Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
The Third Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2023
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
I was a college student and spending a semester in London when I first saw a chandelier crash onto the stage during a performance of the musical Phantom of the Opera. Those of you who’ve seen it know that’s part of the show. (None of the globe pendants above these pews have been rigged for a surprise like that.) Even those who haven’t seen it might know that the final curtain was lowered on the Broadway production of Phantom last Sunday night. But there’s a hidden side to that I’ve been thinking about this week.
During performances of musicals, there are, of course, professionals who provide live music down in the pit — the sunken area right in front of the stage. In the case of Phantom, they went to some of the best music schools in the nation. And the atmosphere they created has delighted audiences on Broadway since 1988, for 13,981 performances. Some of the musicians stayed there from the beginning. They signed contracts which guaranteed them a job until the bitter end, thinking that might be two or three years.
But those musicians and others who would come alongside them later played the same music, each time, not just for a few years, but for decades. They ran into the same people, literally, in cramped spaces, whether in the locker room where they changed clothes and ate, or down in the pit, with chairs, music stands, and instruments of all kinds, cheek by jowl.
Their neighbors irritated them — the way they used their spit valve at the same moment every night, the jokes they told over and over and over again, the guy religiously using a stop watch to time exactly how long someone else held one particular note on one song. As a French horn player named Pete Reit said in an interview a few years ago with This American Life:
I would look at the music sometimes, and it would just literally look like shapes. I would just see circles and lines and dots. And I would have no idea. I wouldn’t even know what page I was on. . . . It’s sort of like hearing yourself speak, and you aren’t sure it’s English.1
Now there are a lot of people I know whose lives feel like that, like they are stuck down in the pit, whether through the monotony of a daily routine, a sense of disappointment about the way things are unfolding in the current chapter of their life, or an acute crisis in their relationships with family or friends, or in their health because of age or disease.
People living in Jerusalem in the first century, at least some of them, must have felt that way. Romans who found themselves stuck at the edge of an empire did their jobs, filled out all of the paperwork in Latin, and crucified thousands of nobodies to maintain law and order. Jews had seen messianic movements rise and fall, most of them small and quickly forgotten, with hopes of overthrowing their oppressors or other kinds of zealous religious aspirations dashed. From all outward appearances, the executed prisoner Jesus of Nazareth would soon be relegated to that anonymous past.
Two followers of Jesus, walking together on the road to Emmaus from Jerusalem, could see that this was about to happen, that their hopes had been crushed, and that Jesus, who had been mighty in word and in deed on behalf of God, would soon be forgotten.
These disciples knew about the reports of an empty tomb from women who were also followers of Jesus. But as I said from this pulpit on Easter Day, an empty tomb by itself only raises more questions, and simply adds to the indignities that surrounded the death of Jesus. If someone had stolen his body, he was being thoroughly, completely, utterly erased from this world.
When a stranger joins these disciples on the road, they speak to him both of Jesus and of hope, but only in the past tense, as if that fire had gone out. The remaining, dying embers were growing dimmer and colder with each step.
Now we know it was Jesus, crucified and risen, but they didn’t — at least not yet. Again, as we pondered together on Easter Day, there’s a mystery that’s not unique to this story in the risen Christ not being recognized until he makes himself known. I honestly don’t know what to make of that or the fact that these resurrection appearances in the New Testament are told in different ways, with different details. I think it’s because no one really knows what kind of language to use to describe events and encounters that happened within history, yet transcend history. But something happened.
And Jesus does make himself known to them after drawing near to them on the road, showing them how to read the words of scripture in light of new realities, and sitting at the table with them — their guest who becomes the host, taking, blessing, breaking, and giving bread. It’s what happens at this table in this church. Receiving the bread is when they recognized that it was Jesus, crucified and risen, in their midst. Then he vanished.
Jesus, however, was not a phantom — either as some thought the Phantom of the Opera to be or as the Phantom of the Opera really was — merely a broken human being. The body of Jesus was broken on the cross by the cruelty of humanity, by the sin of the world. But God raised him up. And the Jesus who lives — who lives — reaches out to broken human beings like us.
This Jesus is not a prisoner of history. This Jesus isn’t exclusively a fading memory that has been passed down to us. This Jesus is the Lord — in Greek, kyrios — the one who is in control of the past, the present, and most especially the future. And so we sometimes sing here at Palmer an ancient prayer in our liturgies, “Kyrie eleison,” which means, “Lord, have mercy.”
Ambulance sirens — like that one now — which are daily heard screaming past the doors of this church, and the sound of Life Flight helicopters taking off or landing across the street in the medical center, each of these to a Christian can be a Kyrie, a prayer for Christ to have mercy on those who are suffering, those who are struggling, those who are afraid, and ourselves.
Indeed, we can join with countless Christians throughout the centuries who have said the Jesus Prayer, which has several different forms, but can be as simple as praying the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” That is to say, “Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, who has been raised from the dead and reigns over the past, the present, and the future, have mercy on me, so that, having been forgiven, I may live, now and always, in your love.”
Then looking at the world through the words of that prayer, or through the words of the Nicene Creed, in which we speak — and will soon speak this morning — of Jesus as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” you can read the Bible as if those words are the lenses through which you see clearly, as if they are the glasses you need to focus the eyes of your Christian faith. Just acknowledge that that’s what you’re doing and that others will read the same words differently. Embracing your Christian identity, even when done boldly and courageously, doesn’t have to mean you refuse to see multiple interpretations of Old Testament passages.2
But if we’ve come to believe Jesus isn’t a prisoner of history, then we truly see Jesus in the evocative chapters of the Book of Isaiah about the Suffering Servant. We truly see the end of the Book of Malachi as a wonderful preface to the New Testament, which is why our Christian Bibles put those prophetic words at the end of the Old Testament while the Hebrew Bible doesn’t. We truly see Jesus on many pages of the Book of Psalms. We could even say that Jesus, in his flesh, embodies the message of the psalms — his life in the past and his risen life in the present is an eternal prayer on your behalf and on mine. In the light of the resurrection, we truly see Jesus.
I can’t really explain this story from the Gospel of Luke other than to say that we should occasionally, perhaps weekly on Sundays, climb out of the pit and walk together on the road, inviting the stranger to join us, looking for Jesus in the scriptures, expecting Jesus to be present in the breaking of the bread. And because Jesus lives, we can expect that today.
ALLELUIA. ALLELUIA. ALLELUIA.
1. Pete Reit in an interview on the podcast This American Life, “Act 2: The Music of the Night After Night After Night,” October 23, 2020.
2. One way to explore what I mean here is by listening to Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler in an interview on the podcast The Bible for Normal People, “How Jews & Christians Read the Bible Differently,” February 21, 2021.