Saying No to Mrs. Bidemeier: Reflections on Luke 24:13-35

Lectionary Reflections
Luke 24:13-35
May 4, 2014

They say misery loves company. I think it's true. In the hospital nursery it's called "social crying."

One baby starts crying and all the rest follow suit. In the workplace, one person complains and others join in. In family disputes, one person gathers others around and vents a grievance and they all unite in their shared sense of hurt at the hands of another family member. Misery loves company.

The disciples shuffle along, keeping each other company, miserable company, but company. They are immersed in their sadness, and who can blame them? We know the dynamics of grief. We all cringe at a funeral when the cheery, death-denying pastor begins by saying "Dry your tears! We are not here to mourn but to celebrate!" The disciples deserve the dignity of their grief and perhaps the benefit of the doubt.

But … their grief has blinded them temporarily to Resurrection hope. Loss is all they are willing to embrace. Their spirits are completely at the mercy of what they perceive to be their failed hopes. "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel" (24:21). Their faith is foiled by what they consider to be insufficient evidence of Resurrection. They recount to the stranger the odd events the women reported, but then conclude, "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" (24:24). So the disciples continue down the road, and perhaps would have passed the Risen Jesus right by if it weren't for their muscle memory of the Lord's Supper that kicked in when the stranger blessed and broke the bread (24:30).

The text says that "their eyes were kept from recognizing him." The passive tense implies a supernatural concealment. (For this motif of concealment see 9:45 and 18:34.) This serves to heighten the drama when, after the stranger witnesses to the Resurrection theme throughout Scripture, they recognize their Lord, Risen and with them. The story may have been meant to reassure those in Luke's church who had not seen the Resurrected Lord that he can still be walking by their side. While the text implies a supernatural power at work concealing his identity, for them and for us, spiritual blindness result from our responses to a variety of human experiences as well—experiences such as never having been taught the stories of faith, being at the bottom of a pit of depression, struggling with bereavement or abuse, or being enmeshed in anxiety.

How long will the disciples continue down the road without recognizing that the Risen Jesus walks with them? How long will you and I walk with them? I am not suggesting that Resurrection faith means an emotional high. I understand the positive value of the dark night of the soul, and that fact that sometimes, as the Spiritual says so well, "You have to walk that lonesome valley, and you have to walk it by yourself." And I'm not discounting or disrespecting a state of depression that calls for being taken seriously and treated with therapy and medication.

I'm not talking about a dark night of the soul or a state of depression. I'm talking about the spiritual condition of habitually expecting failure and sorrow where we have been promised victory and joy. I'm talking about waking up every morning and heading for the Garden Tomb looking for a corpse. Walking through a valley of the shadow of death that is darker than it needs to be because we've closed the blinds and unscrewed the light bulbs in the wall sconces in the hall.

There is a statute of limitations on the brand of persistent pessimism that stomps out every spark and blows out every flame; that has 20/20 vision for the worst in the most positive of situations. How far down the road will we go with these "misery loves company" disciples on the Emmaus Road before we say "no" to negativity, pessimism, and unfounded hopelessness and "yes" to the presence of the Risen Christ walking by our side?

It's important to practice saying "no" to unwarranted pessimism this Eastertide. I have a colleague, Dr. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, who is a gifted and creative teacher of pastoral care at Perkins School of Theology. She told me recently about an exercise she puts her students through to help them say no to certain things so they have time and energy to say yes to more important ones. It's practice in setting boundaries. She calls the exercise "Saying No to Mrs. Bidemeier." She got the idea from a case study in the book An Introduction to Pastoral Care by Charles V. Gerkin about people who push pastors' limits. She took it a step further and created Mrs. Bidemeier, a fictitious character whose persona she takes on in the class role-play. Mrs. Bidemeier represents the church member who feels the pastor should do just about everything in the life of the church, certainly everything that she asks him or her to do.