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Third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2020
Rev. Nancy Talbot
Luke 24: 13-35
Mount Seymour United Church
The story of the two companions walking together on the road that leads from Jerusalem to Emmaus is a favourite of mine. I think that’s because I can relate to the way I imagine these two travellers, processing their grief as they journey together. As they walked, they were discussing all the events of the last week, trying to wrap their heads and hearts around the violent and tragic death of their leader along with the bizarre story some of the women had told them about the empty tomb, the missing body and the possibility that Jesus was somehow still alive. I imagine them thinking that none of it made any sense. I imagine them thinking that the whole world had gone crazy and I can relate to what they are thinking. I can relate to their grief and their need to keep going over and over again the story of what had just happened, trying to make sense of it as they try to find their bearings in the midst of what feels like an ever changing sea.
I can relate to it because I am living it, because in one way or another, we are all living a story of grief right now. We are grieving the loss of the world as we have known it. We have no idea of what a post-Covid world is actually going to look like. Some of us are grieving the loss of our jobs or our finances. We are grieving the loss of trips we aren’t going to be taking and weddings we aren’t going to be celebrating and people we aren’t going to be seeing or touching, possibly for a very long time. We are grieving the death of loved ones and this week, we as a nation are grieving the loss of people many of us had never even heard of until just a few days ago. Our hearts are breaking for the families and friends of those who did know them and for the entire province of Nova Scotia as they try and make sense of the largest mass murder in Canadian history.
As they and we try to make sense of all of this, there is a need for us to go back and retell the story of what happened, piece it together to figure it all out as best as we can. It is part of how we grieve. It’s why after someone has died we return, often over and over again in our minds, to the events that led to the death. We revisit the hospital room in our mind’s eye or we try and find answers to questions that will tell us how we could have prevented the loss from happening in the first place. Why was there no alert to warn people there was a gunman on the loose? If there had been an alert at least some of these people wouldn’t have been killed? If we knew the answers to those questions we would have someone to blame. What we are really doing when we ask those questions, at least when we are still in the rawest places of our grief, (there is a time and place for those questions) but early on what I think we are really doing is somehow in our thinking trying to make what happened go away or answer the unanswerable question of why, why my loved one, why my mother, why my child.
It’s a form of denial or a form of anger or perhaps a form of bargaining all of which are stages in the messy process of grief.
That’s what the two travelers on the road to Emmaus were doing, they were trying to figure it all out. They were grieving.
David Kessler, a student and collaborator of Elizabeth Kubler Ross from whom we have received the theory of stages of grief, says that one of the challenging things about grief is that it threatens our identity. We are not a country that has mass shootings. Portapique a safe community. People in Portapique don’t lock their doors. Widows lose their identity as a couple when their partners die. Divorced people lose their identity as being happily married when then marriages end. Parents lose at least a piece of their identity of being parents when their nest becomes empty. We are losing our identity as a nation right now, of being a place of freedom and abundance as check points go up in our neighbourhoods to keep people off the hiking trails and Plexiglas goes up in our grocery stores to keep the people at the till safe and entire shelves of our grocery stores are empty and as mask wearing becomes the latest rage in fashion. I don’t want to raise my children in a community where everywhere they go they see people wearing masks. This identity of our neighbourhood not being a safe neighbourhood is not one I want them to experience.
Grief threatens our identity. So what is the antidote to loss of identity? David Kessler says the antidote comes in embracing the things that re-establish our identity.
I don’t know how I missed a certain detail in the story of the road to Emmaus that I had never notice or known about before. Of the two people travelling on the road together, only one of them has a name. His name is Cleopas. I’ve noticed that in the past but what I have never done before is look of the meaning of the name Cleopas. It means “Glory to the Father.” We don’t know which “father” Cleopas is really meant to be glorifying but I like to think that Cleopas’ core identity is as one who glorifies God. That’s who he was created to be. That’s who we were all created to be, people who honour the divine nature in which we were all created.
I like to think that what Jesus, the risen Christ was really doing on the road to Emmaus and later that evening when they recognized him in the breaking of the bread was re-establishing the core identity of those grieving travelers and of us.
As he walked along the road he interpreted for them the scriptures. He reminded them of love’s liberating presence throughout history; of the call to be people who seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God that has been planted within those who seek to be faithful across thousands of years. He recalled for them his own incarnation, God’s message of hope for a world in need of reckoning, in need for the poor to be lifted up and the mighty to be brought low. He brought to mind for them how he had taught them to love even their enemies, to heal the sick and bind up the brokenhearted.
When the day grew late and they begged him to stay with them through the night and he took his seat at the table, took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened to who he really was, perhaps they also recognized themselves as people who know themselves to be loved unconditionally, as people who are called to serve others in the name of expansive name of love, as people who know the truth that nothing in all of heaven and earth can ever separate us from the love in which we were first created, as people who know the promise that life is stronger than death, love is more powerful than hate and hope is greater than despair.
For followers of Jesus, the table, the bread and the cup and the offering of hospitality are touchstones that remind us who we are. When we are feeling disoriented, when we have lost a sense of our identity we really need touchstones. But during this time, many of our touchstones are unavailable to us. We can’t sit at table the way we once did, we can’t offer hospitality in the way we might want to, we can’t pass a loaf of bread and share a common cup or pass the peace by shaking hands. We can’t hug one another or gather in person to celebrate a life or show up at a vigil in person to light a candle and join together in prayer. So what we need is to find creative ways to express and experience the meaning behind those familiar touchstones and even to create for ourselves new touchstones.
So we light a candle and we place it in our windows, we take a picture of it and post it on social media. We record ourselves singing a song of lament or saying a prayer or offering a word of encouragement and send it out across the internet. We write cards or knit prayer shawls and send them in the mail. We put the prayer wall outside the church instead of inside so people can access it. We play the church bells, if we have them so the sound of comfort and hope can ring out across our communities. We even try breaking bread together virtually which is what we will do as a community next week. We create new ways to connect and to remind ourselves of the goodness of this life and in the best of who we are, we become touchstones for one another, we embody the presence of the Risen Christ.
After Jesus disappeared from the sight of the travellers on the road they said to each other “weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” I’m struck by the way that it is in their hearts that the travelers first recognize the presence of love among them in their grief. The poet Jan Richardson says that when grief is early and deep it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating.
In this way the heart itself becomes a touchstone of the holy, the promise of sacred presence here among us in the midst of our even our deepest grief, reminding us over and over again, who we truly are and to whom we truly belong. Thanks be to God.