Sermons

While in Their Joy, They Were Disbelieving… Rev. Dee Ledger, April 18, 2021

In Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “One Boy Told Me,” a little boy innocently asks, “What does minus mean?”

In today’s world, “minus” can mean 3 million deaths by Covid worldwide, or nearly 20,000 deaths by gun violence in 2020, or the extinction of the Chiriqui harlequin frog from our planet.  Or perhaps a “minus” can be best defined by our black and brown sisters and brothers, who can no longer drive, walk, run, play, and simply “be” without being seen, in the words of Jackie Summers, as “a threat waiting to happen.”[1] As Summers says, “I’m also acutely aware the manner to end my life at the slightest interpretation of aggression, real or perceived, is always close at hand.”[2]

This is the definition of “minus.”

And Jesus knew that minus firsthand, having been persecuted, oppressed, and then crucified by the Roman imperialists.

Our passage today is a strange one, given pervasive minus in societies such as ours and the shadow of the crucifixion.

The disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus return to Jerusalem to share the news that they not only have seen their risen Lord, but they have broken bread with him.  And while they are sharing this startling news, the risen Jesus himself appears among them.  It’s like the feeling when you are talking about someone who is not present in the room (not that any of us would do that) and then that person whom you are talking about suddenly walks through the door and is no longer an idea about a person, but the experience of that person.  Things get really quiet and weird fast and folks look startled, terrified even, because who knows what this Jesus is going to say or do after everything they’ve done, or not done, said, or not said.  I imagine some of them may have even felt a little guilty not believing Jesus in the first place about what he said was to come.

In any case, there they all are—standing quite still and dumbfounded—and Jesus begins to speak.

Does he yell at them?

Does he fault them?

Does he remind them that they abandoned him?

No.  Jesus simply says, “Peace be with you.”

Who is this who is betrayed and deserted by his brothers and sisters, left to die in the public eye, and yet returns to breathe peace on these same friends?  Who can do this?  We tend to expect this kind of peace from our black and brown siblings in Christ after events that are similar to the crucifixion of Christ in the public eye.

And the disciples think that they are seeing a ghost because that is what our troubled souls do…we start to believe that spirits might be out to “get” us, or we imagine that we will only ever be haunted by our past or our regrets, or we imagine that this is all just one big illusion that will hurt us, eventually.  We can’t imagine a different future for ourselves so we try to limit the futures of others.  We do not expect peace; we do not grant peace and we don’t dare to trust it.

Yet Jesus comes in peace and shows them his hands and feet thereby giving them proof of his flesh, his corporeal nature, his substance, and his reality.  And then he asks them for food because he’s hungry like a far-flung student returning home for spring break, and ghosts, if he were a ghost, would have no need to eat.

Yes, this passage is hard to believe—the resurrected Jesus speaking peace to these friends and having a bit of broiled fish by a lake.  Imagine if you were the disciples–  how would you feel?

Likely, like the disciples, you would feel both fear and joy.  And that’s what I want to talk about.

Sometimes really good news terrifies us first.  Sometimes we are frightened because we don’t know what to expect, but often we are terrified because we base our present experience on past trials and past reactions, and the past, period.

The disciples are frightened because, even if they are overjoyed in seeing their friend again, they are wondering if this is payback time.  Even with their knowledge of who Jesus is, they can’t quite trust that he hasn’t come back from the dead to haunt them, to judge them, and maybe even to turn the tables on them.

Yet, here he is, standing before them, saying, “Peace.”  Shalom.

It must have been a relief to hear.  And this is a hungry Jesus, who is asking something of them: “Have you anything to eat?”

What is interesting is that the disciples, even after their fear gives way to joy, they are still disbelieving.

That offers a bit of hope for all of us who are in a disbelieving state.

A while back, my little boy was setting the table and he somehow shattered a dish when he was getting the plates from the cupboard. He looked at me with fear and startled surprise.  His brother quickly said, “Oh, no, it’s going to be a bad day, a very bad day.”  After I overcame my own shock and surprise, I shook my head and, more calmly than I felt, said, “Let’s clean it up.  Do you have the vacuum?”  But this isn’t how I normally respond.  My kids were, if not joyful, relieved but also a bit skeptical and disbelieving as they raced to get the vacuum downstairs.  They thought, based on past experience, that I might scold them or yell or send them out of my sight.  Their joy at my relative calm was mixed with disbelief.

We, too, can disbelieve something and still experience joy.  It’s a joy mixed with uncertainty and hesitancy, a joy that we can’t quite believe is true or will last, but is joy nonetheless.  What makes the joy real and lasting for the disciples is the on-going reality of who Christ is and how they see him engaged in their lives.  What makes our joy real and lasting is a reality that can be trusted to yield the positive.

For many of us, when we experience something beneficial or filled with grace, we might think to ourselves or out-loud to others, “This is too good to be true.”  It is only in living with the reality for a while that we understand that what has happened is real, is true, and can be trusted.  Living with the reality for a bit dispels our hesitancy, our mistrust, some of our fears, and quite a few of our misperceptions (like that bit about the ghost).

If you ever experienced both joy and disbelief at the birth of a child—that this small person has come somehow into your life—then you know what the disciples were feeling.

If you ever experienced both joy and disbelief as you stepped into retirement or got married or were promoted, or overcame a health challenge, or accomplished a hard-won goal, then you know.

It takes a while for the disbelief and uncertainty to subside.  You may be relieved and yet still fearful.  You may be waiting for the “other foot to drop.” You may be thanking God in one minute and yet wondering what is still waiting in the wings in the next.  It is all a mix.  And until you have lived with the reality of being married, of having a child, of being retired, of your promotion, of being relatively healthy, or living out that dream, you might think that it is all just an illusion or “less than real.”  Similarly, if you have ever been forgiven, you might feel relief and joy but still wonder if you *really are* forgiven.  It is in the living out of that forgiveness that you discover your answer.

Likewise, in the life of faith, we might “forget” that we can experience the joy of faith, even when we are disbelieving.

As the church, you do not have to believe certain things in order to reap the joy or the benefits of seeing Jesus around you or even within you.  In some ways, you can experience this mixed joy, when you realize that God isn’t out to “get” you, that God desires your essential freedom, and when you realize that the ideas that you have about Christ are less important then the way you and others embody Christ’s actions  in the world.

While they were still disbelieving and wondering, Jesus comes to the disciples and asks something of them.   What could Christ possibly need?  “Do you have anything to eat?” he asks, giving them the opportunity to extend kindness, reparation, and to experience joy.

This implies that we do not have to have the perfect theology or a completely cohesive set of beliefs to follow Christ, or to share Christ, with one another.

We do not have to have it “all together” to make a difference.  We do not have to possess certain gifts or talents or intelligence or a list of facts before experiencing joy in the life of faith.  We simply offer what we have, with who and what and how we are.  We begin where we are trusting God to show us the Emmaus road upon which we walk.

We may still wonder; we may still disbelieve, and we may still be fearful of ghosts (real and imagined) in our past.  But we try to see Jesus in our present, try to allow ourselves to experience the peace that he gives, and try to offer what we have so that joy may coexist with peace and Jesus’ presence may become real for others in time.

In Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “One Boy Told Me,” a little boy innocently asks, “What does minus mean?”

He then makes the statement, “I never want to minus you.”

We do not have to have our faith all worked out to never want to minus someone or a whole body of people.

We need only understand that God doesn’t minus you, or me, or anybody.

We need only to practice turning our tendency to minus each other into equals.  We need only to breathe peace on and within the places that have been subtracted far too often by too many in the majority.

If we can do that, we will have surely met God along the way.

Amen.