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Entertaining Mystery

May 12, 2011

“Entertaining Mystery” Luke 24:13-35 © 5.8.11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was only near the end of the day, but for the two weary disciples it felt like the end of time. Cynicism and despair had ganged up on faith and hope, shoved them out the door, and locked it tight. So now the two were going back to their village of Emmaus to say last rites over their dreams and afford their aspirations a decent burial.

Emmaus is not merely a place in the Bible, a dot on some ancient map. It’s a state of mind and heart. As someone has said, it’s “whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred; that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die…” (Frederick Buechner). Or to use the lyrics of one of my songs, you go to Emmaus “when dreams and heroes die,” and “there’s not much left to believe in.”

Cleopas and his companion were so full of that kind of sadness that they didn’t notice when a stranger joined them on the road. He began asking about their conversation, and they bared their souls to him with all the reluctance of guests on any afternoon trash TV talk show. Then he taught them, going back to Bible 101.

As part of his talk along the way, our Lord criticized his friends for their selective memory and their shallow faith. The answer they sought was there on page after page of the scriptures they cherished. If they had believed the prophets, paid attention, they would have known the course the Messiah would run began in suffering and ended in exaltation.

But as so often happens in times of trauma and hurt, anguish had pre-empted memory. They recalled none of the predictions. And even after Jesus finished what I imagine was a rather lengthy sermon, the two still didn’t get it. And that ought to give us all something to think about. The mere reading and proclamation of the Scriptures, even by Jesus himself, was not enough to awaken faith. Hearing and acceptance of a particular viewpoint, a certain take on reality, isn’t enough. It’s only when they invite the stranger in, when they perform a simple act of kindness, that the opportunity is created for the Word to take hold in and of their hearts. In the blessing and breaking of the bread, these two slow-hearted disciples get new sight. And they recognize the Lord.

It’s a mystery how they finally saw, how a simple ritual opened eyes and ignited the spark of memory and faith and joy. A holy mystery.

So it is for us. Somehow when we gather at the Lord’s Table and break bread we are joined to Christ, our despair is turned to hope, and the lament that has been our only song is replaced by a bright and happy tune. We gain a richer sense of our Lord’s presence in the world around us. We see him there—alive, active, beckoning us to join him. I can’t explain, and I won’t even try. I simply know and believe that Word and sacrament open our eyes to the truth and set our hearts aflame with hope. Together they make our experience of worship complete.

The two recognize their Lord, and then he vanishes. How, where, why? I don’t know, and really those questions are irrelevant. What matters is that two sad and sorrowing people are changed into folk who go running back along the same road that brought them to this place of discovery. That they burst into the room where others are gathered and tell good news. That they are now strengthened and empowered and filled with new understanding because they have encountered the risen Christ.

If we were to read today’s text carefully, I’m certain we would see there a familiar pattern. It’s the structure of things every Sunday in this room. We come with cares and concerns, maybe some personal agenda we want Jesus to fulfill. Maybe we showed up to find out if truth, hope, love, and faith can really exist in a world so full of lies, dashed dreams, and hatred. Then we hear the Word of God read and spoken, and a tingle goes up our spine, a strange warmth fills our hearts. Sometimes we break bread and bless the cup and commune together. And especially then, something marvelous happens. In joining Jesus at the Table, sharing with each other, we particularly know our risen Lord’s presence. Then we get up from the Table and go, not satisfied till everyone knows the good news.

So, our worship continues as we witness. That’s what our bulletin reminds us of every week: our worship continues with service in life. As we live with solid values in our families, our work, our school, our play, God is glorified. Liturgy lives on as we look at the world not through eyes nearly blinded by cynicism and pessimism, but through the lens of God’s love, of resurrection hope. Anywhere and everywhere we can encounter Jesus, whether washing dishes or studying, driving a car or watching TV, listening to some sublime music or enduring Muzak in a department store, spending a quiet evening with friends and family or engaging in a hard debate with those who disagree with us. Novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner put it well, in one of my favorite passages: “There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak—even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere. He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys…. [God] says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him” (The Sacred Journey: 77).

But having said all that, let me suggest that the text reminds us that worship especially continues through our hospitality. Someone has said: “…what God really wants from us is hospitality. We are called to welcome God—into our lives, into our community of faith, into the world….[W]e welcome God into our midst every time we extend ourselves in hospitality and grace to another.” Do we want to live “in the presence of the Lord,” as the old song puts it? Do we want to know God is with us? Then let us welcome our families and our neighbors. Welcome the stranger in our midst. Show hospitality.

In his book Setting the Table, restaurateur Danny Meyer notes that we have an intense drive to give and receive hospitality. He’s convinced that’s because of four gifts we receive at birth: eye contact, a smile, a hug, and some food. We crave those all our lives.

Meyer believes in hospitality so much he has made it the basis of his business philosophy: “In the end, what’s most meaningful is creating positive, uplifting outcomes for human experiences and human relationships. Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard” (2-3).

Restaurants and other businesses make people feel welcome in many ways. But how does the community of faith practice hospitality? We might take our cue from Wal-Mart. Think of how we feel when we go into that big, bustling store, and someone at the entrance says “hello” and rolls a cart out for you or me. It gives a positive, homey image of the place, doesn’t it? We feel important and needed. Should not the church also always offer a warm smile, a greeting, and assistance? We also might learn from the old TV show Cheers. Do you recall the theme song? In this bar, “everybody knows your name.” That’s hospitality at its best, to remember someone’s name or something about them.

John Buchanan, a Presbyterian pastor in Chicago, once told the story of the funeral of his 97 year-old father-in-law. The man had been a member of a Lutheran church in Pennsylvania until he entered a retirement facility some distance away. Despite the gentleman’s long absence, the Lutheran pastor presided at the service and church members provided a delicious, thoughtfully presented meal. Buchanan comments: “The hospitality was…pure grace, an act of simple, eloquent Christian love” (The Christian Century April 5, 2005:3).

Hospitality is doing simple acts of kindness and remembrance. It’s also offering safety and care.

I once read about an inner city elementary school teacher and her student, named Terrence. When the little boy came to school, this teacher noticed how sad he was. She knew that no one had ever loved or cherished him. During group reading, this teacher would ask Terrence to sit in her lap to help turn the pages. At first, Terrence didn’t even know how to sit in her lap and lean against her. Soon afterward, Terrence’s mother, who was frequently in jail, was arrested again. So the child left school and went to live with his older sister. Then the teacher heard some news. Terrence had been killed in a freak accident.
The teacher said: “My heart was broken when I heard of Terrence’s death…. I told my family how sad I was; how I had never taught him a single thing. He couldn’t read when he left me, he couldn’t write when he left me. All I taught him to do was sit in a woman’s lap—and what kind of life skill is that?”
A few days later, her own small son came to her and said, “Mommy, it’s a good thing you taught that little boy to sit in someone’s lap because he’s sitting in God’s lap right now.” By inviting that child in need to be close to her, that teacher, that mother, had let Jesus sit in her lap and be comforted.

Hospitality is offering a safe place of care. It’s also being just a little imaginative and putting yourself in someone else’s place. In Owensboro, KY, Charlotte, one of our church members, had an idea to help people waiting on loved ones during surgery. She had experienced it herself on a very long day when her elderly mother had a heart valve replaced. What she did was put some crunchy snacks and some crossword books in a cute sack and take it personally to families from the church sitting in those boring and stressful hospital waiting rooms. Something simple, but having sat as a pastor with many families, I know Charlotte’s ministry was meaningful. It let them know God was with them every time they bit into a cheese cracker.

In these days in the aftermath of storms, hospitality is providing basic necessities, sorting them, handing them out, serving meals to victims and volunteers, whatever will show the love of Christ. It’s also being open to feelings and questions that are strong and scary and hard to put into words. Indeed, hospitality that enables us to recognize Jesus on any day always involves not just welcoming our neighbors’ need of body, but also their need of soul, caring enough to listen, not judging or jumping in with answers, but truly hearing the pain and the story underneath the words.

But now we come full circle back to worship. Let’s not forget that hospitality is welcoming folk who come in the door, making them feel wanted and special. One of the times I have felt most welcome in a church as a visitor was some years ago at Porterfield United Methodist in Albany, Georgia. I went to their “9:45 Alive” contemporary service, one of the first such services I had ever been to. In the parking lot, there were special spaces reserved for visitors. There was a sign directing me to a welcome center. Inside, people showed me the way to the fellowship hall, where the service was to take place. Nobody wondered why I wasn’t wearing a suit; everyone was dressed casually. The music was great, with a full praise band, enhanced by interesting visuals on huge screens. When the associate pastor finished playing guitar in the band’s opening number, he said that first-time visitors could fill out an orange card found on their chair and take it to the back when the service was over. In exchange, I would get a free CD of the band’s music. People sitting around me welcomed me and asked me about myself. And guess what: in the process, I found myself opening to God as I had rarely experienced to that time in my life, feeling a deep sense of his presence, truly enjoying worship. If visitors decide whether to go back to a church in the first 11 minutes after coming in—and research confirms that’s true—believe me, I would go back. And I still listen to the CD.

Whether we show hospitality in the ways we have talked about or in some other fashion, it’s all about strangers, even enemies, becoming friends. It’s about healing of old, broken relationships and forming of new ones with people whom we once suspected or scorned. It’s about offering ourselves in service and care to others, even at cost to ourselves. It’s about opening our hearts to be served by another, receiving as well as giving. It’s about knowing that Jesus has first shown us hospitality by the giving of himself, of all he had, for us.

In the display of compassion, in the offer of a helping hand, in the invitation to dine and talk awhile about things of mutual concern, we recognize the Lord. Our eyes are opened to possibility and promise, and as Buechner said, we may know our journeys are footsore, but we will find they are also sacred, because God is with us. We do not go alone.

A perceptive commentator has noticed how “hospitality…at root is the entertainment of divine mystery in human life, especially when that life seems scattered and shattered.” Or as a poet once wrote: “Breaking bread opens the tomb where I have lain my hopes and dreams and they come out, alive again.” Our hearts can burn again with faith, hope, and love. Our eyes can be open to the presence of Christ in us and with us and among us. Our lives can be full and whole again because we have encountered the risen Christ and invited him in.

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