“Burning Hearts”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
26 April, 2020
Easter 3A
Luke 24:13-35

At our weekly Zoom Coffee Hour this past Wednesday, the subject of the flowering Easter cross came up.  A couple years ago at one of our Deacon’s meetings, Kimber Harmon had floated the idea of erecting a flowering Easter cross in front of the church.  She had seen it done at a church in Minnesota and loved it.  I also liked the idea because we’d done something similar at the last church I served in Wheatley, England.  The idea we had, which is how we’d seen it done previously, was to wrap a large wooden cross in chicken wire, which would allow folks to place flower stalks from their garden through the wire on Easter morning.

Those of you who know Rick Guay and his craftsmanship won’t be the least bit surprised to hear that, when he was asked whether he could help us out with this, his mind went bigger and better than what we’d originally proposed.  He mulled the idea over for a while, and was trying to figure out how to make it work.  Apparently, while he was at a theater performance in Providence, he saw a large cross as one of the props, and he suddenly knew what he needed to do.  He said to Kimber, “I had an ‘Aha Moment’!”  To which Kimber responded, “Rick, that wasn’t an aha moment—it was a God moment!”  To which Rick responded, “Kimber, the more time I spend with you, the more God moments I have!”

One of the beautiful things about the faith journey with fellow believers is it helps us to see when God has been very present with us, inspired us, perhaps moved us to do something out of the ordinary.  As we share stories about our lives, others can help us notice when we’ve witnessed the Risen Christ journeying with us, notice when God has been present with us, even if we didn’t recognize what we were seeing or experiencing at first.

For the past 20 or so years, the senior youth group of this church have participated in an annual Work Camp/mission trip organized by Group Ministries.  And one of the things Group Ministries does really well is to help their work campers hear and retell Biblical stories in fresh ways.  Each year, they take a story or passage from Scripture to help them deal with a particular theme in the life of faith.  And then each day across the week, they break down the passage verse by verse and consider the meaning and application to different aspects of Christian faith and daily life.  It’s a really good way to learn the Holy Habit of Biblical Teaching.  After all, good teaching about any subject helps us to think more critically and apply what we’re learning to our everyday life—and it’s no different with Biblical Teaching.

One of the other things Group Ministries do really well as part of their Biblical Teaching is to encourage their workcampers to share stories of their “God-sightings” or “God moments”.  By inviting the teens to talk about where they have witnessed examples or evidence of God being with them, they are encouraging everyone to pay closer attention in every moment of every day to see where God is present and at work.  And what is the Bible, if not a book full of God-sightings and God moments?  It’s book that details story after story of human predicaments, crises, and confusion that become watershed moments in their lives—moments of rebirth, of new or renewed understanding and clarity about who and whose they are.  As we read and learn the stories and teachings ourselves, and apply them to our own lives, we become more deeply grounded in who and whose we are, more profoundly at peace with God despite the tumult and strife of this world.

But that understanding comes by getting to know the narrative and sub-stories within the Book that shapes and gives definition to our life as Christians.  If we don’t have a steady diet of Biblical Teaching, or a habit of taking notice of where and how God is present and at work in our world (and personal lives) based on how God has been active in the past, it’s easy to miss it or think God’s attentiveness is just something other people experience.

When tragedy and crisis are holding sway in the world, people often have a hard time glimpsing God because what’s most visible and compelling in the moment is the suffering.  So that’s what people focus on, which can lead them to the cynical or bitter conclusion that there is no God who suffers alongside us.  And, when things are going well and our lives are quite comfortable, it’s also easy to miss God’s presence and blessing because we live in a world that pushes a tempting but false narrative of self-made success, as if the rich and the poor are each getting what they deserve, as if we don’t all have a responsibility to care for and strengthen each other as members of one Body.  But, while suffering and loss are common experiences of biblical characters, neither bitterness nor self-congratulatory individualism are the typical responses for those lifted up as faith-filled examples.

On Easter Sunday we heard about how Mary Magdalene saw, but didn’t immediately recognize the risen Jesus.  Last week, we heard the story of Thomas, who said he wouldn’t believe until he experienced the risen Christ for himself.  And this morning, we heard one of my favorite Jesus stories, about how he appeared to two disciples as they walked on the road going to Emmaus.  Each of these three stories demonstrates the truth that human beings often don’t recognize or trust in God’s steadfast presence and power to bring life from death.  All three stories depict individuals who knew Jesus, who believed in him while he was with them, who thought they understood his teachings, and who wanted to be more like him.  And all three stories reveal oh-so-human characters like me and you, who get so caught up in our grief and anxiety and confusion about what’s happening in the world that we fail to recognize the risen Christ journeying with us, helping us to understand everything that’s been written in the Scriptures, and deepening our spiritual relationships—our connection to God and to each other.

We are going through a profoundly traumatic time.  The world we thought we knew and understood is being turned upside down and shaken to its foundations.  Like the disciples who walked together toward Emmaus, most of us are trying to make sense of what has happened and is happening.  We, like they, are taking it in turns to feel scared, sad, anxious, frustrated, and confused.  Whom should we believe, and where will we invest our deepest hope and confidence?

In the biblical story a presumed stranger comes along and talks with the disciples, asking them questions and then explaining what they were experiencing using passages from the Hebrew Bible.  Back then, of course, there were infinitely fewer books than we have access to today (probably more scrolls, though).  So, those who believed in God—including the travelers in our story—would have been much more familiar with the Bible than most people are today.  But there’s an implicit encouragement in this story for us to get more familiar with our Biblical teachings—because they connect us to a more expansive, lasting reality than do the newspapers and stock market reports of today.

When we invest time and authority in the enduring stories of Scripture, our lens on the world widens and deepens, and we’re able to see more clearly what God is doing in the world across millennia, as well as in our own lifetime.  We learn to pay attention to when our hearts are burning within us, and to when we hear a voice that is compelling us at a deeper level, calling us to let go of past hurts, to relinquish our pet fears, to embrace peace, and to open ourselves to the mysterious, constantly surprising new ways God brings hopeful, beautiful new life out of death and devastation.  We learn to see God’s activity in real time.  And hopefully, like the disciples whose spiritual eyes were opened through their encounter, we will share with others the excitement and enthusiasm we feel by telling stories about what we’re observing and understanding, especially as we see Biblical Teaching being fulfilled, so that their faith and spiritual life may be strengthened.

The pandemic that’s affecting just about every aspect of our life on this planet right now is a great burden—it is truly traumatic for many people.  But it is also a tremendous opportunity for us to re-establish our core narratives and convictions.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, his traumatized and disoriented disciples had to figure out what they believed in most deeply.  They had to evaluate where their truest hope and confidence lay.  And out of those convictions, they had to decide how they would live differently in the future.  Their shock was no doubt compounded by their various experiences of a risen Christ who walked with them.  But they could not deny the reality that he was very much with them.  As together they interpreted the Scriptures that had grounded and shaped their lives, guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, those disciples became aware of their hearts burning within them—exciting and energizing them to expand, deepen and shareBiblical Teaching and their newfound understanding of it, in order to change the world for good, forever.  May the same be true for us.  Amen.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC