Embodied Presence

As is often the case with our scripture readings, we are entering the scene mid-story. In this case, Jesus has just appeared to two travelers on the road to Emmaus, and they figured out who he was when he broke the bread with them. Even though they had been walking some miles and the hour was late, the two travelers jumped up and hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples, who say in turn, “Yes, Jesus also appeared to Simon Peter!” And then, even as they are standing there discussing such a mystery, he appears in their midst.


The writer of the Gospel of Luke is at pains to say that Jesus is not a ghost but flesh and blood, embodied presence. He shows them his wounds. He asks for something to eat. The disciples see him, hear him, touch him. He eats, he talks, he teaches. He is not a resuscitated Christ, because if he were just brought back to life, he would have to die again at some point. Rather, he is the resurrected Christ who has moved beyond death, who has appeared to a number of them in different places on the same day. He is embodied presence, and he is everywhere.


One of the greatest fears that we humans have is being abandoned, disconnected, truly alone. Putting a prisoner in solitary confinement is one of the worst things we can experience. People can go crazy in such circumstances. We are social creatures. We want to be loved, to belong, to be accepted and connected. When we’re teenagers, the pressure to be cool and part of the in crowd is intense. Being rejected—especially at that age, but really at any age—is enormously painful.


The disciples are feeling abandoned. Jesus has died. It is a time of deep grief, fear, and confusion; they don’t know how to move through it or what will happen next. How do they connect to God without Jesus to show the way?


Then Jesus shows up in their midst. So to those intense emotions of grief, fear, abandonment, and confusion, add terror, wonderment, joy, and disbelief. The disciples are running the gamut of emotions. And it seems disingenuous of Jesus to say, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38). Come on, Jesus—would you really expect anything else?


After he has eaten some broiled fish, he teaches them. It’s the same message he taught and preached while he was alive, but it carries more weight now. When your teacher comes back from the dead for an extra class session, you pay attention. He says that suffering and dying are part of the deal, but that is not the end of the story. He says that repentance and forgiveness are abiding themes not just for the Jews but for all nations—for everyone, everywhere. And this is true not only across borders but throughout time. Repentance and forgiveness are for you and me, too.


What are we to make of this scene?


I would like to explore two themes that run through it: repentance, and connection. Repentance not only of personal failings but of societal disconnection, “othering,” keeping separate. Here I’m thinking of yet more deaths of people of color at the hands of police: Daunte Wright, a young Black man pulled over for—what was the offense? Having a tail light out? Having something hanging from his rear-view mirror? Because that’s worth an officer pulling out a taser or a gun, right? And I’m thinking of the 13-year-old boy running from police, tossing away a gun, raising his hands—and getting shot right in the chest.


In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander talks about how systemic it is for police to pull over people of color for tail lights, expired license tabs, failing to signal at a turn. Last December, US Army 2nd Lieutenant Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, was pulled over by two police officers in Windsor, Virginia, for driving without a rear license plate. It was a brand-new car; the temporary license was in the rear window. Right where it’s supposed to be. He pulled over at a well-lit gas station. The two officers approached with guns drawn, gave him conflicting orders to keep his hands up and get out of the car (how do you undo your seatbelt with your hands up?), sprayed him in the face with pepper spray or tear gas, and then put him face down on the ground and kicked and hit him. According to the lawsuit he has filed, the police body cameras “captured footage of behavior consistent with a disgusting nationwide trend of law enforcement officers, who, believing they can operate with complete impunity, engage in unprofessional, discourteous, racially biased, dangerous and sometimes deadly abuses of authority.” (Police pull guns on and spray Black-Latino Army officer during traffic stop, lawsuit says - ABC News (go.com))


This is the burden that our fear and our hate and our “othering” places upon people of color. We are disconnected from each other, from people who look or act different, who have different skin color. Whether we as individuals have actually pulled the trigger or just sat in silence and done nothing while Black people are murdered, as a society we are called to repent of our racist past and find a way toward forgiveness and connection.


Connection: What does that look like in the midst of a pandemic? On Friday I got to stand in a long line at Island Drug in Oak Harbor to receive my first COVID-19 vaccine. We were outside on an unusually warm day. There were two lines: those who had appointments for specific times, and walk-ins who got to receive vaccines when all the people with appointment times were done. I was in the walk-in line. We snaked down the side of the building, all across the back, and then doubled back through the parking lot. Very long line, and for the first hour or so it didn’t move at all. But people understood, and there was a certain level of excitement in the air because we were all there to get the vaccine—finally! One volunteer came out and gave us updates, asked if anyone needed sunscreen or water. A store employee grabbed their entire stock of umbrellas and handed them out to people who were getting overheated in the hot sun. We all shared what information we had down the line. Eventually our line started to move, and we all got our shots. Even without knowing the names of the people around me, I felt a sense of community and support. I felt connected. With total strangers. I’ve been living apart from people for so long now, it was good to know I still could figure out how to interact with people.


What if community could be like this all the time? You need some sunscreen? Water? Umbrella? Information? We will make that happen! Awesome! What if Black people got that kind of a welcome? Instead of being pulled over and searched or pepper sprayed or shot for Driving While Black? In this time of reexamining how we as a society want police to function, there is apparently a new law in the works that would prohibit police from pulling over cars that smell of marijuana, because the only cars that were getting pulled over had Black and Brown drivers. That’s not right. That’s racial profiling. We need to do better.


It’s not just the police. They have hard, dangerous jobs. The adrenaline gets going, they have to make split-second decisions based on incomplete information. And racism is so embedded in the air we breathe, that it comes to the fore in such moments. We aren’t police officers. But we breathe that same racist air, too.


Another instance where we could use some collective repentance and connection is in our relationship with the rest of Creation. Earth Day is coming up this Thursday, April 22. Our national leaders are holding a climate summit to signal that we’re ready to get back into the conversation about climate change and figure out what we can do. But meanwhile we have over 410 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The target, you may recall, is to be under 350.


Throughout his ministry, Jesus has shared meals with people: Pharisees and tax collectors alike, thousands of people who came to hear him preach and to eat loaves and fishes together. He turns water into wine to celebrate a wedding. He creates communion with his disciples by sharing bread and wine and describing it as an embodiment of him, his divine presence. He takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it. He connects people through food.


Our food connects us to each other, to the land, to the planet. Jesus eats a piece of broiled fish. Beyond death, he is still connected to creation. That fish connects to water, without which nothing grows. We, however, with all our modern conveniences, are not so connected to our water, our land, our food. Our water must be clean and healthy. Our fish must be harvested sustainably, not overfished, not blocked by multiple dams, not dying by the thousands in rivers that have become too warm to survive. Our plant crops must be grown sustainably. You don’t hear Jesus talk about eating local, organic, in season. There was no other way to eat in his day. Now we spray pesticides—poisons—on our crops to keep the bugs away, but then those poisoned bugs poison the birds as well, and the soil gets stripped of its nutrients and filled with so much poison that when it washes into Midwestern streams, and those streams connect to the Mississippi, and the Mississippi dumps into the Gulf of Mexico, there is a dead zone around the mouth of the Mississippi that is sometimes as big as Connecticut or New Jersey. A whole state’s worth of water too toxic to support life. But that’s the price of growing our food using pesticides.


We can do better. We can connect to our food—where it’s grown, how it’s grown, how the land and water are treated, how far our food has to travel to reach us. That’s why we’re starting an enormous garden on my five acres on Whidbey. We can connect with each other over food. Last Tuesday a number of you who are fully vaccinated gathered over a brown bag lunch and reconnected in person. One person said she left feeling high, because it was so good to see people face to face in the same room.


Most of you know that I live on my friend Catherine’s sheep farm while I build a house next door. On Monday night, I went down to the pasture after Bible study, around 9:00pm, to bring the sheep into the barn for the evening. The sheep gathered at the gate. I counted heads. Thirteen. One missing. I counted again, because of course they keep moving around. Still thirteen. The one who was missing was the one who looked ready to deliver twins. She was huge and had been moving slowly. Catherine is away right now, so it was up to me to find the ewe and get her into the barn. I put the other sheep in the barn and came back to the pasture with a flashlight, as it was now dark. And there, under an enormous cedar tree, was the ewe, with two beautiful dark brown babies, little splashes of white on their foreheads. The first one was cleaned off; the second was still a little slick, but they were both on their feet and tottering around. I tucked one lamb under each arm and headed for the barn. I stooped so that Mama could see her lambs, because sheep don’t know to look up for their babies, so if you hold the baby up by your shoulder, the mama might turn around and go back to look for it. So I held them low, and she followed me all the way to the barn. I got them into a special pen in the barn so that they could have some time to bond apart from the flock.


These twin babies are a little girl and an even littler boy. Mama loves the little girl, but she has no use for the little boy. This happens sometimes. When he tries to nurse, she shoos him away. So all week I have gotten to wrestle this mama sheep to make her stand still multiple times a day so that her baby boy can nurse. Being a new creature, he’s not always sure where to go to connect to Mama. He has tried nursing just about everywhere: off her armpit, off his sister, off my knee—he’s not picky. But of course those don’t feed him. So I wrestle Mama into position, with my arms locked around her neck, my knee jammed into her sternum. And then I nudge him near the udder, and he finds the teat and starts to suck. In that moment the mom settles down, and the two of them connect in this primal way. And I’m a part of it somehow. I feel connected to something across species, across generations, across cultures.


Repentance, forgiveness, and reconnection are at the core of the risen Christ’s message. We are not alone. God never abandons us. When we repent of such societal ills as racism and toxic use of Creation, we open the path to forgiveness, which in turn opens the possibility of connection across peoples, across differences, across species. We learn to see the divine presence embodied everywhere. It is all holy. May we know it to be so. Amen.


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