Monday, May 1, 2017

In Our End is Our Beginning

April 30th, 2017        “In Our End is Our Beginning”     Rev. Heather Jepsen
Luke 24:13-35
          The inspiration for this morning’s sermon actually comes from the hymn that we will sing after the sermon.  You can open your hymnal and take a look at #250, “In the Bulb There Is a Flower.”  This is my favorite Easter hymn because for me it totally captures the hope of Easter.  The promise of Easter is the promise of new life.  It is the hope that lies within the darkness.  When we are in a Good Friday, Easter moments seem so far away, if not impossible.  But this hymn reminds us that when we are in our darkest places, we are actually closer to the dawn then we have ever been.
          In our scripture reading for today, the followers of the Jesus community are in a very dark place.  This is the famous road to Emmaus story, and some of Luke’s best writing.  This little vignette is rich with nuance and meaning, and many a different sermon can be derived from within these few verses.  When I was reading the text this week, I was so full of this idea of endings and beginnings, that I saw it everywhere.
          It is the same day as Easter, but the friends traveling to Emmaus are still wrapped up in Good Friday.  They are walking home from celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem and they are mulling over the events of the weekend.  Jesus, incognito, joins them along the path and they tell him the story of their sadness.  They tell him of Jesus of Nazareth, the one “we had hoped would redeem Israel.”  They speak of his death and crucifixion.  Their story is a dark one, as they are in a sad and hopeless place.  Even though they have heard a rumor of resurrection, they speak only of endings. 
          Jesus opens their minds to new understanding.  He explains to them how in the end is our beginning.  Yes, death is the story for Jesus of Nazareth, but that death is only the pathway to new life in Jesus the Christ.  Luke tells us that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
          It was a long walk, seven miles, and Luke does not recount the exact Bible study that Jesus offered.  I imagine it included all the highlights about the Son of Man and the suffering servant.  But more than that, I imagine that Jesus explained that death and endings are always the place that new beginnings come from. 
          In the beginning there was chaos, then that ended and there was ordered creation.  Then there were Adam and Eve who lost a garden paradise, only to become human as we now know it.  There was the flood of Noah, bringing death to a whole generation, only to give birth to a new covenant between God and humanity.  Abraham and Sarah give up on having children of their own, only to have the blessing suddenly visited upon them when they are at a laughable old age.  Jacob, always wrestling, leaves behind family and home in sadness, to then become Israel the father of nations.  Joseph is tormented by his siblings and sold into slavery, only to rise to power in Egypt to save not only his family but his people.  The Israelites flee slavery and wander with Moses painfully in the desert, only to give birth to a new people in a Promised Land.  In the time of exile, when they fall to the Babylonians, the Israelites lose the temple but gain a greater sense of self understanding and faith identity.
          When I imagine the road to Emmaus, I imagine that this is the story that Jesus tells.  Cleopas and his friend are stuck in the place of death and it is all they can see.  Jesus shows them that the place of death, the place of change, the place of painful transition is also the place of birth.  It is the place of new life.
          Luke tells us that the travelers encouraged Jesus to stay, to stop and dine with him.  The extension of hospitality is an important part of a life of faith, and an important marker of the faith community.  As the trio dine around the table the bread is blessed and broken, and their eyes were opened and they recognize the Risen Lord.  I like to imagine that when they saw the familiar gestures and words, that the meaning suddenly became clear to them.  The bread was representative of the physical life of Jesus, the life that was given, the life that ended, to make way for a spiritual life of Jesus.  This was a death that paved the way for a new community.  In the end of the physical presence of Jesus, the “one we had hoped would redeem Israel” is the birth of the church which will bring redemption.  I imagine it was this awareness that sent the pair running back to Jerusalem to share the good news.
          I love that we celebrate Easter every year, and that the celebration lasts more than one Sunday, because I think that we need to hear this message over and over again in our lives.  In our end is our beginning.  We hate change and we hate transition.  It is always painful and frightening and awful.  And yet, we have to move through these places of darkness in our own lives, to experience the resurrection opportunities, the opportunities for new and different blessings on the other side of our suffering.
          In my own life, I have experienced this truth.  You might remember that it was the death of a loved one that started my journey to ministry.  I was so angry when God called me into ministry.  So upset to give up myself, to die to my former way of life, that I went through the early process kicking and screaming.  But I have been so richly blessed in ministry.  The death of my beloved Grandmother and my own personal death to the life I thought I would have, led me to this moment, and my life along this path is one of deep meaning and beauty.  Similarly, we experienced a loss as we left Washington State, where family and friends lived, and headed into the great unknown of Missouri.  It was a frightening faith filled jump, and we have been so richly blessed.  I would never have guessed that we would love it here so very much.  This has become the place that I belong.
          You all too, can think of stories like this.  How the loss of a job pushed us in a new direction we never even imagined.  How a painful divorce led to new personal growth and self-understanding.  How a diagnosis of illness, opened our eyes to a new way of seeing the world with peace and thanksgiving.  How the death of a loved one, opened our hearts to consider death and life in new ways.  How even a strange and scary political time, can be the birth of a renewed spirit and zeal for the causes of justice within our midst.
          Don’t misunderstand me here.  I am not saying that all of these things are blessings, or God-ordained plans for our lives.  Death, illness, divorce, job loss are all totally painful and not necessarily part of a loving God’s plan for our lives.  What I am trying to say, is that all of these moments of transition are opportunities for new birth.  I am trying to say that God is in the transition.  I am trying to say that new life can come from death, and that God is in that place with us.  In our end is our opportunity for a beginning, and if we read the scriptures we can see that it is always that way with God’s people.
          Look again at that hymn #250.  Natalie Sleeth, the composer, wrote this hymn at a time when she was "pondering the ideas of life, death, spring and winter, Good Friday and Easter, and the whole reawakening of the world that happens every spring." Inspired by a T.S. Eliot line, the germ of the hymn grew from the idea "in our end is our beginning," the phase that begins the third stanza of the hymn.  Natalie was married to a Methodist minister, and he was diagnosed with cancer shortly after the hymn was composed.  The hymn was sung at his funeral and of course at many others since.  (By the way, if you know me when I die, please make sure someone puts this hymn in my funeral service.)
          Natalie has written something brilliant here as it beautifully explores the end and beginning cycle that we see in nature, faith, and even in our own death. 
In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons a hidden promise; butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody;
there’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
          I love that she lists all these moments of promise, but allows that we will not necessarily notice or recognize that promise.  That it is God alone who sees the big picture.
          On the road to Emmaus that Easter day, I imagine that Jesus explained all this to his friends as they walked along.  While they were in a place of death and disappointment, he explained to them that they were actually on the cusp of new birth and new life.  Throughout the scriptures, God has always operated in this way; bringing untold hope and blessings out of our tales of suffering and misery. 
          I hope this morning that you can see this too.  I hope that you can look back in your life and notice those places where it was darkest just before the dawn.  And I hope that if you are in a place of darkness right now, that you can find comfort in the knowledge that God enters that darkness with you, and that there will be some form of new life on the other side.
          In our end is our beginning.  That is the hopeful message of Easter that we continue to celebrate this day.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


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