Where’s Your Jesus Now?

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter: Psalm 4, Luke 24:13-35

I’ve noticed a really strange phenomenon and perhaps you all can identify. When I started working in radio in my late teens and early 20s, oldies stations were the stations that played music from the 1950s. Classic rock stations played songs from the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary stations played the new stuff – which was then ’80s and ’90s music. Now, the stuff I grew up listening to is on the classic rock stations and the stuff from the ’60s and ’70s are now considered “oldies.” You can literally mark how old you are by which stations you’re listening to – I’m now an “oldie” – but still a goodie, I hope.

Today’s song was released in 1982, so I would consider it to be a contemporary song, but kids these days, would probably call it an “oldie.” The song is Southern Cross, by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Got out of town on a boat
Goin’ to Southern islands.
Sailing a reach
Before a followin’ sea
She was makin’ for the trades on the outside,
And the downhill run To Papeete bay
Off the wind on this heading lie the Marquesas.
We got eighty feet of the waterline nicely making way
In a noisy bar in Avalon I tried to call you
But on a midnight watch I realized why twice you ran away.
Think about how many times I have fallen
Spirits are using me larger voices callin’
What heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten.
I have been around the world,
Lookin’ for that woman/girl,
Who knows love can endure.
And you know it will.
And you know it will.

A middle-aged woman has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. While on the operating table she has a near death experience. During that experience she sees God and asks if this is it. God says no and explains that she has another 30 years to live.

Upon her recovery she decides to just stay in the hospital and have a face lift, liposuction, breast augmentation, tummy tuck, etc. She even has someone come in and change her hair color. She figures since she’s got another 30 years she might as well make the most of it.

She walks out of the hospital after the last operation and is killed by an ambulance speeding by. She arrives in front of God and complains, “I thought you said I had another 30 years.”

God replies, “I didn’t recognize you.”

Thankfully none of us has had something this serious happen because someone didn’t recognize us or we didn’t recognize someone else. But, there have been times when I have seen someone that I know I know – but I just can’t place them. There was a woman in the WalMart, pushing her cart and I recognized her, but I just couldn’t place her. She was out of context. I didn’t realize who she was until the next Saturday when Wanda and I went out to breakfast at the Waffle House. She was a waitress there, but I didn’t recognize her unless she was putting a plate of waffles down in front of me.

Two of Jesus’ followers were having recognition trouble after Jesus’ crucifixion. Like the man in our song, they embarked on a journey. Something horrible had happened and they felt the need to get away from things. The man they had expected to “redeem Israel” had been, instead, brutally executed. Now, his body was missing from the tomb. In Luke’s telling of this story, Jesus had not yet appeared to anyone. For all these disciples knew, Jesus’ body had been stolen. Imagine the talk as they traveled on this road – their worry, their speculation, their despair. I can imagine they were wondering, “Where is our Jesus now? We saw him crucified, dead, and buried, and now he is gone!” Their despair was complete. It’s no wonder they felt they needed a break from Jerusalem.

Our singer, too, is on a journey. Something horrible has happened in his life. He’s lost the woman he loves and to comfort himself he’s taking to the ocean. This is a particularly dangerous trip he’s taking. It begins in Avalon, which is in Panama, where he makes one last attempt to contact his lost love. From Avalon, he is sailing west to Papeete Bay – which is in Tahiti. This is a long journey in open ocean. It will be about 2,500 miles before he’ll see land – an uninhabited island that is part of the islands known as the Marquesas. It will be another thousand miles before he’ll reach Tahiti. You can’t just set sail any old time – because once you begin this journey, there’s no going back – you’re on the downhill run to Papeete Bay.

While the singer’s journey can be traced geographically, the road to Emmaus cannot. Luke tells us the journey taken by the disciples is seven miles. The problem with that is: Emmaus is not seven miles away from Jerusalem – it is 20 miles away and is a journey that cannot be made in one day. So, does this mean that this story is not true? Not at all. In fact, this detail makes the story ring ever more true. Presbyterian minister Lee Bowman writes: “If Emmaus doesn’t exist, if it’s not a specific place, as scholars believe – then perhaps Luke is telling us it’s everywhere. This much we know: Luke wants us to believe that the risen Christ will find us wherever we are headed, no matter our destination. He will be there – right beside us – whether we recognize him or not.

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small.
But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a comin’ day.
So I’m sailing for tomorrow my dreams are a dyin’.
And my love is an anchor tied to you tied with a silver chain.
I have my ship and all her flags are a flyin’
She is all that I have left and music is her name.

I’m sure most everyone here is familiar with the star called Polaris – or the North Star. It lies closest in the sky to the north celestial pole and mariners have long used it for navigation so they can find true north and latitude.

There is no equivalent “South Star.” The closest thing is the constellation called “Crux” or “The Southern Cross.” It’s visible in the southern hemisphere and can sometimes be seen in the spring here in the Northern Hemisphere. By extending a line from a point in the constellation between two pointer stars, Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri, sea travelers can find the Southern Celestial Pole and find their way.

For the aboriginal people of eastern Australia, the Southern Cross is more than just a tool to guide ships. They call the constellation “Mirrabooka” – named after a kind and clever man who was immortalized by being put in the night sky by the creator. Mirrabooka helps the creator by watching over the people on earth.

Just as Jesus walked with those disciples, unrecognized until the breaking of the bread, God continues to walk with us and watch over us. Even in our distress, Jesus is present. Even when the psalmist laments, “How long” – how long will we suffer, how long will we be put to shame, how long will our despair last – God is ever present. Even when we feel like running away from our problems – there is the promise of coming day when our God will again put gladness in our hearts. Even as we sail for tomorrow with our dying dreams – our love is anchored to God as God uses us for a larger person. We should never forget what heaven has brought to us – even in our despair – even in our deepest fear – Jesus walks with us.

Shirley Dunham is a woman who deeply understands all of this. On a chilly Wednesday night in January of 1998 she found herself at the wrong end of a shotgun. Her son, Eric Shannon, had been on a journey – trying to find purpose and meaning for his life through religion. What he found, according to author Karen Spears Zacharias, was a religion called “Certainosity.”

“They never question anything,” Zacharias writes. “They never give consideration to doubt. Devotees of Certainosity would rather blow themselves up and all of us with them, rather than admit that they are afraid or weak or broken.”

Eric Shannon was certain about his religion – he was a controlling father, allowing and encouraging his oldest son to abuse his younger children. One daughter kept a journal of the abuse, which led to family services removing the children from the Shannon home.

Eric came looking for his children at the Oregon home of his mother Shirley and his step father Charles Dunham. Family services had placed the oldest son in another home, believing that Eric might try to take the boy back by force. Eric and his common law wife Robin Hocker loaded their guns and stormed the Dunham home – demanding to know where the eldest son was. The Dunhams had no idea – but that didn’t satisfy Eric – who aimed the gun at his mother. Charles stepped in, “I can’t let you shoot your mom,” he said. Eric pulled the trigger, hitting Charles in the thigh. By this time Robin had subdued Eric’s mother, thrown her on the bed and hog-tied her.

“Robin straddled Shirley and pressed the gun’s barrel against Shirley’s chest. Noting a painting of Jesus hanging on the wall above the bed, Robin taunted her.

‘Where’s you Jesus now?’ Robin asked.

‘He’s right here,’ Shirley replied.”

“He’s right here.” Even in a situation where Shirley Dunham was facing her immanent death – she recognized Jesus. She knew that even in the darkest moment of her life, Jesus was there – not to free her – not even to save her – but to comfort her – to grieve with her – to hurt with her – to cry with her.

Shirley and Charles survived that night. Eric Shannon didn’t. He was killed later that night in a shoot out with police.

Hopefully our faith will never face such a test – but whenever we face despair, whenever we face health challenges, financial pressures, or anything that causes us to cry out, “How long?” know that just as Jesus walked with those disciples on the road to Emmaus, on their own journey of despair, Jesus is with us.

Where’s you Jesus now? He’s right here.

Think about how many times I have fallen
Spirits are using me larger voices callin’
What heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten.
I have been around the world,
Lookin’ for that woman/girl,
Who knows love can endure.
And you know it will.
And you know it will.

Despite the joke, God will never look at us and say, “I didn’t recognize you.” We are intimately known by our creator. The Psalmist assures us that the “Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.”

So, we can lie down and sleep in peace – God alone makes us lie down in safety. What do we mean by safety? Often we think of safety as the absence of injury, or loss, or danger. Shirley Dunham knew better – she understood that safety in God means that even in the face of injury, loss, or danger, Jesus is there. She understood that even if Robin had pulled the trigger and ended her earthly life, Jesus would guarantee her ultimate safety.

Jesus is most keenly present with us as we journey on our own Emmaus road – seeking to get away from the harshness of our circumstances – seeking an escape from the cares of the world. Author and pastor Frederick Beuchner writes that “Emmaus is whatever we do, or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die.”

Running to our Emmaus, or heading for the downhill run to Papeete Bay, when life gets rough is nothing to be ashamed of – the world is a hard place and we all need a chance to take a long walk from time to time and get away from it all. What we must never do, though, is give up our hope. It is the recognition of Jesus’ presence, even in the worst moments of our lives, that keeps our hope alive even in the midst of despair.

We do not hope for ourselves alone, however – remember, it’s some of us for all of us – so our hope, as theologian Paul Tillich wrote – is “for those who had and have no hope, for those whose hopes for this life remain unfulfilled, for those who are disappointed and indifferent, for those who despair of life, and even for those who have hurt or destroyed life. Certainly, if we could only hope each for himself, it would be a poor and foolish hope. Eternity is the ground and aim of every being, for God shall be all in all.”

Where is you Jesus now? He’s right here.

Think about how many times I have fallen
Spirits are using me larger voices callin’.
What heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten.
I have been around the world,
Lookin’ for that woman/girl,
Who knows love can endure.
And you know it will.
And you know it will.
So we cheated and we lied and we tested
And we never failed to fail
It was the easiest thing to do.
You will survive being bested.
Somebody fine Will come along
Make me forget about loving you.
At the Southern Cross.