Breaking open our narratives

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Easter 3—Year A                              (video link)

Easter 3—Year A
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Are you feeling that Easter joy yet? Some of you “yes”? Some of you “no”? Well, if you’re a “yes”, then you are way ahead of the disciples and the Church. If you’re a “no”, you are right on target because the Church has, once again, taken us right back to that same day.

It takes time to come to terms with resurrection life. Very few of us leap there as soon as it happens. We spend a lot of time letting go, dying in spiritual language; why on earth would we think we can rise on demand? Sometimes it happens, and our world turns back into life on a dime, but most of the time, it’s a slog; it’s slow; it’s painstaking; it’s halting; it’s fits and starts.

So, let’s see what we can glean from Luke’s gospel today.

Now on that same day two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, and this isn’t just your normal chit chat, this talking is the kind of talking you do when you are keeping company with another, the King James translates it as “communing.” And discussing, this is the kind of exchange you have when you are throwing thoughts and ideas back and forth as you are seeking to understand something, seeking to make sense of something. This is the kind of keeping company and throwing things back and forth you do when you are trying to make sense of a broken heart.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Their eyes were prevented from knowing him. The phrasing here is that same word we encountered last week in John’s gospel when Jesus was talking about retaining another’s sinsholding fast, seizing on something and refusing to let go. They had locked onto something that kept their eyes from seeing; they just couldn’t perceive the One in front of them, like they absolutely could not recognize him. What had they locked onto that kept their eyes from seeing and their heart from perceiving? Hold on to that question.

And Jesus said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

They stood still, looking sad. That question stopped them cold. Incredulous, one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

He asked them, “What things?”

Oh, that did it. Then, the floodgates opened and out poured the story. You know how it is when there is a story inside of you that just has to get out, that has to get told, and all the details come tumbling out, sometimes faster than you can get the words out, sometimes faster than the listener can take in, sometimes faster than a brain can order what it’s saying or hearing.

Here’s what they said,  “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Breathe. This was the story they told. This was the story they were throwing back and forth to each other before the stranger came alongside them. This was the story they had been running through their mind and through their heart for three days. This was the story they had locked onto, and this was the story that kept them from recognizing what was now unfolding right before their eyes.

Part of that narrative was about their expectations. They had a certain image of who Jesus was and who he was supposed to be and how his trajectory was supposed to unfold. A prophet mighty in deed and word; they had hoped that he was the one they’d been waiting for who would redeem Israel. But it had all gone horribly wrong. It had ended in death; it had ended with their hopes being dashed. Nothing can get a narrative shaped in our head like crushed expectations.

When things don’t turn out as we expect, our world spins out of control, and our brains scramble to make sense of it, to find some pattern.  It doesn’t even matter if it’s an inaccurate pattern or a bad pattern; we just need a pattern to get our world back in control, to get it set back right, even if that right is now full of darkness and pain.

And just when their brain had settled on that grief stricken pattern it all shifted again. You can almost hear the exasperation in their voices, Now, some women have astounded us. They went to that tomb; he wasn’t there; they saw a vision; some angels told them he was alive; some of us went to check it out; it was just as the women said, and they didn’t see him.” And the brain officially goes into freakout mode. What pattern can you fit this into? No wonder the two disciples were throwing this story back and forth trying to make sense of it. Heck, they were just trying to form these events into a narrative, period!

Even been there? Ever been on that rollercoaster trying to make sense of events that don’t make sense? Expectations dashed? Expectations raised? Expectations changed? Expectations shattered? Expectations exceeded? Even if the plummeting turns to rising, it’s still change, and it still feels like the world is spinning out of control, and it still feels like we have just left the tracks, and where will this end? And so, we work and work and work to form the narrative.

And yet, and yet, that narrative we construct, it can keep us from recognizing the life that is in fact happening right now, right before our eyes. The narrative they constructed, they laid hold of it, they seized it, and it kept them locked from being able to recognize that Love had come again and Life was in their midst.

Jesus sets about helping them to soften their narrative, to expand it, to widen it. Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. He went back through the whole narrative and pointed out all the things that would allow them to see him.

But sometimes our narratives get pretty fixed. When our brains seize on a story, it’s hard to override that and let our heart dare to see something beyond the story we are telling ourselves. Our hearts are indeed slow to trust when they have been broken.

And ultimately, the two couldn’t relinquish their story. Not even Jesus’ masterful reinterpretation could set them free.

Jesus was about to give up. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But the two disciples then did the most ordinary thing—routines embedded deep within their being compelled those two disciples to compel Jesus to stay with them. Sometimes, what our minds cannot grasp, some deeper place in our soul conspires to get us to see. Sometimes, it is our routines, our traditions, our norms of hospitality and civility that get us where we need to go.

They urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

They couldn’t recognize him in the story, but they knew him in the breaking of the bread. They knew him in that mystical moment that is beyond our narratives. They knew him in that wordless act that spoke everything their hearts needed to know. Then their eyes were opened, and they knew him, they knew him.

 And this opening is deep and hard. It’s the kind of opening that happens by dividing or drawing asunder, it’s a thorough, rending opening, all the way into the depths of the soul that awakens our deep desire to learn and understand. Their narrative had to be rent to let the truth of his Life and Presence penetrate into the deepest regions of their soul, then they knew him—their heart knew him, their mind knew him, their body knew him, their soul knew him. And once they knew him, he didn’t need to stand before them.

They didn’t need the story because they had the experience.

After he vanished, they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Once that experience of his Presence opened and penetrated into their heart and soul, then they could make sense of that burning in their heart, that nascent, kindled fire of recognition, and then, the big story, the big narrative that holds all of our stories made sense. God created us and all that is. God loves us and all that is. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We die with him; we rise with him. Death no longer has dominion over him, or us.

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. Their companions had had their own experience of resurrection. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then the two told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

All of this raises questions for us on this 3rd Sunday of Easter.

What narratives are we running that we might need to release in order to experience the resurrection life that is right before our eyes?

Where is bread being broken in our normal, ordinary experiences when we least expect it, and is that breaking of the bread penetrating down into our hearts and souls, opening our eyes to see resurrection all around us?

Where are our narratives in need of some reworking, and with eyes now opened to see, can we allow them to expand, can we allow our narratives to live and breathe and flex to match the resurrection reality that is constantly drawing us into a bigger life. It’s not that our narratives are bad; to be human is to form story and tell story, to ourselves and to one another and to the generations to come. The problem comes when we fix that narrative and it settles like concrete, unchanging, and things are forever the way our narrative says they are.

If today shows us anything, it’s that the story is always getting bigger; there is always more to learn, there is always more to see; there is always more to open to, always. And so often, it won’t be our minds that take us there, but the burning in our hearts when we experience him in the breaking of the bread.

So, tell the story you have to tell, but don’t cling to it. Lay it down long enough to encounter the stranger around the table, in the breaking of the bread. Then, with your heart kindled and your soul ablaze, set about seeing everything with fresh eyes, open to the life that is beckoning you forward. Then watch, as the threads of your story are rewoven, knit together with the Risen Christ, and rejoice as a whole new chapter begins. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 30, 2017