I’d like to begin with a story this morning. It’s known as “The Rabbi’s Gift.”
It’s about a Russian monastery that, truth be told, had seen better days.
Although the monastery had once been vast, now, there were only four or five monks left.
The grounds of the monastery had gotten hard to keep up, and had started to grow wild. Many of the buildings were no longer habitable.
The Daily Office of prayers and hymns in the chapel had a distinctly half-hearted feel. There were just too few voices joining in now. You couldn’t cover the gloom.
It was a hard time.
The abbot of the monastery, who was a wise and devoted monk, prayed fervently on all this, but even he could see the handwriting on the wall, and tried to resign himself to what seemed to be the will of God—that the monastery would have to close.
But then one day, an old woman who still occasionally came to visit mentioned the local rabbi, who led a tiny community in the nearby town. She talked about how the rabbi was respected for his great humility and wisdom. The abbot decided to go seek his advice.
He walked into town and knocked on the rabbi’s door. The rabbi was, of course, surprised to see a monk standing there, but he invited him in, and the two men sat down.
The abbot poured out his heart, as the rabbi listened. Then the rabbi poured out his own heart, talking about the challenges of life in his congregation, as the abbot listened. At the end, the two men realized how much they had in common, and they wept together and embraced.
But as the abbot began to leave, the rabbi said, “Friend, I do not know the answer to your challenges, any more than I know the answer to my own. However, I do know this. Even now, somewhere, the Messiah is among you and your brothers. “
With these words, the two men parted.
As the abbot walked back to the monastery, he thought about what the rabbi had said.
It seemed very clear that the Messiah couldn’t be among the brothers of the monastery. He was the abbot, after all, and he knew his brothers better than anyone.
He thought about his brothers. Well, he thought, it certainly couldn’t be Father Peter.
Peter was so bookish and awkward and looked past you when you tried to talk to him. He couldn’t be the Messiah. But then the abbot thought: well, that’s all true, and yet, even after all these years as a monk, whenever they read the Gospels during the divine service, Father Peter’s eyes still filled with tears.
Maybe he was the Messiah.
Well, in any case, the abbot thought, it couldn’t be Father Vladimir.
Vladimir was a novice master who hadn’t had any novices to train in twenty years. Vladimir kept talking about the old days and was known to wander sadly through the empty dormitory where the monks had once lived, like a man looking for something precious he had lost. He was a sad figure among them. Maybe the saddest of all.
But then the abbot thought: well, there was that day last year when a family with two small children had shown up unannounced, and Vladimir had taken such great delight in the children and made them laugh all afternoon.
Maybe he was the Messiah.
The abbot thought of each of the monks at the monastery, in turn, and while each one had his shortcomings, to his surprise, even so, he could make a case for each one of them as the Messiah.
That night, he told the other monks what the rabbi had said, and they all laughed at once, laughing together for the first time in years.
They knew it wasn’t true.
And yet, in the days that followed, something did change among them.
A new kindness seemed to have crept into their life together. They each seemed to have a new resolve to make their community more worthy of the Messiah, just in case he was there, whichever of them he was.
The monks began to tend the grounds of the monastery more carefully again. They began to repair the old buildings. They prayed more deeply, cared for one another more sincerely—and it was clear that once again, they were truly starting to feel and act like brothers.
And to their surprise, after a period of time, families began to arrive to walk the grounds on a Sunday. Some stayed for services in the chapel and said how moved they were by the singing of the monks. A local woman wrote seeking spiritual guidance for a challenging situation. One day, a young man arrived, asking if they thought he might be suited for the life of a monk.
And slowly, the monastery came alive again.
The monks in the folktale never told anyone what the rabbi had said about the Messiah.
If you ask me, that’s probably just as well. Was one of them the Messiah? Well, probably not.
But in a deeper sense, it’s clear that they did feel the presence of the Messiah among them once again. Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
This transformed everything.
And you know, it still transforms everything.
To me, that’s what makes this an Easter story.
Because I think we can draw a line from those monks all the way back to those two followers of Jesus who encountered the living reality of God as they walked on the road to Emmaus on the afternoon of that first Easter.
The two disciples didn’t recognize Jesus at first. Actually, they didn’t recognize Jesus for a good long while.
But when they finally did—when Jesus broke the bread and blessed it and their eyes were opened and they recognized him—when that happened, they realized that, of course, of course it was Jesus who had been with them.
They should have known.
It was almost like in the story, when the rabbi said, “Even now, the Messiah is among you.”
They should have known it by the way their hearts were set aglow…by the way their hearts burned within them as he spoke.
And that’s important.
Because that’s what it is to encounter God as a living reality. That’s what it is to encounter the Christ of Easter.
It is to have your heart set aglow, to have your heart start burning within you.
And the reason that the Church celebrates Easter is not simply because this encounter happened once, miraculous though that was.
The Church celebrates Easter because a line can be drawn from the two men on that dusty road straight to you and me.
We can draw that line from their hearts to ours.
It’s something that happens again and again—it’s the quiet heartbeat of all Creation.
We hear that heartbeat in all kinds of places – places far less likely even than the road to Emmaus.
Given the heartbreak of Good Friday; given the way that evil seemed to triumph over good; given the way that at the foot of the cross, hope seemed to fall short yet again—given all that, it’s understandable—even smart—that the first instinct of the two disciples was to run away from Jerusalem and from the other followers of Jesus as fast as possible.
We all know what it is to look around and feel like we can see the writing on the wall.
But on the road to Emmaus, the disciples encounter a new reality. They encounter the fact that the rules have changed. That God has changed the rules.
And so it is even now that when we hear—when we see—when we touch the love of God…when we sense the presence of the Jesus…in our own lives…we encounter that new reality for ourselves.
Our priorities shift, our attention focuses.
We begin to see beyond the horizon of our own needs, beyond our inclination to play it safe, beyond the temptation to settle for the obvious answers.
Our own capacity for love becomes intertwined with the living reality of God’s love.
That changes everything.
Many of you know that two weeks ago, Liz and our girls and I went to visit family.
It was also our first opportunity to meet some new relatives.
My cousin P. and her husband K. have begun the adoption process for three siblings, truly lovely, joyful kids but with a wide spread in their ages and very different kinds of needs that flow from that.
It’s never easy to be a new parent, even for one new addition.
Now imagine being the new parent of a near teen, a second grader, and a preschooler, all with the stroke of a pen and the purchase of a minivan.
Well, there’s actually a little more to the story.
Because two months into life as a new family, my cousin P.’s husband, K., became gravely ill. It came out of nowhere, and it’s been slow to resolve. It is the kind of illness that would have up-ended their old life. But you can imagine what it means now.
For my cousin, it means long days, and a tremendous burden that is hers to carry.
The kind of burden that all the help in the world can only ease but so much.
There are so many days that have been hard for her – harder than she ever thought possible
P. worries that she’s not cut out for this—that she just isn’t able to do everything the way she wants to, which is to say, she is frustrated that she cannot do everything perfectly.
But you know, perfection is not called for.
Because the heart that burns within her is so very clear.
Because seeing her with her new children, in all the chaos, confusion and complexity, you can hear it.
You can hear quiet heartbeat of Creation.
What was so clearly present in our time with our new family was not just the tremendous strength and courage of my cousin.
Somehow in it all, you could feel the love and presence of God.
Something sacred is happening. Jesus is there.
And as a pastor, I can tell you, there are so many people who can tell stories just like that.
The word “resurrection” comes from the Latin resurgere, from which we also get the word “resurgent.” But at its root the word resurrection means “to rise again.”
And so it is the Christian claim that, because Christ has risen again, his all-seeing faithfulness, his all-powerful love, and his ever-present hope are resurgent, even in the face of death.
And so it is in him that you and I and all Creation can find the power to rise again.
That’s what made those hearts burn on the road to Emmaus, on the late afternoon of that first Easter.
That’s what those monks rediscovered in that Russian monastery.
And I am here to testify that in so many places and so many ways, it’s what makes our hearts burn within us today.
Even within this dark and profoundly unsettled time, there are those who live in the light of a new reality.
Jesus is risen. But that’s not to say he’s far—it is to say that the Messiah is among us, even now.
He’s among us in the breaking of bread, in the breaking of all oppression, in the repair of the world.
Wherever life triumphs over death and diminishment. Jesus is there. Jesus is here.
He died, not so that he might enter heaven, but so that he might enter every human heart.
It’s happening even now. Even here.
Easter reminds us to open our eyes and recognize him.