by Rebekkah Lohrmann
Luther wrote in his Table Talks, "The terror of death is death itself." When we are stuck thinking about death, worrying about death, in fear of death...we end up looking more like the dead than the living.
In the wake of WWII, it was children, innocent beacons of new life, that ended up looking more like the dead than the living.
The war left thousands of kids orphaned as bombs fell and air raids continued. And eventually these kids got collected up into refugee-type camps. The kids were no longer living in the line of fire, but their bodies were stuck in a constant state of anxiety and terror. These children, by the hundreds, could not and would not sleep at night...as if a lion was about to pounce, or another bomb was about to drop...as though death was about to snatch them up, just like it did their parents.
If the terror of death is death itself...then these innocent kids were more dead than alive.
The children are like Cleopas and the other disciple walking the road to Emmaus that third day after the crucifixion.
We don't know who these two disciples were but their story reveals that they knew well the events of the crucifixion, as if they were first hand witnesses of it. And their story reveals that they had put a lot of stock in Jesus...in fact he was the one that they had stitched their hopes to...he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.
We find them here, leaving the site of the crucifixion, the death, the chaos. They were leaving Jerusalem...but although their feet were moving, one foot in front of the other, their entire existence was stuck. Like the children after the bombing raids unable to sleep, these two were walking along, trapped in their own minds, replaying the terror that they had witnessed. Replaying their rage at Judas for betraying Christ...How could he do that? Why would he do that?
And their devastation over Peter's denial... And replaying the sound of women beating their breasts and weeping, and sound of soldier's mocking their Lord, and the smell of sour wine being lifted to his lips. They probably couldn't shake the darkness that they felt on that day as the sun's light failed, as Jesus, the one in whom they had put their hope, died before their eyes like a criminal on a cross that said to all the bystanders, "You could be next, if you act like these guys."
Their feet were moving them, one step at a time, away from the site of the trauma, except that that's not how trauma works. You can't leave the site of the trauma because the site of trauma is the human heart. And so the disciples are stuck, carrying this event in their bodies.
If the terror of death is death itself...then the two disciples on the road were more dead than alive. They were so death-bound that they failed to recognize new life when it bumps into them on the road.
Now on the one hand, you and I...we don't live in the world of the bombing raids of WWII and we don't live in a country where men are crucified on crosses. We don't know the trauma of these characters.
But we know what it feels like to be wrapped up in the fear and terror of death in such a way that it renders us dead.
Over the past few years LSTC has experienced a great deal of loss, you might even call it death. We lost our president, for a time our library, our entire kitchen staff, as well as our finance office staff. Budgets have been slashed and positions like "Dean of Students" and a slew of staff positions have been cut. Our interim president Phil Hougen talked to us at orientation three years ago and made it quite clear that in the near future, the ELCA will not have 9 seminaries. There is no way to support them all...and we can't have the conversation about closing seminaries without having the conversation about our own seminary closing. And I have to say, there have been times that I've walked the halls of this school, felt the institutional anxiety in the midst of such loss and I've thought, man...this body is more dead than alive.
And the even scarier thing is that what's going on in this institution is not reserved only for us. It's happening in institutions everywhere...in civic centers, opera houses, schools, the government and even major corporations. I'm from Rochester, NY where the death of Kodak rendered the city of Rochester dead. It's not just us. Sometimes it seems like the whole world is death-bound.
But we know this fear not just on an institutional or societal level but also on a personal level. The day that I left for internship, we found out that our classmate Alpha had gone missing. A few days later we found out that he had died, his body found in a lake. And phones started ringing and as classmates talked to other classmates the question haunted us, "What happened here? Do we have a role to play in this death? How could this happen?" The site of trauma made a home in our hearts as Alpha's death left us stuck and bound by the effects of death.
Since that time, there have been suicide attempts, cases of anxiety and depression, other deaths that have coursed through this body of people. Other deaths that have left us, the living, more dead than alive...like the children after the bombing raids, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
We know what it feels like to be rendered dead by the experience of death. But we also know what's coming next in the story...Christ bumps into those dead disciples on the road and everything changes.
Everything also changed for the kids in the camps during the war. The anxiety and trauma was keeping these kids from sleeping, until a man came along and entered in to their death-gripped reality. Each night, after supper, he gave the kids a piece of bread, not to eat but to hold. The piece of bread was a sign for them that when they awoke the next morning, they would have food to eat. It was a sign for them that life would move beyond death and into the light of another dawn. And with the pieces of bread in their hands, they slept. Broken bread broke the death grip on these kids and they began to look more like the living than the dead.
Everything also changed for the disciples. The two disciples were also stuck, unable to see anything except the crucifixion. They didn't recognize Jesus. They didn't recognize that they're walking the wrong way.
Until…a stranger came into their midst, he stayed for dinner and then he sat down, blessed bread and broke it. All of a sudden, a piece of bread is put in their hands and they are capable of seeing beyond the crucifixion. And all of a sudden they recognize Jesus, because of course breaking bread is his signature move! He has broken bread with everyone from sinners to tax collectors to prostitutes and beggars. Here we see it again, broken bread, breaks the death grip and those who once were dead, come alive.
And then (get this) within the hour that Jesus is made known in the breaking of the bread, the two men get up and run to the others back to Jerusalem.
The men got up. Another way to translate the Greek here is to say, the men, having arisen, left for Jerusalem.
Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed Alleluia!
Yes. But, Christ is not the only risen character in this story.
On the day of Christ's own rising, he enters the death-gripped reality of the two disciples, breaks bread and the two disciples arise. Broken bread, breaks the death grip and the dead come to life.
The day of Christ's rising from the dead is also the day of our own arising.
This body, that knows the grip of death, looks to me like a risen body, these days. I don't know if it was coincidence or just convenience, but this Easter season, LSTC unveiled a new curriculum. And I would say that in that unveiling, LSTC got up, it arose beyond the terror of death and into a life-filled future. A school that was once fixated on it's own demise, is now talking about how it will prepare pastors and church leaders to live into a vision of church for years to come. Our fixated eyes are being turned from the crucifixion to the resurrection. And our community, which has carried the death of Alpha, the deaths of others, and the pain of grief around in our body, has gathered for advent craft fairs, beer brewing competitions, silent auctions, and clergy fashion shows all so that students in the future will have access to affordable mental health care. In the face of institutional dying and Alpha's death this community has arisen like agents of life for one another and those who will come after us.
But it's not because we're just inventive, resilient people. No, it's because each week on Wednesday, the risen Christ bumps into this community on the road and a piece of bread is put into our hands. And as the bread is broken here, so is the death grip, and we become more alive than dead.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed alleluia!
We are risen! We are risen indeed, alleluia! Amen.
Download a PDF of this sermon, HERE.
Luke 24: 13-35