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Lots of news leading up to our scripture lesson two millennia ago. We are familiar with the story. It was Easter afternoon and we are introduced to a pair of travelers, one named Cleopas, the other maybe Mrs. Cleopas - we don't know. Nor, for that matter, do we know much about their destination, Emmaus. Just that it is seven miles from Jerusalem, but north, south, east or west - we have no idea.
They had been in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, a religious obligation for every faithful Jewish male living within fifteen miles of the city, and also follow after Jesus of Nazareth, that remarkable young rabbi who had been making such an impact with his preaching and teaching and healing. Word had begun to spread that this Jesus might very well be the Messiah, God's anointed one who would lead the people and throw off the hated yoke of Roman oppression. Yes!
But those hopes had been dashed. This was a big news week. As everyone knows, this Jesus ended up, not on a throne, but a cross, condemned by religious jealousy and political expediency. There had been a moment of confusion earlier that Easter morning when some women had gone to the tomb and started the rumor that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But most people were not taking this news seriously. "Nonsense," they said. Peter had been to the grave as well, but he did not see Jesus, only a shroud laid in the corner of the tomb, and what would you make of that? So, discouraged, Cleopas and friend headed back out to the suburbs of Emmaus where nothing much ever happened, to take up their lives again and try to put out of their minds the terrible memory of what HAD happened.
They barely noticed when a stranger began to walk with them and joined in the conversation. Of course, we know who this stranger is, the risen Christ. But Cleopus and company don't. "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and have no access to FOX or CNN?...Are you the only one who does not know about Jesus in whom we had such hopes?" And then they prattle on about the events of the past few days telling the one who was crucified about the crucifixion and the peculiar rumors they had heard of the resurrection.
Jesus listened patiently, until finally, the text implies that he had had enough and he gave them some instruction. "'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself." So says our text.
Wouldn't you figure that, at some point on this journey, either Cleopus or the Mrs. would have gotten more than an inkling of with whom it was they were traveling? Were they blind? They had known him in Jerusalem. Was he incognito, veiled in some transmuted state? Some have suggested that they were too grief stricken, too shaken by what they had seen. Sorrow can do that. Make you numb to what you see. In any case, don't you just know that if you or I had been there, we would have known who he was. More about that in a minute.
Now the journey is over. The sun is setting, the evening approaches, Emmaus is near. Cleopas does what any good Middle Easterner would always do - he offers the hospitality of his home. Despite initial reluctance, Jesus finally agrees. They sit down to dinner, the bread, the wine, and as we hear every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, THEN their eyes were opened and the recognized him.
Why now? Was because the light from the lamp finally hit Jesus' face just so, or because they had been there at the last supper and seen him do it before, or because they finally looked deeply at this stranger with whom they had been walking and eating; but whatever it was, they recognized Jesus as the one who had been with them all the time. Then suddenly, he is gone.
Pretty big stuff. Even though night was quickly approaching, the two hopped in their Honda (had to be a Honda because they were in one accord <groan>), and headed back to Jerusalem with their rather incredible news.
Several things are striking about this story. One of them is how incredibly NORMAL these two disciples are. Their reaction to the story of Jesus' death and apparent resurrection is about what one might expect from any of us - disappointment, grief, disbelief. These were not gullible morons - they were normal folks, and I do not think it is particularly fair to beat up on them for not recognizing Jesus so far outside the realm of normal expectation. After all, if God decided to make that point with us here this morning all that would be needed would be for the late Pope to walk in in a business suit and take a seat. Would you identify him right off? Despite his image having been everywhere this past week?
Another thing. These folks were not biblical illiterates. Those stories that the mysterious stranger told them about were not unfamiliar. They knew them. But they still didn't catch on. Is there a message there? Perhaps. I know folks who can quote you scripture till the cows come home but I would be hard pressed to identify them by their behavior as Christian. Jesus himself had set that standard when he told the twelve in the Upper Room, "By this shall everyone know you are my disciples: that you have love one for another."(1)
Asked by a persistent reporter to define the meaning of jazz, legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong is reputed to have answered, "If you have to ask the question, you'll never know." Something similar is true of Jesus' revelation of himself in our lesson. We do not reach Jesus by dint of our own effort. We know him only because he chooses to reveal himself to us. He does so not dramatically and with power, but humbly and personally. The risen Jesus does not appear to the rich and famous, the movers and shakers of that time. He does not show up before the throne of the emperor in Rome, demanding to be vindicated. Rather, he falls in beside a couple of dispirited wanderers who are wending their way home after having their hopes dashed.(2)
Another point. The letter to the Hebrews urges us, "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."(3) As far as I can see, inviting him to stay for dinner is the only thing these two did right. Maybe that's one more thing that this story is trying to tell us, that the world is more full of God than we reckon. Sometimes you look at someone and if the light is just right, or the moment translucent enough, there is something of God there. The Irish call it the thin places, those places where the veil between heaven and earth is sheer.(4)
But, truth be told, God is not always easy to identify even when we are looking - that is why we have such turmoil in the name of religion. Sometimes God is better known in hindsight than at the moment. God can be that way, you know, discreet, subtle, understated, not always coming in the earthquake, wind, and fire but in the still small voice of recognition that speaks within, ever so quietly.
Frederick Buechner has written, "Sacred moments, the moments of miracle, are often everyday moments, the moments which, if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only...a garden, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with our being and imagination...what we may see is Jesus himself.(5)
The late Shirley Guthrie who for many years taught theology at Columbia Seminary in Georgia once asked his class a simple question: How can we come to know Christ and have Christ know us? Guthrie was teaching one of the volumes of Barth's Church Dogmatics. "What would you tell someone if he or she asked you that question?" queried Guthrie. When no one rose to the bait, Guthrie explained how Karl Barth answered it. Guthrie said, "Barth told the seeker that if he or she was really desiring to know Christ, then one might try just hanging around people who claimed they knew him. See what rubs off on you. See what you think of these people who have a personal relationship with Christ." In short Barth said if one wants to know Christ in that deeper sense, then he or she should go to church!(6) Good advice. But don't forget to keep your eyes open no matter where you might be.
In his wonderful book Open Secrets, Rick Lischer, who teaches preaching at Duke Divinity School, tells about his experiences as a newly ordained Lutheran pastor in southern Illinois, including Buster Toland's funeral. Buster was a mechanic at the local garage. His wife, Beulah, drank too much and was high on drugs most of the time. They argued loudly and profanely and bitterly and in the middle of a huge shouting match when he came home from lunch -- and there was no lunch -- Buster dropped dead.
"Dead before he hit the floor," Beulah said, at least a hundred times to anyone who would listen. Buster was a rascal, and his death made the whole community feel apprehensive and worried about his utterly dysfunctional family.
Young Pastor Lischer helped Beulah through the local funeral plans and negotiations with the funeral director, which were very difficult. Beulah kept insisting on the most expensive casket and arrangements because she "owed it to Buster," she said. The idealistic young minister managed to alienate the funeral director and infuriate his Board of Trustees in the process.
Finally the day for the funeral arrived, complete with the open casket in the narthex of the church. The service itself was a disaster. Beulah wailed at the top of her lungs through the service and Lischer's sermon. He concluded quickly by reminding the congregation that Buster had been a good Marine and father and now the church would assume greater responsibility for his family. And then the congregation moved to the little cemetery on the hill behind the church. The casket was lowered into the grave. Lischer said the words of committal and it was over, and the military phase was about to begin. Four uniformed veterans from the local VFW formed an honor guard and fired their rifles on command three times over the heads of the congregation. There was even a bugler for the occasion, twelve-year-old Moriah Seamanns, standing halfway up the hill in a pink jumper with a thin white sweater draped over her shoulders. Her new cornet caught the sunlight and she was about to give the performance of her life. Her mother stood beside her to hold her music and to steady her child. Then Moriah began to play. She did not play "Taps." She played four stanzas of "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," arcing each note across the ravine toward the mourners on the hill. It was, Lischer says, "as if her music were a time-delayed message coming to us from a saner and more beautiful world."
Standing in the lumpy mud of the cemetery, Lischer said he "could see Easter."(7) The ordinary suddenly holy. Big news week. No news week. No matter. Everyday experiences can become sacred. At the unlikeliest of moments - remember that - the Risen Christ appears...and we meet him again...perhaps for the first time.
1. John 13:35
2. Carlos Wilton, The Immediate Word for 4/10/05, http://www.csspub.com/tiw.lasso
3. Hebrews 13:2
4. Jon Walton, "An Appearance on Old Emmaus Road," sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, New York City, 4/25/04
5. Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, (San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1985), pp. 87-88
6. Mary B. Click, The Immediate Word, 4/10/05
7. Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Journey through a Country Church, (New York : Doubleday, 2001), pp. 180-196