And Their Eyes Were Opened
Passage: Luke 24:13-35
Date: April 30, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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There is something about this story that I find… cozy. Or reassuring. Or I just love it because it’s not too complicated – except for the part about Jesus disappearing at the end. Upon reflection, I think it’s because this story involves some of my favorite things: walking, talking with a friend, and sharing a meal.
At first glance, that is what this story is about, but dig a little deeper, and we discover that those very ordinary things – walking, talking, eating – are just window dressing for the real thing: the presence of God. Which has got me to thinking that maybe, just maybe, God is not found in the extraordinary, in the mysterious, in the mountaintop experiences. Maybe God is found, and experienced, and known, in the most ordinary moments of our lives.
So this morning, a bit briefly because there’s a lot going on in the service and some Helen Bernhard’s cake is awaiting us at coffee hour, I want to explore with you the idea of finding the holy in the ordinary, and what prevents us from having that experience.
We can start with a strange little phrase that may give us a clue for unlocking all of this. Luke writes that while the disciples were walking with Jesus, they did not realize that it was him because “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
There are many things Luke might have meant by that – that the risen Jesus looked different, or the disciples couldn’t see what they didn’t expect to see, or that God was delaying the punchline for a bit. Some force was at work that prevented them from understanding they were in the presence of God. There are forces at work that prevent us from that same understanding. I think many are self-imposed.
Distraction prevents us from seeing the holy. I’m pretty sure that all our attention to all our screens is not doing our souls much good, and I say that as one who spends too much time on her phone. It is so easy to be distracted these days. Candy Crush? Facebook? Instagram? 24-hour access to your e-mail? The news outlet of your choice? Weather updates? Your daily step count? There’s Google, the source of all information needed instantly to settle an argument at dinner or – yes – to find a good quote for the sermon.
I’m not saying the technology and our phones and tablets and computers are inherently bad – but I’m not sure they are helping us to recognize the holy in our midst. We’re so distracted by the trivial that we cannot see the majestic.
Assumption prevents us from seeing the holy. I think that we’ve forgotten, in a way, how to talk with each other. We see and label each other so easily. Maybe that is what the disciples did – the stranger who joined them was a stranger because he most certainly could not be Jesus because Jesus was dead. We make assumptions about each other that either negate the need for conversation – I already know what they’re going to say – or turn a conversation into a debate or argument –I am right and you are wrong and no amount of conversation will change either of minds. We jump to the assumptions we have about another and miss the opportunity to experience that person as a child of God, or even as Christ himself.
Comfortability prevents us from experiencing the holy. When life is easy and we not only have everything we need but also everything we want, we don’t look for the holy because we don’t need it. Or we think we don’t need it. Or we live as though we don’t need God.
But I would propose that all the luxuries in the world cannot take the place of God. It’s like that line from Hello, Dolly: “And on those cold winter nights, Horace, you can snuggle up to your cash register. It's a little lumpy but it rings.”
We substitute things for God. But most things aren’t holy. They can be pretty or beautiful. They can make us sentimental or happy. But things and comforts and luxuries can’t help us recognize holiness in our midst. All the tchotchkes we clutter our souls with don’t give us room to grow or deepen in our faith. They fill us but they don’t fulfill us. They are present but they don’t evoke divine presence.
The challenge in all of this is the challenge to dig deep in order to learn how to get around those obstacles of distraction and assumption and comfortability; it’s the challenge to put down deep roots so that we can grow in our ability to experience the divine.
Some of you know that we have two very big oak trees on the side of our house. They are a burden and a blessing, the burden of dropping something for eight months of the year, and the blessing of shade and beauty. We think they are 80-90 years old, planted when the house was built.
Last year we redid the sidewalks near the oak trees as the roots had disrupted the concrete and created a tripping hazard. We have only half a basement – the tree roots prevent digging under the entire house. But those deep, wide roots have allowed the two trees to grow to a height that is more than twice the height of our house. They are beautiful and provide a home to what we think is the entire squirrel and crow population of the neighborhood. If it weren’t for the healthy root system, the trees would not be as majestic as they are.
At last week’s Session meeting, we had a great conversation about our dreams for the ministry of Westminster. The group that I was in talked about the ways we wanted to grow – to grow in our outreach to the community, to grow in our ability to love and reflect the image of Christ, to grow in our own sense of faith and the sacred.
If we are to grow in those ways – and I think that is something that God is calling us to – we need to ensure that our roots are deep and healthy. Expecting an encounter with the holy is one of the ways we do that. Shedding those things that prevent our experience of the holy – setting aside distraction and assumption and comfortability – will make it a little easier. Maybe.
Here’s the thing about recognizing the holy in our midst: we cannot manufacture holiness. We are noticers and recipients of the holy. We don’t have to be particularly good, or particularly orthodox, or particularly healthy to see and receive holiness. We don’t have to be on top of the mountain, or deep in prayer or meditation, or immersed in a graduate-level study of scripture. I’m not even sure we need to expect the holy.
But some day – maybe this day – you and I might find ourselves doing the most ordinary thing – weeding, or watching a play, or listening to music, or having dinner with the usual folks – and suddenly we realize that the moment we are in is surrounded with grace and beauty. You might pass a dinner roll to your brother or daughter or friend and be washed over in love for that person. You might refill everyone’s water glass, or just your own, and realize how good and precious and generous that water is, a gift from a good and precious and generous God.
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”
My hope for us, as we strive to deepen and grow on this path we’ve chosen, is that our eyes are opened too.