Author Archives: Joanna

About Joanna

Mennonite pastor, mom, writer

Worship Pieces: 2 Kings 2:1-15

We are looking at the Elijah and Elisha stories in worship right now. Here are a couple of worship pieces for this week:

Call to Worship

Leader: We have come to listen to the biblical stories.
All: We have come to consider our own stories.
Side 1: Have you seen blazing chariots?
Side 2: Have you felt the whirling wind?
Side 1: Have you known the sacred silence?
Side 2: Have you rejoiced in restored life?
Leader: Have you heard the voice of truth?
Side 1: In the stories of prophets and kings,
Side 2: In the stories of widows and orphans,
Side 1: In your story,
Side 2: and your story,
Leader: in all our stories:
All: God shows up.
Leader: May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Prayer of Confession

God of the blazing chariots, the whirling wind, the sacred silence,
Listen softly to the confessions of our hearts.


Create clean hearts in us.
Renew right spirits within us.
Shelter us within your presence.
Sustain us by your Holy Spirit.
Restore to us the joy of our salvation.
Blazing, whirling, sacred God,
inhabit and transform our stories. Amen.

*As always, you are welcome to use this material in your own worship setting. You can acknowledge: “By Joanna Harader from”

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The Man Who Went Away Grieving

Even now, two thousand years later, you can almost hear the man’s sigh of relief when Jesus reminds him of the basic commandments. “Yeah, yeah. I’ve got all of that covered,” says the man. (“I’ve got eternal life in the bag,” he thinks.)

And you can almost see the look of concern slowly settle on his face as he realizes Jesus is not done talking. Jesus looks at him with love and says, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

And so we read that, “When the young man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

The Greek word used here for grieving is a serious, heavy word–it’s what the disciples felt when Jesus told them he would be killed; it’s what they felt when Jesus said one of them would betray him; it’s what Jesus felt when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This young, wealthy, good, religious man was grieving as he left Jesus.

Any time we lose something, there is grief involved, and this man who came to Jesus was grieving because he has lost something. With these few words from Jesus, the man has lost the entire future life he imagined for himself. Thus far, he has been holding to his wealth and possessions while he followed the commandments. He has envisioned a future in which he has prosperity, power, prestige–and eternal life.

Jesus says that’s not how it works. If this guy wants to be perfect, he’s got to give up his possessions. And thus, if he keeps his possessions, he will have to give up his aspirations of perfection–his view of himself as a devoted, faithful person. He was grieving because his idea of how life works had been shattered.

This man’s conversation with Jesus did not go quite as he had hoped. This thing Jesus told him to do was difficult–perhaps too difficult. So the young man went away grieving. He went back to his McMansion, snuggled down in his Lazy Boy, and flipped on the big screen TV, never to see Jesus again.

That’s the story we’ve heard, right? Not exactly.

We only know that the man goes–which is actually what Jesus tells him to do: “Go, sell your possessions.”

And we know that he is grieving.

We tend to assume he is grieving because he is not willing to sell his possessions, which means that he will not gain eternal life after all.

But it is also possible that he is grieving because he’s really going to miss that TV. He was so enjoying the new surround sound stereo system that he got for Christmas.

The story simply does not say. None of the three versions in the gospels say whether the man went and kept his possessions or went and sold his possessions. The text says only that he went away grieving.

It is interesting to me that there is such a broad belief that he rejects Jesus’ instructions. Some scholars even refer to this as a “failed call narrative.” We fill in the end of this story in our heads without even realizing we are doing it.

Why? Why do we all fill in this story automatically? And why do we all imagine the same ending?

Is it because that’s how our story would end?

*This post is adapted from a sermon on Matthew 19:16-30, a parallel passage to this week’s Lectionary reading from Mark 10:17-31.

*You can find a family liturgy based on Mark 10:17-31 at Practicing Families.


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Murkiness, Comfort, and Hope

Harader tombstone1 Kings 17:17-24

This is the first resurrection story in the Bible. Amidst all the miracles of the Hebrew scriptures–creation and the flood and the plagues and the red sea parting and the water in the wilderness—here in 1 Kings 17 is the first time we ever read of God making someone who is dead alive again.

It is, you could argue, the ultimate miracle—a precursor to the culmination of the Christian narrative in Jesus’ resurrection; the surest evidence of God’s power: bringing a dead person back to life.

Considering the magnitude of this miracle, I am struck by how private it is. In the next chapter, we read about the big competition between Elijah and the prophets of Baal with the dramatic fire coming down from heaven. But how much more profound, more awe-inspiring, more impressive is this miracle of renewed life? How much more fully does this dead-now-living boy reveal the nature and power of God?

And yet there is no crowd. Only Elijah in his room with the dead boy. No big speech. Only Elijah’s desperate demands of God.

When Elijah prays for the fire, he begs God to do the miracle in order to prove to the people that Yahweh is God. The fire from heaven is a miracle for miracle’s sake. But this restoration of the widow’s son, this is something completely different. It seems to be a response of God to the emotional pain of the widow and Elijah. It seems that the widow’s cries prompt Elijah to action and that, in turn, Elijah’s cries prompt God.

Now this gets us into pretty tricky theological territory. This question of whether God ever changes the divine “mind.” This question about whether our prayers can actually prompt God to action that God would not otherwise take. We could talk circles around these questions, coming up with biblical examples and counter examples and philosophical insights that push us one way and then the other.

The truth is that, despite the fact that I have “mastered” divinity, I don’t know. I don’t know what our prayers can and can’t do. I don’t know what Elijah’s prayers could and couldn’t do. If Elijah had not told God to bring life back to the boy, would the widow’s son have stayed dead? I don’t know.

This story can easily take us into very murky and uncomfortable theological territory–and leave us there confused and even a little bitter. Because there is so much that we simply don’t know. There is so much that doesn’t make sense about why God would grant new life for this one widow’s son while so many other children stay dead.

But for all the murkiness and uncomfortable questions this story raises, I also find some hope and some comfort at the root of this text.

There is an odd sort of comfort because the sadness and pain in this story is tangible and familiar. The gut-churning recognition of the widow’s grief can serve as a reminder that we all experience loss—that while the details differ, the inner desperation resonates across millennia and across borders of all kinds. Just as we recognize the widow’s grief, others recognize our grief—when it comes.

And there is hope because the presence of God in the midst of the pain is indisputable. What exactly God is doing and why—we can have lingering discussions about that. But in this story we have, without a doubt, the fact of God’s presence. And the fact of God’s activity. A presence and activity that is not for show, not to prove a point, but a presence and activity that exist because God is in relationship with the widow and Elijah and the boy.

Even though God has not brought my loved ones back to life, I cannot deny the presence and activity of God in the midst of my most desperate moments.

Finally, there is comfort and hope in the truth—the truth traced throughout scripture from the creation narratives to this story and into the Gospels and the writings of the early church; the truth at the heart of my Christian faith: that our God is a God of life. Always. Even when we barely understand.

In the midst of so much grief and despair and death in this world, we serve a God of life. I hope and pray that you are, more often than not, able to live into and out of that Divine life.

–This post is excerpted from this full sermon.

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MCC in Syria

Displaced families and children in Syria's Qalamoun region are supported through MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank monthly food allowances that feed 6,000 families a month through partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). Names are withheld for security reasons. (FDCD photo)

Displaced families and children in Syria’s Qalamoun region are supported through MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank monthly food allowances that feed 6,000 families a month through partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). Names are withheld for security reasons. (FDCD photo)

I was privileged to listen in on a press conference yesterday with Mennonite Central Committee staff and MCC partners working in Lebanon and Syria. I was invited by virtue of being a MennoNerds blogger, and I decided to join the conference call because I’m still kind of sick and basically sitting around the house all day . . . so why not?

Well, I’ll tell you why not. Because I want to be happy that President Obama has said the United States should take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year. But on the conference call I learned that there are 2 MILLION Syrian refugees in Lebanon, another 2 MILLION in Jordan, 7-8 MILLION internally displaced people in Syria. Suddenly, ten thousand doesn’t seem like much.

Why not listen in on this press conference? Because they talked a lot about the children. The children fleeing bombings in Syria who face hunger in Lebanon. The children who cannot attend school because it’s not safe, or because they don’t have enough money. The children who haven’t bathed in weeks; who can’t access the healthcare they need; who live within a haze of trauma.

Why not listen in on the press conference? Because sometimes, it’s just too much. Bombs, starvation, squalid living conditions, and—as many speakers mentioned—the impending winter. Apparently it gets cold in Lebanon and Syria.

But all of this—the crushing size of the problem, the depths of suffering in the region—this is not really news. No one needs an MCC press conference to learn that things are bad for Syrians right now. Pick up a paper, turn on the news, log on to Facebook. It’s all there in devastating color.

Why listen in on the press conference? Because the participants gave me a glimpse of the reality behind the news stories. That there are people in Lebanon and Syria who are choosing to distribute food and provide healthcare and winterize homes. There are Christians and Muslims working together to serve people in need, showing their neighbors that religion does not have to be a basis for battle, but rather our shared commitment to serving God can bring people together in peace and friendship.

The problems related to the Syrian crisis are overwhelming and the suffering of so many people is unimaginable. At the same time, the human goodness brought forth by this crisis is staggering, and the bravery of so many people is beyond comprehension.

It is easy to focus on the despair, but I am grateful for the words of hope that I heard. So here is my shameless plug: If you, like me, are one of the people lamenting the dire situation in Syria from the comfort of your climate-controlled home, send some money to the brave people who are feeding and housing and clothing distraught Syrians every day.

This may not sound like much, but I heard it directly from Riad and Riham and Rashid and Rosangela: the money matters.

Roseangela Jarjour, Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC) staff and a Syrian living in Lebanon. (MCC Photo/provided by Sarah Adams)

Roseangela Jarjour, Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC) staff and a Syrian living in Lebanon. (MCC Photo/provided by Sarah Adams)

It helps. It is the reason they are able to give food to hungry children. It is how they pay for medical clinics. It is what they will need to get people’s homes ready for the bitter cold months ahead.

Rosangela Jarjour, of The Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC), concluded the press conference by telling us of a pastor in Aleppo who has decided to stay in the city and is currently working with others in the community to rebuild the church that was bombed. Twice. She asked him why he works to rebuild when bombs continue to fall on the city every day. The pastor responded, “the church has to be a sign of hope to the people.”

So I invite you to join that pastor, and Rosangela, and all of the MCC workers and partners in Syria and Lebanon, in being the church. In working together to build and bring life however we can, no matter how overwhelming the forces of destruction may seem.

You can donate money to MCC for their work in Syria through their web site.

If you prefer a more hands-on project, MCC is also asking for much needed kits.

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My Daughters are not Distracting

I am the one who braided her hair--but not during church.

I am the one who braided her hair–but not during church.

A friend of mine recently posed this question on Facebook: Junior high girls braiding each other’s hair in church: appropriate or not? Considering this friend has never been a Jr. High girl nor parented a Jr. High girl, the question seemed sincere and did not bother me.

What did bother me, however, was the frequency with which one particular word kept popping up in the comments: distracting. (Well, the comments about people getting their butts whipped at home for not behaving properly in church also bothered me, but let’s focus this post on “distracting.”) Many people seem to think that girls braiding hair during church is distracting.

Studies1 have shown that we actually retain information better when our hands are occupied. The study I heard about involved doodling, but I imagine braiding hair would have the same effect. So I doubt that the hair braiding is distracting to the girls themselves.

Apparently, then, it is distracting to other people. People who just can’t possibly concentrate on the spirit of worship and the holy word of God when there are 12-year-old girls getting their hair braided in the vicinity. Because their parents never let them braid hair in church? Because of the injunction in I Timothy against braided hair? Because the sermon is so boring that they’re happy to think about anything else? Because it makes them think about how bad their own hair looks that day?

Who knows why some people find hair-braiding distracting. But the distraction seems to have more to do with the person being distracted than it does with the person who is allegedly being distracting.

I will not argue that hair-braiding is appropriate in all worship contexts. It would be in mine; it might not be in yours.

But as the mother of two daughters, I would ask that we avoid referring to girls as distracting. This is a label that society too often ascribes to girls and women as a way of shifting responsibility onto them. Women can’t breastfeed in public because it is distracting. Women can’t serve in the military because they well be a distraction for the men. Girls’ skirts can’t be too short because that would be distracting.

Again, I am not arguing that all of these actions are appropriate. (Public breastfeeding, yes. Women in the military—well, I wish no one would be in the military. My daughter wearing a skirt that barely covers her butt, not OK.) But when we say that a woman is distracting, we make her responsible for the mental state of the people around her. And this is not fair.

As a woman, it is not my responsibility to not distract you. It is your responsibility to focus on what it is you need to focus on.

The other problem with the term distracting is that it is belittling. It signifies that something is not significant, not worthy of the attention it is drawing to itself. That a girl is not worthy of the attention that she is drawing to herself.

Seldom (if ever?) do I hear boys or men referred to as distracting. Disrespectful, yes. Annoying, yes. Inappropriate, yes. But not distracting.

There is something about the term “distracting” that simultaneously strips away the power of the one who is the distraction, while also burdening that person with responsibility for the thoughts of the people around them.

So this is a long answer to a friend’s simple question: Junior high girls braiding each other’s hair in church: appropriate or not? In my church context, I think it’s perfectly appropriate. You may find it inappropriate, or even disrespectful. But please don’t call it distracting.

1“What studies?” you ask. Studies. That I’m sure I heard about on NPR, because that’s basically all I listen to. Unless it was a TED Talk podcast. Just studies. I promise. Trust me.

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What I Learned from being SICK with a UTI Last Week

  • I am going to die some day. That day is probably not tomorrow.
  • Reading takes more energy than watching Netflix.
  • I can almost forget I am sick if I am talking to someone. (Or: Just in case you were wondering, yes, I am an extrovert.)
  • I know Renee Zellweger has lots of issues. And I don’t want to be her. But maybe if I could have been her just when she filmed Bridget Jones’ Diary. Because Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.
  • My real-life husband who did the kid-driving and grocery shopping and laundry and dishes and cooking for the whole week is sexier than Colin Firth and Hugh Grant put together.
  • I still want my mom when I am sick. (And lucky for me, she still wants to take care of me when I’m sick.)
  • In the throes of illness, I can come up with some great sermon ideas. Putting those ideas into a coherent sermon, however, is another story.
  • The world will not stop without my full participation. Even the church will will not grind to a halt because I’m living on my couch.
  • Missing a meeting (or 5) is not the end of the world.
  • Having a job I can do from home is both a blessing and a curse.
  • Sometimes the first round of antibiotics doesn’t work.
  • When the first round of antibiotics doesn’t work, I barely care that I’ve wasted my life watching HGTV all day.
See. I am totally not making it up about my husband.

See. I am totally not making it up about my husband.

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My Favorite Bible Story that’s not in the Bible

The following is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on Matthew 17:24-27. This was the last sermon in our summer series: Who is Jesus?.

I’ve always loved this quirky story, but I only recently realized how many assumptions I have made about it.

Like the assumption that Jesus actually did pay the temple tax. Really, we only have Peter’s word for this. And let’s think for a minute about how reliable Peter is—particularly under pressure. We know how Peter responded in the courtyard after Jesus was arrested when people asked him– “Aren’t you one of his followers?” “Oh no,” said Peter. “I never heard of this Jesus guy.” Right? That’s Peter.

So this confrontation with the temple tax collectors: “Hey! You! Does that teacher of yours pay the temple tax like he’s supposed to?” I imagine that Peter would say “Of course he does!” regardless of the truth of the matter. Peter says Jesus pays the tax, but it’s entirely possible Peter is lying.

Another assumption I’ve always made is that this is a story about Peter catching a fish with money in its mouth. In reality, it is a story about Jesus telling Peter to go catch the fish—we never actually see Peter go fishing. In fact, I was so sure that the story of Peter catching the fish was in the Bible that when I realized he doesn’t catch the fish in Matthew, I went in search of the story somewhere else . . . but it’s not there.

What if it didn’t happen? Not because Jesus couldn’t arrange for Peter to catch a money-filled fish, but because Jesus wasn’t being serious. Because, just maybe, Jesus was being snarky and sarcastic. It’s possible Jesus wasn’t actually telling Peter to go catch a fish with a coin in its mouth, but rather Jesus was pointing out the ridiculous nature of the temple tax and chastising Peter for telling the tax collectors that he was willing to pay it.

“Sure. I’ll be happy to pay that tax. Just go catch a fish with the money in its mouth.”

We can’t know for sure whether Jesus really expects Peter to pay the tax with the fishy money or whether he is making a pointed joke, but I’m intrigued by this alternate reading of this story. The crux of Matthew’s brief narrative here isn’t really Peter’s statement to the tax collectors or the instructions for him to go fishing. The central point of this passage is Jesus’ question: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”

Of course the king’s children don’t pay taxes. With this simple question, Jesus points out the deeply rooted injustice of the taxation system. It is a harsh critique.

And after establishing that the taxation system is unjust, Jesus says, “however, so that we do not give offense to them, go and cast your hook . . .”.

So that we do not give offense to them.”

Think for just a minute. Can you think of another story from the Gospels in which Jesus’ primary objective is to not cause offense. . . . Anyone? . . .

Maybe, rather than a glimpse of a compliant Jesus who can perform nifty tricks, Matthew is giving us a glimpse of an exasperated Jesus. A Jesus who is weary from the injustices that surround him. A Jesus who is tired of his followers not understanding what he is really about. A Jesus who does not pay taxes and is not about to give money to a corrupt temple system and wishes Peter had the guts to just tell the tax collectors to go jump in the lake. A Jesus who will pay his stinking temple tax when Peter catches a fish with a gold coin in its mouth!

Maybe. It’s hard to say for sure. But at any rate, it is a great fish story.

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Call to Worship: Who is Jesus?

Here is our call to worship for the final Sunday in our “Who is Jesus?” series:

We come together this morning to worship.
We come as seekers,
Wondering who this Jesus is.
We come as students,
Full of questions about Jesus’ unconventional teachings.
We come as skeptics,
Unsure of Jesus’ unexplainable miracles and outlandish claims.
We come as followers,
Longing for the wisdom and strength to follow Jesus more faithfully.
We come as we are,
With our faith and our doubts, our stories and our questions.
We come to worship.

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Jesus as “the Way”

Below is an excerpt from the sermon I preached last Sunday on the “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John. You can read the full text here.

– – – – – –

One of the most popular and–at least for some of us–uncomfortable “I am” sayings is from John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Many Christians use this verse to argue that only Christians—only people who believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah—have access to God. Now, while I personally do believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, I do not believe that those who disagree with me on this particular theological point are necessarily cut off from God for all eternity. And I’m happy to sit down and discuss my personal beliefs on this issue any time. Particularly if there are baked goods involved.

But for now I’m more interested in what John thinks. Or at least, I’m interested in thinking about what John’s intent might have been in including this “I am” saying in his Gospel.

It is important to note that Jesus does not speak these words out of the blue; it is a response to a direct question. Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To which Jesus responds, “I am the way.”

Just as Christianity has many versions and varieties today, first century Judaism also included many different groups with differing practices and teachings. The followers of Jesus—or “the way”–were simply one of many groups within first century Judaism.

As we know from Jesus’ ministry and teaching, some of the religious groups proposed complicated sets of rules and rituals they claimed were necessary for true faith. For example, when Jesus talked about straining out gnats, he was referring to an extreme practice by some Jews who took following Jewish dietary restrictions very very seriously. The Gospels also reveal strict rules for keeping the Sabbath. And more fringe Jewish sects demanded lifestyles of poverty and/or celibacy for those who sought true faith.

Jesus was not the only religious teacher of the day to teach about the way one could access God. The difference was that, while most teachings revolved around what one had to do and not do to get to God, Jesus’ teaching was simply about relationship: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus is speaking here to his closest friends and followers. He is not telling the heathen masses that they have to accept him as their personal Lord and Savior. He is telling his dear friends that their relationship with him is enough—all of the rules and regulations and deprivations they think they have to endure to get to God, it’s not true. Their relationship with Jesus is enough.

That, my friends, is a message of Good News.

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The Road to Emmaus/The Road to Convention

Photo by Matt Clingan

Photo by Matt Clingan

Our biannual national Mennonite Church USA convention begins on Tuesday, and there are two resolutions coming before the delegates that highlight disagreements about how our denomination should include LGBTQ people. The resolutions are fairly new, but the disagreements themselves are not.

Many Mennonites, myself included, have spent a lot of time hashing out the details of the biblical and theological basis of our beliefs about inclusion. We have quoted scripture and examined the Greek terms and expounded upon our theologies of creation, family, sexuality, and church. I’m pretty sure a 7-mile walk wouldn’t give me enough time to say all I have to say on the subject.

But if Luke were writing up this story he’d be like: “And beginning with Genesis and the Prophets and focusing on the life of Christ and the witness of the early church, Joanna explained to them what was said in scripture concerning full inclusion of all people.”

I don’t mean to imply I’m like Jesus. I mean to imply that the details of the biblical interpretation and theology are not that important. Which is hard for me to hear, let alone say. Because biblical theology is what I do. Writing about it is what I’m good at. And that’s fine. But it just doesn’t matter that much.

If even Jesus’ theology gets squeezed down to a single sentence, I certainly can’t expect mine to merit any more consideration in the grand scheme of things.

Leading up to the Kansas City Convention, there has been a whole lot of attention paid to Bible study and theological discernment and discussion. But what we really need to do is be present together and walk with each other. And I know that is not as easy as it sounds. And I know my heart is just as resistant to being with some people as theirs is resistant to being with me. Frankly, I’m more comfortable expounding the scriptures than walking beside people with whom I disagree.

But Luke’s narrative suggests that, in the end, the walking together is more significant than the details of the dialog. It is the journey that interests Luke.

And at the end of this journey the two travelers reach their destination and invite the stranger to stay with them. They sit down together for a meal—and that is when they finally recognize Jesus.

That is what it’s all about, right? It’s about helping each other recognize Jesus. And about recognizing Jesus in each other.

My deep prayer for convention is that we will all recognize Jesus’ presence—within us and among us.

  • When the delegates talk together at their tables—their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
  • When youth and adults join in worship–their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
  • When people sit with strangers during meal time–their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
  • When Pink Mennos gather to sing hyms–their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.

We desperately want, to recognize Jesus’ presence among us. And sometimes we do. And that is a deep grace.

But friends, the journey is long. Seven miles, on foot, from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Thirty-Nine miles from Lawrence to Kansas City. Thirteen years since General Conference and Mennonite Church merged to form MC USA. Thirty years that Brethren Mennonite Council has been encouraging Mennonite churches toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people.

The journey is long.

It’s easy for us to read this story and think how silly Cleopas and his companion were to not recognize Jesus as they walked along the road. Weren’t their hearts burning? How did they miss that? They should have known. Those silly disciples.

Really though, we are the silly ones–to talk about when they should have known. They know when they know. They know when God finally opens their eyes. They know Jesus’ presence when divine grace allows them to know it.

The knowing is out of their control. The revelation is up to God.

What Cleopas and his companion should have done is exactly what they did: welcome the stranger to journey with them; share their story; listen to his story; walk and walk and walk together for however long it takes; sit down together at the table.

The travelers did exactly what they should have done. And then God did exactly what God does: opens our eyes to the presence of Jesus in our midst.

May it be so.

[This post is excerpted from the sermon I preached last Sunday.]

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