When I was studying to become a minister, I was required to be away from home several times a year usually for two weeks at a time. Over the course of a five year period I missed many special occasions and family celebrations. I found it difficult to balance my desire to respond to my call to ministry and the importance of attending to the needs of my family. As many mothers do, I often felt guilty for the times I was not there for my children. One of these occasions was during a course in Toronto in which I would miss my daughter Lisa’s 18th birthday. It was always a busy time before one of these courses, with a binder-full of required reading to do ahead of time and morning, afternoon, and evening sessions to attend once I arrived. In this hectic time I had not been able to find “just the right gift” to give to Lisa. Consequently, every day at lunch I would rush into the busy streets of downtown Toronto in search of “the perfect gift”. The time crunch was on – just a few days left to find a gift, package it, and mail it (Priority Post) in order for it to arrive on time. I’d gotten myself worked into quite a frenzy over this whole thing – completely lost my sense of perspective. Lisa understood why I couldn’t be with her and there certainly was no gift which could adequately convey the depth of my love for her but at that time none of this occurred to me. So, it was in a state of frenzied distress that I rushed back to the Centre For Christian Studies on a Friday, after another unsuccessful shopping expedition. I was on foot and in a big hurry because I was late after taking a wrong turn and getting completely lost. I was preoccupied with my own thoughts and frustration and I was feeling very grumpy when out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a streetperson sitting on the sidewalk. At that moment I was too caught up in my own thoughts and bad mood to even think about his needs.
As I began to rush past him, I heard a voice say, “Hi sweetheart!”
I bristled at his familiarity and was trying to decide whether to tell him off or ignore him when I heard him say, “Don’t worry! Have a good weekend!”
At this point I was really off balance but still expected his next words to be about spare change. To my surprise he didn’t say anything else and didn’t indicate in any way that he wanted anything from me.
As I turned and looked at him a glorious smile spread across his face. There was a glow about him that seemed to come from within and illuminate his whole being. I’d never experienced anything quite like that before but at that moment I had a profound feeling of looking into the face of Christ and of being deeply blessed. The strain of the past few days slipped away and I felt at peace. In the brief moment in which this encounter took place I felt completely renewed and transformed. It was a moment of grace and blessing which is still as vibrant in the heart of my life as the day it happened many years ago.
This is my personal Road to Emmaus story—complete with human frailties, distraction and intense feelings. Since that time I have never doubted that Christ is present in our world, sometimes hidden in plain sight, in the ordinariness of my life. I do not doubt this because I have seen him with the eyes of my heart, the eyes of faith, in this experience and in other simple and yet profound ways.
Last Sunday, many of us attended worship at Cranbrook United Church and had the opportunity to hear the Right Reverend Gary Paterson, the Moderator of the United Church of Canada, speak words of faith and hope. Among many other things, Gary spoke about the importance of sharing faith stories. He talked about telling “the old, old stories” – the stories of our faith tradition – “trusting that God will do similar things in the future even though it’s not clear in the present.” He also said that we don’t always recognize Jesus at first and that we need to look with “resurrection glasses” in order to see things differently. Gary used the analogy of wearing 3D glasses that bring a whole new dimension to our vision. He reminded us that we are people called to pay attention to small things in unexpected places and in unexpected people in order to see where new life is emerging all around us and within us.
This reminds me of the story of the Road to Emmaus. When I hear this story I can identify my own journey of faith within the experiences of the travellers on the road. They are not alone. They travel together and are companions on the long journey home. They share their sorrows and their stories as they travel together. When they meet a stranger on the road they invite him to walk with them. They travel together many miles and they speak with the stranger about the scriptures and their own experiences. And then, in a turning point in the story, when the stranger “walks ahead as if he were going on” the travellers “urge him strongly” to stay with them, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over. That gracious and generous invitation of hospitality—“come and stay at our house, it’s not safe to walk alone in the dark”—is not a lukewarm invitation but a heartfelt caring for the stranger. The scripture says they “urged” him strongly. In our common language we would probably say they insisted that he accept their hospitality. And, when the stranger was at their home, at table with them, he “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” and their eyes and their hearts were opened and they recognized the face of Christ in the stranger’s guise. They recognized Christ in the sharing of their lives with each other and the sharing of the bread of life. And, as I have so often found true in my life, they realized most vividly that they had been part of a sacred experience when they reflected back on their time together. In this moment of recognition, they said, “were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Perhaps most importantly, their response to their experience of the risen Christ was not just the wonder and amazement that replaced their confusion and grief but their action of immediately leaving their home, their place of comfort and rest, and travelling many miles to share the excitement of their story with others.
There are so many essential themes that we, as Christians, can learn from the Emmaus Road story. The theme that I was drawn to most this week was the simple and yet profound moment the Emmaus residents recognized Christ’s presence. They didn’t recognize Jesus at first and then suddenly they recognized him in the breaking of bread and then just as suddenly he vanished from their sight.
I was excited to discover that the word “recognize” means “to know again; identify; to recover the knowledge of; or perceive an identity with something formerly known or felt”. A common theme in the Easter appearance stories is a point of recognition where the disciples remember Jesus not just with their minds but also with the heart of faith. Seeing something – that has always been there – as if for the first time is a very powerful experience that one is not likely to forget. It was so powerful for the Emmaus couple that when the visual image of Jesus disappeared, the imprint on their hearts and in their lives continued forever. This experience gave them courage in the face of immense adversity and compelled them to share their stories with as many people as possible and live their faith in all the actions of their lives.
Sometimes what we need is right in front of us and we don’t see it.
In the book, Emmaus Road: Churches Making their way Forward, Christopher White says,
Last Spring I was waiting for the results of my youngest daughter’s most recent cardiology tests. I was standing on the fourth floor of the hospital’s atrium looking down on the street, where an old woman stopped and emptied a bag of bird food. Immediately, almost 40 pigeons began a frantic feeding frenzy. She then moved a few steps away and emptied another bag containing exactly the same food. The pigeons went mad and flocked to the new supply, even though there was lots of food left in the first pile. Their anxiety was palpable. The scene struck me as a parable to the contemporary church. We seek…“magic potions” to solve our challenges. We dash off to the next big thing…not realizing that we have food for the journey right in front of us.(Wood Lake Books, 2003)
We have everything we need, right in front of us, if we simply share our faith generously together. And so, with thanksgiving, I’ll end with
A Prayer for the Journey by United Church minister, Janet Cawley:
God of the Way,
you are the road we travel,
and the sign we follow;
you are bread for the journey,
and the wine of arrival.
Guide us as we follow in your way,
holding on to each other,
reaching out to your beloved world.
And when we stray,
seek us out and find us,
set our feet on the path again,
and lead us safely home.
In the name of Jesus, our Companion, we pray. Amen
(Voices United 648, Janet Cawley,1996)