Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Luke 24:13-35

I have struggled with what to say during this heavy week (months, really). I have been remiss in talking about the homes destroyed and lives ended in the South, and I’ve been unsure how to respond to Osama bin Laden’s death. All I know for sure is that there is no joy in heaven over any violent or tragic death. Psalm 116 is right: “How painful it is to the Lord when one of his people dies!”

That’s not to say that we can’t be grateful for the heroism and sacrifice of those who defend this country – I certainly am. It’s not even to say that we can’t know it’s for the best that Osama bin Laden should die rather than escape – I pray that this somehow makes the world safer. But I’m haunted by that line from the Psalm: “How painful it is to the Lord…” Surely the Psalmist only meant “God’s people” on our side of things, but then Jesus came and asked us to love our enemies too. He died to show it: if the cross means anything, it means enemy-love. So, even given his crimes, I can’t imagine that Bin Laden’s death didn’t pierce God’s heart.

All of this goes for tornadoes, earthquakes, and so on as well. I see both sides of this, as best I can. We can’t condemn the tornadoes, because nature doesn’t answer to our human concerns. The recent disasters belong, in their unfathomable way, to the weather and geological patters that ultimately give life to the world. But still, I can’t see God as being just beyond it all. How painful have each of hundreds of deaths been for the Lord!

On Mother’s Day, I think the experience of many mothers (and fathers) can teach us about God (this is your own experience, many of you). I’m thinking of the mother watching her child graduate from basic training, and she’s proud, grateful, and heartsick all at once. Thinking of the mother of a troubled young adult, grieving over their poor decisions or difficult circumstances, but unable to “fix” the situation without doing violence to her child’s independence or growth. Thinking of the mother at her child’s funeral (at any age), mourning a very real loss, yet seeking the comfort of knowing this loss belongs to a larger story.

That’s where so many of us are, so much of time – adrift in our grief, wounded at heart, and only beginning to grasp some larger story. That’s where the disciples were in Luke’s expertly told story. It was Easter evening. The resurrection has happened and been proclaimed, but these disciples walk downcast. They’re not yet sure how to put the pieces together. Even with Jesus right there (as we know, but they don’t), they’re just adrift. We know their shock and disappointment when they ask their companion, “How don’t you know the things that have happened?” We feel like we wear our grief on our forehead, as if everyone knows it already. That’s grief’s loneliness. Grief is so intense that you can’t escape it, so real that you can’t hide it, and so deep that others can’t reach in to you.

And that’s where God is too. Luke tells us right away: this is Jesus, even if you don’t recognize him. How painfully ironic that the disciples treat Jesus as if he (of all people) didn’t know what happened, when it’s him they’re talking about! Yet hear how tenderly Jesus invites them to tell their own story: “What things?” God is not so busy writing a grand narrative that She can’t listen to the trials of our part in the story. Only after listening does Jesus teach. He recaps the prophecies and lessons he had explained many times before.

Then he looks like he’ll go on and leave them to their grief, struggling to put themselves back together, and the disciples still haven’t met the risen Christ. But then they do something powerful: in the midst of their sorrow and confusion, they make room for the stranger. They claim the basic faithfulness of hospitality. They share a meal with someone as they travel, and that’s what opens their eyes. Just as Jesus had invited them long before, they invited another traveler and found Jesus’ living presence in that act. They were hosting another, but they found themselves welcomed.

Never mind that Jesus can seem to vanish just when we finally see him. He probably went back to looking like the wandering pilgrim who was there before, but God is just as really present with us when we don’t see anything special. Christ is with us in those who ask gently how we are and give us time to find our places in God’s great story. Christ is with us in the mystery of that great loneliness, walking incognito alongside us. What’s more, Christ is revealed to us (even just for a moment) in the challenge and mystery of serving, sharing, and welcoming the stranger. Christ is with us when we offer what we have to give, and when we receive a blessing from Risen Love.

Amen.

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