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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Safely to Arrive

Wandering Heart, a Lent/Easter sermon series, Easter morning, using the life of Peter beside Jesus and the hymn “Come Thou Fount”, from, preached March 31, 2024



For six weeks, the season of Lent, we’ve been travelling with two friends… one, the disciple Peter, and two, the song “Come Thou Fount.” We‘ve heard several of Peter’s moments with Jesus, his faith and confusion, his promises and denial. We’ve sung phrases from the song, like… Jesus Sought Me when a stranger when Jesus called Peter, O to Rescue Me from Danger when Peter sank in the stormy waters, Praise the Mount when Peter went up a mountain with Jesus, I'm Fixed Upon It when Peter couldn’t accept what might happen, Teach Me when Jesus scolded Peter, calls for Songs of Loudest Praise when the people sang Hosanna on Palm Sunday… Then Maundy Thursday night, Prone to wander Lord I feel it, as Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.

Today, two more friends walk beside us. Let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord from…

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 Jesus 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] would suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As the three came near the village to which they were going, Jesus walked ahead as if he were 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 Jesus 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 on 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 (and) They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then the two told what had happened (to them) on the road and how Jesus had been revealed to them in the breaking of the bread…

This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God.

Sermon Safely to Arrive

Jesus doesn’t start with Easter. He starts with what people do and do not know about God and God’s intentions, what they do and do not remember. Then, Jesus teaches. Sometimes he tell an old story we’ve forgotten or ignored, or never learned. Sometimes he unteaches something we have learned or remembered incorrectly. The point of his teaching or unteaching is not the knowledge or memory itself, what used to be. It is always to reveal the presence of God now and the promise of God’s kingdom. Seeing God and God’s kingdom in stories from our past helps recognize God and God’s kingdom in the present, and helps imagine and trust the fullness of God and God’s kingdom in the future.

So, on this Easter morning, I can’t start with Easter. Let’s do a little experiment. I’d like to ask us some questions, to see what we do and do not know or remember, and what we may think we know but misremember. Just respond honestly.

Let’s start at the beginning. The oldest stories we have of people trying to understand God, are in the first book of our Bible. Raise a hand if you know what that book is called… Genesis? The first five books of our Bible has several names… the Torah or the Pentateuch. Raise a hand if you could you name those first five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy? Great, thank you. Come on yall, play along. Be honest with yourself and with each other. This is not a house of judgment but of grace.

Now Genesis is about the growth of a special corner of God’s people until there is trouble, a famine, and they lean on a neighbor. The next book Exodus is them being oppressed and enslaved and escaping that neighbor. Raise a hand if you know which neighbor oppresses and enslaves them, Egypt? And who do we talk about as leading the people out of Egypt, Moses? That’s Genesis and Exodus.

The other three books are about their life after Egypt in the wilderness, the desert. Do you remember how long we say it took in the wilderness… two generations, 40 years? Did you know and remember where God was taking them, the phrase for the place they were going, the Promised Land? You’re doing great.

Now in the promised land, they ask for a King. Do you know what the scriptures say God says about their request for a king? Something like, “You don’t need a king. In asking for a King, you are rejecting me. A king will just tax you, and divide you, and take you to war.” The people still wanted a king, and they choose one.

Who was the first King of these people, Saul? Who was the little boy with the slingshot that split the people into sides for or against Saul and became king next, David? Which of David’s sons was “wise” enough to become king next, Solomon? Do you know what happened after Solomon? Did you know, remember the people of the Promised Land split themselves in two, by civil war, after Solomon? That’s around 930 BCE. What was the northern kingdom called, Israel? What was its capital city, Samaria? What is the southern kingdom called, Judah? And what is its capital city, Jerusalem?

Those kind of stories are in scripture after the Torah, after they are in the Promised Land, in two sections, called the prophets and the writings. They mostly tell stories, and give warnings, and wisdom, and remind the people under a king how to stay true to God, and to love self and neighbors and be God’s shining light to all people. But more often the stories describe how the people didn’t listen.

The prophets warn both kingdoms to do community like God taught, or you will fall. In 722 BCE, the northern kingdom was conquered and the people were exiled by which empire, the Assyrians? Around 586 BCE, the southern kingdom was conquered and the people were exiled into the desert by which empire, the Babylonians? We believe the Hebrew Bible was assembled into its current collection after those attacks, in the wilderness, as if to say, we should have listened to the old stories, the prophets. We should write them down, so we never forget again.

Around 536 BCE, which empire invited the people to come back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, the Persians? And did you know many considered the King of Persia, Cyrus, to be the Messiah because of that? Okay, no more questions. You’ve done great, thank you. When Jesus was walking down the road with those two, this is the story he had to retell them. So I needed to make sure you knew it too.

Now Genesis is only one-fifth of the Pentateuch. Let’s call Genesis the good years, the birth and growth phase of a special community of God. The other four-fifths, the rest of the Torah, are about struggle. Some of the struggle comes on them from the world, like famine. Some struggle comes on them from others, like Pharaoh. Some struggle comes on them from inside themselves, when they worship other Gods, or lie, kill, cheat, steal, covet, yet they always get help and guidance and forgiveness from God. In the oldest story, the birth and growth phase is about one-fifth, and the rest is struggle to believe and trust and follow God, God’s ways and wisdoms, more than our own designs and desires.

Those first five books, the Torah, are only about one-fifth of the whole Hebrew Bible. In the Torah, God is setting up the arrival of God’s people into the next version of the garden, the great community, the “Promised Land.” The rest of the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets and the Writings are mostly voices trying to get the people to remember what God said to the people before us, how to be a godly community, and did for them, guided them and forgave them, and loved them, all so the people in the present might trust God is still wanting that from us, and is teaching and guiding us today. But so often the stories were told and forgotten, the lessons were taught and ignored, the warnings were given and dismissed. Or worse, the stories were twisted and misused, misremembered to build a bigger religioin or temple, a bigger military or economy.

We still tell the old stories to remember what God did for and taught and promised our ancestors. God taught them how to move forward together and how to live together in more perfect community of love, justice, and peace. Even though they often failed and suffered the consequences, God stayed faithful even when the people didn’t. That same God is still calling and teaching us, remembering us, even when we forget.

And that’s the purpose of the Scriptures. God didn’t create us to stroke God’s ego, so God would have a big following who respects and obeys God. That wouldn’t be love. We were created in love by God, by love itself, so we could know and experience love ourselves. That’s what love does if its real love, not some fake substitute. Love shares, multiplies, gives itself and in so doing grows more love.

The Scriptures aren’t holy because God or Moses wrote them, or because they are really old. They are holy because they tell us who God is and always has been, what God has done and is still doing, what God wants for us, and how we can more fully enjoy and participate in and grow God’s love, God’s loving community.

But notice, the Hebrew Bible is unbalanced. It’s one-fifth God’s wisdom and guidance, God’s love and promises, and then four-fifths the reminding and reteaching we need, and the struggling and suffering and consequences we cause on ourselves and others when we forget or misremember.

The two on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus were forgetting or were misremembering. So, Jesus tells the oldest stories again.

God created a perfect community of justice, peace, and love. We’ve never seen it. None of our ancestors ever held it. We were all given it at the garden, but we lost it when we chose our own wisdom and wants over God’s. God has wandered with us pointing us toward garden, promised land, the Kingdom of God, and God has given us little tastes of it. Sometimes, when we get desperate or hungry enough for it, we’ve promised God and each other we will do better. We will remember. We will teach the next generation. We will try only God’s ways. But, then we get scared or greedy, or lazy, or angry, and we fall back to other ways, other wisdoms.

Instead of trusting God’s way leads to fullness of life, we make other choices. And we justify those other choices under the guise of protecting our safety, or accelerating progress. Instead of believing God’s wisdom, we take other actions under the guise of enhancing our economy, honoring tradition, or insuring victory.

God creates a garden. We want something else. God takes us to a promised land. We want a king and walls and guards at the gates. God promises a beloved community of life and peace, and even shows us how to live it, how to be it. Yet, we like our countries, parties, religions a bit more. We are called into the light and love of God’s community. It is for us, but it won’t be just for us. It will shine through us, beyond us as a light to the ends of the earth and people will come from north south east and west through wide open gates and join God’s way of doing love, justice, peace, and community with one another instead of trying over and over again all the other ways we’ve ever tried and suffered.

And this one person, Jesus of Nazareth, a Palestinian Jew spoke about God’s loving community, and dared to act as if it was possible, even true. He touched and healed lepers. He lifted up those northern traitors Samaritans as examples. He included women and welcomed children. He broke the bonds of slavery and set the prisoners free. He walked into he temple and flipped over their money tables, and challenged us all to be more generous to God’s purposes than we are to our taxes. He embarrassed the religious teachers who tried to draw hard moral lines between one sinful child of God and another. He stood between angry mobs with rocks and one caught in adultery. He ate with tax collectors. He took bread from those who had enough and fed thousands of people who didn’t have enough. He put his arm around a Roman centurion. And he called those who preached law and order hypocrites, because they weren’t trying to build God’s Kingdom, just protect some other kingdom, maybe even their own, and they were twisting the old stories to do it.

Sure, God’s way, God’s wisdom seems so naïve and vulnerable next to the wealth and power of empires like Egypt, or Assyria, or Babylon, or Persia, or Rome, or America. But God’s way is THE way to peace, justice, and love. Sure, Jesus was only revealing what the stories of scripture have always said about God and God’s beloved community. But those who have money or power want to keep what they already have more than they want God’s kingdom. And others who don’t have money or power want a leader who will promise to take it away from those who do and give it to us.

Jesus did takes sides, but always the side of the Kingdom of God. Those in power felt threatened, and those without power did not feel championed. They ended up together, forgetting or misremembering or ignoring the promises of God’s beloved community. Jesus was arrested, questioned, crucified, dead, and buried.

But on the third day, he rose again. In him, the Kingdom and power and love of God cannot die. No empire can kill it. No group can own it for their own private benefit. Its bigger than any one people, one religion, one nation. Its bigger than any military, or economy, or philosophy. Its bigger than any founding document, or law, or protest, or revolution. Its bigger than death itself. In Jesus, the love of God and the promised community of God is again, as always, already here and coming.

Like Jesus did with those two on the road, I can’t preach Easter unless we learn or remember or relearn all of this. Then, maybe, in light of the ancient story, which was true, is true, and always will be true, Easter might just begin warming our hearts. We might just recognize its possibility and potential, recognize him in the breaking of the bread. We might not wander home as if today is just another day, but maybe, just maybe, we turn and begin telling each other and everyone we meet. Its all true. Its all possible. He is risen. Let’s believe him, and trust him, and follow him until all arrive in the Garden, the Promised Land.




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 forever more. Amen? Amen.

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