinary rock, invites us to struggle with a question that is always present.  A question those disciples certainly could feel surging through them as they stared at the sky watching the ascension:

What now?

What happens next?

Where does the story go if that is the last footprint of Jesus?

What happens now…if Jesus has “stepped off” of the earth?

What happens now…if Jesus has left?

Jesus knew that day was coming.  Jesus knew that he would not always be there in the way the disciples were used to.  Jesus knew that this was part of God’s unfolding plan.  We hear it as Jesus prays for them—for us—in John chapter 17.  Think about that for a moment:  Jesus prays for us!  In the midst of seeking God’s involvement in our lives, Jesus prays:

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” [John 17:11]

Jesus’ prayer makes it clear that there is more to come.  Jesus makes it clear that God’s story will continue to unfold.

There is a reason that Jesus did all that Jesus did.
There is a reason that God became a human being.
There is a reason that Jesus came and proclaimed a new world.
There is a reason that Jesus showed a different way of living in the world.
There is a reason that Jesus suffered and died on a Roman cross.
There is a reason that Jesus was raised three days later.
And there is a reason that Jesus stepped back off of the earth and ascended.

Jesus does all of this so that we may know God.

Jesus’ prayer defines the purpose of God’s son in the world, and that is

“to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.  And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  [John 17:2-3]

Jesus does all of this so that we may know God.

But it’s not just so we can know God…there’s more.  Jesus does all of this so that we may do God’s work on earth.  That’s right. Jesus leaves, but we stay.  Why? To continue the work God first entrusted to Jesus.

The prayer in John 17 continues, and just a moment later, Jesus prays:

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” [John 17:18]

Jesus speaks the very same thing directly to the disciples just before he left that final footprint on the “Ascension Rock.”  After reminding us of the promised Holy Spirit, Jesus tells the disciples, including us today, that

“you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]

Jesus leaves, but we stay.

The next chapter in God’s unfolding story is the part where we do God’s work with our hands.  It’s the part where we live as people who know Christ and make Christ known.

It turns out that the story of the ascension is not just the story of the moment when Jesus stepped off of the earth, It is actually our stepping off point.  It is where our participation in God’s story truly begins.

The footprint on the “Ascension Rock” is not the final footprint of Jesus on the earth.  It is not the last place that Jesus left an impact on this world.  Each one of has been called to leave footprints in Jesus’ name.  We have been called together to impact the world–to continue the new way of living that Jesus proclaimed.

Jesus has not left the world behind.  Jesus has not left Japan behind.  Jesus has not left Joplin, Missouri (or Alabama or Massachusetts) behind.  Jesus has not left Haiti or Darfur behind.

Jesus has not left those who suffer and struggle behind, whether it be in the middle of a disaster zone, or in a hospital bed or nursing home, or quietly in your own hardships while everyone thinks you’re doing fine.  If you are suffering today, Christ is present here with you–truly present.  Jesus is here with you because this congregation is here with you.  We are the footprints of Jesus in the world today.  And, as we are present with each other, we are called together to be the footprints of Jesus for the world around us.

There are so many ways that God invites us to leave footprints in the world.  Some of them are obvious:  we feed the hungry, we stand with the poor, we build a house together in Chester.  But let me leave you with this reminder, too: most of the footprints that Jesus wants to leave in the world happen through things that you do every day and probably don’t even realize are connected to God’s unfolding story.

Just like Ascension Rock is just another ordinary rock that has been swept up in God’s story, we are all a bunch of ordinary people doing ordinary things.  But we, too, become a part of what God is doing in the world.

It happens in the way you relate to another person: whether it’s the person in line at the soup kitchen or the person in front of you in the checkout line at the grocery store.  It happens when a parent closes their laptop and spends time with a son or daughter just being together.  The topic of the conversation may be important, or it might be silly, but the words don’t matter nearly as much as the relationship that happens.  You become a part of what God is doing in the world when you show up at work, when you sit in the bleachers at a soccer field, when you break bread together at a diner, at home, or here during worship.

You become a part of what God is doing in the world when you trust the promise that Jesus has sent you into the world.  You become a part of what God is doing in the world when you trust that God answers the prayer of Jesus so that you may know Christ and make Christ known.

The ascension of Jesus is a stepping off point, but it’s not about Jesus stepping off of the earth and disappearing.  It is the stepping off point of our life as followers of Jesus.  It is the stepping off point of our participation in God’s unfolding story.  It is the stepping off point of the good news of the gospel.  Amen.

The Final Word

Posted: May 15, 2011 in Sermons

Sermon preached by Matt Staniz on May 15, 2011.  Sermon refers to predictions that the world would end on May 22 that were publicized via radio and highway billboards.

Click to listen.
So…did you get the message?Apparently we are headed down the home stretch. The billboards have been warning us for months: Judgment Day – May 21, 2011.Have summer plans at the shore? Too bad! World Series run for the Phillies this fall? Forget it! God is apparently ready to close the book on the world as we know it, and it’s going to happen this coming Saturday.

Which means, for people in my line of work, today is our last chance to preach–the last sermon. Today is the final word.

That’s more than a little bit of pressure, you know? You better pay attention!

Of course, to be honest, it also feels a little bit like the last day of school.

So, what should the sermon on the world’s final Sunday include?

As we face the possibility that we are in the final week of being God’s people on Earth–the final week of being the church–I think it’s appropriate to go back to the first week; to go back to the beginning of God’s mission through the church. We can look to the beginning of the church because, quite simply, our mission as followers of Jesus is the same mission that is was when it began. The world has changed dramatically over the centuries, and continues to change on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis, but what it means to be followers of Jesus is still exactly the same.

We hear it in the words of Acts chapter 2:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This is how what we call “the church” began. And, quite frankly, the purpose of people following Jesus has not changed at all in 2000 years. The people we read about in Acts chapter 2 had a purpose and that same purpose belongs to us today.

They became a community driven by God revealed in Jesus. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles; the teaching passed along from what Jesus taught. They devoted themselves to fellowship; to being a community. They devoted themselves to breaking bread together. They devoted themselves to prayer. As they gathered together around the gospel and around the breaking of bread, and as athey gathered together to pray–things happened.

There was awe–there wonders and signs, and the community that had formed were driven to turn themselves inside-out as a community in order to participate in what God was doing in the world. They saw everything they had as a means toward God’s mission. They devoted everything God gave them toward meeting needs. No one was abandoned. No one was left behind.

And that community of fellowship and generosity, that community built around profound loving relationship (with each other, with God revealed in Jesus, and with the world God loves) is the very same community–with the very same purpose–that we are a part of today. We are the same church today that was launched in Acts chapter 2.

We are called to be in relationship with God. We are given the same teachings rooted in Jesus Christ. We are invited into a life of prayer as we pay attention to God’s presence with us today.

We are called to be in relationship with each other: to devote ourselves to fellowship. And “fellowship” simply means being together; spending time together (and probably enjoying it, too!). We are called to devote ourselves to breaking bread together. Even as we do that together at the communion table, we also break bread together in the church basement. We also break bread together in each other’s homes. We also break bread at a playground picnic table with a group of children. We also break bread together at a tailgate party outside a Phillies game.

And as we grow in relationship to God and one another, we are also called to be in relationship with the world. We are called to gather all that God has given us and use it to meet the needs of the world God loves–the world God has placed us in to be practitioners of love.

Our relationship with God and each other turns us inside-out as a community because God has brought us together in the world in order to be a part of what God is doing in the world. God did not bring us together in this world in order to bide our time on the way to somewhere else. God did not bring us together in this world in order to wait to go to heaven. God did not bring us together in the world in order to wait for the day that we will all be snatched away.

If that were the case, putting up billboards reminding people to save the date is all we would need to do.

But that’s not what Jesus came to make possible. That is not the kingdom of God described in scripture. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done…” where? “On earth as in heaven.”

There is a “final word” for us to hear today. I do have a “final word” to proclaim, but that final word has nothing to do with billboards pointing to May 21, 2011. You see, I did my own research this week and, quite frankly, the billboards got the date wrong. I’m sure an adjustment will be announced–probably on May 22–but I expect that the date will still be wrong. The “final word” on God’s work in the world does not point to a billboard on a highway in 2011. God’s “final word” points to a cross on a hill 2000 years ago. God’s “final word” is the cross of Jesus. God’s final word is an endless, sustaining, amazing grace that is ours because of Jesus.

It’s the final word of grace that we hear in the apostles’ teaching. It’s the final word of grace that we experience in community. It’s the final word we experience as we break bread together. It’s the final wordof grace that we experience as we pray together. It’s the final word of God’s grace that turns us inside-out as a community and makes us builders of God’s kingdom and reflections of God’s will–not just in heaven after we die, but starting today, on Earth as in heaven.

If anything, the billboards can remind us that there is an urgency to our mission. We should approach following Jesus as though time is limited, because–judgment day or not–this world needs to experience the love of God now. The world needs to experience grace and love this week. The hungry need to be fed this week. The sick need to be cared for this week. The lonely need to be loved this week. The needs around us (and among us) must be addressed this week.

So, regardless of what we think will happen on Saturday, I pray we embrace our identity and mission as God’s church this week.

And, if it turns out that billboards did miss the date, I figure a ladder and a bucket of paint is all that we need to spread word that we’ll still be proclaiming that final word of God’s grace for as long as we are on this mission!

Be sure to come for 9:30 next Sunday, though. I wouldn’t want to cause any undue panic! [ed. note: this is a change of schedule to begin the summer]

Until then, may we remain constantly surrounded by the final word of God’s grace and be urgently committed to sharing that word of grace in everything that we do.


Click to Listen

May 8, 2011 sermon by Matt Staniz.  Scripture: Luke 24:13-35.  (May 8, 2011 was the first Sunday after the death of Osama bin Laden was announced)

In these 50 days that make up the season of Easter, we continue to gather around the stories of Jesus–after the resurrection–appearing to the disciples. They are strange and wonderful stories, to say the least. Jesus shows up and, time after time, the people in the story don’t recognize that it is Jesus. At the empty tomb, Mary thinks it’s the gardener. Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem and the disciples think that he’s a ghost.

Today we get the wonderful story of two disciples walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus and talking about all the things that had happened. It had been quite a weekend in Jerusalem and they were walking the seven miles to Emmaus and back into their lives now that Jesus had been killed.
During their 3 hour walk they had plenty to talk about as they tried to make sense of what had happened. And then, we’re told that Jesus himself approaches them. Only they do not know that it is Jesus. It doesn’t occur to them that Jesus is there with them on the road.

Jesus asks them what they are talking about, and it stops them in their tracks. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?”

When I hear that moment in the story, it reminds me of a very specific moment in my life. It reminds of a moment on September 11, 2001. I’m sure we all have pretty defined memories of how that day unfolded for us. I imagine that—to some degree—they’ve crossed our minds this past week.

The moment I remember as I hear of this encounter along the road to Emmaus happened late in the morning on September 11. I had been watching the story unfold on TV and passing word along to others on the campus of our seminary in Philadelphia. It was at least 11am–very late in the story of that morning–when I came outside and a classmate came up to me and asked “What’s going on?”
I began to give her the latest update. By that point it amounted to the news that planes that were unaccounted for had been located.

And then she reached out, grasped my arm, and said, “No. Matt, wait. I don’t know what happened. What’s going on?”

And like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, it stopped me in my tracks as the thought flashed through my mind that I actually had to be the one to tell this terrible story.

This past week has brought with it a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings on the news that Osama bin Laden was found and killed. Anger and grief from 9/11 has resurfaced; sadness has resurfaced. Feelings of relief, satisfaction, even excitement, are tempered by uncertainty and the unsettling knowledge that there is nothing nice about this story.

As I’m absorbing the news, I’m reminded that our mission and purpose is the same as it has always been: God calls us to be instruments of love, grace and peace. God wants us to resist every form of evil and to protect each other. Yet, as we seek to be followers of the God revealed in Jesus, we are constantly reminded that our ideas of peace and justice–and our understanding of what God is like–must never be pulled into the same dark places that can lead people of any faith to do the things Osama bin Laden did.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus had a difficult story to tell. But tell it they did—without even knowing that the person in the story was right there with them. Jesus was with them on the road and they didn’t even know it.

I think this story of the road to Emmaus is wonderfully important to us today, because the same thing happens to us as we walk the roads that make up our lives. Like those disciples, We don’t quite expect the resurrected Jesus to show up. We don’t quite expect resurrection to actually be true. We don’t quite expect light to shine from darkness. We don’t quite expect our sins to be forgiven. We don’t quite expect to be given new life; to be reborn. We don’t quite expect that love will actually win. We don’t quite expect the resurrected Jesus to show up.

Like the disciples, it’s easy for us to walk along the roads that make up our lives, and be consumed by the stories and circumstances that make up our lives, and not even notice that Jesus is right there walking the road with us.

When have you not noticed God walking beside you?

When the disciples finally recognize that it was indeed Jesus, they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”

“Were not our hearts burning within us?”

I’m pretty certain that they weren’t talking about acid reflux.

They finally realized that they knew, deep in their hearts, that something was happening along that road. I pray that we can pay attention to the moments when our hearts are burning–those moments when we sense that something more is happening than just another walk up the road or another story that is hard to deal with. I pray that we notice the resurrected Jesus walking with us. Jesus might be a neighbor, a friend, co-worker, or family member. Jesus might even be a stranger along the road. I pray we can sense the nudges that something more is happening, and that it might be Jesus.

Even in this moment, as we gather in community and worship, I pray that our hearts will burn within us while the risen Jesus opens the scriptures to us and is revealed to us in the breaking of the bread.

May our hearts burn with knowledge that Christ is with us. May our hearts burn with joy because Jesus walks with us. May our hearts burn with hope for the road that lies ahead. May our hearts burn with the good news of the gospel. Amen.