Monday, April 24, 2017

Three Weeks, Same Day

This coming Sunday is the Third Sunday of Easter. In case you've forgotten, there are eight Sundays in the Easter season, including Pentecost, which is the 50th day of this 50-day celebration of the resurrection. Since this is the third Sunday, we're almost half-way through this annual escapade, but you might notice that we haven't gotten very far. On Easter Day, we read the story of the discovery of the empty tomb. Yesterday, we began our gospel lesson on the evening of that same day, when Jesus appeared to all of the disciples except Thomas, who had his own encounter with the risen Lord a week later. If you thought we'd be moving on by this point, you'd be wrong because this Sunday's gospel lesson starts in the same place--the evening of the Day of Resurrection. Good news for organists: even though "Welcome happy morning!" is out, we can still sing "Hail thee festival day" one more time. Bad news for preachers: we're still stuck on Day One.

The good news for those crafting a sermon this week, however, is that the Road to Emmaus allows the kind of deep textual and liturgical engagement that makes preaching fun. Two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem on  Easter evening, when they are met by the risen Jesus, whom they are kept from recognizing. He opens the scriptures to them, explaining why the death and resurrection of God's anointed one was necessary, yet they still do not see who it is with whom they are walking. When they sit down at the table, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to them, and their eyes are opened. Immediately, Jesus vanishes from their sight, and the disciples get up and walk the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples, who have their own resurrection stories to tell.

What will the preacher say? A sermon on the fact that sometimes scriptural exposition isn't enough to apprehend Jesus--sometimes we need table fellowship, too? Another sermon on the reality of the resurrection sinking in only when the disciples meet the resurrected Jesus--the way we, too, meet him in his body and blood, which are given for us? A sermon on the transformation of death to life that happens within each of us when we encounter the resurrection for ourselves--only after we've walked the road of uncertainty where Jesus himself meets us? But all of that seems familiar to me. If there's a challenge this week, it's preaching a sermon that feels as fresh to the preacher and, thus, to the congregation as the encounter with Jesus felt to Cleopas and the other disciple.

There's a reason we're still stuck on "that same day," and it's not because the lectionary authors ran out of material for Easter. Like the disciples, we need time to encounter the resurrection of Jesus. The discovery of the empty tomb may have happened at one particular moment in time, but the ramifications of that filter through several encounters that first day and in the weeks that followed. We need time to know that the tomb isn't merely empty but also to see that he is risen. We need time to consider why that matters and what it means. This doesn't feel as fresh and exciting as the moment when Mary Magdalene found the stone rolled away. I don't run through this gospel lesson the way Peter and the Beloved Disciple raced toward the empty tomb. But I'm not supposed to. This is a walk--a long, seven-mile walk. This is consideration. This is the church's way of lingering in the story. We've expanded that first day for three weeks. Don't expect to rush through it. Easter is a season, not a day, and this Sunday's gospel lesson gives us the chance to dwell in it together.

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