St. John’s Lutheran Church
23 April 2023 + Easter 3a
Rev. Josh Evans
They could not have been a more different or mismatched pair.
One was a socially awkward, insecure loner and compulsive liar, desperate to make a best friend.
The other: a devout, eager, and ambitious, if not a tad pompous, self-imagined prodigy, ready to do “something incredible” and change the world forever.
Their mission: to fly halfway around the world to tell their would-be converts about “the most amazing book” … the Book of Mormon.
The pairing of Elder Arnold Cunningham and Elder Kevin Price, the newly-minted Latter-day Saint mission companions bound for Uganda, was a recipe for disaster before it even got started.
Sometimes, we don’t exactly get to choose our companions.
Sometimes, instead, our companions are made.
Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, for instance. Cleopas and … the other one. Who were they? Luke, of course, doesn’t tell us. Cleopas … and the other one. It could be you. It could be me. I like how Luke does that, inviting us into the story with an unnamed disciple.
These two traveling companions were brought together not exactly by choice … but by grief.
They walked despondently down the road, Jerusalem in the rear-view mirror, leaving behind the city that killed their teacher, the one they had hoped would redeem Israel.
Once they sang and danced with gladness … Now they sit among the ashes, all their dreams, all their hopes, destroyed by death…
They walked together and talked together, uttering the three saddest words in all of scripture and human speech: We had hoped.
They were companions in their grief.
Sometimes, companions have a way of being made like that.
In their shared experience of grief, they found each other. They found companionship. They found someone else who understood what they were going through.
Because, despite the question they posed to the as-yet-unknown-to-them Jesus, he probably wasn’t the only stranger who did not know the things that had taken place there in those days.
In fact, he probably wasn’t even in the minority. Really, it would have been more surprising if this stranger had known.
Crucifixion happened. A lot. It wasn’t exactly a remarkable occurrence. Even if a random stranger on the road had known what exactly happened, they hardly would have cared or given it a second thought. “Another one? Huh.”
They didn’t go out looking for a companion. But grief like that has a way of finding company with others.
In my first call, I had the privilege of sitting in on our annual grief support group, organized by our own member care coordinator and the deacon of a nearby congregation. The women who gathered, many of them returning participants from prior years, didn’t necessarily show up looking for a companion, but they found one another.
They didn’t choose each other. Sometimes, companions are just made.
They were companions on the way.
They walked with each other on the road to Emmaus. They had each other. They held one another’s grief, and they shared each other’s burdens.
They didn’t exactly set out for Emmaus looking for someone else to join them either … when, suddenly, out of nowhere, this stranger just invited himself into their conversation … entering into their shared grief, walking with them, and accompanying them until dusk.
They weren’t looking for another companion, but even so, perhaps just out of sheer hospitality, they invited this stranger who chose them to join them for dinner.
In the disciples’ grief, they encountered yet another companion on the way.
A companion who was with them before they even knew who he was. A companion whose presence caught them by surprise … unexpected and mysterious and grace-filled.
They didn’t go out looking for each other. They didn’t even want to be assigned as mission companions. Or at least one of them really didn’t.
Not long after their arrival in Uganda, Elder Price quickly became discouraged at the reluctance of the villagers to receive his message, convert, and join the Church. Turns out, what a poverty-stricken village struggling with the daily realities of disease and the threat of violence needs … isn’t a proselytizing message.
Feeling defeated, Elder Price gives up, abandoning his mission and his mission companion.
Fast forward through a minor crisis of faith and several significant (but not altogether appropriate for mixed audiences in church) plot points, Price ultimately has an epiphany:
Maybe the point isn’t winning converts for the Church and glory for himself. Maybe what was more important was actually working with the villagers and his mission companion – dare he even say his best friend.
Maybe what Elder Price needed after all was the imaginative cleverness of his mission companion … and it might just be what would ultimately save them all. Maybe that in itself would be “something incredible.”
It turns out, Elders Price and Cunningham, the apparently mismatched mission companions, were exactly what the other needed all along, arriving at a grace-filled realization of their own:
“We are still Latter-day Saints,” Price declares, “all of us. Even if we change some things, or we break the rules … we can still all work together and make this our paradise planet.”
Some companions, it turns out, are not necessarily chosen. Instead, some companions are made along the way.
I believe that two satirical Mormon missionaries have just as much to teach us about the life of faith as the story of Cleopas and “the other one.”
Like them, we too are companions on the way.
We are companions with and for each other. In our grief, in our doubts, in our challenges, and in our failures.
We are companions on the way not just for each other but for the life of the world, as the hymn writer puts it:
As companions on the way,
let us live the words we pray,
with the ones the world has turned away.
We are companions for each other and companions with those cast aside and ignored and overlooked … with those weighed down by grief and soaked with tears … with those stretched to their limits and then some.
And: That companionship is reciprocal when we’re the ones who need it too. Because, it turns out, sometimes we don’t necessarily choose our companions. They’re just made along the way.
That is what it means to live as people of the resurrection: to be companions with and for each other, to accompany our siblings who are hurting, to remind them that God is still with us, even in the hard stuff.
“We’re gonna be here for each other, every step of the way,” the chorus of Mormons and Ugandans sings together in the show’s finale.
We are companions on the way, with the one who first chose to be our companion, entering into the fullness of our existence, to remind us of the assurance that God is with us, even when we don’t recognize them in our midst.
We are companions on the way, working together not for some far-off, distant promise, but for a more just and kind and loving reality here and now.
To make this our paradise planet.
On earth as it is in heaven.