Whoever you are, wherever you are on life's journey, you are welcome here.

                 Ashfield, Massachusetts

TFirst Congregational Church, UCC

Ashfield, Massachusetts

April 26, 2020

"God's Kingdom on Earth, or On the Road to Sharing Bread"

 

Listen to audio of the sermon


Scripture Readings


Psalm 116: 1-4     

1 Peter 1: 20-25

Luke 24: 13-35


From Psalm 116

I love the Lord, because he has heard

    my voice and my supplications.


Because he inclined his ear to me,

    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.


The snares of death encompassed me;

    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;

    I suffered distress and anguish.


Then I called on the name of the Lord:

    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”


From the First Letter of Peter 1:20-25

He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. For

“All flesh is like grass

    and all its glory like the flower of grass.

The grass withers,

    and the flower falls,

But the word of the Lord endures forever.”


From the Gospel According to Luke 24:13-35 (The Walk to Emmaus)

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 


And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.


As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 


That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.


The Word of Our Lord. Amen.


Sermon:  “God's Kingdom on Earth, or On the Road to Sharing Bread”

Minister David Jones

I am always aware that my first instinct when beginning to think about a sermon, or when searching for the right words for a prayer, or really anytime I am invited to express what it is that I believe in or feel called to do in light of my faith--my first instinct is to explore God, sin, and righteousness primarily with regard to human relationships. I recognize this must be alienating, at least some of the time, to those among us whose own instinct--whose own deep waters of faith--carries them beyond the narrowness of only human affairs toward the wider landscapes of God’s diverse Creation. My faith expression sometimes would seem to forget the wider perspective of Creation, from which humans can be seen as only one small fraction of one small part of the universe’s vast expanse. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive spiritual expressions, but an occasion like Earth Sunday represents an opportunity for myself and I’m sure many others who share my tendency, to widen the aperture a little, to offer our thanks and praise for all Creation, and to explore God, sin, and righteousness from its breathtaking vantage.

 

One way of going about this is to make a distinction between the life of a city and the life of the countryside--whether that is between Boston and Ashfield, or between Jerusalem and Galilee or Emmaus. The distinction is porous. Obviously many people today commute from a small town or countryside home to nearby cities to work; some people live in different places in different seasons. That this distinction between urban and rural is collapsing has hardly ever been more apparent than it is right now, when our lives here in Franklin County are being so drastically impacted by what has been happening, for example, in New York City. But the distinction still manifests itself, for me, in the language of faith. In Toronto, for instance, where I attended seminary, there isn’t as much thought given to where our food comes from. There isn’t as much thought given to the sunrise that, in Toronto, is mostly obscured by skyscrapers. People, especially spiritual people, are working to change this situation--and it is changing--but it’s still generally true, I think, that the city can deceive its residents into thinking nature is altogether apart from their life.

Being here in Ashfield and Shelburne Falls has reminded me much more of my life in the rural town I grew up in. I wasn’t attending church then, but my religious friends who would entertain my questions over lunches in the high school cafeteria tended to be from farming families; their faith was steeped in the rhythms of the seasons. And I have found that same faith language here, one of the things that has made this place feel so quickly like home. Everyone seems to know about the weeds and flowers, the soil and its produce--or they want to know, they have sought these things out, they feel called to live a life more closely in communion with nature and its beauty, and to find God there, within all things.

Through the Gospel, we explore this distinction further. Jesus’ ministry begins in the small towns around the Sea of Galilee, and today in our reading from Luke, the risen Jesus ministers to two villagers heading home to Emmaus. In and around, traveling to and from these smaller villages, Jesus teaches and visits with the faithful. If the God of Israel is a God of the desert, Jesus is a teacher of the village. Like many people today, he likely traveled into more densely populated areas, small cities such as they were in 1st century Palestine, to make a living; he himself was not a farmer but more likely a trades or craftsperson. But so many of his parables live close to the earth; Jesus clearly belonged to these rural communities and had a profound understanding of how they worked, and so it is no wonder that most of his first followers were subsistence fishermen and peasants living off the land. 

When Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke is promising a new Kingdom of God (or Heaven, as in Matthew), he means a community like those around the Sea of Galilee, or perhaps like the village of Emmaus, one that has been transformed so that subsistence is not for a hardscrabble, competitive life, but for a mutually supportive, communal one. This life in the new Kingdom does not compulsively rush a narrow list of goods to market in the name of perpetual growth of nearby cities. This life does not require indebtedness to absentee landlords. This life -- because it honors God’s ultimate sovereignty over all Creation, including over what we plant and harvest, including over the land--seeks instead to cooperate and collaborate with one’s neighbors so that we can secure life and dignity for all. There is at least a tinge of that old New England self-reliance in Jesus’ good news of community-reliance.

 

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke is the familiar resurrection story of Jesus appearing to two companions on their road to Emmaus. And immediately it is striking how Jesus approaches these companions so unassumingly. The companions are downcast, deeply sad after the events that have transpired; they have not come to trust in the reports of the women who have found Jesus’ tomb empty. They are disappointed that this Jesus character had not proven to be the long promised Messiah after all. It is at this point that Jesus seems to lose his patience, but he does not simply turn his back on them and move on to visit more faithful or more insightful followers. Instead Jesus slips right back into teaching, into shepherding, expounding on the Hebrew scriptures.

The traveling companions are not yet persuaded that they are speaking to the risen Christ. But, they have been transformed anyway. Jesus has cared for them--both physically and spiritually--by joining them in their journey. So now, rather than judge this man who has happened upon them on their road, rather than let this man pass into and out of their lives as a stranger, they extend him hospitality; they extend to Jesus the same companionship that Jesus offered to them. They invite Jesus into their home, to provide him shelter, and they invite him to sit at their table, to provide him food. 

Isn’t this familiar to us all? It’s what I remember growing up--or at least the best part of what I grew up with; it’s what I have experienced since beginning life here last fall. Of course small communities have their problems like any place; there are even some challenges that are more acute in a small town or rural place, and that’s no doubt true of Franklin County. But at their best, rural communities are the place most likely and quickest to turn a stranger into a companion, to turn a stranger into someone you eat bread with. Caity and I know this firsthand. It is in sharing our bread with one another--as God intended--that we are no longer estranged from Creation, but again grown from its soil like once in Eden. 

 

Thinking about our Gospel in this way helps us to recognize the connection between companionship and food; the connection between rural communities and the community of heaven that Jesus begins to cultivate in Galilee and in Emmaus. And it is this connection--this mutuality, this reciprocity, this grace and love--that forms the innermost content of faith, and it is this connection that I found myself celebrating this past Wednesday on Earth Day. What Jesus taught was not particularly grand or complicated. In his earthly parables, he merely re-asserted God’s sovereignty over Creation--over the land, over the seeds, over the food we harvest. In the early community of followers, Jesus merely insisted that, because all of this is God’s--is part of the body of God--it must be shared sustainably and equitably. That is the way of God; that is, of course, the way of unconditional love. 

 

It is my great fortune to have been called to this church, to be a part of this congregation, and to live in these hills more closely to God’s Creation. Because it is the earth and all Creation that is breathing through Christ’s simple, unadorned parables; it is a fully respected and equally enjoyed nature that will realize the Kingdom of God here on earth. It is not sermons or even scripture but rather prayer, music, fellowship, and communion that to this day reconstitutes the radical hospitality of the disciples and earliest followers, that to this day welcomes Jesus into our homes and sets our hearts on fire. And it is the act of sharing bread unconditionally that inaugurates the Kingdom of God on earth. 

 

Alleluia, and amen.