A Dubious Gift

A Dubious Gift

Robert Hoch

First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201

April 26, 2019

First Reading Acts 2:14a, 36-41

14aBut Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them [14b-35 cut from the lectionary] 36“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

Gospel Luke 24:13-35

13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Stories. We love to hear them; we almost derive as much pleasure from telling them as we do in hearing them.

I wish we could say the same about sermons. Speeches. Lectures. They have their place, we’re not saying that they don’t, but they’re not our favorite genre, are they? Peter gives a speech in the Book of Acts. Our reading from Acts represents the first of 28 speeches recorded in that book, mostly given by either Peter or Paul. That’s a lot of preaching. Too much apparently. The lectionary decreed that even this first speech was a speech too long, so they cut out verses 14b through vs. 35. After the cut, Peter’s sermon lasts just 6.5 verses.

Maybe that’s the way we want our sermons, short and sweet and if it can’t be sweet, let it at least be short!

Luke’s story, the walk to Emmaus, engages the reader as a story, at least initially. But the narrator points to what sounds like a long sermon: “Jesus interpreted the events of their day, the crucifixion, his death, and resurrection — which means, everything, all of it, the totality of being — he did so beginning with Moses and all the prophets, and interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scripture.”

By my calculations, since they walked about 6 or 7 miles, it was a sermon that lasted in the neighborhood of 2 or 3 hours, depending on your walking pace.

Jesus is I guess the best preacher ever. But, to be fair, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus in that 2 or 3-hour long sermon. Looking back, they will say that was amazing, but at that moment, no. They recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, which took about 2 seconds.

It almost begs the question,
if breaking bread will do it,
if 2 seconds of common hospitality will do it,
do we really need a long sermon?
Or any sermon at all?

Will Willimon, the former chaplain for Duke University, names our issue with the sermon, the speech: “While Sunday morning sermon recipients in the pew may consider their preacher’s sermons a dubious gift, we should ponder again the significance of how, in Paul’s words, ‘faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ’” What people say helps determine the world in which they live” (William Willimon, Interpretation, 39).

What people say . . . the things people say, how they say what they say. OMG. I cannot bear to listen to some coronavirus press briefings. What people say . . . some of it is good and wise, some of it is just plain outlandish and dangerous. And how they say it, it matters.

It may even determine the world in which we live.

Sigh. People saying stuff in Acts, unschooled crowds talking about people of faith or rather the movement of the Spirit. It was a community that no one imagined possible. People from every nation were really listening to one another and really hearing one another, across cultural boundaries and historical divides. It was a global pandemic of communication, a pneumatically driven, Spirit-inspired infection of inspired speaking and sanctified hearing.

Of course, in any pandemic, then as now, people were saying stuff – some were amazed, and asked, “What does this mean?” That’s a good question. Others more cynical, said, “They’ve been drinking wine, lots of it!” They said the same thing about Jesus: he is a drunkard, a glutton, and a friend of sinners.

What people were saying. Some had it right. Some had it wrong. And, at some precise moment, Peter stood up to speak. Why? To correct – “these people are not intoxicated as you suggest;” and he also spoke to summon up a movement, to make our future rather than simply wait for it. Because Peter believes that what we say, as we are led by the Spirit, helps to determine the world in which we live.

Cleopus and the other disciple were walking together, on a road that felt a lot like defeat. They’re talking together. We don’t know what they’re saying to one another as Jesus approaches, but it sounds not nice. The Greek word, antiballete, is often translated as “discussion” — literally, it means “to put or place against” — in other words, you say, but I say. You think that, but I disagree; I think this. No, if we had acted earlier; no, I don’t think of it that way, not at all.

Maybe it’s even related to the word, “ballet.” But instead of graceful movement that begets reciprocal movements, it denotes clash and concussion and perhaps confusion.

Just then, Jesus, still a stranger in their eyes, walks alongside, and asks, “What is it you are antiballeting about on your way to Emmaus?”

There’s a sense, perhaps, of an over-stimulated, albeit understandable, reaction to a given phenomenon. The betrayal of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the hyper-active rumor mill, Jesus’ tomb was empty and some saying he was raised, and others saying not, and maybe we, the people who followed him, could have done something different, or not done something that we did.

But it’s too late. About that, I guess, they are agreed. And they also agree that Jesus is the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened.

Jesus stands up to speak. To correct, to summon, to make a future rather than simply waiting for it. Jesus begins teaching. Preaching. Interpreting. And Jesus, like any good Jewish rabbi, begins with Moses and all the prophets and interprets those texts. Likewise, Peter, follows certain conventions in ancient rhetoric, formulating a speech.

The narrator in Luke decided we couldn’t bear a 2-hour sermon, even Jesus’ sermon, and lectionary did us the favor of shortening Peter’s sermon.

I’m going to follow my betters by introducing an image, which in a sense, shortens this sermon. My image: I’m making bread this week, like a lot of other people in the pandemic, and Iris, our 7-year-old, looks at the recipe that I’ve got on the computer screen in the kitchen. And asks, “Is this your sermon for Sunday?”

“No, it’s not my sermon; it’s a recipe for bread.” And then I said, “I wish my sermons smelled as delicious as fresh-baked bread!”

Iris knows freshly baked bread. And the association between fresh-baked bread and a sermon might not have been immediate in her mind, or mine. But there might be an analogy — I’ve grown a batch of starter, made of wild yeasts. And I’m very proud of it. It’s bubbling. It’s alive. It’s wild. It is a creature that wakes up when you feed it with water and flour.

And to make bread, you need a good strong starter. They say it’s ready to make bread when it passes the “spoon-test” — you take a teaspoon of starter, drop it into a cup of water, and if it sinks to the bottom, forget it, it’s not ready. But if it bobs up to the top, floats like a cork, it’s ready. It’s vital, it’s alive. It’s gassy.

So, you mix the starter into warm water, until it looks like milk. Add it to the flour. You want a shaggy dough, a somewhat dry appearing dough. You don’t knead it. You want the wild yeast to have a party. To get excited, and bubbly, and like a classroom of kids who are still more kids more than students. Bread making is like that, especially at the beginning. You got an excited crowd of yeasts, and some of what they’re thinking is good and some not so good.

To settle it down for formation, you add salt. Why? Salt, of course, isn’t friendly with living things, especially in large quantities. But a little salt, that can work magic. Salt, says one of my recipes, is like a teacher walking into their room. They come in and almost just by being there, the crowd of kids, bubbling with kid hormones, begins to subside with attention. It’s lively attention. Too much salt, like too much preaching, kills the yeast.

But the right amount and formation begins

That’s what preaching is about. It’s salt for us wild yeasties! What is the salt that these two sermons have to offer?

Peter’s sermon doesn’t really end where it ends but it ends with a response of those who listen. The people say, “What shall we do?”

They feel the stab of conscience. They want to act, to find relief from that feeling.

Peter says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven.”

Repentance is like a sermon, a dubious gift.

On the one hand, it feels like a warning, and who wants a warning? On the other, if you realize that you have lost control of the trajectory of your life, repentance might also be good news.

Repentance might be a hard stop. Maybe a biblical prophet would say that the pandemic is a hard stop. There’s a lot to lament about the pandemic. And I lament, I do. And I know you do too. But, if we see it in a certain way, could it be the thing that helps us live with nature and share more equitably with our neighbors?

It’s a costly lesson.

But let me offer a correction to what some people are saying: the idea of repentance in the current context isn’t to return to normal, if what we mean by normal is stadiums filled to capacity with 10s of thousands; if what we mean is drilling for oil, with filling the skies with pollution without thinking about the consequences; if the idea is to continue to lay waste to our oceans and our forests. Maybe, in our context, repentance includes a deeper and more intentional relationship with the creation.

You know it was the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day on April 22nd of last week. I got an education. I learned that over half of the oxygen we breathe is generated by micro-organisms floating in the ocean. Here’s something else: they’re not Republicans. They’re not Democrats. They’re not socialists; they’re not capitalists, they’re not Russians, Chinese or Americans. They’re not Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or atheists, agnostics. They’re tiny organisms and they are the health of our lungs.

We’re alive because they live. Your breathing now is thanks to tiny microorganisms floating in the ocean. We don’t break bread with them but maybe, in a deeper sense, we do. If we can be mindful of such things, and our connection, will it be so difficult to find the connection that holds us together as a global human family?

You’ll be a people, Peter says. Not consumers, not mere nationalities, or partisans, or creeds. A people of communion. The narrator writes that the early church devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship — sermons, long sermons — and the breaking of bread and prayers. And the narrator adds that “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

To live in that space, that must have been amazing, like discovering fresh-baked bread just out of the oven. It only takes a second to slice a hunk of freshly baked bread, slather it with butter, and maybe two or three minutes to share the pure pleasure of eating it.

It’s still about the bread. It’s always been about the bread. We know that because we’ll remember maybe a fraction of this sermon or any sermon. But the world our witness helps to produce, this will fill our days and our lives, our living rooms and our schools, our politics and our hearts.

Here are a couple of other speeches that helped to determine our world, maybe like tiny grains of salt added to difficult times in the formation of better times.

In November 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln stood up to speak at Gettysburg. People were saying things, hateful things, divisive things, cynical things. Lincoln stood up to speak.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it cannot forget what those who gave their lives did here. . . .”

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was 271 words long

One hundred years later, in 1963, amid social unrest, while people were saying things, Martin Luther King Jr. stood up to speak.

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

King spoke 1654 words.

My sermon is a little over 2000 words, plus or minus. The world will little note nor remember what we say here . . . so here’s the 28-word summary: a 7-year old girl stands on tiptoe, peering over the countertop at the words on a screen. She wonders if all those words are for the sermon today.

Perhaps she knows more about preaching — and bread — than we knew or imagined.