‘They Stood Still, Looking Sad’ (132)

There is a rhythm life often takes. The Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr is one person who says this. The rhythm is simple, just this: order—disorder—reorder. Sometimes the same rhythm is described in these terms: orientation—disorientation—reorientation. (Rohr describes this in an interview with Krista Tippett here). Our reading from Luke 24, the one from Acts 2 as well, moves along to this same rhythm.

Let me sketch for you how that works in the Luke story. There are these walkers on the road. They have a relatively long walk ahead of them, something like 7 miles. They are discussing recent events in Jerusalem. They were followers of a rabbi, whom they thought had a special role to play in their people’s future. You see, they believed that their people had a special mandate from God to be a blessing to the world. And they thought this teacher, whom they had followed, was to play a key role in that. It was his life that had ordered theirs.

Now, however, the teacher around whom they had ordered their lives was dead. He was killed through an act of collusion between their community’s leaders and the empire that controlled the world they knew. And then, as though they were reading a ‘Breaking News’ ticker, there were the events of the morning: the tomb was found to be empty. So these two are walking and discussing this, when a stranger joins them. The man seems to have no clue about these things, and he asks them to explain. Luke’s gospel tells us, the two ‘stood still, looking sad.’

The Greek term which is translated as ‘sad’ is skythropoi. They were gloomy, sad, their faces were downcast. They didn’t look up. Can you picture it? Maybe it was like this: they knew where they were going physically, to Emmaus of course, but with the rest of the lives—they didn’t have a clue about that. We might say they were lost or that their lives had been disordered. I bet if we think for a moment we can remember points in our lives where we felt just this way.

There are many possible causes for this kind of disorientation. It could be the loss of a relationship or a job. It could be that we’ve had to let go of a dream. It could be that we’ve found new cracks in our faith. Whatever it was, it anchored us, it ordered our lives—then it was gone.

Luke says the walkers ‘stood there, looking sad.’ Sometimes we are they.

When it happens we often feel like we don’t know who we are. Maybe we were deeply invested in a relationship that imploded. The result is that we feel like we lost a part of ourselves. Or maybe we devoted so much of our energy to our family that we feel like our own self has faded away. Or maybe we poured ourselves into a business or a church or some other thing and it’s been pulled from us—we feel lost and disoriented. Back in 2009 Wallace Immen wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail about the loss of identity that can come from losing a job. A woman named Michelle who worked for a television broadcaster in Oakville said that when she was laid off she lost her identity. ‘My job was me,’ she said. It was four months before Michelle finally had a day where she didn’t think of her old job. Losing a job, a relationship, anything we identify with can leave us adrift, angry and anxious. Things are disordered.

Luke says the walkers ‘stood there, looking sad.’ Sometimes we are they.

Feeling disoriented often comes connected to a sense of loneliness. Emily Dickinson refers to a type of loneliness as the ‘Horror not be surveyed.’ The horror seems to meet us as at more corners than it used to. A doctor from UCLA has described the effects of loneliness as a current ‘critical public health problem’. Loneliness has been linked to physical and mental health problems. The New York Times reports that 40% of adult Americans report feeling lonely. I can’t imagine it’s much better on this side of the border—national politics notwithstanding. We can be alone and feel as though we’re still connected. We can be alone and feel as though our lives still have meaning. Not so when we’re lonely. When we are lonely we feel that if we died nobody would care or even notice.

Luke says the walkers ‘stood there, looking sad.’ Sometimes we are they.

Not long ago the retailer Nordstrom debuted a new pair of jeans from a luxury label. The guy who designed them is a real artist. He understands our cultural moment. You’ve probably heard of deliberately distressed jeans. They come with factory-made rips and wear-marks. These new jeans sold by Nordstrom take this a step further; they come fully equipped with a ‘caked-on muddy coating’.  This is true. You can order them online now and they would show up already looking like they’d been through a days-worth of manual labour. If you bought these, you’d get all that for $425 US or, I checked, $605.81 Canadian—plus shipping.

I don’t want to embarrass anyone who might have purchased $600 pre-muddied jeans, but it seems to me that the designer has keyed in on a sense that many of us are adrift. It’s hard for us to feel that what we’re doing matters. Whatever it is that our lives have become, we wish they were more straightforward. We wish others could look at us and say, ‘There’s a person who does an honest day’s work. I bet they know how to do real things.’

Mike Row, the guy from the show Dirty Jobs, says these pre-muddied jeans foster the ‘illusion of work’ and the ‘illusion of effort’.  Or, he muses, maybe they speak to our willingness to pay for the ‘illusion of sanity.’ I think pre-muddied jeans speak to a desire many of us have to feel like the effort we put into the world actually means something.

Luke says the walkers ‘stood there, looking sad.’ Sometimes we are they.

Our reading from Acts, that’s the second part of the story Luke begins in the gospel, has the same order—disorder—reorder rhythm. The residents of the great city of Jerusalem had a pretty good sense of what their lives were about. Things were well-ordered. Then they saw the power of the Holy Spirit at work in Jesus’ followers. They had heard Peter’s sermon. Their lives were disordered. The pieces didn’t fit together anymore. The text says, ‘they were cut to the heart.’

What do we do when we reach that point? What do we do when our lives are disordered—when we find ourselves standing there, looking sad? What do we do . . . ?

At that moment we face two distinct temptations. This is the insight, again of Father Richard Rohr. One temptation is to try and return to the ordered life we knew. This is the conservative temptation. The other temptation Rohr warns of is to stay in the state of disorder. This is the liberal temptation. In Rohr’s view, both of those are immature responses; both lack wisdom.

Last Sunday we celebrated the arrival of a new child in our congregation. We gave the parents a charge. The congregation also made a commitment. At such a time we remember that it’s important that parents help children find a sense of order. That first part of the rhythm of life is crucial. We need a sense of identity and a sense of how the world works. Yet as I watch parents farther along the path I observe that they don’t just nurture this initial sense of order. They also model how to reorder when the disorientation comes. When an uncle dies, when a diagnoses is handed over, when a friend turns out to be a traitor, when a youngster just can’t conceive of a good God in a world full of evil. When things like that happen, parents and grandparents can help their children reorder.

But how? When we’re lost, when we’re standing there, looking sad. What’s the next step?

My guess is that the way forward is never exactly the same; however, our scriptural readings show us how it worked for the early Christians. First, let’s make some actionable observations. Here’s one, the people who heard Peter preach took a step. They asked a question. ‘Brothers,’ they said, ‘what should we do?’ They got out of their own heads. The travelers on the road to Emmaus did something similar. They told their story to this fellow traveler. They thought he was ignorant, but they told him what had happened. They got out of their own heads.

Notice what happens next. The stranger that joined the travelers on the Emmaus road, he begins to put their story back together. Here’s what he says, ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things . . . ?’ It isn’t a statement; it’s a question. But it’s a question that opens up a whole new way of seeing things.

The question gives the two walkers the chance to reorder their lives, including their faith, including their way of reading the scriptures. They begin to see a way through their sadness and through their sense of loss. It isn’t by returning to the way they had understood Jesus. No, when things change the old order rarely works without modification. That leads us to the second actionable thing.

We see it even more clearly in the people who responded to Peter’s sermon. Remember, they had reached out and asked Peter what they should do. Part Peter’s response to them is this, ‘repent’. That’s another way of saying—change, make a break from the past. Don’t stand around pining for the old order. So there are two actions. These folks who might otherwise have gotten totally sucked in by the disorder open themselves to others, that’s the first thing. The second is that they are then moved to a place of change.

I think that probably applies to our own sense of being lost and disoriented. If our patterns of life leave us feeling disconnected, we need to share our stories and be open to change. If our loneliness is overwhelming, we are encouraged to reach out and change directions. If we find we’ve overly identified with our work or with some of our relationships, we need to be able to tell it like it is and make a break. That’s the practical, guidebook sort of stuff that bubbles up when we stir these two readings together.

There is something deeper, though, we shouldn’t miss it before we draw our time of reflection to a close. Part of what we celebrate in this Easter season is that Jesus is, as we’re told in Colossians, the image of the invisible God. What does that mean? It has nothing to do with Jesus’ appearance itself. We can be certain of that. We have no idea what he looked like (maybe he was a shortish bald guy with a beard). No, what it means is that we see God in Jesus’ love for others, even when they aren’t lovely. It means we see God in Jesus’ forgoing violence and selfishness, even when it seems like the obvious solution. It means the way things stack up in our world isn’t the final analysis.

Later in Luke 24 the stranger sits down with the two who were headed to Emmaus. When he prays and serves them, they realize that they weren’t entirely adrift after all. They weren’t entirely alone. They weren’t entirely without hope. They weren’t entirely without direction. Jesus was there, walking with them, explaining life to them. There was and is a constant. There was and is a way through the disorientation. Hard to recognize and hard to appreciate, it is God’s speaking through the life of Jesus.

This is one of the reasons we ask new parents to raise their children in the love of God and to nurture them in the faith of Jesus. We believe that is a constant. What it means to follow Jesus looks different in different places and times, but that’s because we believe he isn’t dead. And that’s because we believe he still walks with us and still speaks—a voice that itself disorders and reorders.

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