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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Old Stories

Easter Sunday, an Easter sermon from Luke

Preached April 4, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship



Scripture Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[f] from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.[g] 18 Then 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?” 19 Jesus asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[h] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[i] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and 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. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see Jesus.”

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

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he was going on. 29 But 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.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us[k] while he was talking to us along the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told (the disciples) what had happened (to them) on the road, and how Jesus had been revealed to them in the breaking of the bread.

Sermon Old Stories

“Once upon a time…” There’s an abundance of good stories that begin like this. We can remember what to do when we hear those words. The child inside each and every one of us wants to snuggle down into the sofa cushions, grab a blanket with the satin edges and our favorite stuffed teddy bear, and smile with great anticipation. When we have the right heart about it, our mouths water with those simple words… “Once upon a time…”

Then, as we grow older, and gain a little life experience, we become more skeptical of those words that start stories. IRL, in real life, things don’t often work out as perfectly as a story book ending. We’ve seen story book marriages implode into hollow partnerships or divorce, storybook families get stuck in routines of emotional or physical or substance abuse, story book careers trip and fall into scandal or layoffs. We’ve even seen storybook lives end in death surprisingly fast, or agonizingly slow. Grown-ups stop smiling when we hear “Once upon a time,” but begin thinking, “O No” or “yeah, right,” shaking our heads in justified cynicism.

We are taught grown-up decisions require a toughness that needs to be more realistic and block out silly, childlike passions and compassions, hopes and dreams. Instead, search for solutions that are practical, achievable, and make sense, ones that won’t risk too much, won’t disrupt the status quo too much, and won’t make anyone too mad or afraid. Story book endings don’t often happen in real life, so stories lose their magic.

These two, walking the road, were a bit cynical of all their old stories. Their childhood, their whole life, had been centered around a plethora of wonderful “Once upon a time” stories.

Once upon a time, God spoke to our ancestor Abram, and told him in his old age he and Sarai would be the beginning of a great family that would out-number the stars of the heavens. When Abram, in his confused loyalty to God, walked his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice his only son to God, God stopped him and provided a ram caught in a bush nearby, so the family, our family, could grow.

Once upon a time, our ancestor Joseph was sold by his brothers to Egyptian slave traders. God helped Joseph become the second most powerful person in Egypt, only behind Pharaoh, and when God’s people were hungry, God provided food for them through Joseph in Egypt, and Joseph and his family were reconciled and reunited.

Once upon a time, there was a Pharoah who didn’t remember Joseph. Our people became slaves in Egypt. God saw it and was determined to set our people free. God sent Moses to lead the people out of slavery. God stopped Pharaoh, parted the sea, provided bread, water, and meat along the journey through the wilderness. In the wilderness, our ancestors betrayed God and broke God’s commandments, but God loved them so much, God led our people home to the promised land anyway.

Once upon a time, God’s people were facing war with the Philistines in that land, when a little boy, David, stepped forward to end the war before it began. The giant came out in armor, with sword and shield and David defeated him with just a slingshot and a few stones. David became king of the people, and they grew a mighty nation.

Once upon a time, that mighty nation forgot what the Lord requires… justice for all, mercy for the weakest and those in greatest need, and abundant loving kindness for neighbors and strangers alike. God sent prophets to remind and warn the people, but they ignored or silenced the prophets. They gathered more wealth. They built bigger walls. They didn’t take care of the oldest, the weakest, the youngest. They weren’t hospitable to strangers and immigrants. They fought against one another and split themselves in two, and both sides of the divided people were conquered by outside forces. God’s people lost the land God had given them and the community God had led them to build. But God promised a new leader, a Messiah, who would one day rebuild the community even better for all God’s people.

These “Once upon a Time” stories had resonated within these two travelers. They had loved them, believed them, hoped they were all true, because they told of a God who loves them and is constantly working to set all things right for all God’s people, including them.

Yet, as they walked the road away from Jerusalem, the child-like hope they once enjoyed from these stories had died with Jesus just a few days ago. They were exposed to the stark realities of religion and government, wealth and power. They saw up close the extent people will go to keep control, from lying to violence to death. The injustice of it all feels more real than the stories. They once believed Jesus was the messiah and would write a new chapter in God’s great story with another great ending. Instead, they watched him crucified, dead, and buried, while they and the other people did nothing to stop it.

The women came and told them a new story. They say the tomb was empty and angels appeared to them and spoke to them saying Christ is risen. But when the men went to see for themselves, all they found was an empty tomb. If they can’t believe the stories they’ve heard all their lives, how can they believe the silly new story a few of the women are telling?

That’s why these two are dragging their feet along the road away from Jerusalem. That’s why they were so frustrated, and stopped dead in their tracks when the man asked them “What things happened?” “Story-breaking things,” they reply.

But by the end of the day, they didn’t feel like that anymore. They weren’t skeptical, cynical, dragging their feet. They were turning to each other and beaming, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, and telling us the old stories again.”

That’s why we are here today. We are here to hear the old stories of God’s love, and God’s leading of God’s people to a community on earth as it is in heaven that is good, holy, pure, and peaceful, hospitable, generous, abundant, and just.

In this pandemic, we’ve seen plenty of evidence the world is more concerned with some keeping way more than enough, than it is with everyone having enough. We’ve seen executive pay and stock dividends hit record highs as the poorest scrape by. We’ve seen families lose their income due to illness, then lose their home due to medical bills. We’ve seen children and families on the run from Pharaoh make it through a desert to the promises of America just to be captured and jailed. We’ve seen people die from sickness, from violence, sometimes even at the hands of our authorities. It would make perfect sense to drag our feet and lose our patience with anyone who isn’t upset and cynical because of all the injustices.

Then, here we are, listening to the old stories again, finding our hearts rewarmed and reminded that this God is bending all creation towards love, justice, and peace. Whatever power we though death had, death under racism, or death under COVID, or death under poverty, this God is revealing those pointless deaths will not be the end of God’s kingdom coming for all God’s children.

That’s what we are doing here. We were travelling a road. And now we find ourselves listening like children again, as God speaks to us the amazing stories and reminds us the greatest ending that was only the beginning. “Once upon a time, Jesus. They crucified him. He died. But he rose again.” That’s why we are here. In the retelling of this story we beat back the powers of sin and death, and we remember this God loves, forgives, and calls all people to one holy community.

Maybe you drug your feet a bit to get here. Maybe you came out of habit or didn’t really think about it. Maybe you came with family, but not for yourself. Maybe life has smudged the magic of these stories for you. I pray that today God’s Word gives you hope, and you begin again to believe the good stories are still very true. May your heart be warmed. And here, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, may Christ’s love for you be so real you can taste it.

To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.


Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.

Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown

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