"Were not our hearts burning within us?" I wonder if you have ever asked a question like that?
I have to confess, when Pastor Ashley asked me to consider preaching on the spiritual practice of discernment a few months back, I thought, "Are you kidding?! Surely you must be!"
My life is a little crazy, you see. I rarely feel as if I have a solid sense of direction and every other week find myself in the midst of some minor existential crisis over any variety of things, ranging from life in community to living in Houston, to questions of jobs and vocation and calling, to parenting, and the list goes on.
So to talk about discernment - about decision making and hearing God, well, I imagine you should be hearing about all this from someone who's living their best life now, you know? And not the hot mess I am in daily life.
But once I settled down a little, I realized I do have something to say about discernment.
After all, my life this moment looks very different than it did a decade ago, and that kind of drastic change doesn't happen by accident.
And beyond questions of my own life, it's also true that I am someone others have often turned to for presence and for processing as they have made decisions and listened for God.
Some of those decisions have been the big ones - like which grad school to go to, or whether to leave ministry, whether to stay in Houston after Mission Year, whether to get married, or what to think about bodies.
Some of those decisions have been more daily - questions of how to eat, how to pray, where to spend time, how to navigate conflict, how to grow as a person.
I do know something about discernment and the practice of it. And as a practice, I think it's critical to the Christian life.
Discernment, if I were to define it, is simply an openness to the Spirit of God, a listening for the voice of God, and the willingness to be lead and act on God's leading.
Openness, listening, and willingness.
And while we can try these on our own, what I want to suggest tonight is that ultimately our practices of discernment are really bound up in practices of friendship and community - that we must submit our lives to others who see us, know us, and will discern with us.
The stories of Jesus's appearances after the resurrection are some of those most dear to me in scripture.
And this particular story, of the walk to Emmaus, highlights the role of community and friendship in discerning the presence of Jesus.
As these friends walk along the road, someone joins them. And he seems at first to not know about Jesus, about the crucifixion and events in Jerusalem.
They tell him about their community - the women who found the empty tomb, and other friends who went to check it out. They had hoped Jesus was the Messiah, but it seems like their hopes were dashed.
And then this stranger, who has listened, begins to explain how Jesus was the Messiah. He goes back to Moses and the prophets.
They end up inviting the stranger back to their place for dinner. And when he breaks bread, it dawns on them that the stranger is Jesus himself!
Together in wonder, they say, "Were not our hearts burning within us?"
"Our hearts," they say. They are together in discerning that this stranger is Jesus. With a solidarity of experience, they witness in one another's lives the miracle they have just experienced.
For tonight, there are three things I want to highlight in this story - three things that strike me as important for the practice of discernment. Here they are:
1. These two friends have paid attention to their hopes and desires.
2. They engage together the story of faith and remember together what they know.
3. They are part of a much larger web of friendships with those whose lives are aimed at ultimate questions and ways of being in the world.
Back to the first: They have paid attention to their hopes and desires.
As they lay out the recent events in Jerusalem, telling the stranger all that has happened, they say, "we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel."
They had hoped. They had desires about this particular man, Jesus, but also desires about how he had envisioned the world. In other words, they had bought into Jesus's imagination for reality.
They had glimpsed a new kingdom breaking in and they wanted to live within it.
So often, I have tended to think that if I want something, it must not be what God wants.
Have you ever felt that way?
Behind it is what I think is a faulty assumption first about God's heart for us, as if God of course opposes everything we want, and secondly about our own innate sinfulness or a propensity to want the wrong things.
But the truth is that often God uses our desires, our capacity to hope and long, in order to move us toward God and toward lives of faithfulness.
I once heard an old-timey preacher say that "when you want what God wants, you will want what God wants." In other words, to pray God's will be done means that in time, our desires begin to align with that will.
Or, there's a beautiful prayer by Thomas Merton which includes this line: "I believe that the desire to please you, O God, does in fact please you and I hope I have that desire in all I am doing."
These two traveling friends had a desire to see the kingdom of God as Jesus had envisioned it break in to reality, and had desires that their lives be shaped by his imagination.
These hopes, these desires, were good and Godly, and right.
Second, they engage together their shared story of faith, and remember what they know.
One the road, the stranger opens to them the scriptures, rehearsing what Moses and the prophets have said.
This is critical in our practices of discernment. So often the questions we have are about what comes next in the story for us.
Who will we become? What should we do or where should we go, and how will our character deepen and develop? And ultimately, where is God in any or all of this?
To know what comes next, we have to know where we are, remember the plot, locate ourselves and this moment in the story God is telling. We remember through reading scripture, and engaging the story in practices like communion. We can't do this alone.
Which leads me to the third aspect of our sacred story tonight, namely the importance of friendship and community. The traveling friends in our story are part of a much larger web of community with others whose lives are aimed at ultimate questions and ways of being in the world.
In telling the stranger what has happened, they refer to the women who discover the empty tomb and others who saw it. And after their eyes are opened, they process this experience together, of having discovered the stranger to be Jesus. And after this, they return to the rest of the disciples to relate what they have seen.
I would argue that without friendship and community, we cannot actually practice discernment.
Here I don't mean the Facebook friend kind of friendship.
I mean the kind of friendship where two people are running neck and neck hard toward the things of God.
These are people your life is wide open to, who you have given permission to know you deeply and even say hard things to you, who will hold you in the integrity of who you are, and call you up to belovedness.
They know who you are, the know who God is and what story we're in, and they're on the road with you, journeying in the same general direction. They hope with you, listen for God with you, interpret the story with you.
In my life, I have a group of very dear friends who have traveled with me these past years. Who are your traveling partners in your life?
If you aren't certain, then look around the table. At Kindred, we are hoping to be the kind of place where we journey together and name the presence of the risen Jesus in our midst.
We hope to say together, "Were not our hearts burning within us?" and name that God was with us all along, is now, and ever will be. Amen.