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Third Sunday of Easter - April 23, 2023

Updated: May 8, 2023




May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart be wholly acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.


Please be seated.


Two disciples are headed down the road, talking over all that has happened over the past few days, and unbeknownst to them, they are joined by the risen Christ, whom they do not recognize, for “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).


I read several commentaries preparing for this sermon, and each and every one of them mentioned this line—“their eyes were kept from recognizing him”—and almost every one had pretty much the same joke to make:


“Imagine what an English teacher would say about that line!”


“No English professor would let this slide!”


To which this English professor can only reply:


“You better believe it.”


Oh my goodness! What terrible offense has that poor line committed that would so ruffle the feathers of the red-pencil set?


Well, this translation (along with lots of others) renders this moment in what we in the trade call a “passive voice construction.”


Now perhaps at some point in your educational journey, you had a sentence circled, probably fussily, on an essay of yours, with some scolding admonition scrawled alongside it in red—"avoid passive voice!”— the very ink itself radiating disappointment in your choices.


And, you probably wondered then, and you may be wondering now:


What does “passive voice” even mean? And what does it even matter?


Long story short, passive voice either subordinates—or removes entirely—the agent, the actor, the thing doing whatever is being done in the sentence.


“Their eyes were kept from seeing him”—by what? by whom?


A classic example I like to use when I teach passive voice is “Mistakes were made.”


Anybody who has ever been on the receiving end of an apology like that, “Well, mistakes were made,” I think will join me in testifying that that “apology” probably left them feeling . . . dissatisfied.


Why? Because there’s no ownership. There’s no clear actor here.


“Mistakes were made” is a loooooong way from


“I made mistakes.”


You hear the difference? Mistakes were made by whom? By me. I made them.


So yes, passive voice makes English professors grumpy, because we want clear attribution, declarative statements, unambiguous subjects in sentences. Passive voice can feel, as I tell my students, like a dodge. Like you’re manipulating me somehow, deliberately withholding essential information, unnecessarily obscuring things instead of making them clear.


So: does that mean I’m accusing the gospel writer of obfuscation? Of deliberately withholding essential information? Am I saying that this gospel writer KNEW WHY these men couldn’t recognize the risen Christ, and just isn’t telling us?


Well . . . no, I’m not. Because if I did, that would mean that I would have to find fault with a whole lot of resurrection stories in our Gospels, for not recognizing the risen Christ immediately is part and parcel of many tellings of the resurrection:

  • The passage from John that Deacon Tammy preached on last Sunday, the infamous “doubting Thomas” section of that gospel

  • Also from John, Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene

And our reading for today, the disciples on the road to Emmaus.


These men aren’t out for a pleasure stroll, and they aren’t just headed back to the house after a big few days in Jerusalem. They are retreating to Emmaus. All that they had hoped for out of Jesus of Nazareth seems to have been, at this moment, all for nought—for Jesus is gone. And so they head home, exhausted, filled with despair and confusion, and utterly overwhelmed.


Poet Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine, and a native of West Texas, has posed a potent and powerful question:


“How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?”


I don’t think anyone would want to argue that the disciples are not or should not be in this moment in this gospel story completely overwhelmed by their lives. How could they be anything other than overwhelmed? They have just watched the horrific execution of a man they loved and admired and trusted. A man in whom so much hope was placed: hope for deliverance and freedom. And now here they are, trudging along the road to Emmaus, trying to process what has happened and is still unfolding, with not one clue what to do next, other than get home.


From our chronological, geographical, cultural distance from these men, it would be awfully easy to wonder: why couldn’t they recognize him? He was right.there.


How easy it would be to say: “You just need to open your eyes and see!”


How easy it would be to write a sermon in which I exhort you: “God is right here! You just need to open your eyes and see!”


And you know what? If I were to say that to you—“You just need to open your eyes and see!”—I think that would be about as useful as saying to a depressed person:


“You just need to be happy.”


“You just need to not be sad.”


Here’s a pro tip for the young people here, or anybody else who may need it: any time someone says to you these four words—“you just need to”—I have the perfect response for you:


“You know what? You are exactly right. I do just need to . . . thank you for your time and leave this conversation.”


Because 99.9% of the time, whatever comes after “you just need to” is something that does not take into account the complexity of whatever you are experiencing, and says a great deal about someone else’s inability to deal with you where you are.


So I am most emphatically NOT going to say to you: “We just need to open our eyes and see God all around us!!!” Because I get it: sometimes, we find it very difficult indeed to “realize God in the midst of [our lives when we are] being overwhelmed by our lives.”


Seems to me, that if the disciples couldn’t see Christ in front of them, then maybe I should cut myself a little slack if I sometimes feel overwhelmed, and struggle to feel God’s presence.


And it also seems to me that we can take comfort—great comfort indeed—from a real beauty revealed in this gospel: that even though no one seemed to be able to sense Christ in their midst, that did not mean that He was not there.


Put another way: God’s presence mercifully does not depend on our ability to sense God’s presence.


And so rather than being a cheeky dodge on the part of the gospel writer, maybe that line—“their eyes were kept from recognizing him” and our subsequent question by what?—maybe that moment doesn’t withhold information, but instead, gently, through our curiosity and our empathy, gives us a way into this story, a way in which we can feel solidarity with these men in their moment of crisis. For while we have not walked that exact road on that exact day with those men, we have all walked paths of grief, of loss, of shame, of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, anger.


We all know, in our ways, what it is to be overwhelmed. But this moment in this gospel can give us such comfort—for no matter how overwhelmed we may be, no matter how uncertain or lost we may feel, that is in no way an indication that God is not with us.


God’s presence, mercifully, does not depend on our ability to sense God’s presence. God is with us. Always.


When the disciples do finally realize that Christ is among them again, it is during the breaking of the bread, one of the two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church: Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism. Today we celebrate both, as we come together to partake of the wafer and the wine and share in the witnessing and celebration of young Jhett Hart’s baptism.


Jhett, everyone in this room delights in your baptism today. We cannot wait to see where you go in this life, what wonderful things you do, for we do expect wonderful things. How could we not? Your love for and gifts with animals, your fierce skill at the chili pot—Un-huh. We watching. We all wait with baited breath for next year’s chili cookoff as you defend your title.


But inasmuch as we are excited about chili—and we are—even more importantly, we all share, as we will shortly affirm together, in a joy-filled pledge to “do all in our power to support you in your life in Christ.” You are so loved, young man. By your family, your church family, and by our God, who is always, always there.


Amen.



1 If you would like to see me in action in my day job explaining all the ends and outs of this phenomenon we call “passive voice,” here you go! https://wtamu.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=782a1b02-053c-46c0-8916-aeae000204e9

2 John 20: 19-21.

3 John 20: 11-18.

6 From the Catechism: “Q: What are the two great sacraments of the Gospel? A: The two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 858, https://bcponline.org)

7 During the service of Holy Baptism, after the examination of the candidate(s), the Celebrant asks the following of the congregation: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” to which the People respond, “We will” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 303, https://bcponline.org).






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