Touch and See
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Scripture: Luke 24:36b-48 NRSV
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The day was Monday, May 7, 1945. The setting, Boston Symphony Hall. The Radcliffe Choral Society, the Harvard Glee Club and Boston Symphony Orchestra were about to perform Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was past time to begin. The musicians and audience grew restless, even anxious, as rumors spread that the conductor was missing.
Suddenly, Serge Koussevitzky strode breathless onto the stage, flung off his black cape, turned to the audience and declared: “Ladies and gentleman, the war with Germany is over!” He whirled around, picked up his baton and lead the orchestra in the Star-Spangled Banner. Everyone sang. Tears of grief for what had been lost, tears of relief that the war was over, flowed freely. Then, writes former Radcliffe choral member Jean Moulton Burdakin, we sang Ode to Joy with hearts bursting!
And on that same night, or perhaps it was the next, residents of a small English village, located mid-way between London and the English Channel, gathered to celebrate the end of the war. It was a village where homes and farms had been severely harmed, even destroyed. German planes – needing to “lighten their load to conserve fuel” for the return trip across the Channel - dropped their bombs originally destined for London upon countryside.
The villagers gathered around a celebratory bonfire – a gorgeous sight not seen since before the war with the need for nightly blackouts. But then the firewood began to pop and it sounded too much like gunfire. Twigs snapped in the forest; they wondered whether the enemy might be lurking there. Besides, it was night, and the bombs almost always fell at night. And so the English villagers, including my then 10 year old mother, returned to their homes in shaken silence. Mum told my sister and me there was joy in the daylight hours when the church bells pealed simultaneously across England.
Permit one more story. After three and half years of chemo, a brutal clinical trial, and a bone marrow transplant, writer Suleika Jaouad walked out of the hospital “cured,” from a particularly virulent cancer she was not expected to survive and at many points barely did. In the days and weeks that followed, Jaouad realized that she had spent so long in a desperate and determined fight to survive that she had forgotten how to live.
In here stunning 2021 memoir, Between Two Kingdoms, Jaouad writes: “There is no restitution … no return to the days when our bodies were unscathed, our innocence intact. Recovery isn’t a gentle self-care spree that restores you to a pre-illness state. …recovery is not about salvaging the old at all. It’s about accepting that you must forsake a familiar self forever, in favor of one that is being newly born. It is an act of brute, terrifying discovery.” (Pg. 234)
How Jaouad learns to live again is a compelling story. I commend it to you and I will not spoil it for you.
These three stories bear witness to people emerging from trauma, emerging from a time of trial, even terror. It’s not a one-time event. It’s a process. Emerging is easier for some than for others. It’s easy to be disoriented in the new landscape, many landmarks and milestones, rituals and traditions, have dramatically changed, even disappeared. As many of you know, following significant events - - the death of a beloved, divorce, settling in a new country, release from prison, returning stateside from military service - - it can be hard to learn to live again, to chart a new path with known markers.
Now all of us, almost all at once, are beginning to emerge from the pandemic, are beginning to learn to live again. To be sure, COVID is still very much with us. In some places it is worse than it has ever been. But there are signs of hope and promise among us. We receive vaccines. More children, teachers, and coaches return to school buildings. We get our hair cut. There are fans at Fenway. We go out for ice-cream.
But it is not normal. It is not back to normal. And it never will be. As the three stories remind us, it is simply not possible to experience what we have experienced, to endure what we have endured, and emerge unchanged into an unchanged world. Everything is different.
Instead, we have an opportunity, an invitation, to learn to live in new ways, in ways that bear witness to and grow into the truths – for better and for worse - that we have learned about ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation and even the world. COVID has tested our strength and exposed the fragility in our own lives. It has revealed - yet again - the glaring and growing inequities and disproportionate burdens that define life for so many in this country and around the world.
We are not the first, nor will we be the last, to emerge from tribulation, to need to learn to live again.
After the brutal death of Jesus, Jesus’ family and friends, disciples and followers, had to learn to live again. Today’s text from Luke offers wonderful insights for us about what the disciples needed to learn to live again, about what we might need as we learn to live again.
The text from Luke begins, “While they were talking about this…” We are thrust into the middle of a conversation. Who are “they” and what is the “this” about which they were they talking?
They are Cleopas and his friend who are joined by the Risen Jesus as they walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, ‘but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.’ Cleopas and his friend told the stranger about the events of recent days, they spoke of Jesus’s arrest, the crucifixion and the amazing story recounted by the women who went to the tomb, discovered it empty, and encountered two angels who told them Jesus was alive, and the women believed it!
As they walked to Emmaus, the stranger explained to Cleopas and his friend how the law and prophets had foretold what had happened. Intrigued by how their unexpected walking companion interpreted the scriptures, Cleopas and his friend invited their new friend to join them for dinner. When Jesus “took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, their eyes were opened.” They recognized him. They understood.
Then and there, Cleopas and his friend change direction. Literally and figuratively. They abandon their plans to continue to Emmaus and return immediately, that very night, to Jerusalem. They seek out and find the eleven and those gathered with them and proclaim “The Lord has Risen indeed!” Cleopas and his friend tell them everything that transpired on the walk to Emmaus and how they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
This is the conversation they were having. This is where we enter today’s text. So too, does Jesus!
As if to illustrate the testimony of Cleopas and his friend, Jesus stands among them and says “Peace be with you.” Yet peace is far from what they felt. They are “startled and terrified,” they think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus responds, “Why are you frightened, why do doubts arise in your hearts?” We could hear this as a rebuke – or we can hear it as Jesus acknowledging their confusion, honoring their experience. I am not a ghost, “for ghosts do not have flesh and bones.” “Look at my hands and my feet, see that it is I myself. Touch and see.” He offers his hands and feet, the very places the nails went through to fasten him upon the cross. The wounds are there, but they are no longer a source of pain, rather of identity, a witness to the resurrection.
With this invitation to touch and see, they move from being “startled and terrified” to joy, joy that is tempered with “disbelief and wonder” about the new life before them. There’s a lot to take in. They’ve never experienced anything like this, because nothing like this has ever happened. Again, Jesus recognizes their emotions and offers not a rebuke, but another invitation to encounter him, to see and experience his body risen in glory. He asks “have you anything to eat?” They offer fish and he eats in their presence, something ghosts don’t do.
Then Jesus abandons the parables, the metaphors and analogies. He speaks plainly “’…these are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and psalms must be fulfilled.’”
It is intriguing to me that in the encounter on the way to Emmaus, the risen Jesus begins by teaching. After Cleopas and his friend fail to understand, Jesus reveals himself as only he could – in the breaking of bread. With the 11 and the others gathered, Jesus reverses course. He does not begin with teaching and interpretation of scripture, but with an encounter, with touch, with shared food. Only after they recognize him, does Jesus open their minds to understand the scriptures in light of what they had just experienced – an encounter with the Risen Lord.
Teaching about our tradition and sharing the stories of scripture are essential; they provide a context for faith, yet they are rarely, in and of themselves, a catalyst for faith. The teachings are important, the teacher far more so! Often faith comes after an encounter with the divine, after a life changing moment, after a wave of deep peace that only God can give, after meeting a person of deep faith. After such an experience, life changes as it did for Cleopas and his friend; they abandoned their journey to Emmaus and returned to Jerusalem. It changed for the gathered in Jerusalem who accepted the call to proclaim Christ’s name to all the nations. Once Jesus’s friends and followers encounter the Risen Christ, the brokenness in their lives is made whole, they emerge into new life in his name. So can we.
The text also reminds us that people can offer faithful, accurate witness to new life in Christ and not be believed. When the women returned from the empty tomb and told the disciples that Jesus was risen from the dead, their witness was dismissed “as but an idle tale.” Thomas in turn refused to believe the witness of the disciples unless he touched the wounds himself. Different people need different things to believe, to have faith, to emerge into new life. How wonderful it is that whatever it is was the disciples needed, Jesus, met them where they were and offered it.
This is good news for us. Jesus meets us where we are and invites us to emerge into new life in his name.
The encounters in today’s text are at once tender and the stuff of daily life. Touch, breaking of bread, and shared food are precisely what many of us have missed dearly and most longed for across these last 13 months. I imagine that touch, breaking bread together, and sharing food will be among the encounters that strengthen us as we emerge into new life.
Each one of us will emerge from different experiences of the pandemic. Some have bought a dream home; some have lost homes; some have fallen in love, some have fallen apart. Some have luxuriated in a slower pace, some are exhausted by what has been required of them. Some have welcomed new jobs; some have lost their livelihoods. In the midst of all this, the world has not stood still. We are changed and the world is changed.
And so, some of us will emerge from COVID like the English villagers, in shaken silence. We will be fearful of new surges and variants that lurk in the dark. We will find joy in daylight and the sound of church bells. Some of us like, Suleika Jaouad, will undertake “an act of brute, terrifying discovery.” We will travel far and come home transformed. Some of us, like those gathered at symphony hall, will shed tears of relief and grief as we raise our voices in song. We will sing “Ode to Joy” with hearts bursting. Some will even throw off black capes and announce good news!
As we learn to live again and anew, I imagine we will experience the full range of emotions, from fear to elation! Wherever we find ourselves, let’s remember the Risen Christ will meet us where we are and offer all that we need. Let’s remember that though there is no restitution, though there is no return, there is Resurrection, there is new life!
Thanks be to God!
And may the people say amen!