April 6, 2008

TEXT: Luke 24:13-35

This ghost story from Luke’s gospel has to be one of the strangest of all the resurrection appearances. The risen Jesus walks alone the road to Emmaus while Cleopas is discussing the events of the day with another disciple. Jesus asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” And Cleopas answers, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

And after Cleopas tells him what had occurred, Jesus turns the question back to him, “How can you experience these things and not know their meaning?”

Jesus has a point. Events occur throughout our lives and we fail to recognize their significance and their meaning. We often don’t understand the significance of another’s life in relation to our own. And often a very brief encounter with a stranger can be a life changing event.

Marilyn Leuty, a missionary to South Africa, told this story. Mark was walking home from school one day when the boy ahead of him tripped, dropping everything he was carrying: books, two sweaters, a tape recorder, bat and glove. Mark helped pick up the scattered articles. Since they were going the same way, he helped to carry part of the burden.

As they walked, Mark discovered that the boy’s name was Bill. He loved video games, baseball and history, was having lots of trouble with his other subjects and had just broken up with his girlfriend. They arrived at Bill’s home and Mark was invited in for a Coke and to watch some TV. The afternoon passed with a few laughs and some small talk, then Mark went home.

They saw each other around school, had lunch together sometimes, and had brief contacts over the years. Three weeks before graduation, Bill asked Mark if they could talk. Bill reminded him of the day years ago when they had first met. “Did you ever wonder why I was carrying so many things home that day?” asked Bill. “I had cleaned out my locker because I didn’t want to leave a mess for anyone else. I had stored away some of my mother’s sleeping pills and I was going home to commit suicide. But after we spent time together talking and laughing, I realized that if I had killed myself, I would have missed that time and so many others that might follow. So you see, Mark, when you picked up those books that day, you did a lot more—you saved my life!”

An encounter on the road and an invitation to share hospitality transformed Bill’s life, literally saved his life. So often, God’s love is made real to us in such simple ways as a chance encounter.
If you look at any of the ancient maps of Israel you probably won’t find Emmaus. There are three different places in the Holy Land that claim to be the village of Emmaus, yet the only place in all the ancient writings is in Luke’s gospel.

Frederick Buechner says that Emmaus was not so much a place as a state of mind. “The state of mind is escape—escape from pain, loneliness, longing, sorrow, bewilderment, grief. It is the place where we spend much of our lives, the place in our lives where we are likely to say, “Let the whole thing go to hell, it makes no difference anyway.” The road to Emmaus is that place where we go to escape whatever it is we need to escape—whether it is our job, the people we have to put up with in our daily lives, a demanding, ungrateful family, or that horrible gnawing grief over life and lost love.

It is into these moments of life that the Christ is likely to enter—when life is most real and inescapable. God’s grace does not usually come in a blaze of heavenly light or the sudden revelation of a dream or even in the midst of worship—God’s grace falls in on us in the midst of the supper table or walking down the road, trying to get away. God’s grace falls in on us in the midst of the everyday and ordinary moments, in the plain and simple struggles to understand, in the middle of common conversations on long walks, during phone calls and driving in the car to pick up or deposit kids.

The sacred moments of our lives are the everyday moments in which we can learn to open our spiritual eyes and see the redeeming grace of God moving along the road with us. The road, the conversation, the meal, the friends, even the stranger—all ordinary, but made incredible through the grace of God.

“The world does not lack for wonders,” Chesterton has written, “only for a sense of wonder.” The burning hearts of the disciples were the sudden realization of the wonder of the grace of God in their lives.
Did not our hearts burn within us, when we met him on the road? Has your heart ever burned within you? For me, a burning heart is the feeling you have when you know you have broken from darkness into spiritual light, when something once painful and meaningless becomes profoundly significant because there is some truth revealed to you in the moment.

And life is filled with these moments when our hearts could burn within us. Grace abounds along the road of living, no matter if we are trying to escape; God comes to us and breaks through to us in the most common ways in the midst of the most mundane, breathtaking moments.

Life is really a search for awareness, of discovering the presence of God in the ordinary. The Buddhist religion emphasizes attention to the details of living—“mindfulness” as Thich Nhat Hanh describes it. In Christianity we call it the mysticism of ordinary experience, of seeing God revealed in the common things of life such as the breaking of bread.

Jazz is also a music of awareness, of a recognition of what is in the soul of the composer. The music of jazz evolved from the music of the church, most notably the black church. Unfortunately, the sophisticated white aristocracy couldn’t understand this. Princeton professor, Henry Van Dyck, said that “jazz was the invention of the devil for the torture of imbeciles.” He said it is “not music at all. It is merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing, a sensual teasing of the strings of physical passion . . . an unmitigated cacophony, a combination of disagreeable sounds in complicated discords, a willful ugliness and a deliberate vulgarity.”

Henry Van Dyck never sought to understand the meaning of jazz. He could not feel the rhythms and harmonies that Charlie Mingus felt in his Holiness church where he said it could “transport people spiritually” to a greater awareness of who they were in relation to their God.

Blues singer Alberta Hunter said blues are especially spiritual. “When we sing the blues, we’re singin’ out our hearts, we’re singin’ out our feelings. Maybe we’re hurt and just can’t answer back, then we sing or maybe even hum the blues.” Saxophonist Ornette Coleman believed that a dedicated performance was “just showing that God exists.” Listen with all seriousness to the music of the legends of jazz and you will become aware of the presence of God in their hearts and souls.

The two travelers of the road to Emmaus asked Jesus, “Are you a stranger in Jerusalem that you don’t know what’s going on.” And Jesus asks us, “How can you live in this world and not know the meaning of what is happening to you?”

How could we not be aware of what is happening to us; of what meaning our lives have; of what expression we give to that meaning?

Years ago when I had more time—or should I say, I took more time—for quiet walks in the woods, I would come across a human construction that dated back to the last century. Perhaps it was part of a foundation of an old house or a footing for bridge that no longer existed. But it would be the only thing in the natural environment that would give me a sense of time, and therefore a yearning for a past that I never experienced, a nostalgia for a time unlived. There are pieces of music that arise from our national soul— plaintive, nostalgic melodies that have a certain ring of familiarity as though they had come out of our collective consciousness, and says, “yes, you belong here. You are home.”

When Antonin Dvorak was invited by Jeanette Thurber to visit this country in 1892, she had hoped that he would compose an American opera based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha. Dvorak never did, but in his own longing for his Czech homeland, he studied a certain number native melodies which he described as “beautiful and varied themes . . . a product of the soil. They are American. In the Negro melodies of America, I discovered all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, gracious, or what you will. . . .” When he composed his symphony, “From the New World,” he never used those actual melodies, but rather Czech folk tunes. And yet the Largo from his New World Symphony evokes what we would call a distinctly American flavor, full of homesickness, wistfulness, and the raw power of the new world. To both Czech and American listeners it conveyed a sense of belonging.

We are not “poor, wayfaring strangers traveling through a world of woe” as one spiritual would have it. Rather God has created this earth as our home and told us “You belong here. Now take care of it.” We are no longer strangers in the universe. When we become aware of God’s presence, even in all the broken places of life from Baghdad to Kutztown, we know we are at home. The risen Christ has broken bread with us and we are strangers no longer.

-Harry L. Serio