Sermons

By Pastor John Johnson

"Are We There Yet?"

NRS Psalm 116:1 I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications. 2 Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. 3 The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. 4 Then I called on the name of the LORD: "O LORD, I pray, save my life!"
NRS Psalm 116:12 What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me? 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD, 14 I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people. 15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones. 16 O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds. 17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the LORD. 18 I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people, 19 in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!

and I would like to turn to our Gospel Lesson today, one we revisit every year at almost this exact time, the story from the Gospel according to Luke, “The journey to Emmaus,” which we join on the afternoon of the day when Christ rose from the dead, the very first Easter:
NRS Luke 24:13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. 18 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?" 19 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, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 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. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 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. 24 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." 25 Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 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. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 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?" 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

I have often spoken of my college roommate and best friend, Emerson Lacey, whom out of my stubborn refusal to accept responsibility for my own bad habit, I blame for my having become an addict of Sudoku, that crazy puzzle where one attempts to arrange nine sets of the numbers 1 through 9 into three by three squares, which give nine rows and nine columns, such that the numbers appear only once in each square, once in each row, and once in each column. I started playing it in pages of the Chicago Tribune, but for some years have been doing it in an app on my iPhone.

Patricia is not a fan of my so doing, saying it will keep me awake at night, so I have transitioned back to doing the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, again, on either my iPhone or iPad.

Well, “transitioned back” is not completely accurate; I still do Sudoku.

But at any rate, not always are the crossword puzzle answers a single word, which can be tricky, and one of the crossword puzzle clues the other day was, “What kids say in the car”; I correctly concluded: Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet? of course shows an eagerness to finish the journey and to reach the destination, but it also shows a lack of appreciation for how, sometimes, it is the journey itself and not the arrival that is most rewarding.

Well here we are. It is the second Sunday after Easter, the third Sunday of Easter, and our fifth Sunday of this form of “worship,” and I hope somehow being able to listen to my reading of a Scripture and a sermon and my offering a prayer does rise to that level, worship, especially since I see absolutely no chance of resuming public worship until at least Pentecost, which while May 31 would, I hope, be comprehended, if public gatherings of more than ten were to be permitted starting June 1. But we simply do not know, and, because we are determined to be good neighbors and not act more privileged than others, we will follow whatever social-distancing rules the Governor of Arizona puts forth, whether or not we agree with them.

The third Sunday of Easter, and a Sunday when, as I mentioned last week — and not one has sent me any words that suggest I evoked any sympathy from you, another Sunday when as pastor I cringe because today’s is another of those yearly Sundays when we read an overly — even if, perhaps, superficially so — an overly familiar Gospel story. Just as last week, we read the story of the “doubting Thomas,” officially, ”Thomas the twin,” today we read the story known as “the walk to” or “the road to” or “the journey to” Emmaus.

As I mentioned, the writer of the Gospel According to Luke, and we do not know the actual names of the writers, but history and tradition assigns the names we have, the writer of the Gospel According to Luke, who also wrote the Book of Acts, tells a story that is taking place later on the day of Jesus’ resurrection; it does not take place some days or weeks later, the walk to Emmaus is on the day of Easter itself.

The two men, only one of whom, Cleopas, is named, were not of the eleven remaining disciples — “eleven”; remember, Judas has hung himself, — and we do not know the purpose of these two mens’ journey, for Emmaus is a name that does not otherwise appear in the Gospel According to Luke.

In fact, the purpose of the journey ultimately was not important, but consider how the two men must have undervalued that journey itself as they were undertaking it, as we can gather from their later declaration, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"

Their hearts burned within them, yet it does not appear they acknowledged it to themselves or treasured the experience during the journey itself, a journey that was possibly of greater richness than arriving at their destination. Perhaps they missed that richness until after it was completed, when they realized with whom they had been walking, Jesus himself, when he became known to them and to the eleven “in the breaking of the bread.”

Is this failing to recognize not sometimes the case for us, that there was something wonderful in the journey, but that we might have missed it because we were too concerned about reaching the journey’s end?

You might think I were talking about the journey we know as life itself, and I guess I could be, but the parallel would break down if we were not — and I certainly hope that I am not — focused on the end of our lives’ journeys.

. . . and by the way, I shall once again repeat: I am not the least concerned, nor should you be, about what happens when your earthly lives end; Jesus took care of that for us 2000 years ago. I am concerned that you realize that He has done so, and thus can live out this earthly life in gratitude and joy for what he has done, letting that help frame all that you do.

And the parallel with all of human life that the “Journey to Emmaus” represents  is valid in the sense that when we realize what God through Jesus has done for us, our journey, our trip, is never undertaken in solitude, we are never journeying alone, and rather than to wonder, “Am I there yet?” I would hope we would wonder, “Isn’t this trip fascinating!”

And so many of the shorter journeys in life are like that; we are so eager for a particular phase of life or a period of life to end, that we can miss the thrill of going through it! Those of you who are parents might remember as fondly as do I awaiting your first child. Gad, were Carol and I ever filled with anticipation during the six to seven months when we were pretty sure and then sure that there was a destination to which we were traveling.

But oh how rich was that journey, how much richness we derived from those months, whether it was the odd experience of my driving her to work on my way to law school with her having the paper bag for morning sickness, which if I can judge by her reactions, was just one of those things to be experienced as opposed to being lamented, or the fun of choosing and then assembling baby furniture, or the excitement of receiving a phone call while I was at work, “My water broke,” and then grabbing a taxi home, which was quite an indulgence, about $5 worth compared to $0.50 subway or “L” ride home I normally took from Chicago’s Loop, all so that I could speedily get her to the hospital, where we had some hours to wait before the “journey” was over.

(That was with the first child, my older son, Michael. With the second, Steve, I was working in Pittsburgh, and fortunately I was home for Good Friday, the first year that was an off-day for US Steel. This was two weeks after our original due date, and by being home I could drive Carol to the hospital, which was fortunate: Carol’s water broke, but for the next almost two hours she alternated her Le Maze breathing with brushing her hair, before we could get into the car and head for the hospital. Steve was coming so fast that I couldn’t even park the car before Carol was wheeled directly to the OR to deliver and by the time I came in from parking the car, Steve had been born.

But even that rushed journey by car was delightfully memorable; I remember having just crossed the Liberty Bridge across the Monongahela River and saying to a Pittsburgh motorcycle policeman, “I’m trying to get to McGee Women’s Hospital,” thinking he would escort me, when he simply answered, “It’s that way.” I’m glad we made it on time; it was a blessing to us, if not so great as finally having a son, an experience I would not have wanted to miss, but what a journey!

Was I aware that we were not alone on either of those two journeys? I cannot say, I was absolutely a person of faith and was even teaching high school Sunday school when Michael was born, but I was not so theological and biblical as I am now, yet whatever my reflections were at that time aside from shear joy and excitement, I can say for sure that I have known ever since then that I am never alone, nor are any of you ever alone on any of our journeys no matter how we might define them. We are always accompanied by the same one who walked with Cleopas and his friend on their journey to Emmaus.

We are all — indeed, almost all of humankind, — on a journey right now through the unchartered wilderness of this pandemic . It will be a tougher journey for some than for others, and the final destination will not always be the same. But none of us needs to believe we are alone on this journey.

For us, as part of Christ’s Church, the journey is a strange one, symbolized by how we are sharing my words, right now, but it is a journey that, while I fear it might leave us as His church materially, which is to say, financially, strained, I think it might leave us even more committed to Him than when we began this journey. Faith, I hope, is helping you to endure whatever isolation or sense of fear or confinement you might be experiencing.

For us as individuals, at least for most of us, it is a journey undertaken perhaps a bit too late in life for us to be able to say, “I’ll be able tell my grandchildren about this,” for my grandchildren are experiencing it even as am I.

But I know that I’ll look back and be grateful for having endured this journey, despite my lapses into grouchiness and shorter temper. Even more importantly, I’ll be grateful for knowing that the journey was made not only easier to endure, but, and I mean this word, made richer, because I know that I was accompanied by the one who accompanied those two men on their walk to Emmaus.

Know that this same man, Jesus Christ, is with you, not only through this period of pandemic, but in the days beyond it. Know it, and take comfort, and, I hope, a bit of joy in His being alongside you, along us, for we are journeying this road together.

And in His name. Amen.

Please join me as I offer a prayer on our common behalf:

Oh God our Lord, how strange these Sundays seem, yet how much that very strangeness draws us ever closer to understanding that we are indeed the clay in your potter hands. Mold us as Christians who do truly care enough so that it is not resentment but eagerness we feel to be generous and considerate neighbors to those who are incurring or those who are afraid of this pandemic the world is experiencing.
As we do so, let us keep before us the condition of our neighbors of the Navajo Nation here, in Arizona, even as we seek to do ministry with them on your behalf, and let us recognized that there really are none of your children who are not concerned with this pandemic. Please be with them all to comfort and protect them, and protect and comfort those who are working to help others, whether as doctors and nurses and EMT’s or truck drivers or workers in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Be with them, and be with us.
We ask you to be with all the members of our church families, members or not, known to all or not, and this morning we do raise prayers for Suzan Tinka, for David Wuertz, for Barb Newman’ sister and nephew, for Bill and Phyllis Zwanziger, and for others who have need of your comfort and healing.
And God events draw our attention to the other side of the world, where even as the United States deals in tension with the state of Iran, we must have concern for the people who suffer not only injustice but a more painful encounter with this pandemic than do most.
For God we know that all humankind belongs to you, and so we want for everyone the peace, the joy, the freedom, the justice, the abundance that we find in Jesus Christ, but we know that will come only in your time and not in ours, so we turn to the words He taught us as we say together:


May the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you . . .

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