Sermon: Liturgies of Spring

Sunday, April 23, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 20:43; sermon starts around 28:40)
image source

It’s just crazy weather we’ve been having lately, right? For like three days – three glorious days – I got to wear tank tops and open up the windows of my house – and now, we’re almost to the end of April, and I swear to you I saw snowflakes like two days ago. But I guess that’s just springtime in Nebraska for you, right? You never really know what to expect from the weather this time of year.

But there is one thing you can pretty consistently expect from spring weather in Nebraska: and that’s the way that people will talk about spring weather in Nebraska. It’s almost this kind of liturgy that we keep repeating with each other year after year. For instance, someone might begin this liturgy by saying something like, “So wow, crazy weather we’ve been having lately, right?” – to which another person might respond with a phrase like, “Ugh, tell me about it! I heard they got a foot of snow out in the panhandle!” or “Yeah, it’s crazy, but you know we do need the moisture,” or “Well, you know, it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for all this wind!” And almost inevitably, the sort of closing “Amen” of this liturgy is some variation of, “Well, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised – that’s just spring in Nebraska for you!”

It strikes me that this is a liturgy of waiting, of expectation. We’re just so impatient for the weather to finally turn nice. Farmers are anxious to get their crops in the fields; gardeners are eager to get going with their gardens; and all of us are just ready to finally put away our winter coats and and get outside to feel the warmth of the sun.

We get impatient for spring because winter in Nebraska often seems to drag on forever. The days are short and cold and the earth is so frozen and bare that it’s hard to imagine anything growing in it. Spring will sometimes tease us with a couple of warm days really early in the year, but we know better than to trust that it’s really here to stay.

But even when spring is slow to get started (like this year), even when we’re getting hard freezes in late April – or even snow in May – we know that the cold won’t last. We trust that spring is on its way even when it doesn’t feel like it is at all. We watch and wait for the first green shoots to poke their way up out of the earth, but we also know that even before they appear, new life is already stirring deep down in the earth, even when we can’t yet see the signs of it.

In our gospel reading for today, new life has already come springing up out of the earth – or, more specifically, out of the tomb. But our friend Cleopas and his companion just aren’t able see it yet. Their hearts are still too stuck in a winter of grief and disappointment and fear. So they don’t recognize this stranger who approaches them on the road, the one who claims he has no idea what’s been going on in Jerusalem. Cleopas fills him in; he tells him about this prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, who was handed over and crucified – and you can just hear the weight of bitter disappointment in his words as he says, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

They had hoped that things would change, that God’s Messiah would charge in victorious to free the people of Israel and usher in the kingdom of God. Instead, they watched as the Romans executed their Teacher in the most painful and humiliating way possible. That was barely three days ago; and now there are all these strange signs and rumors flying around that something new is stirring, that maybe – just maybe – Jesus is alive. But Cleopas and his friend – and, for that matter, the other disciples – are still so shell-shocked and traumatized by what happened in Jerusalem that they just can’t bring themselves to risk such an impossible hope.

But even before they believe it – even before the bread is broken and their eyes are opened to recognize this stranger, even before they feel their hearts burning within them on the road – the good news is already true. The powers of sin and death and destruction that ruled this world have been swallowed up by the victory of God’s love and life. Even as they take to the road to flee Jerusalem in fear, the hope that they thought had failed them is alive. Jesus has not only risen from the dead; he is already there, walking right beside them. 

I just love the dramatic tension of this story. We encounter Cleopas and this other disciple in the depths of grief and doubt, but we, the readers, already know full well what God has done. We already know that it’s really Jesus walking beside them on the road – so we end up with this sense of excitement and anticipation, waiting for them to finally realize the truth, waiting for that moment we know is coming, when their grief and fear are suddenly transformed into unimaginable joy. 

I love the dramatic tension of this story, because it makes me realize that our own lives could be read in the same way. Like Cleopas and his friend, we know all too well the pain of loss and disappointment. We know what it’s like to carry that terrible weight of “But we had hoped…” We know how it feels when our hearts are stuck in a winter of grief, when trusting in hope just seems like too big of a risk. 

But this story invites us to step into the hopefulness of spring. It invites us to imagine Jesus walking beside us on the roads of our own lives, and to wonder where Christ is already showing up, that we just haven’t been able to see yet. It’s a story that invites us to check in with our hearts and to notice when they are burning within us. 

In a way, this story also functions as a kind of liturgy. In fact, it bears a strong resemblance to the liturgy that we practice here every Sunday. You can find all four parts there in the text: Gathering, Word, Meal, and Sending. The disciples gather together as they walk along the way, and Christ comes to meet them where they are, grief and all. Jesus opens to them the scriptures – the Word of God – and starting at the beginning, he tells them again the story of all that God has done for God’s people. They take their places at the table for the meal; and in the blessing and breaking of the bread, they finally encounter Christ himself. And then, with their hearts on fire with all these things, they are sent tearing back down the road to Jerusalem in the middle of the night, with all their grief transformed into joy – no longer afraid, but instead eager and excited to share the good news of new life in Christ.

In a way, the story of the road to Emmaus is a story about why we gather here to do what we do each week. We too come to this space carrying our own burdens of grief and disappointment and fear. We come with hearts that are hurting and afraid to risk trusting in hope. And once again, we hear the stories of God’s love in action. Once again, we are reminded that our hope springs up from roots that go very, very deep. Once again, the bread is blessed and broken and Christ meets us, face to face. 

And as we are sent once more out into the world, I pray: May we find that our burdens have been transformed into joy. May these gifts of bread and wine and word that we share make us eager to witness to all that we have heard and seen. May we go forth from this place with our hearts full of hope that is as unfailing as spring.

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