Saturday, July 4, 2020

Sermon for Sunday 5 July 2020

Sunday 5 July 2020

Sermon for 5th Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Due to a recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Israel and Palestine, Redeemer Church is once again worshiping online. Thank you for praying with us and for us! 

In your prayers today, please include these names: 

Dennis, a close friend of Darlene and Ian (and Rose's godfather), who has entered hospice care 
Jane, Michael, Lynne, Laura, and others fighting cancer
Boris and Alfhild (relatives of Karin Boyadgian)
Bishop Barhoum and the pastors of the ELCJHL

Monday, June 29, 2020

"No stickers for discipleship" Sermon for Sunday 28 June 2020

Sermon for Sunday 28 June 2020
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Meeting someone’s family or friend group for the first time is always a bit nerve-wracking. There’s always that feeling of “I hope I’ll fit in” and “I hope they’ll think I’m the right kind of people.” I remember feeling this way when I met Rosie, who would eventually become the grandmother of my kids. I really wanted Rosie to like me, to approve of me. I also wanted her to teach me to make her lasagna, which I had heard was legendary.

I sat down at Rosie’s Thanksgiving table (which was loaded with turkey and all the fixings along with the legendary lasagna) and was introduced to the others around the table. Along with aunts and uncles and cousins was Larry. “Larry just got released from jail” she said. “Um, ok” I asked. “And how do you know him?” “Oh, he’s living in my garage right now” said Rosie, and passed the lasagna to me.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was just how things were at Rosie’s house. Her table (and her garage) were often populated by folks who had been imprisoned, by recovering addicts, or by people she had met at the grocery store or church who had fallen on hard times.

I knew right then that I would like Rosie. I liked her way of seeing the world: In her eyes, everyone was the “right kind of people.”

For most of us, though, this isn’t the way things usually work. No matter how much we love Jesus, no matter how “open” we think we are, we do often judge others—for what they wear, for what they’ve done or not done, for the positions they hold. We’re much more likely to host a fancy dinner when the bishop comes to town than to fill the guest list with ex-convicts—or, let’s be honest, to even fill a table with people who don’t vote like us.

But as usual, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus turns the idea of the “right kind of people” upside down. In these very short verses, he puts prophets, the righteous, and the “little ones” of the world all on the same level. This teaching sounds similar to other parables we’ve heard, about welcoming, about not judging, about who has a place at the table. Jesus tells the disciples:

I try to imagine what this scene looked like. Jesus is speaking to the twelve—maybe he’s standing, and they’re sitting on the ground listening. What does he do with his arms when delivers this last line about the “little ones”. Where is he looking? I imagine him throwing his arms wide and motioning to the so-called “little ones”—maybe there were children, or women, gathered nearby to hear Jesus speak. Or maybe there were lepers or others of society’s outcasts waiting in the distance, and Jesus wants the twelve to notice them.

Or…maybe there’s a different lesson here.

Maybe the little ones are the disciples themselves.

Scholars have noted that in Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are the righteous ones and the prophets. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the twelve:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

So the disciples, when they follow Jesus’ Way of showing mercy, speaking truth to power, and loving strangers and enemies, are themselves prophets and righteous ones.
But Jesus also says that those who follow him will become like the little ones of the world—powerless, persecuted, maybe even outcast themselves. Recall the scene in Matthew 18 where Jesus says:

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

So maybe Jesus isn’t telling the disciples to simply be more welcoming. Maybe he’s not telling them to be like Grandma Rosie---but is reminding them that when they are like Grandma Rosie, when they populate their tables with those whom society ignores—then they themselves should be prepared to be the “Little ones”. They should be prepared to be powerless, thirsty, and in need of a cold cup of water.

Once again, I have to notice that the call to discipleship could use a better marketing manager. Again and again, we hear Jesus calling us to follow—and again and again, we hear the news that His Way will lead to persecution, oppression, poverty, and the cross! Truly, we will not lose our reward—but that reward is apparently becoming outcast and powerless.

I want to tell him: NO, Jesus! This isn’t how rewards are supposed to work…

As you know, I’ve been moving to a new apartment this past week, and one of the things I came across in the move is an old music book from when I was taking guitar lessons. I was in my 30’s at the time, and yet the book is filled with stickers: happy faces, animals, glittery stars, rainbows. My teacher insisted on rewarding me this way whenever I learned a new song or a new skill. At first, I thought it was too silly for a grown-up. But eventually I loved it—those stickers motivated me to do better, to try harder, to keep showing up.

But there are no stickers for discipleship.

When we follow Jesus to the streets, or to the checkpoints, or to the Pride march,
When we stand for those who’ve had their breath stolen, their land stolen, their dignity denied,
When we speak the truth in halls of power,
When we forgive as we have been forgiven,
When we make seats at the table for family and strangers alike,
We don’t earn stars in our crown, or points toward a ticket to heaven.
Truly, we will receive a reward!

Many--especially those who in recent weeks have stepped up in these ways--know the hard truth of what kind of reward can be expected.

But in spite of this, the reward Jesus speaks of, the one we can count on, is greater than the honor one would ever receive for hosting a bishop or an ambassador for dinner.

It’s definitely greater than being right—about theology, about politics, about people.

The reward we receive through radical discipleship is the kingdom of God. It is the heavenly banquet, with seats for all. It’s a world in which all have life, dignity, and a future.

In other words, the reward is Creation restored! Thanks be to God, we get to be part of that restoration. Thanks be to God, we get to love, for love’s sake.

The Kingdom of God may sound like a lot of reward to expect to gain from doing something as small as being kind. Demanding dignity for all humans. Insisting that all should be able to breathe.

Or have a cup of cold water.

But even a small act of mercy can have long-lasting effects--on society, and on the individual.

I have several thank you notes hanging on my refrigerator, written by Sunday School children and Confirmation students, which lift me up on the tough days of ministry.

I have an angel figurine with my name scrawled on the bottom—written there by a dying woman who instructed her husband to give it to me when she had passed as a reminder that angels are watching over me.

I’ve been stopped on an Old City street by a shopkeeper who saw that my gloveless hands were chapped from the cold. He grabbed them and gently rubbed them with a bit of aloe from a plant in his shop. “A priest shouldn’t have rough hands”, he said.

These were small things, small acts of kindness. But they changed me—and the way I treat others—because in moments when I felt small, someone else made me feel big. In other words, because they were Christ for me, my strength to be Christ for others was renewed and increased.

Mother Teresa once said: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” 

These days, we have so many opportunities to do small things with great love:

We can wear a mask.
We can stay home.
We can say their names: George Floyd. Imad al Hallaq. Ahmed Erekat.
We can stop talking and amplify those voices which usually go unheard.

Like a cup of cold water, these things cost us almost nothing. And yet the effects on the world—and on ourselves—are greater than we can imagine. Through Christ, even the smallest act of kindness and mercy becomes a building block of the kingdom, one more step toward a world in which all may have life, and life abundant.

In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris tells the story, said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery, of an older monk telling a younger one:

“I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world—a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?!’”

Thanks be to God, for the way Christ comes to us again and again, reminding us that we are all the “right kind of people” to receive mercy, kindness, and dignity.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Holy Trinity Sermon 2020

Sermon for Sunday 7 June 2020
Holy Trinity Sunday

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger


"A God's eye view"

The chapel at Anafora, outside Cairo, Egypt

Late last week I sat in a large black exam chair and pressed my face into the machine that would measure my eyesight for a new pair of glasses. As letters and numbers and images appeared, the optician asked me, “Can you read the smallest line? What about the one above it? Do you see one hot air balloon, or two? Which can you see better: this one, or this one? #1 or #2? Now is it clear?”

And then, without skipping a beat, he asked me:

“And what about Corona? Is it from God? Is He punishing us? Is this the end of the world?”

(Note to self: This is what you get for telling people what you do for a living!)

“I’m sorry” I replied, sitting back in the chair now to look the doctor in the eye. “That’s not so clear.”

Genesis chapter 1, verse 31:

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

I must say, I’ve never thought of this reading from Genesis as particularly challenging or difficult. While it’s true that some Christians regard this 2,500-year old creation story as science, and that can be challenging to address, in general, I’ve always thought the main point of this ancient poem is pretty clear:

In the beginning was God, and then there was God and everything else.

God made the light and the dark. God made the earth and the seas. God made plants and trees, sea monsters and cats and even mosquitos, and then God made us in God’s own image.

And it was good! God saw everything that God had made, and what God declared it to be very, very, good.

But somehow, this very familiar passage of Scripture speaks to me differently at this moment in time. Things aren’t so clear to me today.

Because right now, when I look at the world, it’s hard to see the good.

It’s hard to see the good in the midst of a global pandemic.
It’s hard to see the good when the truth of racial injustice in my country has been laid bare, and centuries of pain inflicted by humans on other humans can no longer be ignored.
It’s hard to see the good when, closer to home, annexation of the West Bank looms just around the corner, and a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict seems further away than ever before.

Scripture says “God saw all that God had made, and indeed it was very good!” But these days, I wonder if maybe God needs a new pair of glasses. Things don’t look so good to me right now. My fellow humans don’t look so good to me right now.

Then again, maybe I’m looking at things from the wrong point of view.

When I was in Egypt last spring, I stayed at a retreat center called Anafora, just about an hour from Cairo. It was a beautiful and holy place, with a very unusual worship space. The chapel was built in the round, formed out of the dust of the earth, and instead of pews it was filled with colorful rag carpets so worshipers could sit and pray on the floor. Small round windows circled the room, bathing us in natural light.
At the front of the sanctuary were two massive painted icons – one of Jesus and one of Mary—and an oddly-shaped tree stump which served as an altar.

And just above that strange altar was a massive skylight—in the shape of an eye.

That eye really freaked me out.

To me, it called to mind a God who is always watching, “Sting-style”—every breath you take, every move you make.

Or maybe Santa-style: “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”  

I thought of a favorite book and now television series, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid's Tale”. In Gilead, the women in red cloaks greet one another with “Under his eye.”

NOPE. Nope. Nope.

I was not into that all-seeing eye window at all! I thought it was creepy.

But near the end of my week at the retreat center, one of the religious sisters joined us in the chapel to explain its architecture. The eye window, she said, is not intended as a symbol of an all-seeing, spying God. Rather, it serves as a reminder for us to always see ourselves—and others—the way God sees us: as beloved children, beautiful creations, each of us worthy of love and respect.

Well, I still thought the eye was creepy! But I liked that idea, of trying to have a “God’s eye view” of the world.

On a podcast recently I heard an interview with Anne McClain, an American astronaut who recently returned from a 6-month mission on the International Space Station. The interviewer asked if she was scared when she did her space walks. And did she feel far away from Earth, far from home?

“No,” she replied. “I actually felt very close to Earth. And I wish everyone could see our planet from that point of view. No borders, no nations, just one beautiful earth. I think there would be a lot fewer wars.”

Certainly, this is one way to think of a “God’s eye view” – a common one, in fact. God has a view from above, like that eye window in the chapel roof. God has a view from afar, like an astronaut would have from space. From this far-off vantage point, perhaps it’s a little easier to understand how God could see everything God made, and pronounce it all to be good—maybe God can’t see the mess we’ve made of things!

But you know, today is Holy Trinity Sunday. And therefore it occurs to me that because we understand God to be one-in-three and three-in-one, then a “God’s eye view” of the world could never be from just one angle. Certainly a God’s eye view is not exclusively the big picture view from a long time ago and far away.

In the beginning was God.

And also: in the manger is God.
At the table with sinners is God.
On the road with disciples is God.
On the cross was God!

And from here, among us, Our Lord Jesus sees us clearly—our sins, our struggles, our pains, our sorrows. He sees how we hurt one another. He sees all this—all that God has made—and with arms outstretched, he looks upon us with love, mercy, and forgiveness.

This is also a God’s eye view.

For more than a week, my friend Kirsten (a Lutheran pastor in Minneapolis) has opened her church to become a center for first aid, food and supplies for those protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Many thousands of people have come to the church for water, for rest, for support.

And I am reminded that because we proclaim a Triune God, we know that this is also a God’s eye view.

The Holy Spirit is there in Minneapolis, among the piles of diapers and toilet paper and water bottles. The Spirit of God is there with the volunteers working day and night to provide a safe haven. The Spirit of God is there, looking upon the police and protesters alike, all these creatures She herself breathed into being, and in spite of the smoke, in spite of the crowds, in spite of the tear gas, God’s view is unobstructed. It is clear. God sees us as we were on the day of creation. She sees GOODNESS.

I keep going back to that eye-shaped window in the ceiling of that chapel in Egypt. And I wonder what it looks like for followers of Jesus, children of a Triune God, to take a God’s eye view of the world.

In spite of Coronavirus realities, I don’t think taking a God’s eye view means standing back, keeping a safe distance so that borders disappear, human differences blur, and so that we can literally overlook human sin and suffering. After all, this is not what God has done. This is not who God is.

God loves all of creation, every human being, extravagantly, radically, without boundary or border.

But God does not love us generically. God loves us specifically.

We do not have an All Lives Matter God. We have a Black Lives Matter God. A Palestinian Lives Matter God. A Trans Lives Matter God.

We know this, because we the Creator has come near to us, born in human form, in order to see things from our point of view—and specifically, from the view of all the suffering and oppressed.

God came near, and then God went a little crazy, sending the Spirit out into every corner of the Earth, where She is even now busy comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable and always expanding our default and familiar points of view.

What all this means to me is this: 
although we may never get the chance to go to space and see our planet from an astronaut’s perspective, we can certainly get a God’s eye view of the world, and of our neighbors, when we take up the cross and follow Jesus, standing in solidarity with all those who suffer and are oppressed.

And anytime we live out our baptismal callings, guided by the Spirit received in baptism—
living among God’s faithful people, hearing the Word of God and sharing in the Lord’s supper, proclaiming the good news of God in Christ in word and deed, serving all people, following the example of Jesus, and striving for justice and peace in all the earth—
then we also are gifted a God’s eye view of the world and (if we’re open to it) of ourselves.

Dear siblings in Christ, it’s true that the world is a mess. Some days it may be hard to see the good – in people, in politics, in the church, in the future.

What I hope you hear on this Holy Trinity Sunday, however, is that the Creator of the universe has come radically near, has emptied God's self on the cross, and then has gone to the ends of the earth, in order to SEE YOU BETTER.

Yes, God sees you clearly. God sees all that God has made! And indeed, God has declared you and everything in the world good--not because of anything you've done or not done, but because a good God is the foundation of the world, of humanity, of you.

In the beginning, goodness.
On the cross, goodness.
In the streets, at the checkpoints, at the table, in your hearts, goodness.

And lo, I will be with you always, to the end of the age, says God in Christ Jesus.

Let us pray:
O God, where hearts are fearful and constricted, grant courage and hope. Where anxiety is infectious and widening, grant peace and reassurance. Where impossibilities close every door and window, grant imagination and resistance. Where distrust twists our thinking, grant healing and illumination. Where spirits are daunted and weakened, grant soaring wings and strengthened dreams. All these things we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Ascension Day Reflection 2020

Day of Ascension 2020

Jerusalem, Mt of Olives

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger

From the ceiling of Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Jerusalem

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

As the apostle Peter said on another day when Jesus led the disciples up to a high mountain to blow their minds: “Lord, it is good to be here!”

Today, although it’s the day of Jesus’ Ascension, and not the Transfiguration, I want to echo Peter’s words in this moment:

Lord, it may be hot, but it is good to be here!
It is good to be with you, dear church!
It is good to be with….anyone! Amen!

Indeed, it is good to be here, on the very mountain where Scripture tells us the Risen Christ ascended into heaven. It feels almost normal.

Still, as we made our way here today, we passed through military checkpoints, and then through a hospital gate, and then through a different kind of checkpoint. 

We had our temperatures checked. We adjusted our masks. We sat far apart. And only then could we hear the story of Jesus’ Ascension and worship God together as a church.

Lord, it is good to be here.
And also: Lord, this is so weird.

I admit that the texts for Ascension Day are often problematic for me as a preacher. It’s hard to know what to say about the other-worldly moments in the life of Jesus: which means I often dread preaching for Transfiguration, Ascension, and (let’s be honest) also Easter and even the Incarnation.

I mean, the story is that Jesus, Son of God, was miraculously born of a virgin, turned water into wine, multiplied bread, was executed (willingly) by an empire, arose from the grave, appeared to some sketchy women in a garden, ate breakfast with friends on the beach…and then came up to this place and floated into heaven on a cloud.

And my job is to make all of that make sense in our current context! Yikes.

It’s not always easy to translate the story of salvation into the language of life today.
But I want to say that this week—in a different way from ever before—I have heard the voice of our Living God speaking very clearly through the story of Jesus’ Ascension.

Scripture says that Jesus “led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

So we read how the disciples—

who had just lived through an intense time of being separated from family and friends, 
a time of doing things they never imagined they would do, 
a time of living through things they weren’t even sure how to talk about—

these same disciples watched their teacher and friend ascend into heaven. 
And then they returned to Jerusalem. 
They went back to the city.
They went back to life.
Sort of.

And here we are today, after Corona: 
Returning to Jerusalem. 
Returning to community.
Returning to life. 
Sort of.

Schools are in session. Restaurants are opening. It looks like we may even be able to gather for prayer and worship at Redeemer Church in the next few weeks.

And yet, we all know this is not normal.

We are not returning to life post-COVID-19, because there is no such thing. There is only life with COVID-19—at least for now.

As a church, we are returning to worship post-Lent, post-Holy Week, post-Easter, post-Ascension.

As a community, we are returning to school, work, and daily life post-quarantine, post-quick farewells, and for some, post-sickness and death.

But hear me when I say that just as there is no world that is post-COVID-19, there is no world that is post-Jesus.

Even after the Ascension, there is no world that is post-God’s presence. There is no world that is post-God’s love and mercy, God's forgiveness and grace, God's empire-shaking and wall-crumbling activity.

This is the message of Ascension I needed today. 

Hear the story again: 

Jesus gathered the eleven and those who were with them on this very mountain, he said to them:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Stay! Says the Lord.
I am coming to you! Says the Lord.
Tell the story! Says the Lord.
I'm not done yet--and neither are you, says the Lord.

Dear siblings in Christ: Things are different in Jerusalem, and in the world. Church is different. Work is different. School is different. But we are still here! And so is God.

Today, we give thanks that Jesus has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Creator--and that he has not left us alone. As someone posted on Facebook today: Ascension is not the day Jesus retired. It’s just the day when Jesus started working from home. Amen!  

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Sermon for Sunday 26 April 2020

Sermon for Sunday 26 April 2020

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen.

On Tuesday, I had my first chance to enter the Old City in more than a week. The last time had been Easter Sunday, when I met with Bishop Azar and Pastor Fursan to record a few prayers at Redeemer Church—a profoundly strange experience, to be celebrating the Resurrection of Our Lord without any of you, and in fact without any assembly at all.

On the way into Damascus Gate this time around, I bought myself a few new face masks, and said hello to some shopkeepers I hadn’t seen in a while. There were only a few merchants with doors open—notably Ja’far Sweets was still handing out pieces of knafeh through a slightly cracked door. But there were no village women lining the streets selling vegetables and herbs. There were no children on scooters barreling through the crowds. Actually, there were no crowds at all, only a few local residents, a few soldiers, and a few priests. But there was a noticeable presence in the air around us, something like a mist of grief and anxiety we were all walking through, each of us breathing it in and out, in and out, even through our face masks.

After meeting with the Bishop at the church and completing a few office tasks, I put my mask back on and walked home a different way, this time heading up towards New Gate. It was eerie to walk past a locked Church of the Resurrection, and then down Christian Quarter Road all by myself, with only the sounds of doves nesting overhead. A wave of sadness washed over me. This is not how I had ever imagined springtime in Jerusalem. This is not the Easter I had hoped for.

But then, a bicycle suddenly rounded the corner, rushing straight toward me. The rider obviously wasn’t expecting anyone else to be on the road. Just when I thought it might hit me, the bike came to a stop and the rider said, “Sister! Hello! Happy Easter!”
I looked at this masked rider and thought: Who. In. the. World. Is. this?

I didn’t recognize him at all. He could have been anyone.

He was wearing all black, with a helmet and gloves and a large face mask, the professional kind with filters that covers you from your lower eyelids all the way to beneath your chin.

Good for him! I thought. He’s being safe. Thanks be to God.

But really: Who in the world is this masked man?

“Hello!” I replied. “Happy Easter! How are things going?” (Please, I was thinking, just give me a hint about who you are…)

“Well, it’s been a strange Easter for sure” said the masked man. “I’ve just been doing as I always do.”
(not helpful, I thought…)

But he continued: “You know I always try to encourage others with my photos.”

Aha! Suddenly my eyes were opened, and I knew who he was! This was my friend Issa, a Palestinian Christian from the Old City, who’s been taking photos of the locked down Holy Sepulchre Church and posting them on social media for the world to see.
Issa and I chatted a bit longer—about our experiences of a Holy Week in Jerusalem that was like no other, about his practice of lighting candles and praying for those who can’t come to church, about keeping hope alive in this time.

Issa said, “Sister, the people will come back. The church has survived here for 2,000 years. It’s not about to be stopped by a little virus!”

“Amen,” I agreed. “It was good to see you, Issa.”

“You too, Sister” he replied—and then the masked man zipped on past me on his bike.

As I walked on toward New Gate, I had to chuckle a bit. Just moments earlier I had been thinking about our Scripture text for today, the Walk to Emmaus, and I had been struggling mightily to identify with it. After all, this text is filled with everyday experiences that now seem to be from another time, long ago and faraway:

Two friends take a long walk together.
Remember when we could do that??

These two invite a stranger to come closer and walk with them.
Nope, stranger danger! Can’t do that anymore, either.

The three of them all sit down to break bread together and discuss the events of the day.
Nope, nope, nope! Not for a while now. Probably not for a long while to come.

I wondered what in the world this Scripture text had to say to us today. Frankly, I wondered what this text had to say to me today.

But just as She always does, God showed up in a big way. My eyes were opened, as the Risen Christ revealed himself to me through my masked friend Issa and his bicycle, bringing me encouragement and strength for my journey through the empty streets of Jerusalem, and for my ongoing journey of faith. Thanks be to God!

I’ve always wondered how it was that Cleopas and the other disciple didn’t recognize Jesus on their walk to Emmaus. How could they not know him? Was his resurrected body so different from before? That seems unlikely, as the disciples in the upper room seemed to have known it was him much sooner—and we know Jesus was still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion, which is how Thomas was convinced it was really him.

I’m certain Jesus wasn’t wearing a face mask or a bike helmet when he joined Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus. But maybe, like me, they were kept from recognizing him because they turned inward. Maybe, like me, their eyes were cast downward, distracted by disappointment, by grief, by worry. Maybe the strangeness of the times they were living through clouded their vision, like that mist I sense is hanging over our city today—invading our thoughts, weighing down our hearts. 

Maybe that mist is hanging over your city, too.

But then, in a flash, in the breaking of bread and sharing of a meal, the disciples knew it was Jesus. “Were not our hearts burning within us!” they cried. “How did we not recognize him!” And then, just as quickly as he appeared alongside them, he was gone from their sight—but never from their sides.

Oh friends, what strange times we are living through. Like Cleopas and his friend, we have many questions, and many dashed hopes to grieve.

We had hoped to see the sun rise on the Mt of Olives on Easter morning.
We had hoped to see friends and family.
We had hoped to plan a summer vacation.
We had hoped our jobs would survive.
We had hoped this would last just a few weeks.

But here we are. Nothing is as we had hoped it would be.

Some days, it’s tough to see the hand of God at work in the world. Some days, it’s a real struggle to recognize Jesus with us. It’s as if he, too, is wearing a facemask.

But then, like my friend Issa and his bicycle, just at the right time, Jesus shows up! In fact, it’s not so much that he shows up as that our eyes are opened, and we recognize that he’s been with us all along.

True, Jesus looks a bit different today. We can’t meet him in the bread and the wine on Sunday morning. We can’t meet him around a dinner table with a dozen friends. We can’t meet him in the eyes of a stranger—unless that stranger stays 6 feet away and is wearing a mask and gloves!

And still—Christ is with us. He walks alongside us.

The Risen Christ is with me walking the empty streets of Jerusalem.
He is with you, filling the empty chairs at your dinner table.
He is with us all, filling the empty spaces in our hearts, hearts that may feel hollowed out by the disappointments, worries, and sorrows—small and large—that seem to keep coming these days. He is with us, healing our hearts with a love that will not give up on us, will not give up on the world.

Speaking of eating, and of those empty chairs at the table, I want to leave you with a few thoughts on breaking bread during this peculiar time. A friend shared with me a family tradition of keeping a bowl in the center of the dinner table, with a little stack of paper and a pen next to it. Whenever anyone has a prayer request—or hears of one—they write it down and place it in the bowl. Then, at mealtime, they draw out one or more slips of paper and pray for that person in need, or that situation that is breaking God’s heart.

I’d like to encourage you to make a prayer bowl like this in your home. Set it on your table, or on the kitchen counter, or wherever you will see it often. Throughout the day, fill it with the names of those friends and family members you would love to have at the table with you. And then, when it’s supper time: Light a candle. Maybe use the fancy plates that usually only come out for guests! And then choose a slip of paper. Pray for that person by name. Maybe call them after supper! Or (as I’ve done recently)—call and have them join you for supper by phone or video.

And then, give thanks to God for opening our eyes to see Jesus, crucified and risen, who is with us on the way, at the table, and to the end.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.