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The Sacred Moments Are Often the Everyday Moments
April 23, 2017
Pastor Vern Christopherson
Luke 24:13-35 NRSV
I got hearing aids a couple of weeks ago. I had needed them for quite some time. But you know how it is, I put it off. And then I got tired of asking people “what,” and missing out on all the side comments of conversations, and being asked if I really needed the TV on as loudly as it was. So finally I went to Costco and got some.
Suddenly I’m hearing things that I haven’t heard in a long time. I can hear the kids when they come up for Story Time, which is a very important group to hear. I can hear the blinker on my car again, so I’m less likely to leave it on for a mile or two or ten (and here I thought all those nice folks waving at me were just happy to see me). And perhaps most important of all, though my office is all the way down the hall from one Connie Saunders, also known as the Sheriff, I had no idea just how much she was telling people what to do and acting like she owned the place. But now I know. J Boy, it’s great to hear better!
The story of the Emmaus Road is a story of two followers of Jesus who aren’t hearing – or seeing- very well. Friday had dealt them a crushing blow. Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath, a day to have it start sinking in. And then came Sunday, which might have been the worst day of all. Their Sunday was like our Monday. For those early disciples, everything is now returning to normal. And it’s unthinkable to them that either Jesus’ life or his death is going to make any difference at all.
Why are they taking that road to Emmaus? We’re not exactly sure. It might have been home for them. But it feels like more than that. It feels like a road we’ve been on too, when we go to a movie just to get out of the house, or go to the mall to buy a few things we don’t really need, or take a trip out of town simply to get away from it all. Emmaus is wherever we go or whatever we do to make ourselves forget for a while. And sometimes what we are trying to forget is that world holds almost nothing sacred, that even the best and the brightest among us can end up looking like failure.
Cleopas and his friend are feeling that failure acutely. Their hearts are sad. Suddenly a stranger comes up behind them, but they do not know who it is. Why don’t they recognize him? Again, we’re not sure. Are they in shock? Maybe. Is it beyond their wildest dreams? Maybe. Does the Risen Lord somehow look different? Maybe. But I wonder if the reason might be simpler. So often we don’t hear things or see things because we have such a hard time living in the present moment. So often we find ourselves lost in thought, and far away from something – or someone – that is staring us in the face.
I recently heard a report that there are a lot more car-pedestrian accidents these days. When I first heard the report, I thought: Sure, drives are distracted by their cell phones. And that’s a part of it. But I was surprised to learn that in a great number of these cases, it’s the pedestrians who are so focused on their phones that they’re not paying attention to where they are going.
Perhaps cell phones are only the latest manifestation of a very old problem: our difficulty of living in the moment. We replay the past and worry about the future, and spend precious little time focused on the here and now. There’s a word for this present focus. It’s called mindfulness. I love the word, and I’ve tried it, but it’s a very hard thing for me to do. I keep getting distracted. I keep looking back or looking forward. How about you?
The two disciples continue their journey. As you can probably surmise, they’re replaying the past and worrying about the future, and not recognizing the stranger standing right beside them. Notice that not much happens along the way. They discuss the recent tragedy in Jerusalem, and talk about the Bible, and repeat a wild rumor that some women have been spreading. But the fact of the matter is, these sorts of conversations happen every day. It’s all rather ordinary.
Many of the stories of Easter are like this. They happen in the midst of everyday, ordinary life. There’s no blaze of unearthly light. No soaring music. Rather, Mary is crying in the garden. Peter goes back to his fishing boat. Cleopas and his friend invite the stranger to stay for supper.
Here’s what I’m getting at: If the Easter stories are any indication, the sacred moments in life are often the everyday moments. These are moments which, if we do not listen with more than our ears or look with more than our eyes, they reveal only…a gardener, or another fisherman standing on the shore, or a stranger coming down the road behind us.
Frederick Buechner adds a slightly different twist to this: “There is no event so commonplace,” he says, “but that God is present within it, always [in hidden ways], always leaving you room to recognize him or not.” That’s helpful to me. It reminds me that God wants to come to us, but sometimes we don’t hear very well or look very closely. Sometimes we feel like escaping to Emmaus rather than facing up to what’s directly in front of us.
Buechner pushes us to go deeper: If we look with our hearts and listen with all of our imagination, what we may see is Jesus himself, and what we may hear is a faint voice somewhere deep within us saying that there is a purpose to our lives, whether we can understand it completely or not. And what we may come to realize is that this purpose follows behind us through all of our doubts and fears, through all of our indifference and boredom, to a moment when suddenly we know for sure that everything does make sense because everything is in the hands of God.
I’ve mentioned before that the most frequent command in the Bible is: Don’t be afraid. Want to guess the most frequent promise in the Bible? I will be with you. The two often go hand in hand. God gives the Israelites the Ark of the Covenant to carry around in the wilderness. Don’t be afraid, God says. I will be with you. The psalmist tells worshippers: “Though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, don’t be afraid. God will be with you.” The angel tells Mary she’s going to have a baby. But don’t be afraid. God will be with you.
And now in Emmaus, when a couple of heavy-hearted disciples are finally sensing a bit of hope, they beg the stranger to stay with them. So he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Suddenly their eyes are opened. But no sooner do they recognize him than he vanishes out of their sight. Only now, it’s different. Now they are keenly aware that the Risen Lord has been present with them in ordinary things: as grief is shared and scripture is read and bread is broken. Moreover, he has the ability to transform his followers’ most difficult moments into gifts of unexpected grace.
You may not have heard of a man named Nicholas Herman, but he experienced a transformation in his life. Herman worked in the food service industry. He’d done stints in the military and in transportation, and then he became a short-order cook and a bottle-washer. But he was deeply dissatisfied with his life. He found that he was a chronic worrier.
One day Herman was looking at a tree. He was reminded of a truth from Psalm 1: The secret of the life of a tree is that it remains rooted in something other and deeper than itself, that it’s rooted in streams of living water. Herman decided to make his life an experiment in what he called, an “habitual, silent, secret conversation of the soul with God.”
Herman is known today by the new name given to him by his friends: Brother Lawrence. He remained obscure throughout his life. He didn’t head up a monastery. He wasn’t elected pope. No, he stayed in the kitchen. But the people around him found that steams of living water flowed out of him, and those steams made them want to know God the way he did.
“The good brother found God everywhere,” one of them wrote, “as much while he was repairing shoes as while he was praying with the community.” Every pot and pan he washed became an opportunity to give thanks to God.
After Brother Lawrence died, his friends put together a book of his letters and conversations. They called it Practicing the Presence of God. How important has this book been? Well, it’s estimated that, apart from the Bible, it’s the most widely read book of the last four centuries, and that includes the likes of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and J. K. Rowling.
I think Brother Lawrence continues to speak to a need we have deep inside. We’ve been on that Emmaus Road – maybe we’re on it now – and we’re not exactly sure where we are going. Sometimes hope is in short supply. While on the road, we keep in mind that the sacred moments are often the everyday moments. If we’re not looking and listening, it’s so very easy to miss them.
While on the road, we do our best to focus on the present, to practice being mindful of our surroundings, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day. When you think about it, we can’t undo the past and we can’t control the future; all we really have is the here and now.
And finally, while on the road we are invited to put our trust in the One who comes walking our way. Even though those two disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, at least not at first, he recognized them. And he saw them as if they were the only two people in the world.
Here’s the way I see it: Whether we recognize Jesus or not, or believe in him or not, again and again he comes and walks with us along whatever road we are traveling. And in some mysterious sense, he offers us what he offered to those at Emmaus: the bread of life, and a hope that not even death can destroy. Amen.