“Open Your Eyes”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
30 April 2023
For as long as I can remember, this has been my favorite post-resurrection story. It presents the unfolding of faith as a journey of seeing the holy in our midst. I love the way Jesus walks alongside the two people without disclosing his true identity…just biding his time, interpreting scripture, continuing along the road to the village where the two people were heading. And then Jesus keeps on walking, but the two travelers call him back and ask him to stay with them since the day was reaching its end. The road at night could be a dangerous place.
This is a key moment when the story turns: a moment of profound hospitality. What if the two travelers had not insisted that Jesus join them for the night? They might never have realized who he was or that he had been raised from death. In this country, we don’t have the same depth of understanding when it comes to hospitality that other cultures do, including the middle eastern culture in which Jesus lived. It wasn’t just a matter of being friendly or kind, but rather hospitality could have been a matter of survival. We just don’t get it – that kind of hospitality. Years ago, when I was in South Korea as part of a UCC delegation, people went out of their way to ensure that we were comfortable and well-fed, offering me their beds, inviting me to a feast in a traditional home, and tuning in to where I was as a guest. For most Americans, hospitality is an afterthought, which is a shame.
It strikes me as odd that Jesus, the guest at the table, takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Clearly, he switched roles and has become the host at the table. And his actions are recounted by Marta and me every time we celebrate communion: we take bread, bless it, break it, and give it. And it is in that moment of profound hospitality, in the breaking of the bread, that their eyes are opened and Jesus is made known to them. They have share a long, dusty journey together, and sharing the meal is the catalyst that enables them to experience the risen Christ.
Besides hospitality, eating is an important social phenomenon as well. In strictly hierarchical societies, people of different social classes don’t mix. You see it on Downton Abbey when those who eat upstairs would never eat with those downstairs. But think about where Jesus had been eating: defying the norms of purity by eating with sinners and tax collectors. This table — Christ’s table — is a representation of how the kingdom of God is meant to be for us: a table where there is no distinction because of class, gender, race, orientation, wealth, education, or ethnicity. It is a representation of God’s anti-imperial realm, where all of God’s children are welcome and no one is turned away.
The Emmaus story, the event at which Christ is made known to those who offer hospitality to a stranger, is a seminal event. Though we are unlikely to peer into an empty tomb or push our fingers into Christ’s wounded hands, we encounter the risen Christ in enacting profound hospitality. We encounter the risen Christ in the breaking of bread. We encounter the risen Christ in overturning the broken norms and assumptions of our consumer-driven, economics-obsessed culture.
I had a real epiphany coming out of the pandemic, a period of two-plus years when we didn’t eat together as a congregation. No dinner church. No First Name Club luncheons. No Simple Soup Suppers to bookend Lent. No celebration meals, even when we worshiped in the park. No potlucks. I have always seen potlucks as a sort of Prairie Home Companion-esque artifact of a time gone by, but the pandemic gave me new insight into how important it is that we share meals together.
It became clear to me last fall when Jane Anne and I were in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome and we saw a fresco from the second century…the 100s AD…so it’s very early. Men and women are eating together at table, sharing a meal. This wasn’t a celebration of communion, but rather a sort of community potluck. But it isn’t just a meal…it’s what happens when people gather around a table to share the abundance that has been entrusted to them. It is an occasion for building koinonia or spiritual community.
No one is ever turned away from a potluck. And there is always a bit of a loaves-and-fishes effect, because there always seems to be enough to feed everyone…even when everyone brings dessert. A potluck often has an element of mixing people at table who might otherwise not get to know each other. Older adults sitting with teenagers, well-to-do folks and those who may not have a cent in the bank, Gay, Straight, Bi, Trans, Lesbian folks all eating together. A meal can be a picture of what the Kingdom of God looks like in action.
Many of you will remember one of our visiting scholars, John Dominic Crossan. Many years ago, I was reading his provocative book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, and there was a wonderfully pithy sentence about this morning’s scripture in it that I have long remembered: “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.” In other words, this story may never have occurred in the way that Luke describes. And for some of us, that invalidates the larger truth of the story, which is tragic.
Does there literally have to be a village called Emmaus for the story to be true? Do there need to be two disciples, one named Cleopas, for the story to be true? Does Jesus need to walk with them, explain scripture to them, and eat with them for the story to be true. No. What makes the story true is that we ourselves can experience it. We encounter the risen Christ when we act compassionately, when we extend an extravagant welcome, when we break down barriers between people, when we remember the presence of Christ living within us and among us when we come to Christ’s table for communion. How can you and I make Emmaus happen here at Plymouth in our worship, in our fellowship, and in our welcome? “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.”
One of the other “Aha!” moments I had after coming back to church after the pandemic is that it is easier for us to see the face of Christ in each other when we are, in fact, face-to-face. It’s great that we have a livestream and Zoom meetings, but there is something precious about seeing each other in person. Wishing one another the peace of Christ in person. Receiving communion elements in person. Meeting new people in person. Discussing and debating in person. Hugging in person.
I have seen the image of Christ in Council meetings at Plymouth. When we are doing our very best to discern together a path forward for our congregation and how we live as an outpost of the Kingdom of God in this place. It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always happen, but there is an element of grace and real presence that can happen when we gather intentionally as Christian community.
Sometimes when I’m leading a pilgrimage or a retreat, I’ll ask people at the end of the day if they had any God sightings: times when the love or presence of God became clear to them. And oftentimes when people are asked to pay attention, we notice things that otherwise might elude us.
It’s important that we keep our eyes open to see when we might catch a glimpse of the Christlight in our midst. It probably won’t look like Jesus looked, and that may be why the travelers on the Emmaus Road didn’t recognize Jesus.
I hope that for each of us, we have those moments when we have an encounter with the risen Christ, who continues to be with us. He is with us in the struggle for justice and peace, with us as we wrestle with scripture, with us in moments of deep hospitality, and with us in the breaking of the bread.
May we open our eyes and our hearts to one another and to God so that we might see the reflection of Christ in one another.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint.
3rd Sunday after Easter
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
They were simply walking down the road, these disciples, and Jesus came and walked with them. They were in that numbing, aching stage of grief, where you say to yourself, ”This is really happening to me, to us? This can’t be happening. This IS really happening. To us.” In their grief Jesus came and walked with them. They were just going home to start life over again after their hopes for new life had been destroyed and Jesus came and walked with them. They were ordinary folk, not in the inner circle of disciples that we have hear named throughout all four of the canonical gospels, and Jesus came and walked with them. Though they did not recognize him, he walked with them, talked with them, listening to their grief and fear. In unrecognized, yet extraordinary, circumstances, Jesus came and walked and talked these two regular people all the way home. And then came in to stay with them.
There are lines of poetry that have stuck with my soul since a Modern Poetry class my Senior year in college. “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow, I feel my fate in what I cannot fear, I learn by going where I have to go.” ["The Waking” by Theodore Roethke can be found at poetryfoundation.com.] From Theodore Roethke’s enigmatic poem. “The Waking,” I have heard the echoes of those words over and over in the experiences of my life. “I learn by going where I have to go.” I have made plans and carried many of them through, choosing schools and jobs and life partners. Yet the plans always take unexpected turns or dissolve in to new plans along the way. Life always seem to give us unexpected routes on the “planned” journey. Change happens. We learn by going where we have to go.
It is an oft repeated metaphor that life is a journey. I would go further to say that life walking with Jesus is a pilgrimage. And the only way to walk it is to learn by going where you have go. We like to define pilgrimage as an intentional sacred journey toward the Holy. When Hal and I have led pilgrimages, we make very specific plans. Yet it is usually the unplanned moments that make meaning of the journey. You cannot plan the sacred, the inbreaking of the Holy. You can only make room, make space, for it.
If we think of life with Jesus as a pilgrimage, why doesn’t it feel more sacred in that elevated, “stained glass window, unseen choir singing ‘Ahhhh!’” sense of the word? Life more often just feels messy because life is messy! My friends, in case you haven’t noticed, the messy is sacred, because the Holy One holds all of Life. Learning to live in relationships, as a child, as a teen, as an adult of any age, is messy and its sacred. Getting through school at any age feels messy and its sacred. Parenting is messy and its sacred. Choosing a job, advancing a career, as we wrestle with purpose and meaning in life is messy and its sacred. Loving those who love us and those who don’t is messy and its sacred, holy.
Life as a pilgrimage is most like those sacred journeys when the pilgrim sets out simply to follow the Holy Spirit, wherever it might take her. There is not necessarily a specific sacred site for praying as the destination or some sacred mission to fulfill. And if there is, well, plans change and life gets messy. We learn by going where we have to go.
This is the journey the disciples in our gospel story find themselves walking. Plans have changed in a big way. Nothing has turned out as they expected when they headed for Jerusalem to have Passover with Jesus a few days ago. Everything is turned upside down and now what? Their beloved rabbi is dead. This was not in the plans! He was going to be the one to redeem Israel….to make it whole again…to liberate them from the Romans. He was the Messiah! At least that’s what they had thought. Then he was betrayed by the very people who you would think would be following him. He was handed over to be executed as a criminal. Now he’s dead! Isn’t he? What about what those women said they saw?
What else to do but head home? Life does not feel safe. As followers of this one who had been executed as a criminal, were they now suspect? Were their lives in danger? And what about their hopes and dreams? They are dashed. I feel the ache in their hearts, the tiredness in their bones, the confusion in their minds, the fear that seizes their gut. On top of it all they long for their leader, they miss their friend, Jesus. Will the community they had grown together on the pilgrim journey following Jesus through the countryside be completely gone now? How can they go back to their lives before? Nothing feels normal. Will it ever again? And in the midst of all these questions, in the midst of their suffering, on this pilgrim journey home, the Risen Jesus comes unbidden and walks with them.
We had lots of plans for this spring! Trips to take. Sports to play and sports teams to support. Classes to complete. Graduation ceremonies to celebrate and attend. Camps for summertime. New jobs perhaps. Then Covid 19 happened. Now people are dying. People are losing jobs. The economy is uncertain to say the least. School is radically changed as teachers and children scramble to connect on line. Here I am preaching and worshiping with you over Facebook! Our life is full of questions! Is there a destination we are headed towards or is it all just messy? Do we want “normal” back? What do we want in a new “normal?” Which leaders do we trust, do we follow into this new unknown world? Nothing feels very safe anymore. Now what? Is it all dead?
The two disciples had heard rumors of women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb and seen angels and heard that he was not dead. He is alive! We have been through Holy Week and heard the stories of Easter. We know that death is the not the final answer for us as Easter people who follow Jesus the Christ. We know that with our heads…but our hearts are still scared and worried and uncertain. We are walking a road that is unknown. Our plans are all up in the air. It’s very messy! Like our disciples we have been plunged into pilgrimage whether we like it or not! We could sit down and wait till all was clear on the path. But we would never get home that way. Instead, we must learn by going where we have to go.
My friends, the simple truth of this gospel story is that just like the disciples discovered, Jesus, the Risen Christ, is walking along with us on our pilgrim journey. Even when we think we are alone, we are not alone. Christ walks beside us. Will we recognize the presence of the Holy that is always with us in the mess of life’s journey? We wrestle with the frustrations, sorrows, fears of this pandemic journey. We debate the hows and whens of re-opening our communities. In the midst of it all, Jesus, walks along with us listening, teaching, simply being on the journey when we least expect it.
Remember when God’s peace breaks finally through for the two disciples? It’s when their hearts are open as they sit down to share a meal, probably all they have in the house, as they have been gone several days. May we remember to open our hearts to invite the presence of the Risen Christ into the homes of our souls, as well as our literal homes. May we invite the Christ to sit down at the inner tables of our hearts and souls, as well as the our outer kitchen and dining tables to break bread, to share sustenance. As we relinquish control of our resources, share the source of what feeds us, into the hands of the Holy One, suddenly all is clear. We will see. We will know the Presence and find peace.
We are walking down life’s road in this very messy crisis time in our world. The Risen Christ, the Spirit of Life Anew, is with us. God holds us even when we are not watching. Walks with us even when we cannot see or feel the holy Presence. Accompanies us on the pilgrim journey. As we turn inward in prayer, in contemplation, in simple Being with our selves, with our loved ones in the now of each moment, leaving behind the “what ifs,” the worry and fear of plans tentatively made….as we offer up all that we have in thanksgiving and to a be blessing, we will glimpse the Holy One and it will be enough! It will infuse our souls with the energy of sacred Joy so that we can continue as pilgrims traveling the unknown roads of our times. Jesus is walking and talking us home. Entering our hearts in new ways. We will learn by going where we have to go. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. All rights reserved.
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" 19 He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." 25 Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.