Sunday, March 31, 2013

How Our Hearts Glowed! (Easter 3/31/13)

How Our Hearts Glowed!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Easter Sunday
March 31, 2014

Denying the Resurrection
Peter Rollins 
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

Luke 24:13-32, A New, New Testament
It happened that very day that two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem, talking together, as they went, about all that had taken place.  While they were talking about these things and discussing them, Jesus himself came up and went on their way with them; but their eyes were blinded so that they could not recognize him.  “What is this that you are saying to each other as you walk along?” Jesus asked.  They stopped, with sad looks on their faces, and then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, said to Jesus:  “You must be the only person in Jerusalem not to have heard of the things that have happened there within the last few days.” “What things do you mean?” asked Jesus.  

“Why, about Jesus of Nazareth,” they answered, “who , in the eyes of God and all the people, was a prophet, whose power was felt in both his words and actions; and how the chief priests and our leaders gave him up to be sentenced to death, and afterward crucified him.  But we were hoping that he was the one to set Israel free; yes, and besides all this, it is now three days since these things occurred.  And what is more, some of the women among us have greatly astonished us.  They went to the tomb at daybreak and, not finding the body of Jesus there, came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who told them that he was alive.  So some of our number went to the tomb and found everything just as the women had said; but they did not see him at all.”

Then he said to them:  “You slow and hardhearted people, slow to accept all that the prophets have said!  Was not the Christ bound to undergo this suffering before entering into his glory?”  Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them all through the writings the passages that referred to himself.  When they got near the village to which they were walking, Jesus appeared to be going further; but they pressed him not to do so.  “Stay with us,” they said, “for it is getting toward evening, and the sun is already low.”  So Jesus went in to stay with them.  After he had reclined with them at the meal, he took the bread and said the blessing, and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him’ but he disappeared from their sight.  “How our hearts glowed,” his followers said to each other, “while he was talking to us on the road, and when he explained the writings to us!”

This text, known in shorthand as the “Walk to Emmaus,” is one of my favorite Easter stories.  It tells in a narrative form the experience of an encounter with the holy or with the sacred.    

We might ask at some point in our life, perhaps in the midst of uncertainty or loss, or perhaps at a point in which we have matured to a state of openness, or in a time in which we are not afraid of exploring our doubts or expanding our vistas, we might dare to ask these kinds of questions: 
“Where is God to be found?”  or
“What is God doing in our world and in my life?” or
“How might I be more connected spiritually with myself, others, and Earth?”
These are the big questions.   If you are tired of the simplistic answers to them by people who seem to want to sell you their theories, I am on your team.   There are many stories in the Bible and in other spiritual texts that touch on those questions.   The best of these stories are packed with metaphor, symbol, and levels of meaning that require an engagement.     They are not questions whose answers are explained in a fill in the blank study guide.    They require a willingness to wrestle and they refuse to tell you if you are right or if you are wrong.  They refuse to give the answer.    You have to ask, seek, and knock yourself.  

Not everyone wants to do that of course.  That is fine.  No one can judge that.  There is no one keeping score.  One can settle for ready made answers.    One can live his or her life by following what someone else decides is right or wrong, or true or false.  

But when the questions begin to nag you, you have to choose.   You can choose to ignore them or if they really bother you, try to silence them.  Or you can explore them.   On the path, one is not given permission.  One cannot have permission taken away.   One is not told when to start or when to stop.    The spiritual path is yours.   There are many fellow travelers.   There are guides on this path.   Stories can be guides.   The best, the ones that have stood the test of time, don’t say too much.  They poke, tease, trick, whatever, so you’ll take notice.   

Notice in this text how little is said.   Two are walking on the road.   Joining them is the Risen Christ.  They don’t recognize him.  Isn’t that like life?   The holy one, the sacred is in our midst and we can’t see a thing.    It isn’t that we don’t see it, we don’t see it for what it is.    They hear Jesus.  They see Jesus.  They don’t see him for who he is.   

The irony is of course that they are talking about him.   Then Jesus tells them that they are “hardhearted.”  That is an interesting word.   Their eyes are fine.  Their ears are clear.  Their hearts are hardened.     The problem is not with understanding and knowledge.  The problem is the heart.  

Jesus explains to them the scriptures.    One would think that the author would use this opportunity to give us the answers.  What scriptures?   Give us the proof.   Show exactly which scriptures provide us with the answers.   No, the author doesn’t do that.   The author doesn’t tell us what scriptures are relevant, how they should be read, what they mean, or even what texts are scripture in the first place.  

There is a lot of unknown there.    

After Jesus explains the scriptures to them, our travelers stop for the evening.  They implore this stranger to stay.   They still don’t know who he is.  At the table, as Jesus blesses and breaks the bread, they see him. 
They see him as he really is.  Immediately, of course, he disappears, and then they say, “How our hearts glowed!”   They are talking about how their hearts glowed when the scriptures were explained by Jesus on the road.     

Notice that there are no answers in this text.  No smoking gun.   No proof of God.   There is nothing for them to take as evidence.    All they have are hearts that glowed.     Bread is bread.  Scripture is made of words on a page.  But when the sacred appears to them, when they encounter the holy, their hearts glow.    Bread becomes a divine meal and words on a page become divine speech.   
Hardened hearts become hearts that glow.

That story describes an encounter with the Risen Christ.  It is a story of resurrection.   Resurrection is a transformation not from death to life, but from suffering to life.   It is transformation from brokenness to life. 
Theologian Peter Rollins has been my guest this week on my radio program,Religion For Life.   If you missed it, he is on today at 2 on 89.5 WETS.   In the interview he said that people think religion is about asking whether there is life after death.  But really religion asks, “Is there life before death?”  

Resurrection is not about life after death.  It is about transformation from brokenness, suffering, pain, injustice, and loss to life.  It is transformation from hardheartedness to a heart that glows.  

That assertion cries out for an illustration.  Here goes:

In our Thursday study group we have been reading James Cone’s important book,The Cross and the Lynching Tree.   Alongside of that we have been watching the PBS video series, Eyes on the Prize:  America’s Civil Rights Years.   This whole experience has been an illustration of resurrection.
Brokenness, injustice, indignity, is transformed, painfully, story by story, into life.   Think of the courage of the nine black students who went to school in Little Rock under the guard of federal troops.   Each student had to be escorted from class to class.    The whole nation had to be transformed during this time.  Hardened hearts had to be softened.   

One story I am thinking of in particular centers around the desegregation of the lunch counters in Nashville.   From February to May 1960, the National Student Movement led non-violent, direct action sit-ins at lunch counters in downtown Nashville.    They trained to sit and not resist violently if attacked.   

They were attacked verbally and physically at the various sit-ins around Nashville.  Rather than desegregate store owners tried to outlast the movement by closing the counters.  Violence increased and people didn’t want to go downtown at all.  The police came and arrested the students engaged in the protests.   The students surprised them.  As they arrested one group sitting at the counters, another group of students would take their place.  And then another wave.   Eventually, the police arrested 150 of them.   The lawyer, Alexander Looby,  who was defending the students had his home bombed.    This event proved to be the catalyst for change.    

On the day of the bombing 4000 people marched on City Hall.    Ben West, the white mayor, had used the typical rhetoric and strategy that outside agitators were the problem.    But that day he was confronted on the steps of City Hall in front of the news media and was asked what he believed about the morality of segregation.   A young college student at Fisk University, Diane Nash, asked the mayor:
“Mayor West, do you think it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” 
He admitted in front of the cameras, that yes, it was wrong.  He later said of this exchange:
 “And I found that I had to answer it frankly and honestly – that I did not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell them merchandise and refuse them service. And I had to answer it just exactly like that. Of course I received considerable criticism for it, but if I had to answer it again I would answer it in the same way again because it was a moral question and it was one a man has to answer and not a politician.”
That to me is resurrection.   That is when the hardened heart is transformed into a heart that glows because it has been confronted with truth and morality.   His heart glowed, it burned that day, because he was confronted with a moral question and had to answer it as he said as a human being not a politician.      
That is being confronted by the Risen Christ on the Emmaus Road.

It has done my heart good this week to watch the proceedings at the Supreme Court.    My heart glows to see the courageous, colorful, and creative people with humor and determination tell the truth about their lives and expect full equality.  Hardened hearts, who knows, maybe even some on the Supreme Court, will be transformed into hearts that glow.  

There will be justice, equality, and dignity for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people and their married partners and their families throughout this country.   It will come because people ask for it and expect it.   Like the young college student Diane Nash asked of the mayor in 1960, so millions are asking now, 
“Is it wrong to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity?”   
If any institution needs changing in regards to this issue, it is the church.   I am grateful for this congregation for not being afraid and for taking a stand and for opening its table to be a welcome table to all people.     It is a moral question.    We should never forget that.
How our hearts glowed.
“Where is God to be found?” 
“What is God doing in our world and in my life?”
“How might I be more connected spiritually with myself, others, and Earth?”
One answer might be that God is in the midst of struggle for human dignity.    That is where the early followers of Jesus found God.  They met together and broke bread and didn’t give up or give in to bullies with crosses and whips.    For them Jesus was risen and alive and inspiring them to live the truth of Galatians 3:28: 
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
When I was in Billings, Montana at my last church I made friends with a couple of Sisters of Charity.  I was involved with some of them in social justice issues including racial issues and in helping the church and community understand LGBT concerns.    In short, to transform hearts.

One day one of the sisters was in the hospital.  I can’t remember what she was facing, but it was serious and she was in a lot of pain.  I sat with her in the hospital.   She asked me how I was doing.  I was nearing the end of my time in Billings.  It was a conflicted time.   With 20/20 hindsight, I can see how I might have been more skillful in navigating it all.   At any rate, many of the people were ready for me to go.   Gay rights, and my action against the war, and historical Jesus scholarship were three causes too many.   

Even though she was the one suffering, I told her about my struggles.  She did a beautiful thing.  She said she would take her suffering and pain and turn it into prayer so that it might be healing for me.    I was touched by that.    I thought what a beautiful way to approach your own suffering and brokenness.    Use it as a path to show compassion and healing for others.  I have tried to remember that.  

That is resurrection.   

Transforming brokenness and pain into life.    
It was for me an encounter with the holy.
One final illustration.

Those who are visiting today might not know that we lost our twenty-five year old son, Zach, nine months ago.   This is of course the first Easter since his death.    

What is resurrection?  

It is for me a promise.  I can’t say my heart glows.  It hurts.   It is broken.   If resurrection is the transformation of brokenness to life, I am going to need to take that on faith for now.   And I do.   I do know that I am being transformed.  I am being changed.     I can’t look at pictures of Zach without feeling the pain.   But I still look because I know that is the path.    I know that every act of remembrance is transformative.    I trust my grief will be transformed into compassion.   I know that my pain through prayer may serve as healing for another.    I know also that the beautiful things about him will not be lost and the painful things will be transformed.     

That is where the resurrection meets the road for me.    

And finally in the bigger mystery of it all, I trust in the Great Peace symbolized by the welcome table in the presence of the holy one and in the communion of saints where there will be no more grief or crying or pain. 

In the meantime, this side of the grave, I am held up by this communion of saints as we travel the Emmaus Road together, breaking bread, and catching a glimpse of the Risen Christ as our brokenness is transformed by grace.  


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