“Open Eyes, Burning Hearts”
April 6, 2008
Third Sunday of Easter
April 6, 2008
Third Sunday of Easter
I wonder if you have ever had the experience of talking to a stranger on a train, or a plane, or a bus. There’s something about having a length of time when you are thrown together with someone… there you are, individuals, each with your own separate lives. But for this moment you are traveling together, in the same direction. What will you do? You may find yourself plugging into an iPod or digging into a book in order to give yourself some privacy in close quarters. But sometimes, if the stranger says something interesting or funny, or if you catch one another’s eyes and smile, or even if you share an eye roll… a conversation may just spring up. You might find yourself talking to this stranger about all sorts of things… things you would never share on line at the bank, or at the grocery store, or any place where you had to be there only for a minute or two. Here, with the highway disappearing under you, the landscape unfolding around you, the clouds cocooning you: here you may choose to share something a little deeper. Something intimate about your life, your experiences. Are you traveling on business? Are you returning to your hometown for a funeral? Are you going to be reunited with your beloved? Who knows? In circumstances like these, you might find that the words simply spill out of you. You might just tell your life’s story. You might find that you open your heart.
Usually the journey ends. Then you have a decision to make. Do you invite the conversation to continue? Do you say, “Hey, why don’t you meet me at the wedding?” or, “My family would love to meet you,” or, “Do want to grab some coffee?” Do you offer hospitality? Do you invite the stranger home? In this day and age, in which we teach our children all about “stranger danger,” that particular option almost always seems to be out of the question. But what if it weren’t? What if the conversation could continue? What wonderful story might unfold then?
Once again, it is evening on the day of the resurrection. Only today we hear Luke’s version of that evening. Two followers of Jesus are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a journey taken most likely on foot. Along they walk, these two disciples, and as they go, they are talking with one another about “all these things that had happened,” as Luke tells us. And a stranger joins them, a stranger who asks to join in on their conversation, a stranger who says, “Tell me what happened.” They open their hearts, and tell their story. They tell the “Life Story of Jesus of Nazareth.” The story, to hear them tell it, appears to be finished. All their reflections and reminiscing is in the past tense. “Jesus was a mighty prophet,” they say. “They crucified him,” they continue. “And we had hoped,” they shake their heads sadly, “that he was the one.”[i]
Even the stories of that remarkable resurrection morning are circumscribed by language that signals finality, doneness. “The angels said he was alive,” they sigh. The stranger laughs, shakes his head, and says, “Now, let me tell you a story.” To hear the disciples recount it later, it must have been quite a story, because it makes their hearts burn with excitement even in the recollection. But I am getting ahead of the story. First, the disciples, one named Cleopas, and one named, probably, Mrs. Cleopas, invite the stranger in. They don’t just invite him… they press him, they urge him to stay. They insist. “Abide with us. Fast falls the eventide.”
Hospitality in the biblical world was not a casual matter. In a climate that had both rocky, mountainous terrain and vast stretches of desert, hospitality was not a suggestion. It was a code of honor. It was a moral law, encoded in the religious laws. People welcomed strangers into their homes because not to welcome a stranger might well condemn him to death in the harsh climate, or at the hands of robbers. People welcomed strangers into their homes because they knew that one day, they would certainly need to depend on the kindness of strangers to save their own lives.
And hospitality is the fulcrum on which this story turns. It is only by extending hospitality that the disciples are able to be in a position to break bread with Jesus… because, of course, that’s who the stranger is, we knew that all along. Jesus, who has decided to abide with his followers, takes the bread. He blesses it, he breaks it, and he shares it with them. And something in all that is terribly familiar. Is it the fact that he did those same things on the night before he died? Or is it something even larger, more global about who Jesus is and what Jesus does? Didn’t Jesus take his own life, and bless it by his utter faithfulness to God and to humanity, and wasn’t that life, in the end, broken and shared? Whatever it is that stirs their memories, their eyes are opened, and they see, with sudden, stunning clarity, that the stranger in their midst is Jesus. It has been all along. Past tense changes to present tense. Christ is risen. Here. Now.
A couple of years ago “Presbyterians Today” had a story in it called “Meeting God at the Waffle House.” It was written by a woman who, after 20 years as an ordained minister, realized she lived in what she referred to as a “Christian ghetto.” Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, she only talked to and interacted with “churched” people. So she took a sabbatical and got a job as a hostess in a Waffle House for three months. She says of her time there, “The risen Christ showed up every day.” The risen Christ showed up in a mechanic who fixed a broke traveler’s broken car for the price of a cup of coffee. The risen Christ showed up in a landlord who drove an hour and fifteen minutes to pick up a stranded tenant he didn’t know particularly well. The risen Christ showed up in a lawyer who came to the Waffle House to meet clients who couldn’t afford the fees charged by his firm; he turned no one away. There were more—at least three months’ worth of one a day, evidently. The risen Christ, Now. In the present tense.
If there is one story in the gospels that gives us a pattern for life after Easter, I believe this is it. We are all travelers. For this moment we are traveling together, in the same direction, journeying between the sometimes mundane, sometimes horrifying, sometimes glorious experiences of this life. The highway disappears under us, the landscape unfolds around us, the clouds cocoon us. We journey together, in community, and while we do, we try to welcome the stranger into our midst. The unknown person with whom we are willing to break bread offers us the opportunity to meet Christ anew, in the present tense, here and now. The stranger in our midst… the young person, the old person, the person of different skin color or nationality, the Jew or Muslim or Buddhist, the gay or lesbian person, the many times divorced or never married, the person who thinks differently from us when it comes to the war, or the candidates… the person who is completely other to us, to our experience. That stranger offers us our very best hope of meeting the risen Christ. We most likely will not recognize him when first we meet. But if we take the risk, if we welcome him or her in, if we open our door and our table to that stranger, we might just find ourselves with open eyes and burning hearts. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Thanks to Anna Murdock, Worship Team Leader, Broad Street UMC, Statesville, NC, for this insight.