"Our hearts burning"-Sermon for Easter 3, Luke 24:13-35:
I remember an experience I had at about 9 or 10 years old. I was at summer camp for the first time. Two weeks away from my family out in the glory of the Texas Hill Country. I attended a camp on the Frio River called Laity Lodge. I still remember my first camp counselor well. His name was Joey. Each night before bed time, we had a quiet time called “cabin time”…and during cabin time Joey would tell us stories about Jesus. We would sit in a circle around our cabin floor, me along with my fellow cabin mates and counselor, and, again, Joey, our counselor, would tell stories from the gospels…stories about overcoming, stories about unconditional love, stories about forgiveness and redemption, stories about healing, stories about doing good and making a meaningful difference in other people’s lives. Stories, just like the ones we tell in this place each week, as we hear the scriptures read and then unpacked in the sermons that are preached in this place…in this family of faith…in this “cabin time” like moment each week as we gather as St. Julian’s. And each night at camp, as I would hear these stories told…I would notice that my heart was strangely warmed. I felt good, for lack of a better description. I felt all wrapped up in God’s love and provision and care in a wonderful sort of way. It was sort of like that feeling of getting out of a pool or shower or bath…on that lucky occasion when the towel has just come out of the dryer and is still so wonderfully warm.
And one night in particular, I remember that Joey drew us a picture. I think I have talked about it before…but the picture began with two cliffs facing each other with a great chasm separating the two. On one cliff was a stick figure…standing on a barren plane. It looked like a lonely sort of place…like if a wind was blowing there would be nothing to protect you…it would be downright cold. And the figure itself, as it was a stick figure, looked to lack dimension and substance…thin and vulnerable. Now on the other cliff was a wholly different looking picture, at least in the mind of a small boy, there were fruit trees and grass and birds and small animals and a bright sun overhead…it was all wonderfully colorful. And there was a figure of a person on that cliff as well…but the figure looked more like a person. The figure had bones and flesh and good clothing…the person had a face with features including a smile. This was not a barren place…but a place full of life and energy and beauty. It looked like a place where one could be provided for and perhaps even an adventure or two might await. And the person looked full and happy and satisfied…fully alive if you will. Now as we looked on to see what our counselor was going to do with the picture and awaited the story he was about to tell…he drew a bridge between to the two cliffs…a straight, strong, wooden looking bridge that now connected the two cliffs. But he wasn’t done quite yet…he then drew a vertical line just like the one that connected the two cliffs right through the middle of the bridge…at the very heart of the chasm…and it made of course a cross…that most fundamental symbol of our Christian faith…a symbol synonymous with Jesus.
Joey, our counselor, didn’t really say much that night…the picture was perfect for the imagination of a small child. He simply said something like, Jesus is the way to abundant life…Jesus is the way we move from one cliff to the other…the person who bridges the great chasm…from a barren life to a full life…from a lonely life to a life connected to the world around us…from feeling lost to feeling hope…from coldness to warmth…from boredom to adventure…from a life that feels like it is lacking substance and direction…to a life that feels full, whole, and meaningful. And I felt my heart burning with in me…like someone had set me on fire…warmth from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. That night I asked Joey to pray with me…to open my heart and let Jesus fully in…and we did. To borrow an expression from our evangelical brothers and sisters, I invited Jesus into my heart…I gave my life to Jesus…and as I went to bed that night and as I woke up the next morning, I continued to feel the warmth…like my life had been entirely set ablaze.
Now I tell this story from a distant point in my own life, my life as a child, knowing that both the experience itself, including the picture my counselor drew…are or were indeed childlike. Perhaps overly simple…maybe even naïve. The truth is in the many years in between…the years between then and now…I have not always felt my heart strangely warmed like those disciples walking the road to Emmaus in our Gospel lesson when they realize that it is Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, who walks alongside them and dines with them. After their meal with Jesus is over and he disappears from their sight, Luke tells us that they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road.” Yes, I have indeed known the feeling of a heart set on fire with God’s love that feels so very present and entirely real…that feeling that all shall indeed be well…that I am good and worthy and can overcome all that life sets before me…that I am capable of tremendous good and can care well for those who God has entrusted to me. I felt that warmth that night at camp…and have on many occasions since…but I have also, even much of time, felt like that stick figure standing in a barren land. I have felt cold on the inside and out…confused, lost, hopeless. I have felt deeply the consequences and tumult caused by my own poor decisions and the hurtful actions of others. I have experienced the guilt of living such a comfortable life…when so many in our world, in our own communities, live such uncomfortable, and in some cases down-right violent and pain filled, lives. I have known injustice, and I have participated in it. And we all have. For indeed we live in an already but “not yet” world. This is how some theologians describe life in this world post Easter…already…but “not yet”. The cross has indeed been overcome…sin, evil, even death, have been fully defeated once and for all time through the cross and empty tomb. In Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead…victory is already one. As that great Easter hymn of the church that was sung in this place just last week says, “The strife is over, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!”. Already indeed…but there is still that vexing problem of the “not yet”.
So, what then are we to do about this great paradox…for already but “not yet” is indeed a great paradox. I have often wondered about those two disciples who Jesus meets on the road to Emmaus. The resurrected Jesus appears to them…tells them stories about God’s work in our world…and their hearts are set on fire. They even then get to eat with Jesus…they share bread and wine…at what might be described as the first Eucharist…the first service of Holy Communion in the church after Jesus has been raised from the dead. How wonderful it all must have been…hearts warmed, their friend has come back to life, the great injustice of Jesus’ crucifixion is undone…alleluia indeed…but then just as quickly he is gone again. I wonder how long their hearts remained warmed…a day…a week…a whole year maybe…but then life happens…there is financial want…there is war with Rome…perhaps a death in the family…there is illness and disease…there is temptation and a fall…their imperfections remain steadfast. The “not yet” is all too evident. I wonder what they thought when they looked back on that glorious moment on the road to Emmaus…when it was indeed in the distant past and the “not yet” of this world had crept back into their lives.
So here is our mission, if we chose to except it, we must not get lost in our “not yet” moments…for the already is indeed already…it comes before the “not yet”…and can never, ever be undone. And what I mean is that Jesus is already raised from the dead and thus is already and always with us. The scriptures don’t end with Jesus’ resurrection…they continue to tell the story of how Jesus’ resurrected life continues to be powerfully present in the life we live and the world we live in. Jesus’ body is indeed resurrected into what we call the Church, the very Body of Christ…alive and active in the world today…empowered by Jesus’ own Spirit…what we call the Holy Spirit…that dwells among us and in us…even now…right now…in this very place. Jesus is indeed with us…his Spirit is here.
So, after many years now of experience and reflection, the very thing I learned from that night at camp as a small boy is that we don’t call on Jesus once in a lifetime…we don’t give ourselves to Jesus but once…at baptism, or confirmation, or in some other moment of personal prayer. Instead, we must call upon Jesus…we must give ourselves to Jesus over and over and over and over again. That is what we do in this place each week, this is the purpose of this altar call we have in church each week that we call Holy Communion…we gather…we pray…we eat spiritual food together, and we are filled with Jesus. We offer ourselves, our souls, our bodies to Jesus over and over again…and we find that Jesus is with us each time…he is already here…bridging whatever chasm that lies before us…inviting us into abundance…to connection with him and those we share this place with…inviting us into a full life…a life full of meaning, direction and adventure.
Thus, I think the times we feel like a stick figure, thin and vulnerable…wandering in a barren sort of existence…is not about Jesus’ faithful presence with us…for Easter promises that he is already here and eternally so. Instead I think the problem lies with our own unwillingness to reach out to him…to look for him with the eyes of our hearts…to even pray for fear we won’t be heard…an unwillingness to believe that when we come forward to receive this spiritual nourishment, that Jesus will really be here in the breaking of bread…in this meal we share…and fill us up with his own life giving Spirit. We so often keep Jesus at arm’s length. We seem all good with Jesus as moral exemplar…whose teachings we study to help navigate life…but are often so uncomfortable with Jesus as a personal reality…a Spirit filled presence offering divinely inspired wisdom, supernatural comfort and healing, real spiritual energy for living a full and meaningful and good life.
But my experience says otherwise…sure I have known my own barren cliff-side, “not yet” moments…but, when I have been as courageous as I was at 9 or 10 and opened myself up to Jesus to invite him in…in the good times and the bad…every time I have found that he is already there…and hope begins to emerge…signs of abundance begin to poke their heads out in unexpected moments and places…a new adventure begins…courage awakes in me to stand up for what I believe and those who really need me…I feel myself beginning to fill up…and my heart begins to burn…to feel warm. Amen.