Sermon Preached by the Rev. Colin H. Williams
Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
18 April 1999, Third Sunday of Easter
'Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?"-Luke 24:32
Did you hear the tale about the out-of-towner who wants to go to church on Sunday, and the only option is the local Episcopal Church? After the Gloria in Excelsis when the music and singing stops, he lets out a loud, "Amen!" and a group of ladies in the pew behind him go, "Shhhhh." Surprised, he quiets down. Then during the sermon after a particularly moving story, the visitor yells, "Praise the Lord!" "Shhhh!" say the women. Finally, at the breaking of the bread during communion, the man cannot help himself and blurts out "Glory, glory, halleluia!" "Shhhh!" the women say, beside themselves, apoplectic. The man turns to them and says, "I'm sorry, but I got religion! "Well, you didn't get it here!"
"Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?"
Now I was raised that when anything is burning, you are supposed to put it out; never let anything get out of control. Perhaps we are sometimes too cautious about displaying our feelings, whether they be feelings of happiness or sadness. Even though we are all about "making outward and visible that which is inward and spiritual" (to use the language of the sacraments), we tend to be reserved when it comes to outward displays of feeling. In fact, in the 18th century, it was said of persons whose religious devotion was unsubdued that they were too "enthusiastic." "Shhhh!" we say, when feelings get too strong.
In this morning's gospel passage from the final chapter of Luke we hear the post-resurrection account of Jesus' appearance to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. It is a story with much feeling, ranging from utter despair to absolute joy. The weekend had been a poignant one for the disciples. Just four days before Jesus had commanded them to break bread together in remembrance of him. Then on Friday, their leader had been put to shame and crucified on a cross. Saturday was a day of numbed disbelief And all of these events were the culmination of a long period spent together with Jesus on a mission of healing and teaching about the coming Kingdom of God. Even though it was Easter and the disciples had heard from Mary Magdalene and the other women that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had risen from the dead, the disciples were still overcome with grief Luke describes them as "[standing] still, looking sad," lamenting that "we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." I imagine them as pensive, confused, quiet, and grief stricken.
The different ways the disciples demonstrate their grief at the death of Jesus reminds me of the summer I spent as a hospital chaplain at Baptist Hospital in San Antonio. There are two people I remember in particular. First there was Guillermo Quintana, 105 years old. When he died, I joined 30 of his family members, all of whom spoke only Spanish, around his hospital bed. As we said our prayers, there was loud crying and heavy-hearted wailing. Everyone down the corridor could hear the sadness coming out of the hospital room. "Were not our hearts burning within us?"
This scene stood in sharp contrast to that of another death, a woman from the German-settled town of New Braunfels, Texas. Only three persons were there-her brother and sister with me. Silence. No spoken prayers. No tears. No crying. There was a deep and profound sense of grief, but expressed with little outward emotion. "Were not our hearts burning within us?" Both families experienced grief, but they expressed it in different ways.
But our gospel, our good news, this morning, is about more than grief There is a shift from images of despair to images of hope. As Jesus interprets the scriptures to the disciples, they begin to forget the bloody face and the bruised corpse. They forget their shame at having abandoned Jesus. They are brought to a clear understanding of the prophets and the necessity of Jesus' suffering like the suffering servant of Isaiah's prophecies. They come to understand that there could have been no Easter Day without Good Friday. "No cross, no crown" as the Rector likes to say. "How slow of heart" Jesus says," [are you] to believe all that the prophets had declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into glory?" Their hearts burn again, this time not with persistent ache and confused grief, but with the joy of recognizing the Lord as he has risen, as he has risen indeed. "Were not our hearts burning within us?"
"Sorry, I got religion!" Now in the season of Easter, how do we show our joy in the knowledge of a risen Lord? In her book, "Congregational Trauma: Caring, Coping & Learning," Jill Hudson tells us this: "That the Christian is promised eternity with God does not mean we should not grieve. The difference is that Christians grieve in hope. Paul suggests as much in I Thessalonians 4:13: 'You may not grieve as other do who have no hope.' Jesus himself grieved the loss of his dear friend Lazarus. Perhaps the Christian is more able to grieve because our promise is anchored in one from whom we will never be separated. God's presence provides a shelter."
"Our promise is anchored in one from whom we will never be separated." How is it that we maintain this connection, avoiding such a terrible separation? We do it when we invite the Holy Spirit to be in us and among us, and when the church gathers to celebrate the sacraments, especially the sacrament of Holy Communion. Was it not when Jesus broke bread with them that the disciples realized that the risen Christ was among them? They experienced the real presence of Jesus as we experience the real presence of Jesus when we break bread together. I believe that one of the most poignant moments in our liturgy is when rise from our pews and make our way to the altar to receive the bread and wine. With the choir singing and the organ playing such beautiful music, I am sometimes overcome with profound feelings of being loved by God-a love that did not come without cost, without loss. But in this silence as I approach the altar, I can say to myself "Yes, I, too, got religion."