April 26, 2020 – Never the Same

Texts:  Acts 2:14a, 36-41,  Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19,  1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35


I read yesterday about a Greek Drama class at Swarthmore, a small college in Pennsylvania. This class began the semester with meticulous research into The Women of Trachis, one of Sophocles less-known plays.

The class, with the assistance of one student who reads ancient Greek, even went back to the original text as they crafted their own translation and adaptation of this story of a wife’s revenge against an unfaithful husband.

This effort was meant to culminate in a performance of their version, but, like so many other things, Swarthmore’s campus is closed. Many of the students are in their homes around the country, even around the world, struggling to make the same adjustment to working, learning, socializing, even living remotely that so many are struggling with, even those of us who, like me, are still not entirely confidant that all of this technology is going to work…or is even correctly working right now. Are you still here?

And so, I assumed, when I started reading about this play that these students were going to perform, I assumed they would do something like this, over Zoom, to allow that audience experience, even if they had to make adjustments to have each person recording or streaming their bit from their home.

That isn’t what they did. The professor got permission from the school to go into the theater and set up a computer and a projector. The students each recorded versions of their parts using whatever they had on hand. And, at 8 pm on Friday night, the professor, who was also the director, started the videos in an empty theater. The director wasn’t even there—the computer was set up to start remotely. No cameras recorded the projection. The videos are not online. The end result is a performance seen by no one.

The director did this because he sees this moment as one of great change for theatre, particularly stage productions, the experience of which cannot be fully recreated outside of the theatre.

I used to do tech—mostly lighting, electrics, some sound and occasional carpentry—in high school and college. Every night was different. Every night the audience brought a different energy into the room, and the cast and crew felt and fed off that energy. Even many TV shows, particularly sit-coms, record in front of a live audience, and those that don’t have other cast and crew members in the room to cue off of. And if any of you are watching TV now, particularly those shows who are recording from home, it is weird. You can see how much of it doesn’t quite work. Having the Swarthmore students do this play without an audience was a way to let them use the material they have been working on while acknowledging that it won’t quite work, and that the theatre will not be the same.

I know that’s true here as well. I know for many of you, this just doesn’t quite work, and so I want to say thank you for taking the time, whether you are with us live on Sunday morning or are watching the video later, thank you for giving your time. Thank you to Emily for recording herself reading our scripture passages today, to Alana for offering our prelude, and to the many others who have contributed music, readings, and other parts of the service. Weaving together their pre-recorded pieces with me standing here, talking to you live (well, for those of you who ARE watching this live Sunday morning and not watching the video or listening to the audio later) is one of the more complex parts of worship in this format, but it’s a challenge I take on gladly.

I could simplify it somewhat by pre-recording myself and then combining everything later—in fact, I will be doing exactly that in about an hour. It would also help to avoid some of the technical hiccups—if, for example, I forgot to unmute myself again, it would just be a matter of doing another take…of course, there wouldn’t be much reason to mute myself at all, since I’d just be recording me, and even if I did, I could always edit it out later.

The only part where pre-recording everything would make my life harder is that it would force me to finish writing sooner…which Katherine would appreciate, so let’s call that a wash.

I keep gathering us, at least, those of us I can gather, for live worship via Zoom for two reasons. First, whenever I record something, there’s always the fear no one will watch it. That I’m just speaking into the void. With Zoom (and with other livestreaming platforms as well), I can glance at the screen and see how many people are watching or listening…or at least, I can see how many accounts there are—I know some of them have more than one person. I can’t tell if you are paying attention, but that would largely be true if you were sitting on these pews in front of me.

The second reason, which is vastly more important, is that coming together this way allows you all to talk to each other. I open the meeting up 30 minutes before worship because some of you have started joining that early and using the time to talk to each other. I leave the meeting open after worship for the same reason. When we were still meeting in person, you weren’t coming just to listen to me, or whoever else might have been preaching. Most of you were coming to be part of a community. I’m still looking for ideas of how to foster our community while we are maintaining public health precautions, and I’d love to hear your ideas. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be following these precautions. I suspect we may see them come and go, being eased and tightened again as conditions change. I am certain that when we do come back, it won’t be the same.

But, no matter how much we might feel that this moment is one of great change, change is nothing new. There have been watershed moments before, and that is what we are here to talk about today.

Our Gospel reading today takes place at roughly the same time as our story from last week. Last week, we read from John’s Gospel that, on the first day of the week, after reports that Jesus’ tomb was empty, the disciples minus Thomas had locked themselves in a room when Jesus appeared to them.

Today, we hear from Luke’s Gospel about two other disciples, not members of the eleven, so somewhat more removed, who were on their way to Emmaus on the same day. They had also heard reports that something strange was going on—that Jesus’ tomb was empty, but while some other members of the community had gathered together, locking themselves in because of their fear of the outside, these other two we hear about today instead skipped town.

This story doesn’t explicitly address their doubts in the way John’s account does, but we can’t pretend they weren’t there. They aren’t confidently proclaiming the resurrection, they are trying to make sense of it all, trying to understand what went wrong—we can see this in the way they first describe the events to Jesus as he starts walking with them – “a prophet mighty in word and deed.”  There’s nothing wrong with being a prophet. It’s a significant position, but for Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, prophet is a demotion. They say “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They have already switched to past tense. They then open the door to something else, telling about how first Mary, and then others from the group had gone to the tomb to find it empty, but they don’t know what to make of it. They are confused. They look around and see no change to the world around them, but they have felt a great change. They are leaving to see if they can find a way to get back to normal.

And then, Jesus starts talking. One of my friends from my time in Northern Ireland once gave a sermon on this text in which he described this walk as the “greatest Bible study of all time.” Of course, these disciples don’t recognize Jesus. The text is ambiguous, using the passive voice to say that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Many Biblical authors use passive voice to indicate that something was done by God—that God prevented them from recognizing Jesus.

And that is certainly possible, but I sometimes wonder if there might not be other reasons. These two heading to Emmaus aren’t part of the core community. They were on the edge, maybe even new members of the community without strong attachments to anyone else, which may have made it easier for them to leave the community. They may not have ever been all that close to Jesus before.

Add in to that the difficulty all of us have when we see someone out of context. Most of us have had that experience, where we see a teacher, or a colleague, or the gas station attendant in a different setting. When you see them at work, or school, or at the Sheetz, you know exactly who they are, you know their name, talk about their family, all of that, but the moment you see them somewhere else, say, the Food Lion, you are lost. This happens to all of us, and it’s worse the further away from the context you are. Imagine running into your postal carrier while you are visiting family out of state. I think about this when I hear one of the disciples, after Jesus has disappeared, “were not our hearts burning within us while he talked to us?”

But back to the walk. Jesus opens the scriptures to them, opening their minds to the truths that we struggle to scratch the surface of. This would have lasted for hours, but they are getting it directly from Jesus, and so when they finally do get to Emmaus, they aren’t done. They see that Jesus is going to keep going, so they beg him to stop with them. They finally take a break from this bible study to eat, and as Jesus takes the bread, blessed it, and broke it, they finally recognize him.

The Gospel writer doesn’t mention the wine, but I imagine it was still there. I read those words, “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” as an echo of the last supper. They had followed Jesus, they had learned from Jesus, and now they are receiving the sacrament from Jesus, and their eyes are finally opened.

They wonder how they couldn’t see it before, and then Jesus disappears. They know that nothing will ever be the same, that there will be no return to normal, but in Jesus they great that with joy, and instead of settling in for the night, they get up and start walking back to Jerusalem to greet whatever new equilibrium will come with joy.