On Mother’s Day in 2017 I found myself hesitant to go upstairs for worship after teaching Sunday school at my internship congregation. I was in a pretty rough place. My mom had died after a long battle with cancer 8 months prior and this particular “first” without her was hitting particularly hard. Even knowing that my grandmother had flown up for a visit wasn’t motivating enough for me to want to paste on a smile and walk up the lone flight of stairs that separated the basement from the worship space. With a deep breath and a resigned “you can do this” I walked into the Sanctuary where I greeted several congregants as well as my family who had traveled into the City to worship with us. As I was talking with them someone came up behind me and covered my eyes so that I was prevented from seeing who it was. To say that I was confused was an understatement, after all how many people do you know who cover other people’s eyes right before worship? There was something in me that thought I knew who it was. Deep down I recognized those hands but I knew that there was no way that this person could possibly be here and my eyes were kept from seeing them. Then my eyes were uncovered and I turned around….and I still couldn’t process what was right in front of me. Not at first, anyway. After what felt like 30 minutes, though I’m told it was much faster, I let out a sound that I’d never heard before or since and threw my arms around my sister Alyssa, who my family had flown up secretly to spend Mother’s Day with me. When we experience emotionally traumatic events, whether it’s the loss of a job, an accident, a medical diagnosis, losing a loved one, even joyous occasions like the birth of a child, a marriage or anything else that jolts us out of life as usual. All of a sudden it can feel as if everything is moving in slow motion, almost like trying to run through 3 feet of water. Things just take longer to do. They take longer to process, even if they’re right in front of us.
As we encounter Cleopas and the unnamed disciple on their 7 mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus we find two people who are struggling to process all that has taken place in the past few days as they seek safety outside the city. As they walked they talked through what they had experienced and Jesus joined them along the way….but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Jesus wasn’t in disguise, he wasn’t trying to deceive his followers. They are so wrapped up in the emotional roller coaster that they’d been through that they didn’t recognize who was right in front of them. When Jesus inquires about what they are discussing, they stop in their tracks, unable to even entertain the possibility that a person exists who hasn’t heard of the events that have shaken their world to its core. When Jesus presses them for further information the floodgates open as they share the story of their teacher’s death and rumored resurrection. Jesus knew all of these things and didn’t need the disciples to share this story with him, but he encourages them to anyway, serving as a chaplain of sorts. As the disciples share the story they start to name and process their own feelings. “But we had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel,” they said. They’d hoped that he was the one who would set Israel free.
For many lately, things we hoped for have not come to pass and so I want to open up some space this morning to name those things by sharing them in the comments below. I’ll pause for a minute or two for you all to do that. I know that I’d hoped to get to know everyone at Holy Trinity in person more than I’ve been able to. I had hoped to spend my first Easter as a pastor with you all and with my family…together. I had hoped that I’d wake up and discover that the past month and a half had been some nightmare. The loss of these things that did not work out like we’d hoped is frustrating and it takes an emotional toll, just like it did on Cleopas and the unnamed disciple. Jesus calls them slow of heart, and then teaches them about the significance of what they’d been through. It’s jarring at first, and sounds insulting even, but Jesus names that the two disciples are experiencing that “slogging through deep water feeling” that grief brings. And there’s a reason why we experience that confusing and disorienting funk.
Neurologist Dr. Lisa M. Shulman explains the brain’s response to emotionally traumatic events this way: The brain kicks into action to protect us during traumatic experience. Imagine what would happen if we weren’t able to function during traumatic times. To sustain function and survival, the brain acts as a filter sensing the threshold of emotions and memories that we can and cannot handle. So the brain is especially active in managing the stress of traumatic loss. Recovery depends upon gradually reconnecting with suppressed memories- the emotions and memories that we’re not ready to face. And so that’s what Jesus does. He invites these two disciples, convinced, that he’s a stranger still, to share those memories and the emotions connected to them to help them re-connect and to help them cope.
As they near the village, Jesus continues as if to walk on alone, but the disciples urge “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over,” and so Jesus does. Then gathered around a table and just like at his last supper with his friends, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. Connected to that emotion filled memory the disciples finally recognized who was in front of them all along. After Jesus disappears from their presence they name the place where the emotions they are experiencing are again felt…in the heart. What was once slow of heart has now picked up and been lit aflame. Jesus allowed the disciples to process their traumatic loss through the power of storytelling. It’s the same reason that we share stories when we experience loss. It gives us a way to cope with emotions, to process through the fog, and to relive memories with one another. It’s the stories that give meaning to the events in our lives. It’s in the stories that a spark of hope and healing is kindled and be nurtured over time back into a flame.
After worship that first Mother’s Day without my mom almost 4 years ago I left church to spend the rest of the day with my sister and other members of my family. Having them there to laugh, cry, and share stories with made an otherwise really tough day much more bearable. The stories started as we walked from the church down to the subway stop and didn’t stop the rest of the day. As we continue to journey though this pandemic it is my hope that we continue to process together. Share stories and relive memories as we begin to walk down the path of hope and healing together.