Rabbit Season (sermon 4/19/15)

rabbits

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  –  Luke 24:13-35

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While I was up in Toronto last weekend, we went to worship at the Bloor Street United Church. Most of the Presbyterians in Canada merged with a couple of other Canadian denominations in the 1920s to form the United Church of Canada, so they’re kind of our sister denomination up in the Great White North. And during the service, I noticed that their children’s message was based on a children’s and youth curriculum called “Echo the Story,” which reinforces the overarching message of the Bible through story-based building blocks – each week, adding a new story, a new nugget, and focusing on its significance in terms of the whole arc of the story. But before the storytelling adds the new piece for the week, the whole story up to that point is briefly rewound and retold (a sample video of this curriculum can be seen here). I suppose each time the story rewinds and starts again, some people’s eyes might roll at the repetition, but really, it’s a brilliant idea. Because too many people don’t have any internalization of the Bible, and a lot more have only internalized little bits and unconnected pieces, but they don’t understand how it’s all meant to fit together as one gradually unfolding story. This rewinding and retelling the story from the beginning helps many of the kids – and honestly, many adults, too – to internalize the story, and to understand that we’re all part of a community that’s identified and given meaning by this story.

Watching this unfold in that service last week made me think of another instance of the same kind of thing. The same process shows up the 1970s novel Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Just out of curiosity, how many of you have read it? How many of you threw up your hands before getting through all 500 pages and just read the Cliff’s Notes or an online summary of it for a book report?

Well, if you’ve done either of those things, you know that it’s an allegorical novel about a community of rabbits. At the beginning of the story, the rabbits are living together in a community that’s more or less stable and peaceful. It’s a community run by a relatively benevolent dictator rabbit, supported by a group of strong fighters. And while things overall aren’t terrible, things are still pretty tough for the weaker rabbits, or the ones who disagree with the head rabbit, or who are unusual or different from the norm. So when one of the rabbits sees a billboard posted near their warren and warns that something bad is coming their way, and he proposes that they make a change, that they should move their warren somewhere else, the head rabbit and his inner circle aren’t very impressed or amused with him or his ideas.

But still, a small group of rabbits thinks he might be right, and since they’re all outsiders and marginalized members of the warren, they figure they don’t have much to lose if they followed this rabbit with the discomforting message and left the warren behind.

As the story plays out, this group faces all kinds of experiences and threats. And they get through these challenges for two specific reasons. The first reason is that they spend a lot of time together as a community. They do pretty much everything together, as a community. Since they’re always in community with each other, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they learn how to work together and complement one another other for the common good. They learn that every member of the group – even the weakest, most unusual member, has something important and valuable to contribute to the community, and to the lives of each of the rabbits individually, too.

And a big part of what holds them together to continually retell their communal stories. These stories tell about the exploits of their common hero, a rabbit whose rabbit-name translates into English as “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies.” These stories focus on how the hero outwits and defeats his enemies, which give them all a common ground for their own actions and moral behavior whenever they face dangers themselves.

The stories aren’t new; the rabbits have all heard these stories a thousand times. If anything, the familiarity of the stories are actually a part of the feeling of community that the rabbits share. And even though they’re very familiar, they end up being retold in new situations and end up having new applications as the rabbits go through new things they’d never experienced or considered before.

This is an important thing for us, too. As Christians, we’re called to be a distinct, identifiable community defined by and centered around our own common story. And this shows up in the stories we have of Jesus after his resurrection, including the one we heard today. I think it’s important to notice that with only one exception, all of the post-resurrection stories about Jesus involve groups – whether it’s just three people, as in today’s story, or the larger group of followers in the locked room in Jerusalem that Jesus appears to, or according to the apostle Paul, at least one time when Jesus appeared to more than 500 people. If there were any doubt before Jesus’ crucifixion, his post-resurrection appearances make it clear that to be a follower of Jesus means that we can’t do it solely as individuals on our own. Jesus’ intentional message of being in community is the same thing the rabbits all had to learn: that we have to be together in the faith, as a community. And a big part of what holds us together, and solidifies our common identity, is the telling and retelling of our story, and instilling it into our hearts and minds.

Jesus understood the importance of the common story. Did you notice that, in this passage from Luke that we heard today? Jesus is walking together with these two disciples, he does the same thing that happened in that children’s message in Toronto. He retells them all their old, familiar stories – rewinding all the way back to the earliest stories in the Torah, and moving through the prophets – but putting them all in the context of their new reality, the reality of Jesus himself and their new experience, their new understanding and application of the old stories. This idea, that we’re an identifiable as a community centered around a common story, is an old familiar story itself. But it’s an important one to really think about this season of Eastertide, for it to be a season when we focus on the same lessons learned by the rabbits in that story.

Even in a general sense, there’s power in community that no individual can ever have. In particular, in order to be a Christian, we simply can’t go it alone, without ties to the larger community. Our own faith is nurtured and deepened, and the community of faith is, too, through sharing the common life together – working together, playing together, eating together, laughing and crying together; really getting to know one another. Complementing one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Valuing one another, even the weakest or most unusual among us, just as it was with the rabbits in the novel. Being gracious about the shortcomings in other members of the community, just as we hope others will extend grace to us when our own shortcomings show up. In short, learning to truly love one another. For us as Christians, the common life begins with the common story.

Our common story is the very same one that Jesus retold to his friends as they were going for a walk together. Have you ever wished you had a time machine, where you could go back in time and experience some great moment in history? If I had one, this walk to Emmaus would be one of the things I’d want to go back and peek in on. Just imagine how Jesus must have explained and told this story, our story. Oh, to have been a fly buzzing around the three of them, listening to the conversation. Or maybe a rabbit, eavesdropping from the grass along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.

Solvitur Ambulando (It Will Be Solved in the Walking) – Sermon 5/4/14

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Luke 24:13-35

 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

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You’ve all heard this story from scripture many times – at least part of it, anyway, because of the several options that our Book of Common Worship offers as a welcome and invitation to the Lord’s Table for Communion, I almost always use the one that mentions this story. These two disciples were walking out from Jerusalem to the little village of Emmaus on that Sunday afternoon after Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s an interesting story. First, we don’t even know both of their names. Luke, and whoever was his original source for the story, only tell us that one of them was a man named Cleopas, and we can only assume that they mentioned him by name because in the ensuing years after it happened, Cleopas must have become a well-known person, probably a leader, in the very early church. It was a way of validating the story itself to Luke’s original audience, a way of saying “Cleopas himself was there and attested to this so we know it’s true.” On the other hand, I feel a little sorry for the other poor guy who was with him, the other disciple who was just as much a part of this amazing story but whose name is lost to the ages. I can picture him thinking “Hey, what about me, I was there, too!”

Some people have wondered what these two were doing, why they were going to Emmaus that afternoon. We’ll never really know, of course, but I suspect the real reason they were going to Emmaus is that that’s just where the road happened to go. Jerusalem was still clogged with Passover pilgrims and Roman occupiers, and there was no doubt a great deal of chaos within the group of Jesus’ followers as they went through the grief, and anger, and confusion over what they should do next, now that Jesus was dead. Should they all just go home and forget about it all, or what? And so, in the midst of all that, I suspect Cleopas and his unknown friend just needed to clear their thoughts, to sort things out in their heads. So they picked a road out of town to just go for a walk and get away from everything, and the road they picked just happened to be the one that led out to Emmaus. There’s a phrase in Latin, Solvitor Ambulando – “It Will Be Solved in the Walking” – and I think that’s what these two were trying to do.

We do that same kind of thing at times, don’t we? Things start to press in on us from all sides sometimes, and the only way to deal with it is to disengage. To take off for a couple of days. Maybe to go on a retreat. There’s actually a very well-known three-day spiritual retreat that a lot of people take called “The Walk to Emmaus,” designed to help people clear away the cobwebs, to deepen their spirituality and their relationship with Christ, and to help them discern a path forward in their lives.

Usually, though, our walk to Emmaus isn’t anything that in-depth or structured. More often than not, our Emmaus walk is a walk through a Metro Park. Or going to Grater’s for a double scoop of Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip by ourselves. Or getting in the car and driving, without ay particular destination in mind. We each have something that we do when we want to step out of the moment to get some clarity in our lives, to step up onto the balcony, as it were, to be able to see the bigger picture, get a clearer view of what’s going on.

Cleopas and his friend certainly got a clearer view of things on their walk, more than they’d ever dreamt of. Luke tells us that in some way, these two disciples, who had spent many hours, days, maybe even years, with Jesus, didn’t recognize him when he approached them on the road, and as he walked with them and opened up the meaning of the scriptures to them. People have sometimes suggested that maybe the two were just so grief-stricken that they just weren’t paying attention and weren’t really looking at Jesus, and that’s how they didn’t recognize him. Personally, I think that in some way, a physical, but transformed, “resurrection body” must be different in some way, in that its appearance can vary – and that Jesus, the resurrected Lord of all Creation, was just being ornery and was having a little bit of fun with them, the same way that he was in other scriptural accounts where some of his closest friends didn’t recognize him in certain post-resurrection appearances.

One of the reasons I like this passage so much is that if you think about it, it’s actually a model of what our experience as followers of Jesus is supposed to be like, and what the church is really supposed to be all about. We begin on a spiritual journey, and there’s an explanation of the scriptures, and a communal meal, and in those things we encounter Christ; and then we’re sent out to tell others the good news we’ve had revealed to us.

In this model of what our spiritual life, and our life as the church can be like, we all start out on this journey, not completely sure where we’re going, not sure where we’re going to end up, like Cleopas and his friend had done. Full of questions, looking for answers, maybe even caught up in some inner conflict, turmoil, grief and seeking some comfort. And somehow, in the process we encounter the risen Christ. We don’t even necessarily recognize him at the time, in the moment. As we participate in the life of the church, we hear words, catch impressions, get a word of comfort or an insight that suddenly strikes us and we hadn’t thought of before. We’re worshiping as part of a group, singing together, hearing a sermon together, but we might walk away feeling in some way we really can’t explain that the whole message of the day spoke just to us and our heart. Sometimes, it’s only in looking back on those experiences that we realize that in those moments, we actually experienced the presence of Christ, in the same kind of hidden way that Cleopas and his friend had.

Maybe that’s an important part of our spiritual journey as Jesus’ followers. Maybe our gradually recognizing Christ’s presence in our lives is an important part of our discipleship, and the deepening of our own spiritual lives, and for Jesus to be present with us clearly and unambiguously, without any hiddenness at all, just horning his way into our lives and demanding our attention and obedience, would destroy it all. I think that the deepening of our lives in Christ relies on Jesus’ not crashing down the gate and blowing his way into our daily lives. Rather, I think it depends on this ongoing, gradual discovery of his presence, through worship, through sitting at table with him, and with Cleopas, and with his unknown friend, in the Lord’s Supper. In our spiritual lives, things are solved in the walking, because it’s in the walking that we really come to understand who it is that’s walking alongside us – and because Christ is indeed right alongside us in all of our walking, through good days and bad, and because he’s always reaching out for us, moving in our lives, and waiting for us to recognize it’s him who’s doing the moving because he loves us so deeply and dearly, we can all say

Thanks be to God.