Sermon and prayers by Rev. Steve Hundley
Song selections by Fran McNeill
Preparation for Worship:
Bless us, O God, with a reverent sense of Your presence, that we may be at peace and may worship You with all our minds and spirits; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Call to Worship: Psalm 116: 12-13
What can we give back to God for the blessings He has poured out on us?
We will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.
Blow upon us, O Lord, the fresh wind of Your Spirit. Refresh our souls, which are weary from continuous social distancing. Help us to forget for a little while the difficulties of daily existence, and breathe from Your presence new hope, new purpose, and new direction for our lives. Embolden us to pray and seek Your face, that everything else may find its proper place in these unprecedented times. Amen.
Prayer of Confession:
Gracious Lord, teach us always to respect and love all the lives You create. Forgive our lack of concern and love for those who are silently suffering around the world in the face of this ongoing pandemic. Forgive us when we are negligent and uncaring for those who are most vulnerable; for those who are elderly; for those forgotten in nursing homes; for those who have little or no access to medical care; for those essential workers on the front lines; and, for those who have and continue to suffer from a careless society. Teach us to open our hearts and our lives up in ways that will be beneficial to all. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 32: 3-5
Hear these words of hope from the Psalmist: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and You forgave the guilt of my sin.
A Children’s Message for Adults, too!
(a true story)
In early spring in the Blue Ridge mountains where I grew up, we would plant a garden full of corn and vegetables, as well as a strawberry patch. There were also apple and pear trees, not to mention the wild grapes, blackberries, huckleberries, and raspberries that grew in the woods.
Every summer my mother would pull out the old pressure cooker and spend days canning quart jars of every kind of vegetables and berries and put them away in the cellar. Then when winter came and the ground was cold, icy, and barren and nothing seemed to be alive, mom would go down into the cellar, come up with some canned vegetable or savory berry preserve, and it would be May and June once more at our family table, and how blessed we were!
During this difficult time while we are all forced to stay home for fear of getting or spreading the dangerous coronavirus, I can’t help but think about how many of us spent hours in front of the television, on our computers and phones playing video games, or watching meaningless YouTube videos. It occurred to me that there is hardly anything there to nourish the soul or help us through this pandemic. There’s not a calorie there at all that can strengthen us when life is hard and barren.
That is why it is so important that we turn to the stories of our faith: the stories of the Old Testament, the stories of Jesus—His life and ministry, as well as the other letters and books of the Bible. By dipping down into the deep reservoir of God’s Word for all life and faith, we can find nourishment for the facing of these days.
Message: At Home with the Risen Lord
Two travelers on the road, making the seven-mile hike from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Why Emmaus? Well, it would appear that they live there. Emmaus is home. Still, the excitement and energy usually associated with home—the place where we belong—the place where we grew up, is not evident on these traveler’s faces, nor can it be heard in their voices. The joy we normally associate with a homecoming is nowhere to be found. Instead, their hopelessly slow pace exposes their disappointment and disillusionment. The reality is, their demeanor has more to do with where they are coming from than where they are heading.
These two travelers are leaving the holy city of Jerusalem. They are leaving because there is nothing left for them there. They are leaving because everything they had hoped for and dreamed of, is gone. They are leaving because the One in whom they had placed their faith is dead. They are leaving because their hope has been nailed to a cross. Their Savior is dead. The movement is over.
Unable to ignore the tired and empty look on their faces or the despair in their voices, a stranger inquires: “What is your conversation about?” Now, having to explain the cause of one’s pain only serves to intensify it. So, stopping dead in their tracks, Luke says: “They just stood there looking sad.” Suddenly, the one named Cleopas breaks the silence: “Who are you, Rip Van Winkle?” (He didn’t really say that, but that is what he meant.) “Are you the only one who does not know what has happened?” You can almost hear the mixture of amazement and irritation ringing in his voice. And, who can blame him? They had wagered everything on this Jesus, and lost!
Have you ever lost? I mean, really lost? It is an empty feeling, like a political incumbent, who though their candidacy was certain, waits to the last hour to concede defeat. Arriving at his campaign headquarters, surrounded by a remnant of faithful supporters and the media, of course, steps to the podium and says: “I really thought we were going to win. We gave it our best shot, and we lost. But the people have spoken, and they have chosen Barabbas. I would like to thank all of you who came out. But, before we go, could you take down the posters and the streamers? We want to leave the place just as if we were never here.”
“We lost,” Cleopas says to the stranger. “Jesus was turned over to the authorities, condemned to death, and nailed to a cross, and there he died along with our greatest hopes and dreams.” Lost in his own despair and forgetting himself for a moment, Cleopas goes on to say, “Oh yes, some women surprised us babbling on about finding his tomb empty, and angels appearing and reporting him to be alive. But, we discounted it as nothing but an idle tale—some kind of cruel joke. You see, he died!”
Just ask those who were there. They will tell you: “We saw it all with our own eyes. He’s dead alright.” Ask his own mother: “Yes, I was there. My son died there on that cross.” Ask the soldiers: “Oh he’s dead alright, we made certain of that with one good thrust of a spear.” Even his closest disciples will tell you: “We didn’t get too close for obvious reasons, but yes, he is dead. And Joseph of Arimathea confirmed it. You see, he helped to take down the body and wrap it in a shroud to be laid in his own tomb.” Yes, Jesus is dead, and with him all the hopes and dreams of a new Israel.
Then, the stranger, the risen Lord unbeknownst to them, speaks. He speaks as if He sees something wonderful that they cannot see. He speaks as if the hopeless and meaningless events of the past three days make perfect sense. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Luke says, “He interprets to them in all the scriptures, the things concerning Himself!” For Cleopas and his traveling companion, it must have been something like finding the missing pieces of an incomplete puzzle.
I don’t know about you, but as I read this scripture, I couldn’t help but wonder why the Risen Jesus didn’t just say: “WHY THE LONG FACES? CHEER UP! IT IS ME, IN THE FLESH! “I WAS DEAD, BUT NOW I AM ALIVE AGAIN!” (I know; I know…I had a New Testament professor who once said that I tended to ask questions that no one else would even think to ask. I wonder if he meant it as a compliment? I meant to ask him if I ever saw him again.) Besides, maybe Jesus was afraid what their response would be if he came right out and said: “Look, it is me, Jesus, alive and well.”
I remember years ago, helping to lay the foundation for a medical clinic in the mountains of Haiti. As we were digging the footings for the building, I asked if there were any poisonous snakes in Haiti. I was told that there were no snakes at all on the island, so there was nothing to worry about. However, one morning about 6:00 a.m., while walking up the hill towards our work site, low and behold, in the middle of the path was a small brown snake. Calling out to two Haitian women carrying their goods to the market, I motioned for them to come and see what I had found. I thought clearing up a national misconception was the honorable thing to do. But, one look at that snake caused the two women to fling their goods into the air and tear off screaming and running down the side of the mountain! Perhaps, Jesus thought that He, too, would have received a similar response if He had come right out and announced His true identity. Hmm?
Instead, the risen Christ turns the two travelers’ attention back to the scriptures. He unfolds for them what God is doing in the world. He shows them how every reference in the Torah and the prophets describes what God has done or said which throws light on the events of the past three fateful days.
This is the reason we look to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The scriptures remind us of God’s unfolding work in our world. Scripture sets our lives and these unprecedented times in their proper perspective. Sitting here in our own homes, not knowing what the next weeks might bring, scripture reminds us that our lives, too, are in a direct, long line of witnesses from Moses to David, to Jesus and Paul, to Augustine, to Martin Luther and John Calvin, to John Knox and John Wesley, to Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, etc. Scripture reminds us that we are not alone in this world. Through scripture we can know that the God who presides over all history is our God, and that God is faithful no matter what is happening in our lives at any given moment.
I remember reading of a famous dancer who was a victim of a terrible accident. She lay in traction for months. When asked how she was able to survive during that time, she said: “Every day, I would dance the 23rd Psalm in my head.” And, it was through Scripture that the Apostle Paul discovered faith through grace alone. It was through Scripture that Augustine found meaning and purpose for living. It was through Scripture that John Wesley found his heart strangely warmed. And, it is through Scripture that our hearts are tendered and our eyes are opened to the power and presence of our risen Lord in these unprecedented times.
Sure, I know that some of what we find in Scripture is often violent, narrow, primitive, incomprehensible, disordered, and even weird. But, so are we. And the Bible is also about us. It is God’s dealing with the likes of us throughout history. Someone said:
If you look “at” a window, you see fly-specks, dust, the crack where Jr.’s frisbee hit it. If You look “through” a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a “holy bore” and those who see it as the “Word of God” which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past, into the depths of ourselves.”
So, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Luke tells us, Jesus opened for them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself, preparing them to see Him in all His resurrected glory.
“Stay with us,” the travelers said to the stranger, “and when the Risen Lord was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized them.”
Some years ago when my grandfather died, my uncle did most of the planning for his funeral. Still, I was surprised how hard he seemed to take his father’s death. Even so, he wrote a moving eulogy for his father, and asked the most elegant preacher in the Roanoke Valley to read it. Looking over at my uncle during the service, I could see the despair in his eyes. He did brighten up as his eulogy was read, but slumped down in the pew during the Scripture reading and funeral sermon, seemingly unaware of the promises of Scripture and words of hope and life that the preacher also shared that day. The Scriptures read were familiar passages of eternal hope and resurrection; words I used often at funeral services I conducted…words I believed. I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take those words of hope and the resurrection to claim victory over the pain of my grandfather’s passing from this life to the next.
After my grandfather’s service, my aunt, with tears in her eyes, said that my uncle had refused to join the family for the meal she had prepared. He said that he would not party on the day of his father’s death. However, it was at that family meal following the service together with family and friends, that those funeral scripture passages began to claim their victory over death. It was at that meal that someone said the preacher: “I cannot help but think of those Scriptures you read. They were so fitting and true.” You see, it was at that family meal, where hope, peace, smiles, tears, and laughter shouted God’s victory over death. It was at that meal that our eyes were opened and we recognized the promises and presence of our risen Lord. After all, the scriptures readings had prepared us.
I am reminded of two children coloring their worksheets and talking about this story of “The Road to Emmaus” in their Sunday School Class. One asked: “How do you know when you are blind?” “You don’t,” said the other, “You only know afterwards, when you can see again.”
O God, whom we see in every sunrise and sunset, teach us to see You as well in the haggard faces of the medical worker and every essential worker on the front lines of this ongoing fight against this unseen, but deadly virus. Help us who are called by Your name to have Your vision of the future of our world, as a place where the lion lies down with the lamb, where the person with two coats shares with the person who has none, and where everyone takes care of the suffering, the sick, and the aged.
Release us from our bondage to self-interest, worrying about what we shall eat or what we shall wear or how we look to others who are watching us. Guide us into the freedom of Your Spirit, where we shall be at peace and confident and supportive of others.
Teach us to number our days as gifts, so that we may never treat them as obstacles to be overcome or burdens to be endured until our lives are back to normal. And, though we are apart, enable us to be a community of Christ, whose body we are. Give to us a special capacity for grace to reach out to those who are ill in body and spirit, and let the very sense of Your presence become their balm in these difficult days.
Give wisdom to the leaders of our world, that they may better cope with the confusion and complexity of this perilous time. Bring us all into a greater sensitivity to the needs of those who are suffering the most, whether from the virus or from the economic hardship it has caused. We pray too, for the family and friends of Neil Kent. We will miss his gentle spirit and contagious smile, but help us to hold near to our hearts the memory of his faith, perseverance, peaceful spirit by which he faces both life and death. We pray for Jerry and Sue Woodruff’s son-in-law, Ed. Lord, bring healing to his body and wisdom for the doctors and medical professionals treating him, that he may experience a complete recovery. Lord, use the surgeons and medical staff as your instruments of healing for little Ezra, and young Michael in these coming days.
Now let Your Holy Spirit overpower us as we worship, blotting out sin that would blind us to Your glory and raising us to the newness of life that is in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom in whose name we pray saying…Our Father, who art in heaven…
May the love of God surround you,
The wisdom of God guide you,
And the power of the Holy Spirit encourage you
As you joyfully proclaim:
“The whole world is in God’s hands.”