Sermon preached at Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church - Dallas, TX April 30, 2017
Texts: Luke 24:13-35
What an honor and joy it is to be here with you today, particularly on this special Sunday in the life of the church. I am very grateful to your pastor Bill Eason for extending this invitation, and I know your bishop Mike McKee would want me to share his greetings.
Some of you may be wondering just why I am here. I may seem a bit like that unrecognizable presence who has just joined you along the road. Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1987, I was hired as the Youth Pastor here at Ridgewood Park. My wife, Julie, and our two small children, David and Beth, had moved from Minnesota so I could go back to school and work on a Ph.D. in religious studies at Southern Methodist University. For a few weeks after our move, I was working in a non-church job doing telephone surveys, but really hated it so I searched out the job posting board at Perkins School of Theology. I was 28, a little older than many who are hired as youth pastors. I was an ordained elder in the Minnesota Conference who had served three years as the solo pastor of a small United Methodist congregation not far from the Canadian border in northwest Minnesota. Again, these are not typical experiences for a youth pastor. I showed up for an interview with then pastor Fred Durham and the Staff-Parish Relations Committee wearing a suit. That’s what you were supposed to do, I thought, though it concerned some – not very “youth pastor.” I was hired, and Charlie Squibb thought that I could probably related to the youth because of my Corvette. I then had to explain to him that I had said “Chevette” – I am sure it was my accent! They gave me the job anyway, and I was the youth pastor here until I completed my Ph.D. in 1994.
I would like to give you a bit more of the back story, and I promise to tie it in with both the Scripture reading and Confirmation Sunday. As mentioned, I had been a pastor of a church for three years when we moved here to Dallas. Truth be told, I was hoping that completing my Ph.D. would lead me into teaching. My three years as a pastor had gone all right, but I left that church feeling ambivalent about pastoral ministry, about continuing as a pastor. The church people were nice, but they were also very reserved – Minnesota Scandinavian reserved. You know, “How do you tell a Scandinavian extrovert?” He looks at your shoes when he is talking to you. I literally did not know that my ministry had touched many lives until our farewell party from that church, but by then we were leaving. The lack of feedback made it a sometimes uneasy three years. I want to be clear that it was as much about me as about anything. I need to say that years later I became the district superintendent for that same church and was able to be in ministry with them in very delightful and healing ways. I had grown. A year ago, as a pastor in Duluth, Minnesota, I confirmed the son of a man who I had confirmed as a boy in that very first church I served.
I confess that I did not reveal all of this in my interview here in 1987. I came here with my ambivalence and with some wounds. My years here at Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church were healing and renewing. Earning my Ph.D. was something I needed to do as part of my intellectual and spiritual journey, but the way you all embraced my family and me, the way I saw you live out faith in Jesus Christ together – not perfectly, but with love and joy and a sense of adventure, that was a vitally important part of my own journey of faith and journey in ordained ministry. You all, y’all, helped make Jesus more real to me, and you helped me see and experience in new ways how the church could help make Jesus more real in the world.
A few days following the execution of Jesus at the hands of the Imperial Roman authorities, two of his followers, Cleopas and an unnamed other, were walking from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. They were talking about all the things that had happened in recent days. They are joined on their journey by a third person. Reading the story, we are told that it is Jesus, but the two do not recognize the stranger. Jesus incognito asks the two what they are discussing. They tell him about Jesus of Nazareth, about their hopes for him, about his tragic fate, and about the strange news some women followers had brought – that angels told them Jesus was alive. Jesus incognito begins to teach them, to remind them of the stories of the Scriptures. They invite him in to stay, and as he took bread, blessed and broke it, Jesus incognito becomes Jesus, the risen and recognized. Then he disappears, but they remember how they felt along the journey – “Weren’t our hearts on fire?”
The risen Jesus walks unrecognized with two of his followers who are mulling over all that had been happening – betrayal and death and odd news about angels. Jesus accompanies these two along their way. One feels patience and kindness in the story. There is learning and sharing – an invitation and bread broken, blessed and shared. In all of that, Jesus becomes real.
That’s our task, you know. The United Methodist Church has stated that its mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We could also say that our mission, our task, is to make Jesus real. We make Jesus real so that others are intrigued, and come under the influence of his Spirit and become his disciples. In having Jesus be real in their lives, those lives are changed, and changed lives change the world, and as the world is changed, Jesus becomes even more real, and others are intrigued and become disciples.
For those of you being confirmed today, you are saying “yes” to Jesus and to taking the next steps in the journey of faith. You are saying “yes” to the God of Jesus, who has already and always says “yes” to you. That’s what baptism is about, a celebration of God’s loving “yes” to each of us. I trust that you have been helped to get to this point by the loving and caring folks here at Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church. When you were baptized, the church promises to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness. We don’t do that perfectly, but I hope we have done that well, and we will keep on doing that. I hope you have felt this to be a place that has helped make Jesus more real to you.
You are also saying “yes” to the mission of the church to make Jesus real. Your job, and our job together, is to continue making Jesus real. We do that by our patience. We do that by our kindness. We do that as we learn and grow. We do that as we share – share resources, share space, share bread and blessings. We do that by being willing to accompany others on the road of life in their joy and hurt and bewilderment. Your pastor has let me know just how committed you are as a confirmation class to making Jesus real through reaching out to others – a day spent at CC Young playing games and just being with others; feeding those who are homeless at Austin Street Center, which involved getting up at 4 am and then you came to worship after you served. Well done and keep it up.
This is a pretty big deal that you are saying “yes” to. It is a pretty big deal for all of us to keep saying “yes.” We can only do this by working together, and we can only do this by staying in touch with the real Jesus in our own lives. We need to keep doing things like praying and worshipping and coming together to learn and talk. That’s how we keep our lives connected to Jesus. We can really only make him real to others when he is real in our own lives. Our hearts need to be on fire with the Spirit of Jesus.
Let me share a story. This story comes from a Minnesota writer. Kent Nerburn lives near Bemidji, Minnesota which was about 125 miles from the place where I was first a pastor. Nerburn has written books about the grace of nature, about the importance of small graces, about forgiveness, and about Native peoples in the United States. One of his books was a reflection on the prayer of St. Francis, and the story I want to tell you comes from that book.
At one point in his life, Nerburn worked as a cab driver. He often drove the night shift, and he said that his car often became a kind of rolling confessional, people, anonymous in the dark, simply told their life stories. One warm August night, Nerburn responded to a call from a small brick fourplex in a quiet part of town. When he arrived to pick up his fair, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground-floor window. He might have looked quickly and moved on as it was 2:30 in the morning, but Nerburn went to the door to find his passenger or passengers. He knocked at the door and heard a frail and elderly woman’s voice. “Just a minute.” He also heard something being dragged across the floor.
After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman, somewhere in her eighties, stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like you might see in a costume shop or a Goodwill store or in a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The sound had been her dragging it across the floor.
Nerburn notices that all the furniture was covered with sheets and that the walls were bare. The woman asked Nerburn to carry her suitcase to the car and then return for her, which he did. She took my arm, and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. “It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just want to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.”
Getting into the cab, the woman handed Nerburn an address and then made a request. “Could you drive through downtown?” “It’s not the shortest way,” I answered. “Oh, I don’t mind. I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice…. I don’t have any family left. The doctor said I should go there. He says I don’t have very long.”
Kent Nerburn turned the meter off and drove. For the next two hours we drove through the city. She showed me where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they had first been married. She made me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she would have me slow down in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring out into the darkness saying nothing. As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”
Nerburn drove his passenger to the address she had given him. They were greeted by orderlies who helped the woman out of the car as Nerburn retrieved her suitcase.
“How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse. “Nothing,” I said. “You have to make a living,” she answered. “There are other passengers,” I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent over and gave her a hug. She held on to me tightly. “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy. Thank you.” (Kent Nerburn, Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace)
So I ask you, you being confirmed, and all of you here, including me, will we stay in touch with Jesus so that we can make Jesus more real? Will we let our hearts be on fire with his Spirit?
Will we make Jesus more real by being a community of love and forgiveness?
Will we make Jesus more real by accompanying others along life’s road, by our patience and kindness, by giving little moments of joy?
Will we make Jesus more real by continuing to learn and grow?
Will we make Jesus more real in sharing small blessings with others?
Thank you for being the kind of people and the kind of community of love and forgiveness for my family and me so long ago. The ripples of your making Jesus more real at that time have helped carry me forward to this place where I am now a bishop of the church.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit be with you. Amen.
Please join me in prayer.