Asbury Theological Seminary received a multi-million dollar donation to build a state of the art preaching center, among other directives. So in 1995, I took a preaching class inside the state of the art multi-camera studio chapel. Four camera angles was a terrifying prospect; I hope it is helping us in these days of quarantine. I will never forget breaking down my video with Dr. Jerry Mercer who played a long clip of me heading down the homestretch driving towards an altar call. Unexpectedly, he paused the tape, spun around in his chair, looked me square in the eye and asked; “Who is that?” A bit stunned, I asked, “What?” Mercer pointed at my frozen face on the monitor, “Who is that?” In deeping confusion, I just stammered. Mercer persisted, “Who is that preaching?” Feeling sick, I answered, “It’s me?” “Oh”, Jerry said breathing deeply, “What happened to that fun-loving Purdue guy who is always talking about grace? Where did he go?” I looked down. Dr. Mercer spoke my name until I pulled my gaze up to his eyes, which twinkled with mischief and hope. A warm smile rose across his salt and pepper beard, “Paul, I do not know which of your childhood preachers you are trying to be, but God called you. God called Paul Purdue to preach. God already called them. God did not call you to imitate somebody else. Be you!” With that Dr. Mercer reached for the VCR, hit the eject button, handed me the tape, and said, “Don’t watch this!” The rest of my evaluation brought me deep comfort as Doctor Mercer shared of his childhood in rural Texas. He grew up trying to preach like the hot-shot evangelists from the Temperance League. As a college sophomore, Jerry pastored his first small rural Texas church. He lit them up with a fully loaded hell-fire damnation sermon on drinking, smoking and dancing. The congregation trickled out telling Jerry what a fine sermon it was. The last person out was a wealthy Sunday Cadillac driving rancher who stood on the church’s front steps, and with a booming Texas sized voice said, “Fine sermon! You wore us out in there. Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Fine sermon! Powerful stuff!” As the effusive praise continued, the rancher reached into his coat pocket, retrieved a silver cigar, lit it and took a long draw. The rancher blew a slow steady smoke stream towards no one in particular, chuckled, and lovingly slapped Jerry across the back, adding one more, “Fine sermon, son.” I can still see Dr. Mercer, Dean of the Chapel, doubled over laughing with pure delight. Jerry Mercer, a distinguished professor, gave me a gift by sharing this season of his own inauthentic preaching. Our conversation changed my life.
Luke reports: On that same day, Easter Sunday, two disciples left Jerusalem heading down the mountain towards a village called Emmaus. It was better than a two half hour journey. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. Let’s not miss that detail. Conversations change our lives. God, who lives in Trinity, made us for conversation. Jesus’ teaching makes up 3 of the 19 verses, some 15% of the story.Luke gives twice as many verses to Cleopus’ venting as he will to Jesus’ answer! The Bible is like that; our human story matters! Christinaity is not about memorizing rules. In 1739, the Methodist Movement began with small groups dedicated to searching the scriptures, praying, spreading social holiness, helping each other work out the faith, and watching over one another in love. Someone was “styled the leader”! The class leader checked in on the others “once a week at least, in order: (1) to inquire how their souls prosper…” (The General Rules of The Methodist Church) Jesus promises to join such soul-baring conversations. (Matthew 18:18-20) So I wonder this morning, who are you talking with “about everything that is happening?” Who are you processing this pandemic with? How do we help each other share this burden? Who is inquiring about how your soul prospers? Who is watching over you in love? And lest we be consumers of faith (with no rootedness), I ask us: whose soul are you watching over?
While they were discussing these things, Christ arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing Christ. We often fail to spot Christ right away. Our beliefs, biases, fear, defensiveness, wounds, and traditions prevent us from seeing Christ hidden in our midst. We say “you worship on that mountain,” or “we know” and we miss the light God sent our way (John 4 or 8). We decorate the official prophet’s tombs and persecute the prophets speaking today. That is Biblical! (Matthew 23:27-39)
The hidden Christ asks, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” The two stopped and looked down. Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?” Jesus said to them, “What things?” A sojourner asks questions not seeking solutions. “Listening Questions” invite us to unpack our story. Jesus already knows our story and solutions. Still, Jesus asks them to reflect on everything that has happened!
Do you hear the anger in Cleopas’ answer? “Are you the only one…” How can we love God and not feel some anger about the sort of systemic injustice that murdered Jesus? Anger alone is no sin. In Mark 3, Jesus grows angry and grieves when the church lacks compassion. Jesus’ question scratches the veneer of superficial “Christian” niceness that keeps conversation at a surface level but prevents our deeper healing. Listen, ask questions, invoke a story that helps people heal. Hearing each other’s stories helps us carry our burdens.
“Are you the only one who is unaware of the things about Jesus of Nazareth, who, because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.” (Every person in this story is Jewish. The “Jews” do not kill Jesus; Jesus is Jewish. The chief priests and leaders represent systemic injustice. Holy week’s tragedies are universal. Given power, the church will be more oppressive than the Sanhedrin.)
They crucified him, but we had hoped Christ was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
Not only did the church ignore the female clergy’s Easter sermon- when it turned out the women were right, the old boys still would not let them preach.
Hear the deep hurt and broken dreams, “We had hoped Jesus was the one.” Lost hope hurts. They had placed their hope in one person, one messiah, one fixer, one healer to get everything right. What do we do when our dreams get dashed against the rocks? I have finally realized after my hip replacement, that I am never going to play basketball for the University of Kentucky. I am not going to pastor a Baptist mega-church.
Some dreams need to die so that God can grow something better. However, it hurt when my name was not on that coaches list and years later when I left my home denomination. My conversation with Dr. Mercer hurt, clearly the Dean of the Chapel was not impressed with my sermon. It planted a better seed. My dreams of heroic preaching needed to die so that I might live as me. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
They had hoped that Jesus “would be the one” to fix everything, even as Jesus sent them out in pairs to bring good news to poor people and offer free healthcare. (Luke 9:2) They missed Jesus’ community based model when Jesus took 12 trained site leaders and mobilized 72 similar healthcare and hope centers in the surrounding villages. (Luke 10) So often we want God to be the one to fix us, our denomination, us or America- we long for a superpowered heroic Savior, instead of a gracious mission commander. Maybe such ideas need to die? Could it be that Jesus indeed needed to fall to the ground so that a deeper movement of God might grow up? (John 14:12) Hope envisions of a transformed future.
As we pass through this wilderness season… will we look for the hidden Christ…will we let some old ways die… will we be open to the God who makes all things new? I wonder, if God is whispering to any who have ears, “oh you dull of minds and slow of hearts, how dare you lean on clerks, cooks, custodians, and delivery drivers calling them essential, but not loving them enough to ensure they receive a living wage and free healthcare? Have you forgotten how I healed people all day long- without a green-card or a co-pay? (Matthew 4:23; 8:16; 12:15; 14:4; 15:30; 21:14) Do you not see how one poor person’s putting off a visit to the doctor in fear of lost work and lack of insurance can infect a nation costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars? Are you bad at math or lacking in compassion?
Jesus flung some zingers. (Matthew 23:27) The truth can sting. “Then Jesus said to them, ‘You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then Christ interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets.” Is “being dull of mind” or “foolish” sinful? Is there a Christian duty to think? Do we open the Scriptures only to recite rules and reheat old stories? Is not the Spirit given to us so that we might interpret the Scriptures today? Must we always kill the prophets before we accept their messages? On the day of Pentecost, did we get 17 officially sanctioned Bible translations or a Pentecost Spirit that transcends the letter? In Acts 10-15, did we only include Gentiles or learn a larger lesson of inclusion? Is Christ still showing up in strange and unexpected conversations or locked up in Luke 24 or Acts 9, 10 or 15? Is Christ with us to the ends of the age? Maybe it is time for the church to declare with Pope Peter, “I am really learning”! If we are “in Christ” (Paul uses this phrase over 100 times) does not Christ’s presence teach us a few new things? Let us stop being so “dull of mind” and “slow of heart to believe (today’s) prophets”. Maybe some trusted old ideas, patterns and rules need to die, so that God can grow something new in us? However, new ways, new patterns, new insights require a living faith!
When they came to Emmaus, the hidden Christ acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So Christ went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. 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?”
Easter changes everything. Easter marks the death of some old hopes. They had hoped Jesus would be the one to fix this world. Turns out, Jesus will ascend, and hand that work over to us! Let us step into that work with living hope. Hope always sees a transformed future. Things can never go back to the way they once were. God is making all things new. If Christ is with us, then with Christ, let us see with a transformed future and start working to remake the world.
Let us not be afraid: Jesus is going ahead of us, and joining our conversations. Let us share the burden of “everything that has happened….” trusting that however two or three of us gather together: Christ will come near and seeing Christ we will dream new dreams and envision a new future! (Acts 2) Hear the Good News: the hidden Christ is among us. Amen