Recognizing Jesus on the Road Now

People of God,

We’ll make meaning out of all this later. Or as Olaf sings in Frozen 2, “This will all make sense when I am older!” I wish, Olaf, I wish that were true. We will interpret and spin what God did throughout this crisis, for us or through us, afterward. We will try to leave out the details that do not show us to advantage, and become the heroes of our own stories, the narrators of our own losses. Later.

Being paralyzed by sadness is understandable for awhile, though. When Jesus asked Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. That is a whole mood for many of us right now. We suspected it was coming, but still, the official announcement this week that students will not return to their school buildings for the rest of this school year in our state makes parents and kids alike inclined to stand around looking dumbfounded and sad. Do you not know what has happened? Of course that’s why we look this way, and are just standing here.

There are two phrases in the road to Emmaus story that are heart-breaking to me. The first is the travelers’ initial response to Jesus, about himself: “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” We had hopes too, for all of these milestones, and graduates walking across a crowded stage and growing old together with loved ones who are ill or have died, for the small business that has had to shut down and so many other things. All those hopes are dashed.

But the second phrase from this story that will not let go of my heart, Church, is the question asked in hindsight: “Were not our hearts burning within us (while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us)?” Jesus walked with these two through the valley of the shadow of death, and they want desperately to read back into their memories, after the fact, the idea that they really knew what was going on. It’s breaking my heart because I wonder about them and us: Will we be faithful only in hindsight, or in real time? Can we possibly recognize Jesus in the flesh while this is happening and let that recognition influence our actions and faith now? Or will it just be something we add to a story later, from the safe distance of memories?

Jesus is most certainly walking this road with us. He is an essential worker. A nurse. A delivery truck driver. A factory worker who stays at work for 28 straight days to make the parts needed for Personal Protective Equipment. But also, we can definitely recognize Jesus in the vulnerable ones whose most heroic act will be staying alive during quarantine, if they can. Victims of domestic violence, those struggling with mental illness, those who could not afford enough to eat before millions lost their jobs. Who do these children of God resemble, if not the terrifying vulnerability of Jesus Christ himself? The time to respond, seeing Jesus in those beside us on the road, is now.

Hindsight provides a warning, and if we did not have enough appreciation for historians before, the comparisons made to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 have been invaluable now. In an article for Sojourners this week called “Flattening the Curve of Xenophobia” (I’ll put a link in the comments), Robert P. Jones warned: “But if history has a lesson for us here, it is this: Where there is a massive wave of suffering and death, a second wave of racism and xenophobia is typically not far behind. Experiences of mass grief and economic stress easily generate a desire for someone to blame. This is especially true of events that defy logic, such as the randomness of illness.” So now, still on the road, is the time to see Christ in our neighbors, especially those we tend to look right thru, before they are made into scapegoats.

The world cannot wait for followers of Jesus to look back in hindsight and repent, or for us to get comfortable and sure enough of ourselves to realize, “Oooohhhhh…that’s where God was in all of this.” We know this already: God is revealed when we walk alongside people and ask them what is causing them such sorrow, truly listening. And not just for the ones who welcome us and consider us family, but for the folks we don’t often recognize as belonging us. How are communities of color experiencing this pandemic differently than white folks? The disparities are stark. How does an undocumented person working in a high-risk industry balance the need to put food on the table with the need to stay safe? What happens when a person experiencing homelessness falls ill? On whom can white, middle class people with phones and computers and the ear of our legislators put pressure to direct resources that will save lives? The faith-based organizing group Isaiah is advocating now to make it possible for everyone eligible to vote in next November’s elections. Most of you who will listen to this have a great deal more security and resources to share with those who have very little. Now is the time to be extremely intentional about sharing our time, expertise, voice, money and access to power. Those who control the narrative have enormous power. God can and will put us to work NOW to shape the way this story ends, once we recognize Jesus right in front of us.

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