Now that we are in the second month of social isolation and the third month of this pandemic, the implications are becoming clearer. This isn’t going away anytime soon and no one can claim any certainty about the trajectory of infections, sickness and death. We’re learning that anyone might be vulnerable and that the finest scientific and medical minds don’t know how best to treat the ill. We’ve experienced the chaos of our unpreparedness and of a confused governmental response to this threat.
At the same time the weather is improving. It’s often beautiful outside. Most of us are healthy and we’re anxious to be freed from lockdown, to return to jobs and activities, to visit with friends and family in person.
The U.S. Army developed an acronym for this type of situation in the 1990s in response to the collapse of the USSR. VUCA world, which stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It certainly applies now.
One of the suggestions I’ve read about how to cope with this new reality is by keeping a journal. Some have referred to the Diary of Anne Frank and others who wrote down the experiences of ordinary people during extraordinary times. The thinking is not just that it might be therapeutic to pour out one’s own thoughts and feelings in written form, but that the record of these might be helpful to generations of people who come after and have to face their own world-shattering experiences.
In order to cope, to make meaning, to gain strength, we turn to stories. We make connections through shared experiences.
Today we listened to a story of ordinary people experiencing the extraordinary. This account has been passed down through the centuries and is both familiar and fresh. It’s one of my most favorite passages from Scripture and the one my husband has requested to be read at his funeral, hopefully many years in the future.
Two companions, Cleopas and another who may be his wife, have just departed Jerusalem after the death and burial of Jesus. As his disciples, it was no longer safe for them in the city. It was a volatile time politically and any religious or political threat had to be suppressed, violently if necessary. The future was uncertain for the movement that had gathered around the Rabbi from Galilee. All their hopes were dashed when he was brutally crucified. Their leadership was in disarray and their hopes had been crushed.
On top of everything else, some of the women who followed Jesus and went to the tomb to attend his body reported that they encountered angels and a risen Jesus. Was he dead? Was he alive? Had he really died? Their situation was volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous so they beat feet out of town.
On the way they pick up a stranger, one who at first seems clueless about the crazy, dangerous state of things. But this stranger does know their stories. He reminds them of all they heard over the years from the holy writings, all the promises of God and the ways that God interacts with humanity. In a time of uncertainty they can draw on what they have already learned and know. That God creates what is good. That God does not abandon the people. That God will deliver them and keep the promise, a promise for good and not for evil, for a future and a hope.
How comforting it must have been to hear again the stories that formed and shaped them. They didn’t want to part company so they invited him to a meal. At the time of the traditional Jewish prayer over the meal, this stranger takes the bread, blesses and breaks it and in that moment, their confusion becomes clarity. The strange tales of the women are affirmed as real. The paradoxical possibility that Jesus might both have died and now be alive and present is suddenly revealed.
This story is one that has nurtured Christian faith and practice from the beginning. Breaking bread together has been the Church’s chief act of worship and remembrance. The risen Christ is made known both in Scripture and in the meal, the ritual of the Eucharist. This meal has been depicted at the heart of the life of the Church for centuries.
And now, many of us are not able to share in this meal or to share any meal except with those we are with in isolation. Are you getting hungry for the sacrament? Are you missing gathering with others? The food available to-go may be good and nourishing, but most of the pleasure of eating with others, even the companionship of strangers, is missing. One does not live by bread alone.
This favorite story, about the centrality of the Eucharist, could leave us feeling sad and cut-off if that were all it was about, but our current situation opens up new insight and encouragement. For instance, did you notice that the minute they recognize the stranger as their beloved Jesus, alive and well, he disappears?
Like Mary at the tomb, they probably wanted to hold onto him, to prolong the contact and spiritual high. In fact one of them could have kept him occupied while the other went out to send messages to other disciples to invite them to come to the place where the meal was held. Maybe they could expand the building, set up an altar, keep Jesus there inside that room for anyone who might be willing to come as a newcomer or visitor.
Instead he is off, going on ahead of them, leading the way from fear to faith, from death into life. He cannot be contained and they are being called to follow where he leads. I love that they get up after having walked 7 miles from Jerusalem and immediately turn around to walk back. They can’t wait to get together with the disciples to share the good news. They are willing to risk questioning and persecution in order to celebrate the presence of the risen one. They want to share their story and hear if anyone else has had similar experiences. They will be formed as community as they gather around Scripture and the meal. They will be strengthened to love God and their neighbor as they share their Jesus stories.
We are living in a VUCA world filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In the middle of all of this there are stories of faith, courage, love and sacrifice. Stories that will form and sustain us for the future and hold us together in the present. Sometimes they will be stories of the frankly heroic, the medical staff who return daily to a chaotic hospital to care for the desperately ill. The captains, whistleblowers and leaders who tell the truth and stand up for what is right despite the risk to their careers. The minimum wage workers who clean, serve and care for others in spite of the difficulties they are facing.
Most of these will be stories of ordinary people in extraordinary times. They will be found in journals and accounts as people treat one another with patience and kindness even when under duress. They will be about those who keep putting one foot in front of the other even though they are exhausted and depressed. There will be those who made masks, delivered meals, picked up groceries, checked up on an elderly neighbor or simply stayed 6 feet apart and wore a mask.
A few nights ago, I turned once again to one of my most favoritist stories, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein. Since I can’t concentrate enough to read an entire book, I watched one of the films. The second one is called the Two Towers and it’s never been my favorite. It’s dark and grim and it ends ominously without a conclusion and with very little hope. Everything is hanging by a thread.
The hero of the trilogy is not the Lord of the Rings. Instead it is two lowly and unknown hobbits, Frodo and his companion and gardener Sam. In the end it will come down to these unlikely characters to act faithfully, true to all they know is right and lovely and good. Just before setting out on their final journey through the land of the enemy, Sam has a moment to reflect and wonder how it will all end. In his short, humble speech the author voices his own reason for hope and endurance. Here’s Sam:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
These are the stories we will be called to tell when this is over. Keep listening for stories of promise and deliverance. Keep your eyes open for the revelation of the risen one in your midst. Keep holding onto what is true. And be ready to share your stories with others when we once again gather around the table.