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Entertaining Mystery

May 1, 2017

“Entertaining Mystery” Luke 24:13-35 © 4.30.17 Easter 3A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There are any number of reasons someone might be unrecognizable. He or she could have had “work done,” as we say, so that his or her face is not the same as before. Think of actress Renee Zellweger. Or perhaps a person has been disfigured in an accident, combat or fire. There was an episode of the PBS drama Downton Abbey in which a con man tried to take advantage of such injuries in WWI to pretend to be a cousin of the family. Or maybe someone is wearing a clever disguise or mask or is somehow controlling another’s perception of reality. That’s a device relied on in science fiction and fantasy, with its invisibility cloaks, shape-shifters, and Jedi mind tricks.

But then we have the story before us this morning. We might think at first that Luke is suggesting some supernatural force at work that keeps the two disciples from recognizing Jesus, and maybe that’s so. It’s also possible and probable, though, that their grief and sadness had blinded them to the possibility that the man who joined them on the road and seemed a stranger was in fact Jesus. We see what we want to see, what we expect to see, and neither one was anticipating seeing Jesus alive. Time had run out, and hope was gone.

At one point, they stopped walking, after Jesus asked his first question. “They stood still, looking sad.” That’s more than a statement about their ceasing forward motion. Sadness, grief, crisis debilitate us. We stand still. When the bills pile up or the unexpected happens or we get bad news, that’s all we can focus on. We feel frozen in place, not knowing what to do, how to proceed. The whole world shrinks to a bubble with just us and the crisis before us. All else is a blur and darkness, and someone has to help us open our eyes and recognize possibility, see more than the problems that confront us and set our sights on the road ahead so the journey can continue.

That’s what Jesus did for the two otherwise unknown disciples. He started a process with them that ended in recognition and renewal. The road they had walked in sadness became the one they ran along in joy as they returned to Jerusalem.

If we wonder how that happened, let me suggest that it was because they showed hospitality. That’s an interesting word; I looked it up. “Hospitality” and related words like “hospice” and “hospital” come from ancient terms for “stranger,” “guest,” “enemy.” Presumably whether you welcomed the stranger or shunned him or her made the difference in whether the person became a friend or an enemy.

In this story, it’s mystery, personified, that is the stranger to be entertained or rejected. It’s the unexpected presence of the divine, the Jesus who journeys with us in the midst of our grief, our debilitation, our disappointment, our dashed dreams, but whom we don’t recognize. A perceptive commentator once observed: “…the Emmaus story captivates its readers and compels them to reflect upon hospitality, which at root is the entertainment of divine mystery in human life, especially when that life seems scattered and shattered” (Robert Karris, Interpretation, January 1987: 59).

There are three ways I think Luke might have us entertain mystery. First is listening to the stranger. After the two disciples expressed their hopes for a Messiah who would restore Israel and their sorrow at what the religious leaders has done to Jesus, our Lord the Stranger began by first criticizing their slowness, then guiding them through the scriptures, the Bible with which they had become too familiar. They were reading it through the lens of their hopes and dreams, prejudices and presumptions. They thought they owned the Bible, but as the late preacher and professor Fred Craddock once said “When you own the Bible, it’s almost inevitable that you use the Bible” (“When the Familiar Looks Strange,” March 4, 1987). He meant for one’s own purposes, to support one’s agenda, usually against somebody else. It’s only when the Bible is taken away from us, so to speak, by Jesus, that Craddock said we listen to it.

You and I can get used to most anything, so much so that we no longer pay attention to it. There’s the crack in the wall in the living room or the dust bunny in the corner that we no longer see because it’s been there so long. The ringing in our ears we’ve learned to compensate for. The sounds and sights all around that we have become accustomed to.

I remember the first night Susan and I spent with her folks in Alton, AL after we were married. The house was right next to an active railroad track and crossing. When the train came by in the wee hours, I shot up out of bed. Susan just laughed. She grew up there and was used to it. And guess what? On subsequent visits, I ignored the rumbling and the horn, too.

That’s the way those disciples and we sometimes read the Bible. It no longer startles us, challenges us, wakes us up in the middle of the night with it strident demands or comforts us with its lovely cadences. We hear it like the character in Peanuts heard the teacher: “Wah, wah, wah, wah.” Or we keep going back to the proverbs and passages that support what we want to think and do or help us keep things simple.

But Jesus, the Stranger, takes that away. If we will listen, we will be enlightened and hear things that stretch our minds and thrill our hearts. We will gain new perspective, and may end up saying things like “I never thought of it that way before” or “That finally makes sense” or “I don’t understand; I guess I need to go deeper.” And we may become open to what other strangers will say. The person of another faith or none. The neighbor on the other end of the political spectrum. The family member hiding behind his or her phone at the dinner table, the colleague at lunch doing the same, who will not meet our eyes for fear we may see the pain and longing there. And in listening to the stranger, we will entertain the mystery of the divine in our midst.

So we listen. Next, we invite the stranger in. I mean that in both a metaphorical and a literal sense.

The former is the entertainment of the stranger in ourselves. Remember the old Billy Joel song? “[W]e all have a face/ that we hide away forever/and we take them out and/show ourselves/when everyone has gone…. They’re the faces of the stranger/but we love to try them on” (“The Stranger,” © 1977 Joelsongs [BMI]; lyrics taken from album jacket). Joel was singing, I think, about the part of everyone the psychologist Carl Jung termed “the shadow.” That’s the side of ourselves as individuals or as human beings in general we’ve been taught to regard as evil, unacceptable, shameful; the hidden desires, impulses, doubts, beliefs, questions that we dare not make known or else we will be rejected and shunned by peers, family, society. So we push all of that down deep, a process called “repression.” But as someone has written: “When one’s shadow is relegated to the depths of the unconscious, it can [wreak] havoc on one’s life in the sense that it will exert unconscious control over one’s thoughts, emotions, choices, and actions…. This accounts for the self destructive behaviors so many individuals struggle with and are unable to control despite consciously knowing they would be better off not engaging in such actions.

The writer goes on: “The task in life which thus confronts everyone, according to Jung, is to become conscious of and integrate one’s shadow into one’s conscious personality: accepting it with open arms not as an abhorrent aspect of one’s self, but as a necessary and vital part of one’s being.” Jung himself said: “‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular’” (http://academyofideas.com/2015/12/carl-jung-and-the-shadow-the-hidden-power-of-our-dark-side/).

But the shadow is and can be the source of creativity, power, and potential. Failure to welcome the mystery of our dark side, the stranger that is ourselves, is to ensure that we are less than we’re meant to be. Jim Dollar recently wrote: “Our work is to form a relationship with our Self/Soul/Psyche, and to live out of that relationship—to be true to that relationship—in all that we do. Everything else falls into place around that” (April 24, 2017 Facebook post). Or again with Jung: “‘The shadow, when it is realized, is the source of renewal; the new and productive impulse cannot come from established values of the ego. When there is an impasse, and sterile time in our lives—despite an adequate ego development—we must look to the dark, hitherto unacceptable side which has been at our conscious disposal….’” (see citation above). Finally, as the psychologist Stephen Diamond has noted: “Creativity can spring from the constructive expression or integration of the shadow, as can true spirituality. Authentic spirituality requires consciously accepting and relating properly to the shadow as opposed to repressing, projecting, acting out and remaining naively unconscious of its repudiated, denied, disavowed contents, a sort of precarious pseudospirituality” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201204/essential-secrets-psychotherapy-what-is-the-shadow).

But if we entertain the shadow stranger in ourselves, so also do we invite in the literal stranger, showing hospitality that affirms our commonality, especially in the face of all that may threaten our very existence. “Stay with us,” said the two disciples, “because it is near evening, and the day is now nearly over.” We need community in the face especially of mortality and danger and longing for meaning, and we enjoy the company of others as we come to a time of rest when, as the prayer says, “the busy world is hushed and our work is done,” all those things signified by the word “evening.” The two disciples wanted to offer the stranger comfort, shelter, and safety as the day died, and they also desired continued conversation as they shared a meal with someone who was becoming a friend. Basic human needs, provided for by each other.

In that vein, restaurateur Danny Meyer in his book Setting the Table 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).

“How you make people feel.” Think about going to a restaurant or a shop where you are greeted with suspicion, hostility or indifference because of how you look, how you’re dressed, what your accent sounds like or who else is with you. We need but think of the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts goes into a store dressed in, shall we say, “street clothes,” and the snobbish clerk won’t even show her a dress. I had something of the same experience when I was in college, working, as I told the kids recently, selling men’s clothes in a downtown department store. On my supper hour, I liked to window shop in an upscale store down the block. I was looking at some shirts, when a clerk came up to me and asked if he could help me. “I’m just looking,” I said. “Well, let me help you look,” he replied in a firm and haughty tone. No doubt he thought I was going to grab one of the expensive shirts and rush out the door. This even though I was a not very threatening looking kid dressed in a coat and tie, the best I had, and I wasn’t acting in any manner to raise red flags. I never went back.

Now consider how good it feels to be welcomed to an eatery or a store or wherever and be greeted with a smile, given only the attention you want—not too much, not too little, somewhere in the Goldilocks zone—and made in every way to feel that the establishment and its personnel are glad you’re there. The place is well laid-out, there are signs everywhere directing you to restrooms or customer service or linens, whatever. You would go back again.

Every church of whatever size can learn a lesson from such places about how to treat guests. One of the occasions I’ve felt most welcome in a church as a visitor was some years ago at Porterfield United Methodist in Albany, GA. 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 eleven minutes after coming in—and research confirms that’s true—believe me, I would go back. And I still listen to the CD. My point is that, whatever their size or style of worship, welcoming churches make the guest, the stranger, feel valued, and they provide a memorable experience of God.

So, we listen to the stranger. We invite the stranger. And finally we recognize the stranger. This is the “aha” moment when we figure out that the shadow we pushed deep down, the person whom we might regard with suspicion, the neighbor whose views disgust and trouble us, whoever the stranger may be, is in fact one with us, one of us. Those two disciples long ago didn’t know who the man was whom they had just invited in, but when he, like them, began to share bread, the food all people eat in some form or fashion, they recognized him as the One in whom God was present with them. They saw his actions of gratitude and sharing, again, something everyone is at least capable of. And is not the bread we eat symbolic so often of a deeper hunger for meaning and for connection? That’s why dining together is both so important for building community and so objectionable to those who want to thwart bonds among people. The “aha” moment is when we finally get it, looking back on clues we missed or ignored, and we say: “So that’s what that feeling in my heart, that tingling up my spine was about.” We recognize the Lord in the people, the places, the things we experience every day.

Albert Schweitzer said it: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

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