Sermon: Sunday, April 6, 2008: Third Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts 2:14a, 36-41  ;  Psalm 116:1-4,12-19  ;  1 Peter 1:17-23  ;  Luke 24:13-35


Grace and peace be with you my brothers and sisters, fellow travelers on the long road of blessing. Amen.

I got a call a few days ago from Kay Deacon saying that she and Lynda and James weren’t going to be here this morning because of a family gathering – so I’m going to take advantage of their absence to talk about Lynda for a moment.

Earlier this week Lynda got a call from the director of the Youth Theological Initiative in Atlanta, Georgia notifying her that she’s been accepted to their three-week summer academy this July. She’ll be part of a community of about fifty high school seniors from around the country gathering at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University to explore how our shared faith relates to contemporary society and the common good.

The tagline for the summer academy is, “exploring questions that shape us,” and the students get to do that in a number of ways. They take classes from doctoral students in religion – classes with titles like “Faith and the Environment” or “The Meaning of Suffering.” They visit a wide range of faith communities – Christian assemblies and Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques. They meet in small groups with graduate students preparing to be pastors to reflect on everything they’re learning, to pose questions to one another and to share ideas amongst themselves. They are constantly being encouraged to, in the words of Parker Palmer, “let their lives speak.” To listen to the questions for which their spirits require answers, and to support each other in living into those answers.

It’s an amazing opportunity for Lynda – we can be very proud of her and her family for encouraging her to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s the kind of thing I wish each of us could take the time to do… to let our lives speak, to listen for the questions that shape us, and to search for answers together.

If you’re noticing a through-line from last week’s sermon then we’re sharing a mind. The story of Thomas questioning the risen Christ flows naturally into the story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus. In these Sundays after Easter, as we hear that in Jesus death has been defeated and that through our baptism into his death we have been raised to his new life, we have a lot of questions that need answers. We hear that – in Jesus – God is loose in the world, but like the disciples on the road we need help identifying the God who walks beside us. The Easter miracle comes with lots of questions.

Students of education – people studying to be teachers – will have heard of a field of education called “critical pedagogy.” “Pedagogy” is the art of being a teacher – it’s usually used to refer to strategies for teaching people – and “critical pedagogy” is the label for a theory of educating people that starts by helping students identify the questions in their own lives that need addressing. As students identify the questions that shape them, teachers assist them in finding the knowledge they need to answer their own questions. Teachers become learners as they study the needs of their students, and students become teachers as they find answers to their questions. Educators who’ve embraced this method of teaching call it “democratic education” and see it as a tool for liberation of oppressed people who, as they begin to identify the questions that burn in their hearts, become conscious of their situation in life and learn to free themselves as they pursue knowledge that’s relevant to the lives they are living.

One of the most famous proponents of this form of education was Paolo Freire, author of a book called “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Paolo was born in Brazil in the early 1920s and studied to be a lawyer. Although he passed the bar, he never actually practiced law. Instead he worked for the Department of Education among Brazil’s illiterate poor developing his method of education. By the 1960s he was organizing “cultural circles” around the country, helping low-wage sugar cane workers identify the questions that burned in their lives about the class structure that kept them poor and illiterate. As the workers in these circles learned to listen to each other and to examine the causes of their suffering, they became conscious not only of their oppression – but also of the power of education to help them organize for change. In one famous example Paolo assisted 300 sugar cane workers in learning to read and write in just 45 days. While it’s hard to imagine being imprisoned for teaching people to read, his tactics were so effective in unleashing the people’s power that he was imprisoned by the military for almost three months because of his work.

Learning and liberation appear as themes in this morning’s readings as well. Preaching on the first Pentecost, Peter urges his listeners to save themselves from the corrupt generation that surrounds them (Acts 2:40), and the psalmist offers thanks to God for liberating the people from their bonds (Ps. 116:16). On the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus Jesus encounters a couple of disciples who had hoped that he would liberate the nation of Israel (Lk. 24:21), and cannot recognize the risen Christ in their presence until he retells the stories of Israel from past to present and in doing so points them toward the hope of the living God in their midst.

Listen to the gospel of Luke again for Jesus’ critical pedagogy – for his teaching techniques. The gospel says he began with a question, “what are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” The travelers reply, “are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” Jesus responds with another question, “What things?” They answer, “the things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people…we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk. 24:17-19,21).

Jesus does not rise from the grave with grand appearances to all of Jerusalem. Instead he appears alongside a people still living under oppression and listens to them, draws out their questions, helps them understand the hopes and limits that have defined them. Having heard them, he then proceeds to teach them – providing an understanding of their place in the history of Israel, a story we heard again during the Easter Vigil as the story of God’s saving work in the world. The risen Christ meets the people oppressed and reminds them that God has always been present in their midst working for their liberation. As they break bread and consume a meal together they also internalize a story large enough to absorb their whole lives. They discover themselves, like grains of wheat once scattered on a hill now baked into this loaf of bread, part of something larger – part of God’s new life for the world. Then they recognize that God is at the table in the person of this stranger and their hearts are set on fire.

It’s no coincidence that the disciples are set free from their grief and fear as they share stories and a meal. Learning and liberation only take root when done in community. As preacher and theologian Cornel West has recently said, “justice is what truth and love look like in public[1]” – which both reminds us that the love we experience inside these walls is meant to be shared in public, taking form as justice, and also that our pursuit of justice has to have its roots in our love for one another. It’s as Peter writes in the letter we heard this morning, “now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

There is a hunger that lives deeply inside each one of us – a hunger that rises from the questions that shape us. Some of you have shared those questions with me recently. You’ve asked, “how do we understand what we’re doing when we pray?” You’ve asked, “how do I provide a safe home for my child?” You’ve asked, “who will care for me as I get older?” You’ve asked, “will this church still be here for me when my life comes to an end?” You’ve asked, “who is Jesus for me, and what does God want from my life?” These are the questions that shape us – individually, and in our life together.

In this season of Easter we are met with questions that call out for answers – questions that cannot be answered alone. As we continue on the road to redevelopment as a church, as we strengthen our ministries of healing and community development through music and the arts, we are still an assembly with questions that cry out for answers – where is God in the middle of this five-year-old war? How do we protect our children when we send them off to school?

Can we set aside time to uncover the questions that are shaping us? The ones that keep tugging quietly at the edges of our consciousness and the ones that wake us up in the middle of the night. Can we commit ourselves to gathering in community, to breaking bread in the hopes that God will become more visible as our connections to each other are strengthened?

This coming Saturday members of the church council and other committee chairs will be taking part in a day-long leadership retreat. As part of the preparation for the retreat we’ve been asked to re-read the book of Acts. Our retreat facilitators are reminding us that our redevelopment requires a balance of growing outward and growing inward. It is a perfect time for us to begin thinking anew about how our ministries of hospitality and education are connected to each other.

I hope that as we listen to each other – over coffee after church, over tacos at El Cid, during committee meetings and clean-up days we will continue to listen for the questions that are burning in one another’s hearts – and that our passions for justice in the wider world will find roots in our love for one another here. I hope that we will find ways to share our questions with each other, to open up the scriptures to each other, to pursue the questions that shape us – and in so doing that God’s presence in our lives and in the world around us will become easier to notice.

Let it be so. Amen.

[1] From a speech delivered in 2007 on a televised tribute to KRS-ONE on BET.

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