A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
Isaiah 55:1-5, 12-13 & Luke 24:13-35
Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of social media giant Facebook and Fortune magazine recently ranked Sandberg as one of the most powerful business women in the world. Sandberg’s life changed, though, close to two years ago when she was on vacation with her husband in Mexico. While exercising in the hotel gym, Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg, died of a traumatic head injury falling from a treadmill. He was 47 at the time and their children were 7 and 10.
Sandberg recently wrote a book with psychologist Adam Grant on the topic of loss and resilience titled, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Throughout the book she talks about the journey of grief that she and her children took after the death of her husband. Part of that journey was to observe traditional Jewish rituals at the time of death: they buried Dave less than two days after he died, they sat Shiva in their home for seven days as visitors came and went, and Sheryl officially mourned her husband’s death for a full thirty days.
After the official thirty days of mourning came to an end, Sheryl noticed something both profoundly sad and absurdly funny about the people around her. She writes, “People continually avoided the subject. I went to a close friend’s house for dinner, and she and her husband made small talk the entire time. I listened, mystified, keeping my thoughts to myself. You’re right, [I thought], the Warriors are really crushing it [this season]. And you know who really loved that team? Dave. I got emails from friends asking me to fly to their cities to speak at their events without even acknowledging that travel might be more difficult for me now. Oh, it’s just an overnight? Sure, I’ll see if Dave can come back to life and put the kids to bed. I ran into friends at local parks who talked about the weather. Yes. The weather has been weird with all this rain and death.”
In this, Sandberg gives voice to the frustration that every person experiences when they suffer loss. We’ve all been there at one time or another. People mean well; trying to say something comforting to someone who is mourning is one of the most awkward and difficult things to do. My grandmother told me once that she doesn’t want to have a viewing when she dies because people will pass by the casket and say, “Oh, doesn’t she look good?” and the answer to that is, “No. She doesn’t look good. She’s dead.” And we’re all guilty of this from time to time. We know someone who has experienced a tremendous loss and we are at a loss as to what to say. We talk about how the deceased was a good person; we recall memories of good times and crazy adventures; we speak confidently about how they are in a better place. The reality is, these words just make it more painful. Yes, he was a good person but it would be nice if they were still here. Yes, we had good times with her but I want more of those good times. Yes, she might be in a better place, but I’d rather they were here right now.
Sandberg says that no one meant harm by it. That is absolutely true when we have been in similar situations. In fact, Sandberg says that she saw a lot of herself in those awkward and difficult moments she had with other people. When she saw people who were facing real adversity, Sandberg would ask, “How are you?”, and leave it to the person to decide if they wanted to talk or not. If they did, fine; if not, that’s fine, too. But when you are living in a state of grief and loss, you know the guilt of bringing up your grief and loss to other people. When someone asked Sandberg, “How are you?”, her inner monologue went something like this: “Well, how am I? OK, my husband just died. It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. I don’t know how to parent my children alone. And I’m quite certain I’ll never feel a moment of happiness again. How are you?” She admits that that’s not really an answer most people can handle.
Through the experience of losing her husband way too soon, Sandberg writes that she has learned a new way to approach other people who are grieving or suffering from great loss. Instead of asking, “How are you?”, Sandberg asks, “How are you today? I know you are suffering. If you want to talk about it, I’m here.” This is an assurance of concern and willingness to listen. Instead of asking people what she can do for them in their time of need, she offers to do something specific. When we ask someone, “Can I do anything for you?” that shifts the burden to the person who needs help, and they are likely not in a good place to make decisions. When friends of Sandberg experienced the loss of a child, they said that the best text messages they received during that time were, “What do you want on a burger?” and “I’ll be in the hospital lobby for a hug for the next hour whether you want one or not.” And that’s illuminating. Sandberg says the most important thing we can do someone in need is to simply show up. Now she and her children are committed to doing the same—showing up when she knows someone is in need.
This resonates so beautifully with the gospel lesson today. Luke tells us that two disciples were walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem on Easter day. As they walked the seven or so miles between the two cities, they discussed everything that happened in the past week. They likely talked about the parade where Jesus rode into town on a donkey as people waved their coats and palm branches. They likely talked about how Jesus flipped over tables in the temple and went toe-to-toe with the religious authorities. They likely talked about how Jesus ate a sumptuous meal with his disciples, and how later that evening he was arrested in the garden. I’m sure they talked about how Jesus was condemned to death and crucified between two criminals. They certainly talked about how some women from the group had told them unbelievable news earlier that morning. And they were sad. Luke says that they were sad.
While they were walking, a stranger joined them. We know that the stranger is Jesus, but the two disciples do not. When Jesus asked why they were sad, the disciple named Cleopas couldn’t believe that there was anyone who didn’t know about what happened in the past week. Nevertheless, Cleopas told Jesus why they were sad. He told Jesus about the prophet who had come to redeem Israel and how the prophet had been condemned to death and crucified. Cleopas says, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel—there is no sadder line in all the gospels. The disciples were sad because all their hopes and dreams were wrapped up in Jesus, and he was executed. They hoped Jesus would put a Jewish regent on the throne; they hoped Jesus would end the ethnic and religious persecution that helped Rome to thrive; they hoped Jesus would help them stand up after they had been on their knees for centuries. They had hoped, they had dreamed, but in the end Jesus clashed with power and lost. All of it was lost, all of it was shattered, all of it was so terribly sad.
It was into this sadness that Jesus showed up and walked with the two disciples. While they were walking, Jesus opened their minds to the Scriptures and they understood that everything happened as planned. When the three reached Emmaus—and remember that the disciples still don’t know that its Jesus—the disciples invited Jesus to stay the night. As they sat at a table together, Jesus took a loaf of bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it them. At that moment, in the twinkling of an eye, their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus; in that moment they knew that the women had told the truth. Then, as Jesus is known to do, he disappeared quickly, leaving the disciples in awe and wonder. The disciples got up from the table and ran back to Jerusalem to tell the others that Jesus had risen from the dead. Jesus showed up in the midst of profound loss and sadness, and in showing up the disciples were changed: their sadness was changed to joy, their despair was turned to hope, their disbelief was turned to faith.
A good friend reminded me recently that when the Church calls out, “Christ is risen!” there are some who don’t want to respond, who can’t respond. This friend reminded me that while many of us are out and about proclaiming Christ’s resurrection from the dead, there are some among us still outside the tomb wondering what in the world happened. They are at the tomb wondering where it went wrong, when their sense of security was stripped away, how things got so bad, why it happened to them. The gospel today tells us exactly what we can and must do for those who are still trapped in or held by the tomb: show up. When Jesus shows up in the midst of sadness and loss on the road to Emmaus, he is showing us that we can and must show up in the midst of sadness and loss on the roads we travel each day. Jesus did not try to explain away the grief; he did not ruminate about why it happened; he did not offer some sugary sweet sentiment that was really just a way to make himself feel better. He showed up: he blessed some bread, broke it and gave it to the disciples. He did something concrete to show just how much love he had to give. And we can do the same. In showing up, we change sadness into joy, despair into hope, disbelief into faith.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, all of us here today are on one side of this good news or the other: we are either those who need someone to show up or we are those who can show up.
If you need someone to show up in your life today, someone to ask how you are and stick around to hear the true answer, have hope today. If I’ve learned anything in my short time as a pastor, it is this: the people of this congregation show up. They will show up with casseroles and toilet paper and flowers; they will show up with cards and cakes and kind words and open ears. They will bless something—a loaf of bread, a cake, a glass of wine, a conversation—break it open and give it to you. Your eyes will be opened and you will see, maybe for first time in a long time. Have faith, and have hope. Someone will show up and Jesus will show up, too—remember that he is not intimated by locks or closed doors.
If you can show up, if you can show up in someone’s life and listen to the truth, if you can show up and carry some pain so that they can take a break, do it. Do it. Don’t do it because you feel guilty or because you feel obligated, but do it as a sign of and commitment to your faith. Do it because that it what Jesus does. Do it because he has set you free to be his presence in the world. Don’t ask if someone is hungry: take them a pizza or a burger. Don’t ask if they need anything: think about what you would need or want and then go get it for them. Don’t repeat greeting cards to them; if you can’t think of anything to say, say nothing at all…show your love just by being physically present. Show up for a hug, even if you sit there by yourself for an hour. Show up, because in showing up, Jesus will show up.
My friends, believe in the good news of the Gospel today: Jesus Christ is risen! Today he will be known to us in the breaking of the bread at this table. He comes to us exactly where we are: sad or joyful, despairing or full of hope, lacking in faith or full of it. He shows up to open our eyes to the reality and mystery of God’s generous love and amazing grace. Prepare to see him today and then be prepared to bless, break, and give yourself to others in his name. How will the world know that Christ is risen from the dead? They will know when we show up and love as abundantly as he did and always will. Amen.