Year A; 3 Easter; 4.26.2020
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…?”
I’m remembering that it was Sunday, March 8 when we last gathered together at St. Paul’s to share Christ’s gift of bread and wine. By then, we knew that there was a rapidly spreading virus in this country and we were planning precautions at St. Paul’s. I had created guidelines for us to observe in worship and as we navigated our call to hospitality. Hugh Savage suggested that he organize a group to plan for serving those who might find themselves quarantined. After church that day, Hugh, Paul Womer, Dana Baer, Cliff Ruprecht and Andree Appel met to plan a process for making sure those who were quarantined would be contacted regularly and ministered to by this body of Christ.
I remember thinking that the word “quarantine” seemed so stark. “Strict isolation imposed to prevent the spread a disease.” I thought to myself, “Would there really be any need in Maine to stay behind closed doors isolated and away from others in order not to spread the coronavirus?”
But by the end of that week, we had made the decision to end gatherings altogether at St. Paul’s. Since we already had the ability and technology to live stream, we set up Eucharist in the church with only 6 or 7 lay ministers and clergy attending. We shared the Eucharist in that small group while you all watched on Facebook Live. But by March 29 the Town Council had given us “Stay-at-Home” instructions and we closed the building completely except for the few people who have the essential tasks to complete.
This was hard news, especially as we anticipated the highest holy days of our faith. My colleagues have called this time for the church “wilderness time” liking it to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness those 40 years. At times, it does seem like we are wandering, attempting to “hold fast” to the important things that are normal while essentially they seem to be slipping out of our hands. Will we ever “go back” to normal? What now is normal?
Sometimes I feel like we are a people in exile. Ripped apart from our “homeland” and made to live in some foreign territory having been stripped of those things, and in some cases, people that give us meaning. “Exile” is giving me a new appreciation for those who are truly in exile, deported, held captive and locked behind bars, unable to decide whether or not to come and go freely, unable to practice faith, receive the Eucharist, see loved ones or plan for certain freedom.
For us to contemplate a return from “distancing” is a privilege of our freedom, though there are elements that feel to us like exile, things dear to us do feel “ripped from us.” The Sacraments that are important to us as believers, Eucharist and Baptism, we’ve had to let go of. Will we ever come to the altar again, shoulder to shoulder and take a common cup? We’ve had to postpone baptisms indefinitely. How can we make safe the water we splash and touch to bless ourselves? In baptism, I touch the water, then touch the baby’s forehead three times with it. Baptism and Eucharist are bedrock for our faith. They are gifts of the Good News that Christ has given us. I long to celebrate them again.
But we are now living in a foreign territory adapting to ways that make our faith and practice of faith meaningful while having to deal with a multitude of feelings we didn’t ask for. Frustrated and angry that our federal government seems unable or unwilling to share or even organize resources that include support for the underserved as well as the giant corporations. Grief-stricken that we are unable to pray at the bedside of the ailing and dying. Scared of forecasts that predict food shortages. Exhausted by now as we try to hold our family’s routine together and help our children know that they are safe.
We know the dangers and risks if we don’t distance ourselves from those not living under our roof. We understand the need for wearing masks and scrupulous hand-washing. We know that we must sanitize areas we have touched at our work place if we are essential workers. In all we are doing to reduce the spread of the virus and to protect ourselves and loved ones from contracting it, we really, really miss one another!
I received an email from a parishioner that described exactly what we are experiencing. It’s a longing for each other, this physical body of Christ, the physical presence of our loved ones, the joy of being together, giving a hug, a kiss on the check or a hand shake.
Let me read this poignant and moving letter I received this week. She writes,
“There are so many people and things I…miss. I miss seeing you in person; I miss sitting in the sanctuary and worship[ing] together with St. Paul’s family; I miss the sunlight streaming through the stain[ed] glass windows; I miss hearing and watching Randy play the organ, especially all his footwork…; I miss communion.”
Can’t you hear the longing and the ache for deep connection?
I characterize this longing as “holy love.” It’s an ache for things of God’s love. The disciples longed for the same things after Jesus died. We hear that same ache and longing in the voices of the witnesses. Mary Magdalene wept at his grave and saw that his body was gone. Her aching cry was “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” “I love him so. I miss him so” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The two disciples in the gospel story today were walking side by side from the site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem to Emmaus just after Jesus was killed. Dejected, you can just hear the sorrow and longing in their words, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” “We had hoped…” They seemed to be sorrowfully wandering back to their home wondering if that hope was gone for ever.
They had no idea who this stranger was who came out of nowhere and didn’t seem to know anything about the happenings in Jerusalem. So they told him of their love for the prophet Jesus “mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” They even chided this stranger, maybe even a little irritated at him as they told him what had gone on and what heartbreak and confusion it caused them.
Then the stranger shared the entire biblical salvation story with them as they walked. By the time they arrived home, it was evening. In typical Middle Eastern hospitality they invited the stranger in for a meal. As the stranger prayed grace, took the bread, broke it and gave it to them, it was clear that the stranger was Jesus. He is risen! Alleluia!
Looking back after Jesus vanished, Cleopas and his friend saw that their souls were warmed and moved in the presence of this stranger. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road…?”
My grandmother used an expression that I remembered during a 13-month period when John was overseas in the Marines and we were just kindling our relationship. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It’s an ancient expression that describes the feeling of greater affection between loved ones who are kept apart.
I believe that our time apart, though electronically together is kindling in us a deeper fondness for each other. And I believe that in the center of that deeper fondness the Spirit of Christ never fails to dwell.
What if…in our sorrow, frustration and longing, Jesus is taking us by the hand and leading us to a renewed faith and a deeper love for him, our neighbor and each other?