the third Sunday of Easter
26 April 2020
Today’s readings are:
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
If you don’t have a Bible handy, you can find these readings here.
While in seminary, our professors asked us to do a number of activities to help us give better sermons. One of these was the elevator speech. We had to explain the Gospel – the whole thing, you know, God’s whole plan for salvation and the joy and the life, all of it – in just two minutes. That’s it, that’s all we got. And if we went over time, the professor would fold her arms in front of her chest and give us a look, and we knew that time was up. Two minutes flat, that’s all we got.
Now, two minutes is actually the perfect time. Two minutes is long enough to move past the short, quippy phrases like “God loves you” and “Jesus live, died, and was raised to life so that we might have eternal life.” These are so very true, if you’ve only got two minutes, you’ve got to go a bit deeper. And two minutes is too long to recite St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica. Two minutes is both too short and too long. You’ve got to fill that time with something, but you can’t fill that time with everything.
And so what this practice did, what these two minutes did, is that it drew out our personal connection with the Gospel. How has God spoken the Good News of Jesus Christ into my life? How has God made his love important to me, essential to me, something that I’ll turn and follow and life within for the rest of my life?
In our class, we have a great variety of little elevator speeches. Some of us talked about mission, how we were moved to go out into the world and help the poor, the suffering, and the lonely. Others talked about hope, and how they were brought out of depression and doubt into a fuller life. Still others talked about a love of the Sacraments, of the beauty of the liturgy, of how they were and are fed in the Eucharist more deeply than a good burger and a hefty salad, fed down to their bones and even deeper. And all of it was true, so awesomely true, because it was a bunch of little pieces of the Church and God’s life in his Church.
Now, this wasn’t the assignment, but what if the teacher, right in the middle of our practiced, finely honed elevator speech, what if she suddenly asked a question? Or what if, during my sermon on a Sunday morning, one of you suddenly raised your hand or stood up and said, “Hey Father Tim, wait a sec! Go back, I’ve got a question about something you just said!” My first Japanese professor did this during tests. It was awful. Once, I remember when we had a spoken test about giving directions. We had a huge map and the professor would assign us two places, say the post office and the bank. It was our job to go home, write up the directions with our very, very limited Japanese, then recite it in class. And so we’d come into the class, fearful we’d get something wrong, and start giving directions when prompted. But then, suddenly, the professor would yell, “STOP! There’s traffic that way. You have to go a different way.” And here we were, our well thought out plans in ruins.
Back then, we students thought our professor was just teasing us, but what he was really doing was seeing whether we had memorized the language or if we could use it. He wanted to get down below our heads and into our guts. Did we actually know the language, or did we just memorize some words for the test.
This same sort of thing is what we have in our gospel reading today. No, there’re no elevators, you didn’t miss them, nor is a Japanese professor asking the disciples to give him directions to the post office. What we have are two people, walking together, talking about what they know, and someone coming in and pushing them deeper. We see not just a teacher but God himself, in Jesus Christ, entering into his own story and saying, “Stop, wait, explain this to me again, what does this really mean?”
Now, God often talks to us, and often God’s word is (like Jeopardy answers) in the form of a question. Especially when we’re stressed out about something, when we’re stuck with some problem, or we’re worried about something, God’s word to us is so often in the form of a question. I remember the first time I was to give a sermon, I was super stressed out. My heart was in my throat, butterflies in my stomach, the whole works. And then this question just came before my mind, “What are you so afraid of?” And it stopped me. It took hold of all the grief and worry, this question, and it focused me, “What are you so afraid of?” I dunno, God, why don’t you tell me? But the question just repeated: “What are you so adraid of?” ‘I dunno’ wouldn’t cut it. I needed to actually answer the question. And when I started to, I realized a lot about myself and my worry about looking like a fool in front of a bunch of people. God didn’t just change my heart like *snap* that; he walked with me through my anxiety, and has continued to do so, until now when I don’t mind looking like a fool in front of a bunch of people. God healed my heart with a question.
And those questions in our lives, they’re so beautiful. For these two disciples on the road to Emmaus, this question that Jesus asks, “What things”, which in the Greek is just this single, simple, graceful word “Poia?” “What?” This question, spoken into their grief, their confusion, their worry and concern, probably their doubt and their hope mixed together like a string Christmas lights in a box, this single question unraveled it all and drew them to tell their story, to tell this stranger who was really God, but they didn’t know it, to tell this guy what touched the deepest regions of their hearts. And this question led them to more than just telling their story, but also to living a life of hospitality by inviting this stranger to stay with them; and also to seeing Jesus, seeing their Risen Lord with their own eyes, in the breaking of the bread.
God asks us questions all the time. Sometimes they’re challenges: “What are you doing?” or “Do you really want to say that?”; sometimes their questions of praise, “Isn’t this beautiful?” And we might be shy about answering and say, like Isaiah, “Well, God, you know.” You know whether I should be doing this or not. You know how beautiful it is (you made it!). You know what’s in my heart, right? But God doesn’t want his own answer, just like our teachers don’t want to just give you the answer so you can just leave off doing your work and find something fun to do. No, God asks because God wants you to answer, to delve down with him into your own heart, to look out into the world and see that beauty, to live that hope, to enter into communion and love with your neighbor. God asks those two disciples on the road to Emmaus what happened to Jesus not because God forgot but because he wants to hear their story, because telling stories helps us understand ourselves, understand our world, and understand God more fully.
Nor do our answers don’t have to be in words. For these two disciples, their answer was the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that was perfect for that question; but often God’s questions don’t lead us to spoken answers but to living our answers. To speak for myself, God once asked me, “Isn’t this beautiful” about Oregon, and this led me to live a life of ministry here, to go out into the forests and mountains and beaches of Oregon and to take my children camping here to show them how to live in such beauty. God twice asked me, “Isn’t this beautiful” during the celebration of the Eucharist, once in Athens Georgia, once in Eugene Oregon, and that led me on a path towards ordination. God’s questions have changed my life. They’ve healed me and brought me to a place where, I pray, that I can help heal and give hope to others. God has asked questions to make my life more jam backed with life.
Where have God’s questions brought you? When has God asked you a question, stopped you dead in your tracks, turned you to look with eyes wide open at something, or someone, or yourself? How did you answer? How are you living a life of that answer even now? How can you, how can we the Church and the whole nation and whole world, be more often to hearing God’s questions and living God’s answer?