Did not our hearts burn within us?
A sermon preached on Pride Sunday in the Princeton University Chapel (April 14, 2002),
by Dean Breidenthal.
Text: Luke: Luke 24: 13-35 (The Road to Emmaeus).
"There's a wideness in God's mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
The hymn that we just sang, and from which I quote, sounds a recurrent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s mercy exceeds any mercy we can expect to receive from fellow human beings; God’s steadfastness goes beyond anything we can except to rely on, even from those who are closest to us. As the Psalmist says, “When my father and mother forsake me, you do not forsake me.” God’s mercy and acceptance are beyond measure.
surprise that this hymn-text, especially when sung to the bittersweet melody by
Calvin Hampton, became a kind of theme song for AIDS funerals in churches across
The words of the hymn made a dual claim: a claim about God, and a claim about the speaker, who has laid hold of God’s word, and confidently witnesses to that word, clear about who he or she is “under the mercy.”
There is a profound, deeply grounded pride here. Not self-centered pride, not self-satisfied pride, not haughty, stuck-up pride, but the pride that says “I am God’s own; I am loved by God; God counts me worthy to be God’s servant and God’s witness.”
I do not presume to define what Gay Pride means across the board, but I know through personal experience of the gay and lesbian community that has stuck it out in the church what “Gay Pride” means here, in this holy place, as we gather in God’s presence to honor and to give thanks for that community’s witness and faithfulness and leadership within our many faith communities.
It is the pride that says, “I have suffered every possible kind of ostracism. I have even been rejected by those who break bread with me Sunday by Sunday and Shabbat by Shabbat, who deny that my faith in God is genuine and my commitment to moral decency is serious, who deny me the pulpit and discount as disingenuous a witness to God’s love which is not at the same time an acknowledgement of God’s condemnation. I have suffered this, and yet I take my stand on God’s faithfulness and steady care.”
This is the pride I want to unpack today: the foundation on which it stands, the fruit by which it is known, the witness and further sacrifice toward which it must inevitably lead.
Today’s reading from Luke speaks directly to this question.
Some in our company today are Jewish, or follow other faiths. Please bear with me here. The passage is a window onto early faith in Jesus, but the resources on which it draws are Jewish. It is a resource that I hope we can all claim.
Here is the story: Cleopas and his friend – both disciples of Jesus – are making their way to their home in Emmaeus, not far from Jerusalem, after the devastating event of Jesus’ crucifixion. The risen Jesus joins them, enquiring why they are so downcast. They ridicule him: ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know what has happened?’ Ignoring this rebuff, Jesus begins to unpack the Scripture for them, showing them how it is possible that the savior they expected should suffer and die and rise again. When they arrive at Emmaeus, the invite Jesus to spend the night. At the evening meal, as Jesus blesses the bread and breaks it, they recognize him, and he vanishes. “Did not our hearts burn within us he opened the Scriptures to us?” they say to each other, as they rush to inform their fellow disciples that they have seen the Lord, who is risen.
This passage can be read as an essay on pride. Two contrasting kinds of pride appear in it. The first, founded in despair, leads to isolation. The second, grounded in hope, breaks through the chains of alienation – the alienation of bigotry and the alienation of victim-hood – and witnesses to something new.
When we first encounter Cleopas and his friend, they are thoroughly stuck in the first kind of pride – the pride founded on despair. Note how the two companions ridicule the stranger for not knowing about the crucifixion and death of Jesus. They ridicule him because they have nothing left to console themselves with but their own “insider knowledge.” Everything else has been taken from them. There is nothing unusual about this: disappointment jumps at the chance to put someone else down, to rescue damaged self-esteem at the expense of others.
Jesus’ response ignores this false pride and immediately gets down to the real issue. He takes the two companions back to Scripture, back to their own tradition, because he knows that it is precisely here that they feel betrayed.
What they hoped for was safety, refuge, a normal life. They had expected Jesus to adjust the world to them, or them to the world, or to equip them, if necessary, for a new world.
But this is not what scripture offers, to them or to us. At the heart of the Scriptures is the claim that following God means failure in this world, if by this world we mean the constant struggle for pedigree, membership, acceptability. The God of Abraham and Sarah, the God whom Jesus claimed as his own parent – this God who is more to be trusted than mother or father or beloved partner, more to be trusted even than ourselves – this God nevertheless leads us over and over again out of the orbit of acceptability into the place where there is no pride of place, only the celebration together of the love we share together as women and men made in the image of God. There, and only there, where the city and the cross and the empty tomb are such close neighbors, every false expectation of ourselves and others, every need to put ourselves forward at the expense of others, every temptation to pretend to be anything or anyone different from who we already are can and must be put aside.
Following God into that place is what it means to be saved, even when that place feels like a strange land far from home (as the land of promise seemed to Abraham and Sarah); even when that place feels like an interminable hiatus between past and future (as the wilderness seemed to the children of Israel); even when that place feels like shame and dereliction and nothing more (as the cross seemed to Jesus and to Cleopas and his friend). Going there means salvation, because it is only there when the games stop, the competition ceases, the pretenses are dropped, that we can hear the word and receive the knowledge that we are already loved. To hear this and to believe this is to be saved.
This exactly what happens to Cleopas and his friend as they listen to Jesus open the scriptures to them. As they say to each other later on, their hearts burn within them. That is to say, their wills are rekindled, set on fire by the certainty that God was worthy of Jesus’ trust, and therefore is worthy of theirs; the assurance that God’s love for Jesus was steadfast, and so is God’s love for them. Led to this new understanding of their life story, these men’s hearts are lifted up, filled with a new spirit, a new fire, a new pride.
Not pride in the old sense. Not the pride that says “I am better than you are,” but the pride that says “Gracious is God, and righteous; our God is merciful. God protects the simple; when I was brought low, God saved me.” In its joy and in its boldness, this pride re-reads all the suffering that has gone before, counting it all worthwhile for having drawn one to this place of certainty and joy. This is the pride that claims God’s love, stands secure on the foundation of that love, and opens itself to others generously and joyfully, out of the sheer abundance of that love.
Such pride is won at great cost. The love that it lays claim to is costly, as the hymn we sang reminds us: “There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed; there is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the Head.” The reorientation to joy that accompanies it is costly, because it involves the painful remembrance of past sorrow, the truthful telling of our life stories reinterpreted in the light of God’s love. The consequence of this pride is costly, because we are no longer excused from breaking bread with anybody, since from the standpoint of this pride we see the hunger even of those who hate us, and know God’s love extends to them as well.
But such pride is the gift offered to the world by those who have suffered unjustly and come through it with hearts more capable of love. That is the pride we celebrate today.
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