April 3, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
More Than Answers
If you ever watch any TV detective shows, you might be familiar with that moment just a few minutes before the end. Suddenly, the lead detective notices a suspicious smudge on a coffee cup, or a person in the foreground of a photograph, or a baby toy in the trash that shouldn’t be there… If you’re watching the detective, you’ll see all the lights go on as they prepare to speak the four most satisfying words: “Here’s how it happened…” And you can bet the next thing is a series of flashbacks highlighting all the clues that lead up to this moment. And who doesn’t love this, right?
This is the part when we look back over the past hour, and it all begins to make sense. See this is why she was talking to that guy at the coffee shop, why you could tell the IT guy was in on it the whole time… This is the moment when I can look back and see what I got right and what I missed, the moment so thrilling and satisfying, when things make perfect sense. And who doesn’t love it when a story fits into an hour and makes perfect sense.
But after everything makes sense, then what? Because what if there’s more…
Today our scripture comes to us from the Gospel of Luke. The action starts late in the afternoon on the same day the women found the tomb empty. Two of Jesus’ followers are walking on the road to Emmaus. And as you’d expect, they’re trying to make sense of things, but they are thick in the throes of grief. The one whom they thought was the Messiah, the one whom they thought would lead the revolution and usher in the promise of God, he was killed two days ago. Now his body is missing; maybe the whole promise was a sham.
Along comes a stranger who begins walking with them, and they think he must have been living in a cave to be so oblivious to what happened. (Of course, we know he is the risen Lord, who must look really different being resurrected and all.) The two disciples politely explain the recent events to this stranger. They say they had hoped Jesus would be the one to set the people free. They say the women surprised everyone by saying he was alive —ah, remember those delirious women?
Well this is too much for Jesus to take. “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe!” Beginning with Moses, Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in the scriptures: “Here’s how it happened…” Because who doesn’t love it when things make perfect sense.
Now right before Jesus launches into this series of flashbacks highlighting all the clues that lead up to the reveal, he asks these disciples a question which exposes the agenda of this Gospel writer. The question is this: Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things then enter into his glory? Was it not necessary? As though we’re being set up for the answer, “Of course it was necessary.”
But I need to tell you, I’m not sure that it was. I’m not sure that it wasn’t either. I know the Messiah did suffer these things then enter into glory, but whether Jesus had to be crucified? That is a different question. Wherever you come down on this, I invite you to join me in wondering, because there might be something more.
In our scripture today, we hear the agenda of this Gospel writer, and I’m thinking this writer would subscribe to a certain five-word phrase many of us say to each other and try to believe. It goes like this: “Everything happens for a reason.” That’s what they say. In my view, this popular saying holds together a troubling proposition and a beautiful impulse toward hope.
On the one hand, if it’s true that everything happens for a reason, this implies, the thing that happened had to happen. Like it was required by God. Like it was necessary to fulfill an eternal plan that cannot be changed. And if this is true, what does this say about our God?
What if God is still creating the universe, still dreaming up plans? What if God is growing and groaning toward a vision so much greater than a perfectly sensible plan? What is there’s more…
I can’t tell you everything that happens, happens for a reason. What I have definitely seen is the determination to look back on a crisis and find meaning in that event. This is the holy work that occurs when those parents proclaim her death will not be in vain. We will launch a campaign to end bullying so no other parent has to go through what we went through. This is not saying her death was required by God. This is saying her death will save the lives of other teenagers. You can believe in that, because we will make sure that happens.
So I’m not convinced that everything happens for a reason; the reason might have to come later. But something I appreciate about the intention of this saying is how it harbors a beautiful impulse toward hope. It carries the unspoken promise that goes, “We don’t know what the reason is, but we might know some day.”
Some greater scheme is afoot… More shall be revealed, and we’ll understand it better by and by. I love this! This is that creasing line between the sea and the sky where all we can see is the promise of all we can’t see, as though the very promise of God is still coming to light. Who knows what it might illuminate one day?
Who knows how we might forgive or change our minds? Because that is precisely what’s at stake. When I look back and see what I got right and what I missed, what becomes very clear, is how my thinking has changed. I don’t believe all the same things today that I believed twenty years ago. Some things that were important to me then aren’t so important now; there are things that matter to me now, I never thought I’d care about. I wonder if you can relate…
My perspective has changed, the world has changed, and this is good news. The better news is that this could keep happening. Our minds are ever opening toward the infinite love of God; we can always know better.
We can do this because this church will love you even when you change your mind. We will be a community where we don’t just gather to rehearse our agreement, but where we celebrate how God is calling us in new directions. Today we will celebrate with a man, who ten years ago did not get ordained because he struggled with the way ordination sets some people apart. Except maybe it doesn’t have to, because the church can change. And so can we. And so can God. There is more truth to be revealed; more light to break forth.
Recently, the engineer Robert Ebeling passed away. Thirty years ago, he worked for the company that NASA contracted in building the Challenger space craft. Right before the launch, he realized there would be a problem. See, the rubber rings were not designed for cold weather; in the cold they would turn brittle and not hold the seal. He knew this, and he spoke up, but his concerns were not heard. Robert Ebeling watched the launch and began shaking and sobbing seventy-three seconds later when the Challenger exploded.
Ebeling carried excruciating guilt for all these years. In a January interview with NPR, he insisted that God made a mistake by making him the engineer on this project. As though God had a plan, and it failed. As though this was some kind of test that he failed. Looking back, the story is awful. There are elements that make sense scientifically, but it is awful.
Looking forward there is so much more to this story… When the NPR report aired, Ebeling’s former co-workers learned he was still carrying this guilt. They reached out to him and assured him it was not his fault. Hundreds of emails and letters arrived at Ebeling’s home offering words of forgiveness, each letter chipping away at his guilt. His former supervisor contacted him and explained that Ebeling had done everything that he could. Hear the growing chorus: It was not your fault. It was not your fault
In response to this outpouring of support, Robert Ebeling changed his mind. Then a few weeks later, he died. He could finally let go. Currently, the incident of his whistleblowing is used as a case study for engineering students. Who knows how many lives might be saved because of what we’ve learned?
Who knows how many lives might be changed by a note of forgiveness?
Jesus encounters the disciples on the road to Emmaus and interprets the scriptures for them, so looking back, the truth becomes clear. But there is more to the story… They persuade Jesus to come and eat with them. He breaks the bread, and vanishes from their sight, and they begin to see the edge of a promise they never imagined. The one who died, came back, and defeated death; now he has come to be with us.
May we continue encountering Christ, and eating with him, being there on the road or in the room when he shows up. And I promise you this: More truth shall be revealed. More light shall break forth. God is more and more, and so much more than answers. May it be so. Amen.