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This idea of inserting our own name into the story makes sense. They were just like us. They had the same concerns that have been common in every age - keeping body and soul together, keeping out of trouble, keeping in tune with the times, and now keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of dashed hopes and shattered dreams. Just like us.
They were religious folk, just like us, having walked the several hours to Jerusalem a few days before. With a real sense of excitement, they had gone to the holy city - obviously for the Passover, an event no good Jew could miss; but also to be near Jesus, one whom they had come to look on as Israel's deliverer, the Messiah. But now they were going home...dejected, depressed, defeated.
As they walked, they talked. Probably some about mundane things - taxes too high, wages too low, kids too wild - but more probably about their friend, Jesus - his teaching, his healing, the way he seemed to love everyone he met. What about the events of the past week? Was it really wise for him to have come into Jerusalem, knowing the authorities were out to get him? Why did he take such a risk that day in the temple, overturning the money changers' tables and shouting at the priests about the temple being a den of thieves? If only he had kept a lower profile. If only he had not done this. If only he had done that instead. If only... If only...
Suddenly, Cleopas and Christie are not alone. Someone is walking along with them. "Wha's sup, y'all?" Or whatever the Aramaic equivalent of that would be.
Cleopas and Brian stop dead in their tracks. "Wha's sup? Wha's SUP???" Are you kidding me? As the text has it, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?"
"What things?" the stranger asks.
Cleopas and Karen begin to share. With a sadness tinged by anger, they described the events that had made them so heavy of heart - their disappointment with religious leaders, their distress at the political system which could be so easily manipulated by evil men, their despair at the loss of someone who had personified their hope for the future. Sounds very much like something we might read in tomorrow's newspaper. Those things happen in any age.
But there was something different here. Along with all the rage they were venting, they had that strange story they had heard from some women friends about an empty tomb, a vision of angels, and a risen Lord. Oh, if only...
Does that make you wonder? Why did Cleopas and Erin leave Jerusalem? I would think that news about the tomb being empty might have prompted a change of plans. For whatever reason, they did not go to the garden to find out first hand, but, as they told their fellow traveler, "some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see."
Did Cleopas and Joseph not believe the report of resurrection? An intriguing thought, but probably wishful thinking. More likely, grave robbers. Otherwise, why not stay in the city to see if Jesus would drop by? I wonder.
But that wonder pales in comparison to the wonder I have about their not knowing who this was. The lesson says, "they were kept from recognizing him." What kept them? Hold that question.
Jesus talks now. "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself." Remember what you learned in Sunday School? Remember the Bible stories? Remember God's promises? And as he talks, a glimmer of hope begins to warm their hearts.
Did the Cleopas and Mary understand? Not quite. But now they had arrived in Emmaus. The afternoon had gone too quickly; they did not want their conversation to end. "Friend, can you stay for a bite of dinner? We do not have much - just some bread and wine - but we would love to have you. Won't you stay, please?" It is only when he takes the honored place at the head of the table and breaks the bread, that their eyes are opened and they recognize him. Then, as quickly as they realize who is here, he is not here. He vanishes.
At every turn, Cleopas and Mark miss the point. They think they know where Jesus is - dead and buried. They are not prepared for a risen Lord, who walks with them along a common road and speaks to them of common things. Finally, it is in the most commonplace action of all - the breaking of bread in an ordinary meal - that it dawns on them who this is.(1)
The question comes again. What is it that keeps their eyes from recognizing Jesus, the one whom we would think they would yearn to see more than anyone in the world? Cleopas and Elizabeth are followers of Jesus, after all. They care about him; they lingered in Jerusalem after his death, risking arrest, until they heard those bewildering rumors of resurrection. On the road, he was even the subject of their conversation. Yet, they STILL fail to recognize him.
The answer, I think, is as simple as they did not EXPECT to see him. The same thing may have happened to you too at some time or another. Have you ever been in a faraway airport terminal or a large shopping mall in a strange city, seen someone who looks more than a little familiar - in fact, is the spitting image of someone close - but found yourself reluctant to approach and say hello because you are not CERTAIN it is him or her? The appearance is totally unexpected, and the result is you do not trust your own eyes.
Perhaps it was no different for Cleopas and Rebecca. Even if the rumors of resurrection are true, they reason, Jesus will surely come in with a company of angels, prince regent of the new kingdom of God. The last thing they expect to see is a Lord who overtakes them on a dusty country road. They are not prepared for the Christ of the commonplace.
I suspect not many of us are, most of the time. Yes, there is something in us that makes us want to worship Jesus - but on OUR terms, according to OUR expectations. Let's do this from a safe distance. "Up there," or "out there," removed from the messiness of daily life. We treat him, in other words, like company at a formal dinner party, not like someone with whom we would be comfortable having coffee at the kitchen table.
Is the problem simply that we have left Jesus in the tomb? Ever visit a graveyard? I have lived right next to two of them. They are very peaceful, even pleasant places. The carefully-kept lawns, the flowers placed by gleaming white monuments, the well-swept walks - the whole environment is calculated to convey serenity. Apart from the occasional funeral and the weekly pass-by with the lawnmower, nothing ever happens in a graveyard.
Is that a good place for Jesus? In the parts of our lives where nothing much happens? In other words, where most often life is really lived - there we are content to go it alone. The risen, living Lord we leave back in the tomb, as Cleopas and Paul thought they had left Jesus in Jerusalem.
To be painfully honest, sometimes the church is like a tomb. Quiet, peaceful, nothing much happening. People can be content to meet Jesus there. In fact, one would expect to. But what some would call quiet reverence others would call terminal boredom. Not exactly a thrilling encounter.
True, we summon him out when things begin to get hairy. We jam the nation's churches after 9/11. We fall on our knees when life begins to crush us down. We say AMEN to the lady who, in fear for her home in the midst of a hurricane, did not PRAY for deliverance but YELLED it. That is the faith of foxholes, and we find that when we need it. But the message of the Emmaus Road account is that the Lord is with us even when we do not expect him.
From the Eastern Orthodox tradition comes the story of a man who went to a monastery and told the abbot he wanted to see God. "How many prayers, how many days of fasting will I have to undergo before I see God?", he asked.
The abbot stood up from behind his desk. "So you want to see God," he said. "Come with me." And the abbot led the man down many winding corridors and dark staircases until they came at last to the kitchen, and finally to the place where the dishes were washed. There, covered with grease and grime, was the meanest, lowliest, most mentally deficient of all the monks. The abbot pointed to him and said, "God."
Fred Craddock, one of America's great teachers of preaching, tells the story of a breakfast experience.(2) He was stuck in Winnipeg, Canada and in the midst of an early October snow storm which paralyzed the city. Everything was shut down and his host could not even make it to Fred's hotel to pick him up for breakfast.
So, for breakfast, Fred found himself at a crowded bus depot café about two blocks from his hotel. As he entered, somebody scooted over and let him get in a booth. A big man with a greasy apron came over to the table and asked him what he wanted. Not knowing what the café served, Fred asked to see a menu.
"What'd ya want with a menu?" the man asked. "We have soup."
"Then I'll have soup," he said. Just what he wanted--soup for breakfast.
The man brought the soup and Craddock says it was an unusual looking soup. It was grey, the color of a mouse. He did not know what was in it, but he took this spoon and tasted it. Awful! "I can't eat this," he said. So he sat in that crowded café warming his hands around the bowl, railing against the world, stuck in Winnipeg.
Then, the door opened and someone yelled, "Close the door," and she did. A woman came in. She was middle-aged, had on a coat, but no covering for her head. Someone scooted over and let her in a booth. The big man with the greasy apron came over and the whole café heard this conversation:
"What'd ya want?"
"Bring me a glass of water," she said.
The man brought the water, took out his tablet and repeated the question. "What'd ya want?"
"Just the water."
"Lady, you gotta order something."
"Just the water."
The man's voice started rising: "Lady, I've got paying customers here waiting for a place, now order!"
"Just the water."
"You order something or you get out!"
"Can I stay and get warm?"
"Order or get out."
So, she got up. The people at the table where she was seated got up, people around got up, the folks that let Fred sit at the table got up, Fred got up, and they all started moving towards the door.
"OK," the big man with the greasy apron said, "She can stay." And everybody sat down. He even brought her a bowl of that soup.
Fred asked the man sitting next to him, "Who is she?"
"I never saw her before," he said, "but if she ain't welcome, ain't nobody welcome."
Then Craddock said, all you could hear was the sound of people eating that soup. "Well, if they can eat it, I can eat it," he said. He picked up his spoon and started eating the soup.
"It was good soup. I ate all of that soup. It was strange soup. I don't remember ever having it. As I left I remembered eating something that tasted like that before. That soup that day tasted like bread and wine." Hmm.
On any Sunday morning in contemporary America, modern versions of Cleopas and Fred...or Anne or Greg or Susie or Barb or Tom or Ted...come walking down the road, finally turning in the church door. The powerful and powerless, the chiefs and indians, the highest and the lowest - each with their own problems, each yearning for the presence of the risen Lord...and finding him here. But like Cleopas and friends of many names, there is the danger that, once they leave these hallowed halls, they are too preoccupied, too busy, too stressed out, to actually recognize him out there as well. That is sad, because the truth is the risen Lord is wherever he is needed, even with us, and even if we do not always know it.
At Christmas time a number of years ago, a nearby city thought it was having trouble with vandals. There was a creche scene in the courthouse square. On a regular basis, the baby in the manger kept disappearing. Mary kept pondering, and Joseph just stood there, but sometime every Advent, the baby Jesus disappeared. One year somebody suggested that they take a chain and attach him to the manger. It did not do any good; he still vanished. One pastor was not surprised. He said, "I think the baby Jesus went to Bosnia for the holidays. You see, they need him over there."(3)
As you walk along the road, talking about all the things that have come to pass - participating, in other words, in the business of living - keep your eyes open. You just may glimpse, out of the corner of your eye, a stranger overtaking you. At first you may not recognize him; but then you will sense a growing warmth, as your heart begins to burn within you. And then comes the moment, magnificent and unexpected, when you see who it is. He will vanish out of your sight. He always does. That is his way. Yet you can know he will return, and you will see him again...somewhere in the commonplace.
1. Carlos Wilton, "The Lord of the Commonplace," sermon preached at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Point Pleasant, NJ, 9/23/90, the source of several ideas and illustrations (and even the title) in this message.
2. The story is also found in Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard Ward, eds., (St. Louis : Chalice Press, 2001)
3. William Carter, "Where Does Easter Happen?" sermon delivered on The Protestant Hour, 4/18/99
3. William Carter, "Where Does Easter Happen?" sermon delivered on The Protestant Hour, 4/18/99