Sermon by Pastor Heidi Neumark
I had a thought-provoking conversation not long ago with a classroom full of college freshman in Texas. The professor is a friend of mine and the students had read my book on ministry in the South Bronx and prepared questions. There was one they kept coming back to. Do you consider yourself to be an idealist or a realist?
And the follow-up question: In class the other day we talked about whether or not your views and expectations of how humans behave was idealistic. How do you feel about that? And how did you keep such a positive expectation when you were constantly surrounded by all the negative and hurtful things humans can do to each other? Amidst all the evil of humanity, how do you keep looking for and seeing the true lights and salts of the earth?
I don’t think for a minute that this was at heart a question about me and my writing. I think it was about the world writ large in their experience. These students grew up in a post 9/11 world. For most of their lives, we have been at war. They are from Texas and Texas has lost more young soldiers than any other state. Living with fear, recession and war is their normal.
Their either/or question, “Are you a realist OR an idealist?” implies that you can’t be both. You can’t hold to ideals in the real world because the real world chews up your ideals and spits them out.
As I said, these college freshmen were not just curious about my life. They are wondering: How can our eyes be open to see the true lights and salts of the earth? How can our lives be open to risk being such lights and salts?
I think the questions raised by these young people are shared by many, perhaps including some of us and will certainly be raised by others coming after them.
And, it seems, before them also. The two disciples in our gospel reading,
walk as we do, in the wake of Eastertide. Cleopas and his companion have heard the message from first hand Easter witnesses, “He is risen!” and yet, the news simply doesn’t reach them where it counts. Just because someone tells them it’s true doesn’t mean that they can accept it in the traumatized region of their hearts. It’s like a fairy story, an idle tale, as the faith of previous generations has become for many today.
“We had hoped,” they say, but reality intruded. “We had a prophet of mighty deeds and words,” but those deeds have proven to be not so mighty in the face of their contemporary reality, the Roman Empire, “Some women astounded us” they say, but their story had no staying power, their words have been emptied of their sweet substance like crumpled bits of bright foil glinting in the fake grass of an Easter basket.
And so they walk towards a village called Emmaus, away from the city where religion has left them bereft and hope is in the past tense. Where the heavy boulder of reality cannot be pushed away. Cleopas and his companion walk towards a Emmaus a village not found on the map, although our Episcopalian sister, Diana Butler Bass, who has studied such things, tells us that this is the landscape we inhabit where: discontent, doubt, disillusionment and for some despair are themes of the day. A place where realism and idealism do not coexist.
As they travel towards that place, Cleopas and his partner are joined by a stranger. Jesus is a stranger because hope is a stranger now. The voice of hope is strange. This stranger walks with them and listens to their hurt and disappointment. He is accessible and interested in connection. He listens more than he speaks, but when Jesus does speak, he repeats the very teaching and tradition that the two have found lacking. He speaks of the very religious reality they are walking away from. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus the stranger interprets the scriptures, it seems, as though he is not really reframing anything at all.
But wait. Let’s consider that word, stranger. Teacher as stranger is already a reframing from the idea of teacher is the knowlegable insider. Are you the only Stranger who does not know they ask? The Greek word in the Bible is PAROIKOS. It means stranger but elsewhere it the Bible the same word is translated as immigrant, an exile, an alien or a resident alien. A PAROIKOS. Jesus as an exile, an alien.
PAROIKOS also gives us the word parish. Many of us like to talk of the church as the family of God and that’s fine IF we are ready to break wide open our idea of family, to include all kinds of differences, to include strangers, church exiles and “aliens” and queer people like Jesus the stranger, the Paroikos.
The parish is a community of resident aliens gathered around one who died on the margins, as an illegal, unrecognized as God. We live in this world, but St Paul says our citizenship is in heaven. We are all queer, resident aliens. We live in this world but we refuse to accept the definitions imposed upon our reality by this world, even definitions imposed by religious insiders who are unwilling to walk and listen as those who do not hold all the answers. We identify with a different reality, a city where realism and idealism, like justice and peace, have met and kissed.
But in our Emmaus story, that hoped-for day does not appear to be on the horizon. And so, we read, the travelers urged him strongly, saying stay with us. It is almost evening. They take this risk of hospitality. He is a stranger. He might turn on them. He might want to change something. He might be dangerous to their ego, their control. He might want to sing songs they don’t like, or reframe old patterns, or even put the dishes away in the wrong place. It is evening and the glory days are over. He might disrupt their safe retreat.
And yet, they urged him strongly, saying stay with us. What power allowed them to welcome him in? Was it habit, a remnant of desert hospitality? Or was it the Holy Spirit that continues to move among us calling, gathering and enlightening? Their invitation is not tentative, or half-hearted, or conditional. It’s radical and urgent. I think it was the Holy Spirit. It is evening, the day is now nearly over.
Many of us have likely seen the videos telling youth that it gets better. It did n’t get better in time for Kenneth Weishuhan a 14 year old ELCA Lutheran from Iowa who killed himself on the Saturday following Easter after being bullied for being gay. It is evening, the day is now nearly over. Welcoming the Paroikos in our midst is urgent.
So he went in to stay with them. 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
He went in, sat, took bread, blessed, broke and gave it and then they recognized him. In the end it is not Jesus words but his actions that open their eyes. Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us? That’s hindsight, in light of Jesus’ actions.
When I was in seminary, the video camera had just entered the homiletics classroom and I was horrified. Standing in front of that camera, I felt utterly exposed. Coming up with ideas, crafting a sermon and memorizing it was work enough. But there was more - posture is important we were told. Facial expression and eye contact count. Body language matters. In fact, I wrote down my professor words, “the wrong body language can kill a good sermon.” It was torture to watch myself in the mirror of the camera. And it was instructive. The wrong body language can kill a good sermon. And it is true too when it comes to the posture and body language of the church, the body of Christ.
The word became flesh. Jesus intentionally and consistently put his body in the vicinity of those who felt and were excluded from the inner temple courts. Strangers. Aliens. Queer people.
Jesus met a Samaritan woman because he crossed the border and walked into her territory. If he had stayed in the confines of the temple courts and cult, if he had sat in his office or stood in his pulpit and waited for her to come to him, on his terms, in his comfort zone, If he had asked for her documents or degree, their liberating conversation by the well would never have taken place. The body language of hope.
Jesus took a deaf man aside away from the crowd, he put his fingers into the man’s ears and spit and touched his tongue. He made time to connect directly and humanly with someone cut off from communication, as many have been, in our churches, silenced and silent.
Jesus welcomed children eager for the touch of blessing. Children, the disciples wanted to leave behind, children who can be noisy and disruptive. Which of you fathers, if your child asks for a fish, will give her a snake? Or if your child asks for bread will give him a stone? And yet followers of Christ use the founding fathers as an excuse to deport parents, to vote down the Dream Act, to invest in prisons rather than schools, and to cut monies for nutrition and health care while feeding the snakes and piling up the stones of war. But Jesus took the children into his arms and put his hands on them and blessed them. The body language of love.
Jesus welcomed the warm flow and soft caress of a woman’s tears and hair on his naked feet and didn’t ask her whom she slept with.
The last sermon Jesus preached in the temple was delivered while
he hurled tables, tossed chairs and lashed a whip against a system of exploitation. He let loose with his just anger and it was the body language of Jubilee.
His sweat poured out like blood.
His mouth went dry.
His breathing became labored
His brain went dead.
His heart stopped.
“The wrong body language can kill a good sermon.” Yes, but I like to think that the opposite is also be true. That the right body language can redeem us.
This is my body, given for you, he says.
This is my blood shed for you.
you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. …19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone….. …22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
In that dwelling place, At the table, their eyes were opened. They trusted what they saw. They trusted what they heard. And so they turned back, back to the place where idealism and reality had been torn asunder, back to be part of the repair, the labor of new creation, seeing the new lights and salts of the earth. Being the new lights and salts of the earth.
Which is our task as well on this threshold of one day’s evening and another’s new beginning.
Look around you. Look at one another. You will see the faces of hope. You will be the faces of hope.
Thanks be to God.