When Gary and Sharon Torrez of Fort Myers, Florida, heard that their former community of Jamaica Bay, Florida had been hit hard by Hurricane Ian in 2021, they “bought power banks to charge phones, boiled drinking water, and delivered essentials to people in need.” (Thrivent Magazine, Spring 2023) In the coming weeks, the Torrez family and others would use their own resources and leverage grants through organizations like Thrivent (formerly Thrivent Financial for Lutherans) to purchase cleaning supplies to prevent the spread of mold, mosquito netting, and plywood to board up broken windows. Yet they also witnessed the power of showing up, providing a listening ear or a shoulder for folks to cry on.
Nancy Clarke grew up in a family without much money, but her parents taught her to save and to give through the church to help others. She remembers putting in an offering each week at church, and helping out with cleaning and volunteering around the congregation’s building, which she believes was one of the building blocks of her life-long commitment to service, in efforts such as organizing a Relay for Life Team at her church or joining international Habitat for Humanity teams with people from her church that have built hostels and schools in Zambia, Nicaragua, and British Columbia.
Reverend Brenda White serves Allen AME Zion Church in Baltimore, MD, which despite being located in one of the most under-invested zip codes in the country, holds service at the heart of their ministry. Pastor White says that, be it through founding the church’s non-profit, “Pathway Forward, Inc,” which organizes supply drives to help neighbors in need (such as school items or warm winter clothing) or planting an organic raised bed garden on the church’s property and choosing not to put a fence around it (if someone needs something, they should take it!), they strive as a church community to have everything they do be about “introducing people to Christ’s love in a tangible way.” (Thrivent Magazine, Spring 2023)
Some would say that people like the Torrez Family, Nancy Clark, or the people of God at Allen AME Zion Church doing good things to help other people is just that: good people doing good things. And there would be nothing wrong with that. We need all the people in the world doing all the good things they possibly can!
For Christians, stories such as those I’ve just shared are examples of Jesus showing up on the road alongside us. Jesus showing up alongside the grief and tragedies of the world to offer comfort, love, compassion, and a hand to bring us forward into the new life potential that comes next. This is God in Action through Jesus and through human hands and hearts. This is Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and Jesus breaking bread once they’ve stopped for the night; Jesus seen but not always perceived and understood, and Jesus revealed in community.
The story of the disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus is one of the more well-known stories in scripture (though don’t sweat it if you’d forgotten it, or feel like you’re hearing it for the first time). It’s well-known enough that we might start to hear this story, politely nod our heads and then tune out, thinking “oh, I’ve heard this one before.”
Yet in this hurting world with all of her hurting needs; in our hurting lives with all of their sorrows and troubles, I don’t think that we can hear this story enough! There they are, a couple of the disciples, hurrying along the road to Emmaus, talking about all that has happened, about how Jesus was crucified, how their greatest joy has become their saddest loss; how all their best hopes and dreams seem to have fallen apart, leaving them confused, in fear, and in grief. Do any of us know what it is to be afraid, to be confused, to experience grief? Do we know what it is to have dreams, be they ours or the dreams of ones we love, or of this world that we love, seem to fall apart before our very eyes? I suspect in one or many ways that we do. We do know.
And then, alongside those disciples, hurrying along the road to Emmaus as they were; alongside those disciples appears Jesus. And whether it is because they are so caught up in their fear and confusion and grief or because the time is simply not yet ripe for it, the disciples do not at first recognize Jesus. Many of us may know this experience as well – of not immediately seeing God showing up to us and for us in the hearts and hands of friends, family, our church community. Maybe only later – days or weeks, months or even years – only later seeing how Jesus did not leave us alone in our sorrows, our travails and struggles. No matter how many times we got consumed, lost in our worries, our grief, Jesus never stopped showing up.
There is healing that comes from being given permission to recognize and name our struggles and grief, as those first disciples were able to do with Jesus, there on the road to Emmaus. And sometimes we discover that healing has been at work in and for us and the ones we love and this world we love long before we are able to perceive and see it. Both of these speak of the resurrection work of God in Jesus. But it is, perhaps, as those Emmaus Road disciples gather with Jesus at the end of the day for a meal, that God’s deep resurrection work most fully begins to be revealed. For we hear that as Jesus prayed and blessed the meal and then broke the bread, the disciples’ eyes were finally opened to see who it was who had been among them all along! “Were not our hearts burning within us?” they ask one another.
And then, though it was the end of a long day of travel, they go running back to tell the other disciples what they have heard, and low and behold, the other disciples have already heard from Simon Peter the same good news: that Jesus is not dead, but alive. And because Jesus lives, we, too, shall have new life. Not might have new life. Not could have new life. Shall have new life. And shall have the opportunity to bring new Christ’s new life story among others in this world, like Pastor Brenda White said, “introducing people to Christ’s love in a tangible way.”
Like Gary and Sharon Torrez bringing mosquito nets and power banks, but also shoulders to cry on. Like Pastor Brenda and the people of Allen AME church starting a church non-profit to distribute needed supplies to neighbors, and building an unfenced vegetable garden. Like Nancy Clarke taking those lessons learned in her childhood about saving and giving – about stewardship of what God entrusts to us – and using them to build a life of helping others in need. And there are more examples of Christ’s tangible love being revealed! Like through Redeemer, New Paltz hosting anti-racism trainings in partnership with the New Paltz Office for Community Wellness this afternoon and next Sunday to declare that love, not intolerance, will win the day. Like you as a congregation sending your pastor to offer the invocation at the Inauguration of the new SUNY New Paltz president Darryl Wheeler this past week, or to be part of the interfaith Earth Day blessings over on Huegenot street yesterday. Like getting our hearts involved in the work of feeding people through FAMILY of New Paltz and our ecumenical Free Fresh Food giveaway and getting our hands dirty as we gather in a couple of weeks to tend the gardens outside this building to provide butterfly and pollinator habitat and a welcome full of color and care for those who come to God’s House at Redeemer throughout the weeks.
All of these and more are visible signs of God’s resurrection work in Christ afoot in the world! Visible signs that came to pass and will come to pass because the people I named in these stories – because each of us - acknowledge a burning in our hearts that is Christ revealed for them. Not Christ revealed when the disciples or we were or are well-rested and at our best! Christ revealed when they and we were and are already tired after sometimes very long and grief-filled days. This call to action comes, not when we are at our best, but often when we are at our weakest, and this is part of how we can be sure that the good we accomplish will be because of God’s resurrection work through Christ alive in us, rather than because of our own strength and understanding.
Learning that grief shared is the beginning of healing, for us and for the world. Learning that sometimes healing and transformation is most clearly seen in the rearview mirror. Learning that those longings in our heart – that burning is actually God’s invitation to see Christ’s new life promise afoot, Christ’s new life potential alive in us. We who know confusion and fear and brief and weariness. God chooses us to be sent for the healing of others, and so that they, too, might see tangible signs of God’s love. Amen.