“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” Luke 24:30-31
As I prepared for Betty Schneeberger’s funeral service this week, I had the great pleasure of hearing stories about Betty from her family members and from some of you. Here’s what I learned. Eventually those stories were going to involve baked goods. Betty and her husband Frank ran the Chatham Bake Shop for many years, but even after it closed, they kept baking for friends and family for years after.
Any guesses as to what kind of baked good came up most often? Cookies. When talking about these cookies, people’s faces take on an expression of pure bliss. Even though it’s been years since some of them have had these cookies, they can describe in great detail what the cookies looked like, what they smelled like, and how they tasted.
For each holiday there were special kinds of cookies – heart shapes with pink icing for Valentine’s Day, bunnies for Easter, and owls with chocolate and vanilla icing for Halloween. If you were one of her kids or grandkids, when that holiday rolled around, a package of cookies would appear on your doorstep – whether you were away at college or had taken a job out of state. Those cookies found you wherever you were. And they brought with them a love beyond measure.
We often associate food with love. We gather with loved ones around special meals for Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas. We love catching up with old friends over delicious food. Just recently I was thinking about the many hours I spent playing canasta with my grandparents at their kitchen table. At some point in the game Granddaddy would get out his special snack supply, which often included my personal favorite – chocolate-covered graham crackers. (There’s a chance that he was trying to distract me from the strategy of the game with these snacks, but I could never prove it.) I can’t recall a time when his special snack containers were empty. I could depend on those cookies being there, just like I could depend on the love of my grandparents.
At the beginning of today’s gospel, the people walking along this road to the village of Emmaus feel like everything on which they have depended is gone. This story starts right after our Easter gospel from last Sunday. There have not yet been any Jesus sightings, although the women have told their story of the empty tomb, and Peter has seen for himself that Jesus is no longer there.
The people walking along this road have every reason to believe that Jesus is still dead. They are weighed down by grief, by the shattering of the future they had imagined: “We had hoped,” they say. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem us.”
Suddenly Jesus is there walking with them along the road – but no one realizes who he is. I’m not sure why. Certainly that road to Emmaus is far away from our reality in which every moment of every day is documented and shared with the world, so there wasn’t yet a “#resurrection” movement to follow. Maybe grief had clouded their vision. Maybe a resurrected Jesus looks a little different than the one they had known. Whatever the case, Jesus walks alongside them and talks with them – and even teaches them – without being recognized.
We might wonder why they didn’t know Jesus when he was right there with them, but how often do we miss seeing Jesus too? We know what it’s like to walk through our lives feeling overwhelmed, distracted, weighed down by grief or stress or fear. Every day we are confronted with more violence, this week from Sri Lanka to southern California. The magnitude of it all can keep us from seeing Jesus – especially in the people around us – the people we love most and the people we meet in passing and the people in places around the world. Those people are one way that we encounter Jesus again and again. He is present in all of them, but we sometimes forget to see each other that way.
Do you remember when it is in the story that the people finally recognize Jesus? It’s when they eat together. He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to his friends. And then their eyes are opened.
Does that seem familiar? It sounds a lot like Holy Communion, doesn’t it?
Today we celebrate First Communion for Chloe, Ava, Caitlyn, and Grace. We’ve had a lot of fun learning about this sacrament together. We’ve talked about how Jesus promises to show up when we share this meal. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to get our act together, to have a week of making no mistakes and following all the rules. Jesus is with us in this meal not because we deserve it or have earned the right to receive it, but because he has promised to be here. He has promised to be here with the love and forgiveness that we all need so much.
In Holy Communion Lutherans say that we experience the true presence of Jesus. Sometimes we call it real presence. The wafer and the wine are not just symbols or metaphors. We’re not just re-enacting something that happened centuries ago. Jesus is really here with us now, feeding us and giving us strength to go out and serve others in the ways that he has shown us.
As I was explaining true presence in our First Communion class, I shared a title from one of our Lutheran theologians Timothy Wengert. His chapter about the real presence of Jesus in Holy Communion is called “When Jesus Throws a Party, He Shows Up.” I think it was Ava who said, “Of course he shows up! It’s his party!”
Of course Jesus shows up. It’s his party.
And this party is a gathering of love. A party in which we join with Christians throughout this community and throughout the world, with those who have died and with those who are just being born, with those we have loved and with those we may never meet. We are one in the body of Christ, joined in our call to make sure everyone knows the party is for them too. That’s what those first travelers did: “They told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
We do not walk alone. Like those people on the road to Emmaus, we have good company as grieve together, as we learn together, as we celebrate together, and as we eat together. Jesus is with us. We don’t always notice him. We sometimes wish we could see him more clearly. But he is here.
So he says to us: Hold out your hands. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. I’m right here.
It really is that simple. That simple and that profound. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Luke 24:11
Like many of you, I grew up with Sesame Street. I loved all the people in that neighborhood – the puppets and the humans. I loved singing the rubber ducky song while Ernie played in the bathtub. I loved the crazy way that the Cookie Monster ate those cookies – crumbs going everywhere. I loved Mr. Hooper’s store, and I was heartbroken when Mr. Hooper died – even though by then I was 12 years old.
Here’s what I didn’t love. Do you remember Mr. Snuffleupagus?[i] He was a friend of Big Bird’s and looked like a giant hairy anteater. I liked him just fine. What I didn’t like was that no one else believed that Mr. Snuffleupagus was real. Big Bird would talk about his friend, but Mr. Snuffleupagus would conveniently disappear whenever anyone else came close to running into him. No matter how much Big Bird insisted that his friend was really there, no one believed him.
Whenever someone would miss seeing Mr. Snuffleupagus, I would be filled with the kind of righteous anger that only children can have. “He’s right there!” I would sometimes yell at the television. “He’s right there!” It killed me that no one would believe Big Bird.
This week as I pondered our Easter gospel from Luke, I felt that old indignation rising up in me. The women have a powerful story to tell. They show up at dawn prepared to anoint the body of Jesus. And instead of a body they find an open tomb. Stone rolled away. No sign of Jesus anywhere. Two men in dazzling clothes appear out of nowhere and stand beside them, saying: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
They are perplexed. They are terrified. They are overwhelmed.
So they do what seems natural. They go and tell other people what they’ve experienced. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, another Mary, other unnamed women – they go and tell their story to the only other people they think will understand – the men who have also followed Jesus.
And how is their story received? “These words seemed to the others an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” “Idle tale” is a gentle translation. It means more like “nonsense,” “B.S.,” “foolishness.” The root of that word is where we get our word delirium. Those guys hear the story of the women as a bunch of crazy talk, foolish nonsense.
These men – who were not at the tomb because they had fled in fear – did not believe the women – who showed up in the face of death to do what had to be done.
The men – who would later have their own stories to tell – did not believe the women – who were already telling their story.
The men – who faltered – did not believe the women – who followed, even to the end.
Peter at least has the decency to run to the tomb himself, and he comes back amazed. But we don’t hear anyone apologizing to the women for not believing their story.
If you think back to Christmas time, you’ll remember that Luke’s whole gospel begins with people being told incredible stories. Young Mary is told by an angel that she will be the mother of Jesus, even though she is young and unmarried. She asks some questions: “How can this be?” But she says to God, “Here I am…Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary believes the story.
Mary runs to tell her relative Elizabeth, who immediately says to Mary: “Blessed are you among women.” Elizabeth believes the story.
Remember those shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night? They get a sky full of angels telling them a crazy story about a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. And they go to find that baby. The shepherds believe the story. And they go and tell other people about what they’ve seen and heard.
Jesus told his followers how the story would go. Those two men in the empty tomb remind the women: “Remember how he told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” That’s what helps the women remember the story – and then go to tell the others.
What is your story? What is your story of brokenness or despair?
I know you have one. Probably more than one. A story of grief or worry. A story of unresolved conflict. A fracturing of your family. The fracturing of our country and our world.
And what is your story of resurrection? Of hope in the face of fear, of life in the midst of death? It’s still being written, but there’s something that has been holding you up in the midst of that brokenness. The prayers of friends. The people who feed you when you’re hungry. The belief that the next chapter will somehow be better. The folks who make you laugh. The texts that come right when you’re at the end of your rope. The song that makes you smile.
What’s keeping you from telling that story? Maybe you’re afraid to tell your story because you’re pretty sure other people will think it’s nonsense. Foolishness, an idle tale. Mr. Snuffleupagus all over again.
But our stories are part of God’s story. God’s story is vast enough to hold all of it – the worry and the wonder, the desperation and the inspiration, the times we are barely hanging on and the times when we are reaching out to help someone else.
God’s story of resurrection is big enough for any story we can offer up. God brings new life to the broken places. God promises that the powers of death and grief and loss will not be the final words of our stories.
Yesterday as I held little baby Beadle – only hours old, still blinking her way into the world outside the womb – I was overcome by a sense of awe at what God can do. Her story is just beginning. Her story – like yours and like mine – is part of God’s story. A story of the gift of grace that sets us free from all of the death-dealing forces that threaten us.
Let’s tell our stories. Let’s tell God’s story. And let’s believe each other when we do.
It is not an idle tale. It is everything. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ