Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, Sunday, April 26 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 2:14a,36-41; Ps 116:1-3,10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Lk 24:13-35
It isn’t the easiest Gospel reading to manage today—the story of Emmaus, so much loved and so evocative, and so much about things like inviting a stranger into your place of safety, breaking bread together, recognizing the presence of Christ at the table and at the altar, all these things which, for many of us, have been central to our lives and our spirituality practices, and which, at this moment in time, we cannot physically do.
These things remain important, and they will return to our lives, if perhaps in an altered form; this drastic physical distancing, this oddly disembodied existence, will not be forever. For now, though, we need to look into the Emmaus story for other meanings—because, like any good story, it means many things at the same time.
And today, I want to start by looking at the sad statement of Cleopas: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” We can’t be sure exactly how Cleopas had imagined that redemption, but it’s likely that he had expected something dramatic, final, and possibly violent; not the Word incarnate allowing himself to be taken by violence without resistance, and not a quiet stranger now walking with him on the road. It is that curious shift which has taken place with the word “passion”, which we now think of as something fiery, extravagant, perhaps potentially destructive—and yet it comes from the same root as the word “patient”, and Christ’s passion is what he, without violence or drama, undergoes at the hands of power’s drama.
I have been thinking about the protests in the US against the shutdowns which are part of essential public health measures right now. Many people have pointed out the irony that a lot of those protestors are exactly the people who have been going on and on about how they can survive in their bunkers and panic rooms for months if not years, and who now seem to be losing their grip after a few weeks of partial restriction on commerce. But, as others have pointed out, they are people whose imagination of crisis was all about drama and action, who anticipated, perhaps, having to fight off the hordes trying to steal their supplies, having to make hair-raising escapes, and probably doing a lot of shooting. They did not anticipate—they cannot even encompass—a crisis which calls above all for patience, for calm, for the ability to refrain from action; for small acts of kindness, for sewing and cooking and cleaning; and for the grace to listen, as Cleopas and his companion—let’s assume it is his wife Mary—listen to this stranger, who seems so uninterested in the latest exciting news, but so able to read into the depths of a situation, to interpret and to explain what may seem obscure. It is, as we are learning again and again, of these small slow things that resurrection is truly made. Even the truly heroic work of health care, as much as the news often structures it as drama and risk, is to a very large extent about doing hard and boring things over and over, paying attention to details, washing and tending and recording and analyzing, watching, waiting. Death can be rapid; life lies in slowness and quiet persistence.
In its extreme form, the desire for the explosive moment, the dramatic and passionate single event, feeds into hideous tragedies like the one we saw last week in Nova Scotia, or two years ago when the van ploughed down Yonge Street, the damaged minds which strive to find their release in the mass destruction of others. But most of us, some time or another, find ourselves focussing on, fearing or wanting, the decisive final act; at the very least, judging the importance of an event by its level of drama. It was just such a decisive and final act which the crucifixion seemed to be—and that is why, of course, Cleopas and Mary take it to mean that Rome has won, that the empire has destroyed their hopes.
But beyond the crucifixion is the resurrection. And it is striking—and more than striking, terribly important—how quiet the resurrection appearances are. As Mother Andrea has pointed out before, the disciples who were hiding in the upper room were probably not only afraid of the authorities—they had heard, from the women, rumours of resurrection, and they were were likely afraid of that as well, afraid that the Jesus whom they had betrayed would be coming back to judge, even to punish, coming in action and violence. Instead, he silently appears in their midst and speaks words of peace, breathes gently on them, eats a piece of fish. He turns up on the shore of a beach and cooks breakfast for them. Or, as here, walks along a country road with them for hours, doing textual analysis. It’s not very exciting stuff. But it is life. It is hope. It is redemption.
So we learn to listen, rather than talk. Listen to scholars and experts; and listen as well to those who are the scholars and experts of their own lives, the hungry and the homeless, the elderly and the disabled and the disregarded, the desperate hostages of the economy, racialized people, queer people, all those who can speak to the damage our structures have done, are doing, who may point towards a better way. And listen, in this time when we are compelled to slow down, to the earth, to the birds and the wind and the foxes, to the waters and the weather. Realize that the changes we have been forced to make have, ironically, been some of the changes we have long needed to make to avoid the worst climate change scenarios; listen to these times which may tell us that air travel is not, after all, so necessary, that endless consumption is not the required shape of our lives, that oil is not, after all, the eternal resource, and that the market is a fleeting thing; that we can, if we choose, share our basic needs more equally, look after each other, know the value of bread and salt.
Listen, above all, for the voice of God walking beside us. We may hear that voice in all the voices I have named above; but we hear more easily when we have trained ourselves to that silent listening which is the heart of prayer, when we have built into our lives, in whatever way our circumstances allow, the practice of that presence, of simply being our whole selves face to to face with God’s self, and being still. And perhaps this can be, in some degree, a moment of that training. I do not mean to say that there is anything positive about the pandemic; I do not mean to diminish the psychological, physical and economic stresses of the lockdown, which are tremendous. Perhaps we must mourn first, before we can do anything else, as Cleopas and Mary probably mourned, talking together on the road about the loss of hope, about death, about the cost of caring—which is very real, which is brought in front of us by the doctors and nurses who have fallen ill, by the fact that many of the people who died in Nova Scotia saw fires and went to see what they could do to help.
But still, in a time of trauma, we have choices, as they had choices. And Cleopas and Mary chose to engage with this stranger, and chose to listen, despite their own very real fear and pain, despite the terrible events they had just been through. That listening must have been hard. It meant the revisiting of pain, and it meant revising many of the ideas they had clung to. But over the course of that walk, they heard enough that they were changed. If we can learn, in this time of our own dislocation, to sit still within our hearts—even while we are walking—maybe the slow grace of the travelling God can grow in us. Maybe we can come to see the subtle work of repair, the green shoots even in a ravaged garden; come to see it in the world, and in our selves.
Someday, we will break bread again as a gathered community, and we will know God’s presence in that breaking and sharing perhaps more vividly than we ever have before. I don’t know now when that day will be; for this time, we are still on the road, seeing the sky darken towards evening, wondering what to do next and what will come. But not alone. There is always one who walks beside us.