Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven milesf from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Luke 24:13-16
Earlier this week, I took Sam and Molly over to the Dog Park on Valley Street. It’s an acre or so of dust at the moment, with some trees and some scrubby plants, but it is a crucible for a community within the community. You could probably drive right past it without noticing, unless you are a dog person. I know that before we had dogs in our lives, I never paid much attention to them, but now I seem to see them everywhere. Now I look at a mutt and try to figure out what breeds might be appearing in combination! Now I remember the names of almost every dog I meet. Now, last Sunday afternoon, after #2 Son and I had been romping with Sam, or perhaps I should say after I had been watching #2 Son and Sam romp up and down the steep little hills at the back end of the park, we went back toward the gate, and another dog owner asked if I had noticed that Sam was limping? Well, no I hadn’t. A few days later, another man asked the same thing. Did you notice that he is favoring his left front paw, he asked? Sometimes when we see them every day, we don’t notice a small change.
We might say that about our old sign out front. It had gotten a little tired. The posts were getting rusty. But if you’re used to looking at something everyday, you don’t notice a slight change. We don’t watch rust oxidize any more than we usually watch paint dry! And it was as true for us as for the people driving by. Someone who never comments on your house will notice when you paint it. Someone who never compliments your hair will see that you have done something different to it. There’s a commercial running in which a beautiful woman meets her friends at a restaurant. They think she must be in love, because she has such a glow about her! But it’s really the Crest white strips. Our old sign is a great example of how we don’t look carefully at things when we think we already know what’s there. We make assumptions, or things just become part of the landscape and not distinct in and of themselves. Or we assume what must be true and cannot see beyond our assumptions.
On the road to Emmaus, the followers of Jesus have their eyes wide shut. They see and hear him, but they do not know him. Jesus’ friends don’t recognize him because they have no expectation he will be there! Imagine it. They walk with him, and they talk with him. They travel many miles, telling him about their experiences, and then listening to him as he explains the scriptures to them. But they cannot see their friend, their teacher, in this wise man accompanying them. They cannot see him because they don’t expect to see him. Jesus was dead! He had been brutally crucified. And even though the women had found an empty tomb and seen a vision of angels, and even though some of their friends had seem the tomb empty as well, these guys knew what was reasonable, what was “possible.” Why would they have expected to see him again?
We can be limited by our assumptions and even by our traditions. Psalm 23 is so beautiful. It’s one of the few pieces of scripture known to many, many people. Most of us have heard it over and over again in the King James Version, as we read it together today, with its “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and it’s use of old fashioned words like “thou” and “my cup runneth over.” But it isn’t just your grandmother’s psalm!! And it most certainly isn’t just about death. Yet when we hear its use of the word “death” we just think, this is a psalm for the dying and for the dead. But how much more can it say to us if we feel it as alive? If we acknowledge God as our shepherd today, this minute, all the time—not just in the presence of enemies, but in the gathering of friends; not just in the dark times, but in the brilliant sunshine of the happy ones as well. We don’t just need guiding when times are tough! In fact, those are the times we’re most likely to be open to turning toward God anyway. It’s right now, today, that we need to acknowledge, recognize and accept God’s shepherding. It’s all about right now, not about being prepared for death or being nostalgic for the past. The key is immediacy. God is doing these things for us even now.
I want to share with you the translation of the Psalm found in the New Revised Standard Version. Some of it sounds much the same, and some of it is made new.
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff–
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long.
“My whole life long.” It sounds like the secret to bringing this psalm alive is feeling it in the right now, not being bathed in nostalgia or holding it up as a totem against our death. God is your shepherd your whole life long, even in the darkest valleys, those times of sadness or loss or danger we must all experience. Even in those valleys, God’s mercy and goodness are the rod and the staff that comfort and guide us.
This little hidden away church has been our secret in some ways. Trees and shrubs grown too tall have hidden us. A sign so familiar that it no longer attracted the attention of passersby masked our presence. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus makes himself visible. We, too, want to make ourselves visible. A community of openness and willingness and caring is not the norm in our world. Most people hear you are religious and assume you are close-minded, quick with the answers, quick to judge others. Here we strive away from that. Here we hope to make everyone feel welcome, accepted and loved. I read this week that our society is more divided than it has ever been. People are lined up taking sides, not just in politics, but also in religion, and it is hard to find a moderate position or an open mind on either end of the spectrum. It pains me to say that.
Jesus is the table spread before us in the presence of our enemies.
Who are the enemies? Who are our foes? Not Al Qaeda—this isn’t about war, not for us. Not our political opponents—this isn’t about politics. Our enemies are the forces whose existence keeps us from recognizing Christ in our midst. They try to talk us out of believing, or they try to convince us there are other more important things to be concerned with this morning or this hour or this minute. They insist that we be more realistic and less fantastical. They insist that we be more practical and less visionary. And those forces, my friends, are not just outside these doors. They are in us and among us and one with us. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Walt Kelly, in his comic strip of many years ago, Pogo, floated this idea in relation to McCarthyism and then in the 1960’s to pollution. We have to be accountable for our own involvement or lack of it. We have to take responsibility for our own mess. And that’s true of the inner life as well. The enemy is our own tendency to get stuck in the day-to-day of life and not to feel God’s presence in it and in us. The enemy is our propensity for excusing ourselves and blaming others. The enemy is our gift for not noticing what is really going on right in front of us. The enemy is having our eyes wide shut.
Jesus is the table spread before us in the presence of our enemies.
And…Jesus is the table spread before us…in the presence of our friends.
When we go to his table, we go to eat the food that fills us when nothing else will—no job, no relationship, no hobby, no vacation, no habit—none of those things really fill us and nourish us as Jesus can, if we will let him. The body of his life, broken open for us, may be known to us in the breaking of the bread as he was revealed to his friends all those years ago. The cup of his love, poured out for us, gives refreshment that no we can find nowhere else, for it is a sign that we are known and forgiven.
And what about our new sign? On Friday, I was so excited to see it that I locked my keys in the office in my hurry to drive around the neighborhood and view it from every angle! Even so, we must remember: a sign is just that; a sign, a symbol, a mark, an indication. It represents something deeper and larger. What does our new sign represent? Putting the new sign in is as much a testimony to our commitment as passing each other the Peace of Christ. It says we’re here and we want others to know that Jesus is working in our lives, is walking on the way with us, is present with us as we break the bread and lift the cup. It says our eyes are open, and it invites others to open their eyes, too. It invites them to join us on the journey, the journey we take with Jesus, a journey full of learning and caring and fellowship and, every now and then, something completely unexpected. And to see it, we need to keep our eyes wide open. Amen.