“What Now? And, What’s Next?” – A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (Year A)

I was invited by my wife, Pastor Allison Siburg, to preach this past weekend at Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska. I focused on the appointed readings for Easter 3A , primarily the gospel story about the Road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35. The following is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, as well as a FacebookLive video of worship from yesterday. The sermon begins at approximately minute 40.

Grace and peace from God in Christ, who loves you, who comes near to you on the road of life- around our meal tables here and at home, and through the Word, for you. Amen.

I can’t hide it. I’m excited. I know it’s weird to be excited amid the world we’re living in right now, where things seem out of control and all we can do, is try to be physically distant from one another. But I’m excited, because today’s story is one of my favorites in the gospels. There’s grief. There’s humor. There are “ah ha” moments. There’s joy. There’s questions. And there’s an invitation and action, to join in God’s work, and share the Good News that God is with you, for you, and loves you.

We find ourselves today in the afternoon and early evening of that Resurrection Sunday. Earlier that day, in the morning, a group of women had gone to the tomb and found it empty. They had been told that Jesus has risen from the dead, and was alive! What good news! Now as we have been in worship for Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday, and last week, we’ve bounced around the different gospel accounts of the resurrection and the days following in John and Matthew, and today we find ourselves in the Gospel of Luke, on the road with two disciples and witnesses to all that had happened- Cleopas and his companion.

Nebraska Street in Fontanelle, on a beautiful spring morning. I am pretty darn lucky to live in a place with wide open spaces that are as beautiful as this. In these days, I often wonder when out for a walk on a road like this, might this be today’s road to Emmaus? On a walk toward the horizon where there doesn’t appear to be anyone else (perhaps they are all wisely following health guidelines and staying home or at safe distances apart)? Might God be showing up through the sun and blue skies? Might God show up in a stranger on the way? And if God does show up, will I be awake enough to realize it? Here’s hoping.

So imagine the scene. You’re on a dirt or gravel road. You’re walking a bit downtrodden. Perhaps you’re a little fearful of what might lie ahead, or what might be lurking out in the fields on the side of the road? Perhaps you’re out on a road not unlike Nebraska Street just past the cemetery here to the east, a dirt road towards the eastern horizon, or any road out in the country. You’re walking with purpose, not necessarily sure of what might lie ahead, and trying to process and make sense of what’s been going on. Or maybe it’s just me? I seem to be having this experience a lot lately, whether on the treadmill in the early hours of the morning or walking out and about around Fontanelle. I suspect there are parts of this story this week that we might all relate to a bit more this year, than in hearing it at other times in our lives.

For Cleopas and the one traveling with him, the fear and anxiety they have is palpable. The grief they are dealing with is real. And they have had enough. They are trying to get away from the Holy City, traveling away from Jerusalem. Perhaps they are trying to clear their head? Perhaps they are trying to retreat to a safe space away from the masses to regroup, to grieve, to mourn, to pray? Well, whatever might be going on in their heads and hearts, on the way God comes near.

God shows up. But at least at first, the two don’t recognize Christ. They see a stranger, who notices them and asks them a question. Jesus asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”[1]

Cleopas and his companion could have brushed off the stranger, but they don’t shun or avoid him, but engage him in conversation. Looking sadly, Cleopas asked him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” [2] To this, Jesus asks, “What things?[3] He invites them to open up. To share what they have experienced, seen, and learned. To process the big events of the past couple years, but especially the last week and three days. Jesus doesn’t try to wipe away their grief, or fix how they are feeling. He doesn’t try to wipe away the pain they are feeling, and make everything better.

Jesus knows wisely that when one is hurting, sometimes there is nothing you can say that will make it better. But what does help is presence. What helps is simply but powerfully, showing up. Being present. Checking-in with a visit, or phone call, email, or Facebook message. To show that you care, and that you are there. To show that with your senses- your ears to listen, eyes to see- you are there, together. In the good, bad, hard, and ugly of life. It’s not always going to be good or okay. Jesus knows this perhaps most of all. He had just experienced the most horrible of deaths on a cross, and the darkness of a tomb. But here he is, alive, walking on the road.

Jesus embodies this wisdom today, as he accompanies the disciples on the way. He’s present with them, just as God promises to be with us, present with us always, no matter what life might throw our way. He’s walking alongside and behind these two. Not ahead, but alongside. He does this because he knows that the grief they are feeling is real. Their disappointment is real. They thought that this Jesus would change everything, but then they saw the crucifixion, and had their hopes and dreams dashed. But that isn’t the final word.

God shows up today on the road with these two, and is willing to stay. When they invite him to stay for it’s almost evening, he stays with them, listens, and shares the Good News of the promises of God. God does this for us too.

The two disciples along the road might well have been wondering, “What now?” They likely still wondered this as they spent time rehashing the events of the previous days to Jesus, and even as Jesus opened the meaning of the scriptures for them. It’s a question I suspect we’re all wondering too.

What now? What now with…. health directives…quarantines…staying at home and staying connected, if we can…with essential workers, doing their best wearing masks and keeping a safe distance- making sure seeds are sown and crops are tended to, making sure that things are delivered, stores are stocked, food is available for take-out and pick up, people’s health is cared for, and that us in the community know what’s going on by keeping us updated and informed, and leading us through this challenging time together.

We might be wondering what now too, because like these disciples, we too might be grieving. We might be grieving the loss of plans. A sense that daily life is no longer what we know or knew just a couple months ago- as students and teachers, and parents are all figuring out a new way of doing school. A topsy turvy senior year for high school seniors with prom, graduation, and parties not happening as planned. An upside-down year for brides and grooms to be, as weddings aren’t happening or at least not as imagined. A hard year, as funerals are on hold and restricted to small burials only for close loved ones. A year with lost income, ways of life upended, people being furloughed, and suddenly having to master how to fill out form after form searching for help with unemployment.

A year of loss and health concerns and anxieties, as a virus that has no cure continues to spread, and it seems the more we know, perhaps the less we actually know about how contagious this really is. A year of great concern, as much of the world could be on the verge of hunger and starvation, as the pandemic has so greatly impacted supply chains and agricultural economies. A year where everyone perhaps has known someone sick with this virus, or who will know someone sick with it, statistically. And worse yet, a year where we might all know someone who lost their battle to it. Like Dana College Professor Darrell Dibben a long time resident and leader in Blair who lost his battle a couple weeks ago. Or, as Allison and I found out early this week, a former colleague of Allison’s at a church she served on staff at previously in a Twin Cities suburb in Minnesota, the congregations’ organist and pianist. Who as you might imagine, I had many a conversation with and always enjoyed chatting with.

What now? The two on the road are lamenting the what if’s and what could have been’s. They are lamenting the pain and the unknown that lies ahead. They are not so unlike you and me, today. But even in that pain and anguish, they are aware enough to talk to a stranger along the way. They recount their experiences, and they invite this stranger to their table to share a meal together.

It’s a reminder to us. Though we are rightfully physically distant right now, and should give ourselves at least 6-8 feet before talking to a stranger on the road, it doesn’t mean don’t say hi. Actually quite the opposite. Just as Christ was present with the two on the road, we’re called to be present with those around us.

This is central to our understanding of our faith. As we think and wonder about what now, we remember it’s not just about us. Martin Luther unpacks this rather clearly in at least two places. In his Small Catechism, he explains about the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder,” and ponders, “What does this mean?” He writes that, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”[4] This isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s what we are commanded to do by God. It’s what it means, in part, when we remember Jesus’ new commandment which he gave us on Maundy Thursday, “to love one another.”[5]

And as Luther writes paradoxically elsewhere in The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[6]

What we do may not matter so much for our sake, but it certainly does for the stranger we meet on the road, whom we’re called to be neighbor to. Sometimes in this story we forget, that it’s not the two disciples who find Jesus. No. God in Christ finds them. Just like for us, we don’t do the finding. God finds us, wherever we are at, and is with us, wherever we are at, whatever we’re going through.

Look closely around you. Who is with you? Who might be close by outside your home, across the street or the field? Who is there? Look closely. God is present there. God is present here. The Word is near and has come near for you!

As we wonder, “what now,” we need to remember our call for our neighbors is one that means that it is still not time to go back out to what normal was before. But it’s fair to wonder with those witnesses and new disciples we heard about in our first reading from Acts who would be baptized that day in the thousands, “what should we do?[7]

Signs of Easter Good News and Resurrection at Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska.

As Jesus tells the two again of the acts and promises of God, their hearts are burning.[8] But it is when he breaks the bread, that their eyes are opened.[9] And they know. They remember. They believe. It is true. The story of Easter, is true. Their grief might still be real, but at the same time they have a new-found hope, joy, and assurance. As the writer of 1 Peter proclaims, “You have been born anew,”[10] they have been born anew in God’s act of showing up for them this day, as we each experience when God shows up for us in the water and the word, in the bread and in the wine.

As soon as the two realize Christ is with them, he vanishes. But the two are no longer dismayed. In fact they might be fulfilling what the psalmist says in Psalm 116, when asking, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”[11] For all that the Lord has done for them, showing up, beating death and the powers of sin, for them, for you, and for me. What do they do next, they hit the road again. It’s getting dark, in fact it might be night. And the road may not be the safest place to be even in daylight, but especially at night. They don’t care. They hit the road with even more speed than they had as they tried to get away from Jerusalem, returning to where they had left. For they needed to share the good news that they had experienced and felt. “The Lord has risen indeed!” And they had experienced Christ’s presence on the road and made known in the breaking of the bread.

A picture of me preaching to a phone. What an odd time we’re living in, but here’s a behind the scenes look (thanks to Allison).

There’s a second question that we might wonder from this story. In our presence in the moment, we might rightfully wonder, “What now?” But as we think about tomorrow, next week, next month, and the year ahead, just as the disciples did, let’s think too about “What’s next?”

The disciples surely wondered and in this time, as they witnessed Christ show up again and again, until he ascended. They witnessed his breaking of the bread and teaching, and after three years of hearing him teach, perhaps now, they truly understood. We know the rest of the story. The Holy Spirit will come and fill them, and fill us. God will continue to show up with them, and with us. Life will have ups and downs, uncertainties fears, death, and anxiety, but great moments of meaning, purpose, hope, and joy too.

That’s what a life of discipleship is. Whether it’s a life moving down the road, or a life right now of mainly staying home. A life of listening. A life of reading and dwelling in God’s word. A life of worshiping in whatever form that might take, as strangely as through a video on Facebook Live, over the radio, around your living or dining room, and again someday hopefully not too far away (but not too soon that it’s not safe yet either), in person. We don’t worship ourselves. We gather and worship the one who gives us life. The one who fulfills the Word, and is the Word made flesh. The one who comes alongside us, and meets us where we are at. No demands to be met. No qualifications needed. Just because that is who our God is.

So what’s next?

I have no idea with this virus. But I do know, that as the road was surely bumpy ahead for the disciples, they weren’t alone. And we aren’t either. The Resurrection story is true. And this story of God coming near is too.

When Jesus showed up with these two on the road, he wanted them to pay close attention to their feelings and responses. And they discerned about their burning heart. Those feelings, those emotions that you might have, are signs to God’s presence with you too. In these days, pay attention. Look. Listen. And see what God might be doing. Because in doing this, you might start to not only wonder about what’s next, you might start to see what the answer to that question could look like.

Remember, in your questions, in your feelings, in your emotions, God is with you, for you, and loves you. And that won’t change no matter what’s happening in the world or in our lives. That is the Good News of Easter, and especially of Christ coming near on that Road to Emmaus. Lean into it, grab hold of it, live it, and share it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations, References, and Notes:
[1] Luke 24:17, NRSV.
[2] Luke 24:18, NRSV.
[3] Luke 24:19, NRSV.
[4] Found in The Small Catechism, as printed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 1160.
[5] John 13:34-35, NRSV.
[6] The Freedom of a Christian, as included in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1962), 53.
[7] Acts 2:37, NRSV.
[8] Luke 24:32, NRSV.
[9] Luke 24:30-31, NRSV.
[10] 1 Peter 1:23, NRSV.
[11] Psalm 116:12, NRSV.

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