Learning from a Stranger

042620 Easter 3 Service of Morning Prayer

Posted by St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, Echo Park on Sunday, April 26, 2020

042620 Easter 3 

Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; Luke 24:13-35


The story of the Emmaus Road begins with two of Jesus’ disciples reflecting on the events of the past week – something friends and spouses often do when they see each other after an absence. Many of us are doing a lot of that on Zoom and by phone these days. For Cleopas and his friend, this was undoubtedly the most dramatic week of their lives; so, their sharing must have been pretty intense. The One they had hoped would liberate Israel for them had been murdered by the State and their whole life needed to be re-evaluated. It’s not that common for most of us to have our personal lives be so directly impacted by the headlines. But these days, our experience is similar to these two disciples. The headlines are all about what has happened to us or friends, what could happen, and what to do to keep it from happening.  

But it wasn’t just the relevance of the news that gets our attention about the disciples’ conversation. It was the way a stranger shifted the focus of their reflections. Cleopas and his friend were bemoaning the fact that now no one was going to liberate Israel for them. The stranger shifted their understanding to see instead that God was going to liberate the whole world with them. When Jesus joined them on their walk, he asked what they were discussing so intensely. They recounted the events of the last week. Then Jesus began to connect their story to the story of Scripture. It was only later that the disciples realized that when Jesus connected the events of the past week to the hoped-for Messiah, their hearts were burning within them. They didn’t recognize the stranger as Jesus. But the truth they heard resonated.

Reflecting on our lives in light of the Gospel will lead us to live in solidarity with the world in a way that connects our lives to the headlines. Something happens in us when our stories get connected to a larger story. We’re not so isolated and we don’t feel so alone. We begin to feel understood. We realize our doubts and fears and joys aren’t so unique that no one else could possibly understand them. Others have felt the same thing. It’s part of life. The Scriptures tell stories that help us make sense of our lives, and they offer us hope.  

Anyone who has planted a garden knows that you must do many things before planting: clear space, put in sprinklers and prepare the soil. Similarly, reflecting on our lives in light of Scripture prepares us to receive the new thing God wants to plant in our lives. It makes us receptive to new ways God might come by noticing how God has come in the past. As Cleopas and his friend were trying to make sense of a Messiah who dies, a stranger started walking with them and asked what they were discussing. When he sensed their anxiety, he said, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 

I have had that kind of conversation with Jesus when I didn’t know that it was Jesus. When I am resisting some new task, or being exposed to a new group of people, or facing a new challenge like COVID 19, sometimes insights that should have been obvious enter my head in disturbing ways. They come as words from a strange source – sometimes literally from a stranger. Only later do I realize that the source was Jesus. I think this must be what Jesus meant when he said, “When you saw me hungry, thirsty, naked or a stranger…” Maybe we can only learn some things from Jesus when Jesus comes as a stranger – when we don’t know it’s Jesus. 

Later, when the disciples sat down to eat with Jesus, the new thing happened: the stranger became the host: he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ The soil had been prepared, so they were receptive to the new truth and to the moment.

While I was living in Mexico, a group of Lutheran Bishops visited the state of Oaxaca and found themselves in a tiny village out in the countryside. At one point their hosts brought cases of Coca Cola and trays of corn on the cob. One of the bishops had his eyes open to the moment. He went to the table and began to say the words of institution over the coca cola and corn on the cob. The whole group shared the Eucharist with those unconventional communion elements, and no one was excommunicated.

Sometimes Christians assume we know Jesus so well that there’s no room left for surprise. When that happens, we usually miss the whole point, and our faith begins to look very unattractive. And it happens to liberals as easily as to conservatives, to progressives as well as to fundamentalists. A story is told about a community organizer in the Boston area at a meeting in Old South Church, one of the fine, traditional houses of worship in Boston. The social activist was particularly enthusiastic in criticizing the great disparities of wealth in the city. With great fervor, he used the church they were sitting in as an example. Take this church. It’s obscene, all this stained glass, gold chalices, fine tapestries. If the church really cared about poor people, they should sell all of this and give it to the poor.

A woman from the neighborhood, who had lived there all her life, responded: “This is one of the most beautiful places in the city. It is one of the only places where poor folks can afford to be around beauty. All the other beauty in this city costs money. Here, we can be surrounded by beautiful things, and it all belongs to us. Don’t even think about taking away what little beauty we have.” The social activist knew too much. He had memorized the fact that the Gospel prioritized the poor but had applied it too rigidly. He had the problem all figured out like the disciples. A stranger set him straight that day.

With Theresa de Avila we sing, Christ beside me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Ruler of my Heart. Where will we find you?  How will we respond to your gifts? With the Psalmist we say, “What shall I return to God for all the bounty I’ve received?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of God.”