Tuesday, 26 September 2017

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Established May 2009, Little Rock, AR

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Rev. Zachary Crow: Dismantling the Chocolate-Covered Road to Emmaus

April 23, 2017

Rev. Zachary Crow: Dismantling the Chocolate-Covered Road to Emmaus

April 23, 2017


Good morning friends, and welcome to Eastertide. Eastertide as we know is celebrated in the midst of spring — between our observance of Easter and the Ascension. And, with spring comes for us — the surging of new life — comes the perennial re-birth of the world around us. Today, even the Earth cries out — nature mimicking the theological truths we grasp hold of this time of year in particularly. Yet, as we know, the liturgical meaning of Easter has often been lost amid other — more popular rites of spring. At the very least, churches tend to sugarcoat-or perhaps more aptly this time of year as Ched Myers suggests — chocolate—coat the Easter season — burying the resurrected Christ under candy, eggs, and bunnies. For those of us who follow in the footsteps of the executed Christ, our greatest omnipresent temptation continues to be — conflating the Easter story — God's power over death — with the way of Empire.

 

This has always been our struggle. In the first century, Christians stubbornly clung to their belief in the Resurrection of Jesus-while at the same time living under the chilling shadow of an Empire that worshiped the ways of domination and death. While it is a challenge we understand well — it is nothing new — For centuries, people of faith have attempted to celebrate Resurrection even while living in the clutch of empire. In fact, it is in these moments — resting on the margins — that our faith thrives and that Eastertide in particular — continues to invites followers of Jesus to confront the powers of death. It is a call that churches largely ignore this time of year — as was perhaps most evident by both their silence and outright venom last Thursday during the execution of Ledell Lee, a likely innocent man, who like the Christ they claim to follow was murdered — by a crowd of onlookers with his arms outstretched. Let me be clear, to worship the resurrected Christ on Sunday and applaud crucifixion on Thursday is not only ungodly, but cowardly, morally depraved, and antithetical to the way of Christ. This morning’s question is a simple one — do we recognize the Christ we claim to follow? In order to answer this question we will revisit one of the church’s most traditional Easter texts — Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus where an unrecognized Jesus converses with two obscure disciples. My understand of this text is greatly influenced by the theological and hermeneutical work of the author and theologian Ched Myers. It’s no secret that his work is meaningful to me as I quote him from this pulpit often. 1 The danger with this text — and all biblical texts for that matter — is that when Jesus and his disciples become rootless — when they are neutralized to their societal issues, oppressions, and context — we begin to overly sentimentalized the text — domesticate and strip it of its raw radicality — to chocolate—coat the text — and that is what I’m afraid has happened to this particular story. At initial glance a few things stand out with this story— First, this text occurs shortly after the women have discovered the empty tomb. Let us imagine these two disciples — their leader charged a dissident and crucified by the occupying powers. Some have suggested that perhaps this is not a leisurely walk as we so often imagine it — that rather, these disciples are on the run — that they are hustling down a back road — that they are getting the hell out of Dodge — fearful that they will meet the same fate as Christ. Where are they running to? The text tells us that their destination is the small and rather obscure village of Emmaus — a place referenced nowhere else in the scriptures.

 

Historically, however, we know Emmaus as a village with a reputation for homegrown resistance — so much so that the Roman emperor Vespasian felt the need to turn Emmaus into a military colony — occupying it with eight hundred Roman military veterans. It is a place of resistance. A place of uprising. So, imagine with me a second — our disciples are fleeing to the border — attempting to lay low for a while — and as they do — perhaps between panting breaths — they are “discussing all the things that had happened.” Ched Myers proposes, that perhaps these two disciples were “blaming each other for the mess they'd gotten into, wondering what their next move might be, lamenting Roman kangaroo justice, cursing the colonizers, even cursing Jesus for failing to deliver on his promises of a new social order.” And in the wake of crucifixion, the disciples were likely grief-laden, scared stiff, and contentious. The verb used in verses 4 and 15 for “discuss” is homflien — the same word from which we get our term homiletics. The word refers to weighty matters, which makes sense, right? They were discussing “all the things that had happened” — the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus — perhaps too the parallel sufferings of other disciples. Yet, there’s another verb at play here — suzeetein. It’s a word that is almost always used to connote a passionate dispute. Perhaps they were arguing over what happened to the body — perhaps their passionate, weighty dispute was about the best way forward — what it meant to resist amidst the shadow of death. And, perhaps it was this intense and even desperate discussion that could explain why these disciples did not immediately recognize their teacher. 2 Daniel Berrigan has suggested another reason — perhaps they didn't know Jesus because he was so beat up and disfigured by his torturers. Luke goes on to say that the scars of the Risen Jesus were still visible. Resurrection isn’t pretty — does not wipe away the darkness, damage, and trauma of Empire. If you are looking for a magic cure — one that will strip away the past — the way of Christ is not that way. Though the scars do not have the final say, they inevitably remain.

 

It is easy to become so preoccupied with the darkness itself, that we do not recognize the revolution — even when it is standing in our midst. This is the teaching of Easter — that even amidst the darkness of Empire, life can indeed burst forth. It is a lesson I’ve worked hard to remind myself of in recent days with varying degrees of success — one that is easier said than done — that is easier to intellectualize than to fully live into. And, then — the Stranger, not yet known to the disciples as Jesus — makes it clear that he has indeed walked in on a heated debate. He says, ”What words were you throwing back and forth at each other while you were making your way?' And they looked gloomy.” Cleopas's impatience is telling here: "So are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn't know what's been going down these last few days?" Perhaps, he is skeptical. These are after all fugitives on the run — who is this unknown person asking prying questions? And how in the world could you not know “what’s been going down these last few days?” Yet, eventually he relents — passionately, and a bit recklessly even launches in — the who sordid affair — how Jesus of Nazareth had revived the prophetic tradition — had ignited hope in a people longing for shalom — How his own leaders had railroaded him — sold him out to the imperial oppressors — strung him up and lynched him. And, finally his frustration boils over: "And we had trusted that he was the One to liberate Israel” You can almost hear it, can’t you? His bitter disappointment, — his sense of betrayal — his confusion. We had so much hope, and yet… On Thursday night, I stood outside the Governor’s mansion for hours — I took a small break to exchange text messages with a friend, but most of the night found solace in the lighting of candles, hugs, and friendship of others.

 

As stay upon stay came down from the courts, we began to hope — perhaps — perhaps we may make it to midnight — perhaps the death warrant will in fact expire — perhaps. At 11:56, Ledell Lee was pronounced dead. We had so much hope, and yet… And, yet… It’s easy to sympathize with Cleopas here — He had staked his life on the hope that this movement would finally liberate his people from oppression, but things hadn’t quite turned out that way. Jesus's march on Jerusalem hadn’t resulted in the uprising he expected. Instead, his leader had been publicly executed and he is quite possibly 3 fleeing for his life. Cleopas concludes his tale by addresses some rumors that have begun to circulate among his comrades — visions of angels and an empty tomb. To understand this scene, let us imagine for a moment a different day — April 6, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee — two days after Martin King was gunned down by the powers — his comrades trying to figure out what had just gone down — who was behind it — what it meant for the movement — whether they might be next on the hit list.

 

This encounter, like the one on April 6, 1968 — must have indeed been traumatic to say the least. Jesus’s response is telling here — He doesn't scold them — doesn’t console them — doesn’t brush the experience under the rug — instead, he walks with them for a few miles — inquires about their pain — listens — and eventually responds — in a peculiar way — he points them and us in turn — to the prophets. “You fools” — you who don’t quite get it he says — you who have not yet found your way into the truth — you who’s hearts are sluggish — and heavy — you who are slow to believe the words of the prophets — and, can we be honest with ourselves for a moment? — when have we not been slow to believe? When have we not applauded the rich while the prophets were telling us to defend the poor? When have we not become transfixed by the power of political and military might, while it is the prophets who remind us that revolution emerges bottom up, not top down. When have we not idolized the work of our own hands when the prophets tell us to forgo idolatry? And these disciples too have forgotten the way of the prophets. "Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the scriptures" The verb here means "to translate into one's native tongue" Though there is no reason to believe they were in fact speaking different languages. Perhaps, Jesus is translating these counterintuitive teachings of the prophets into the plainest possible terms so that even these demoralized and downtrodden disciples can get it. As Myers puts it — “These prophets are the ones who throughout the national history en gaged the way things were with the vision of what could and should be. They question authority, make trouble, refuse to settle, interrupt business as usual, speak truth to power, give voice to the voiceless. They stir up the troops, get the natives restless, picket presidential palaces, question foreign policies based on military and economic domination-and are accused of treason in times of national war making. 4 We could use a bit of prophetic peace making in our own context couldn’t we? Yet, this story means very little if the Stranger remains a stranger. In the first half of the Emmaus story — the Risen Christ comes in the form of a Stranger. But in the second half of the story, he is revealed in the breaking of the bread.

 

This is sermon all itself. More articulate than the words he had spoken was his breaking of bread. Jesus — the one who violated the sanctimonious taboos of his day to eat with sinners and tax collectors — the one accused of being a glutton — is known here, once again in the breaking of bread. When Jesus disappears, the two disciples exclaim, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" The verb "to open up" — appearances in the gospels a few other times — in Mark 7:34-35 it refers to the opening of deaf ears. In Luke 2:23, it refers to opening of a closed womb. In Luke 24:31, it refers to the opening of blind eyes, and in Acts 16:14 to the opening of a hardened heart. Likewise, the text invites us to open our own blind eyes, deaf ears, and hard hearts to the difficult truth of discipleship under the Shadow of Death and renew our commitment to the way of peace. The fugitive disciples end their encounter by returning to the capital city. They go on to share their experience with other disciples, before Jesus appears again to the whole group. What can we learn, then, from the Emmaus road story? 1) Christ first appears in the form of one who needs hospitality. It is the disciples who beg the Stranger to eat with them. Not the other way around. 2) The way of Christ is both pastoral — seeking to know the pain of those struggling with a specifically political context — while at the same time being deeply prophetic — his biblical analysis centering around a fierce prophetic hermeneutic. Let it be so among us. Amen.