“From Exile to Easter to Emmaus: Miracles Happen”
May 24th, 2020
Good Morning. It’s good to be with all of you this morning.
After a childhood spent in Baptist Sunday School, I’ve spent my adult life working on relearning and rethinking the Christian faith I was raised on. It’s been a journey to find a more rational, more believable way of understanding Jesus and the God he followed. For the last three years or so, I’ve had the privilege of continuing that journey with this wonderful Southminster community: through thoughtful sermons, book discussion groups, Sunday Starters, and especially that delightful weekend where I got to hang out with John Dominic Crossan. I am most grateful to all of you for that.
For those of us on this journey, one of the persistent sticking points is this matter of miracles. If you take the Bible literally, you will see our entire holy history as a series of magical miracles, through which God has shaped human history with divine intervention after divine intervention: Noah’s flood, the Exodus of Moses, the Walls of Jericho, and so on. But lately I’ve been thinking about miracles in a different way that I find helpful and inspiring and I hope you will too. I’m not going to tell you NOT to believe in the literal truth of those stories; I’m just going to offer an alternative perspective for your consideration.
Several years ago, at my previous church, St. Mark, Pastor Barbara realized she had several members who enjoyed thinking outside the box theologically, and she suggested we get together once a month and discuss unorthodox ideas over a meal. We called the group “What If?” and since the first meeting was close to Easter, the first topic question was, “What if Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead?”
As you can imagine, that turned out to be a pretty good discussion starter, and we had a lively chat. Toward the end of the evening, my friend John, a retired pastor, repeated a rationale I’d heard many times: Surely something miraculous happened because otherwise Jesus’s ragtag bunch of followers would have just dispersed, and there would be no Christian religion today.
In the weeks that followed, I found myself mulling over that answer to see if it still works for me. Then I started to wonder: What if we have that backward? What if the formative miracle of Christianity WAS that the disciples decided to keep the faith, to keep on keeping on as if Jesus was still with them? Isn’t that also a type of miracle, when human beings accomplish amazing things simply by acting on their best instincts?
This was a radically different way of looking at Easter and what followed. I knew it wasn’t orthodox but was it Biblical? I believe it is if we really hear what the gospel writers were trying to say.
Most of us will remember the story known as “the walk to Emmaus.” We included enough of it in this service to jar your memory, but I encourage those of you who have extra time on your hands to read the entire last chapter of Luke’s gospel, chapter 24, and to try to see it with new eyes. I think the author was trying, 40 years or so after the fact, to sum up in one story what the disciples went through in the days, months, and years after Jesus was taken from them. At first they were despondent, but they continued the journey together as well as they could. They didn’t realize at first that Jesus was still with them on the journey. They did their best to go back and reinterpret the prophecies about the Messiah and understand how a Messiah could suffer and be killed. And in that struggle, it seemed as though Jesus himself was with them, explaining everything. Most importantly, they broke bread together, and in that community of the faithful was where they really came to see that He was still with them, and they could keep on keeping on in his name.
Now wasn’t that a miracle?
Now let’s jump forward a few years in my faith journey, and back about 600 years further in history.
Last year, when our book group read Reza Aslan’s “God: A Human History,” I came to realize that there is a sort of parallel miracle in the history of the Jewish people. In 586 BCE, the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the people were taken into exile in Babylon. Aslan explains how that should have been the end of Israel. In that time and place, such a conquest could only be interpreted as a victory for the Babylonian god, Marduk, over Yahweh. Which meant Marduk was stronger, and Yahweh was to be worshipped no more. But, as Reza Aslan writes, a faithful few rejected that orthodoxy:
But among these exiles was a small band of religious reformers who, faced with the unacceptable prospect of accepting Yahweh’s obliteration at the hands of Marduk, offered an alternative explanation: Perhaps Israel’s destruction and exile was part of Yahweh’s divine plan all along. Perhaps Yahweh was punishing the Israelites for believing in Marduk in the first place. Perhaps there was no Marduk.
It was precisely at this moment of spiritual distress, when the kingdom of Israel had been laid waste and the temple of Yahweh torn down and defiled, that a new identity was forged, and with it a wholly new way of thinking about the divine.
In other words, this is another example of how a few people, nameless to history, acted in faith and utterly changed history.
Surely events such as these must be seen as miracles. They aren’t the kind of miracles we prefer to celebrate. There’s no doubt the story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt is more dramatic. It has snakes, locusts, magicians, drowning armies, and tons of great special effects. Someone could make a Hollywood movie out of that story. And for that matter, angels rolling away the stone and letting Jesus out of the tomb makes for pretty good drama, too. Ordinary people living faithful lives just can’t compare. Or can it?
Again, I’m not going to tell you that those other, more magical miracles can’t happen or didn’t happen or won’t happen again. But I believe it’s wrong to put too much faith in divine intervention. You see, scripture may tell us to pray for miracles, even to expect them. But I find nowhere in the Bible where it says, “The world has a lot of problems, and thou shalt sit on thy butt and wait for God to step in and fix them.” No, even if we believe in an all-powerful God, we are still called to act in faith, with love, with compassion, to try to make Earth what God wants it to be. And through the community of the faithful, we’ll find the love of God and the wisdom of Jesus helping move us forward.
I prefer to focus on these other, non-magical, transformational miracles. The ones that change lives and change the course of history, through many small acts of faith. These miracles can be messy. They can take years. They can involve lots of short-term defeats and dead ends that feel like failure. But here’s the cool thing about them: you never actually know if you are in the middle of something miraculous. Some act you do today, or did last month, or plan to do tomorrow, could turn out to be part of a history-changing miracle. It may be a small act of kindness, generosity or just being present for another individual. It may be an act of advocacy for marginalized people. It may be speaking up for someone who lacks a voice, speaking truth to power. Whatever it is, do it in faith, not knowing what will ultimately come from it.
The Israelites spent 50 years in exile in Babylon. Jesus’s followers spent considerable time in a sort of exile after his crucifixion when they thought everything they’d hoped for was gone. Our current exile inside our homes is mild by comparison, but I hope it gives us a better appreciation for those who suffer the most. We appreciate each other more when we are forced to be apart, and we long for the time when we can return and once again break bread together, like the disciples at Emmaus.
There’s an old saying that goes, “Pray as if everything depends on God, then act as if everything depends on you.” In other words, Believe in miracles! But also do your best to make miracles happen.
I want to close with a note about today’s music and readings. Our service is bracketed by two Psalms from the Babylonian exile. We opened with the beautiful lament of Psalm 137. This text just drips with the hopeless homesickness of the exiles. They were in such despair they could not even make music. How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land? By contrast, the Psalm at the end of the service, Psalm 126, is a song of celebration from after the exiles were restored to their homeland. There is a wonderful hymn setting of this Psalm in our purple hymnal, but we’re not quite ready to sing that one just yet. Our hymnals are waiting for us in the sanctuary, where we will sing that joyful song, and many more, together when this time of exile has ended.
I hope to see you there soon. In the meantime, do your best to keep singing, wherever you are.