COLLIDING WITH THE QUESTIONS: Easter Season 2014
Were Our Hearts Burning?
A homily preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC, May 4, 2014, the third Sunday of Easter.
Text: Luke 24:13-35
“The Case of the Missing God”…This was the focus of a sermon I heard 15 years ago and it has stuck with me. The preacher was a woman who spoke of being at the bedside of her child who was dying of a terrible disease. She powerfully described the feeling of God’s absence, of everything being lost, the feeling of utter despair. Where was God then? Perhaps this image of a “missing God” has stayed with me because it is just so familiar, it resonates, I understand the feeling—even if I haven’t had to experience the terrible thing the woman described.
It is a common human experience to feel God’s absence sometimes, regardless of whether you are a “religious” person or not. Some of the most religious folks in our Christian tradition have recorded their experiences of desolation—those moments when they didn’t feel or see God’s presence, when they just couldn’t bring themselves to believe, when they doubted everything. From King David and the prophet Jeremiah to St. John of the Cross and Martin Luther, to Henri Nouwen and Mother Teresa, the experience of God’s absence has been a reality.
One of the favorite stories that United Methodists tell about our founder, John Wesley, is the story of his heart being “strangely warmed.” At the time of his heart-warming, Wesley was, himself, in a crisis of faith. As the younger folks say these days, “he wasn’t feelin’ it” and he was ready to throw in the towel and give up not only his ministry but his faith. But then, one night, things began to change. He writes in his journal:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
This moment was a touchstone for John Wesley, a real gift of God’s grace that he would continue to unwrap for the rest of his life. For Wesley, he was able in that moment to feel the assurance of God’s saving grace and loving presence.
But for the disciples we meet today in our Gospel, the experience was a little different. The disciples who were walking to Emmaus were talking about their own experience of a “missing God.” Jesus whom they had believed in and had set their hopes on had been killed and, though they had received the astonishing testimony of some of the women that Jesus was alive, they clearly hadn’t bought it. Because if they had, they’d quite possibly be looking for him or waiting for him to appear—but they’re on their way out of Jerusalem. And, as the story goes, it was only after Jesus had walked with them in their grief and disappointment and wondering—it was only after Jesus had taught them lessons on the road—it was only after Jesus was at table with them and broke the bread that they realized that God was not missing after all but was—and had been—in their presence for some time.
For these disciples, it was in retrospect that they were able to see God’s presence. “Were not our hearts burning while he was talking with us on the road…?” Like John Wesley, the disciples had a “heart warming” experience; but they only recognized it as they reflected back on what had happened in their lives.
Thanks be to God that there are times when we, like John Wesley, have an awareness in the moment of God’s saving grace, when we can feel and know and claim a transforming experience of God’s loving presence and activity in our lives. But today I want to remind all of us that sometimes it is only when we look back that we see how close God was to us, how active God has been in our lives. So often, in painful and challenging moments of life or even when we have the possibility of growing forgetful because things are relatively calm, God just doesn’t seem to be involved or present. When we take some time to reflect on our lives, however, we may very well see that just the opposite is true. I’m not suggesting that we will be able to make rational sense of things that just don’t make sense. But I do think that, often when we look back over the course of our lives, we are able to see it was by God’s grace that we had those moments of peace and calm, that God our loving parent carried us through a challenging time, that the Spirit gave us courage when we traveled through a dark valley, that Christ was intimately present with us, suffering with us and for us, in a time of deep pain.
Perhaps we would prefer not to have to wait for a revelation of God’s loving and saving presence. But it seems that’s often simply the way it is. Maybe God knows why…and maybe we’ll know why sometime when the living Christ comes alongside and helps us understand. But for today, perhaps we can try to remember that even when we’re in our own moments of despair, crises of faith, or simply not “feelin’ it,” God is probably lurking, closer than we can imagine. Remembering what God has done for us in the past is at the heart of what we do when we gather at the table. But we also contend that, in some mysterious way, Jesus shows up in the breaking of the bread. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse today or maybe it will be later that you discover that your heart has been strangely warmed. And if you can begin to hold the story of God’s abiding, saving presence more and more in your heart, remembering it more than you forget it, you just might find yourself not having to wait so long to see—and even to feel—the presence of Christ in all the moments of your life, a presence nearer than your own breath, a presence as close as your own heart.