May 8, 2011 -- Jerusalem UCC (Palmerton PA)
Cleopas and his wife were confused. They were walking to the town of Emmaus, trying to sort out what had happened the past few days. In deep conversation they were, and then this stranger joined them -- seemed to come from out of nowhere -- and not only that, this stranger seemed to not know anything about the big news coming out of Jerusalem.
Little did they know that this was Jesus. Jesus was the stranger who had joined them on their walk to Emmaus. It’s a funny thing: Cleopas and his wife knew all about Jesus. They knew he was a man of God, a prophet, powerful in deed, amazing teacher, God’s own, popular with the people. They knew that Jesus had been tried and sentenced to death and was crucified. They knew -- and they were confused -- that some women -- that very morning -- had found an empty tomb where the body of Jesus should have been and now were claiming that angels had said that Jesus was alive. Yes, Cleopas and his wife knew all about Jesus; they may even have been with Jesus just a few days before; but when Jesus joined them on the road in a new day, they didn’t know Jesus.
Imagine having Jesus walking along beside you, talking to you and asking questions, and even teaching them everything there is to know about the very history of the Messiah -- and still -- not being able to recognize Jesus when Jesus is right there!
The only thing worse would be to stop expecting Jesus to show up at all. I almost gave up -- years ago -- encouraged by my Sunday School teachers -- or I should say DIS-couraged by some of my childhood Sunday School teachers. You see, as a child, I had no trouble believing the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I had the faith of a child -- a faith that said if God decided to raise Jesus from the dead, then it was done.
My urgent question was: “Where is he? Where is Jesus? If Jesus is alive [as I knew he was] then where is he NOW?” The answer: “He’s in heaven” didn’t help me out. I was old enough to have some sense that this heaven where Jesus was, was somehow different than the sky. But … but … more than that, I knew that, if Jesus was alive, he wasn’t out in space hanging out on some faraway planet somewhere. I knew -- somehow I knew -- that Jesus was a lot closer than that because Jesus loved me -- THIS I did know. I also found out that there are only so many of those hard questions that a Sunday School teacher will tolerate before she loses her cool. I grew up somehow holding onto “Jesus Loves Me” even when, at times, my Sunday School teachers seemed to have run out of love in the form of patience.
So, back then, at about age 8 or 10, I absolutely had no idea what a sacrament was. That is, I didn’t know that Communion -- the bread and grape juice -- was a sacrament. I knew it was called “Communion” and I knew that it was the body and blood of Jesus for me. I knew that as a young child. At Communion, I got Jesus. It’s not quite like the walking talking Jesus that Cleopas and his wife got, but it was all I had and it was plenty enough. Because even though I was very young, and even though I was very outspoken and at times a real pain to my Sunday School teachers, I was drawn to church and drawn especially to Communion. And -- somehow -- kneeling with others at that altar -- on the same level, so to speak, all of us together eating the bread and taking the juice -- I received an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. In other words, I knew God loved me even though it looked to me that there was no possible reason for God to love ME!
Little did I know that that's what a sacrament actually is -- an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. I totally experienced sacrament but there’s no way I could have described what happened at that altar sufficiently to convince an adult that I had any idea of what was going on. You would have described that little girl as so many children have been described: too young and too ignorant to know what Communion means. So -- somehow -- and this was a miracle -- I managed to keep very quiet about anything related to Communion and not call attention to my bread and juice life , lest some well-meaning adult take that experience of Jesus away from me, too.
Perhaps - I don’t remember -- but perhaps I had somewhere heard this story of Cleopas and his wife. Both were adults. They were grown up adults who finally recognized Jesus when they were all gathered around the table and Jesus took bread, broke it, blessed it and gave it to them. These two had missed all the other great big hints that Jesus was with them. Jesus’ resurrected body didn’t give them a clue. Jesus walking with them didn’t tip them off. The stories Jesus told them didn’t ring a bell. What they knew ABOUT Jesus wasn’t the same as KNOWING JESUS. And where they finally knew Jesus was at table -- in the blessing, breaking and sharing of the bread.
And then he was gone.
Their questions had to be flying: “Where is he? Where is Jesus? If Jesus is alive, and they knew he was just a few seconds ago, then where is he NOW? And will we be able to recognize him the next time?”
One of my prayers for our time together today is that God’s Spirit will ignite in each of us the passion of a child -- the passion of a Cleopas and his wife -- a passion to be in the presence of the risen Christ. The Risen Christ among us -- is the reason the church is like no other organization or group anywhere. We come here with the expectation we take to no other place . We come to this place and - especially - we seek among these people with similar expectations -- that we will somehow, together, gathered, recognize and experience the presence of the risen Christ - again.
Today, some of you are remembering an experience you had of the risen Christ sometime in your past. You were on a retreat years ago, or at a camp as a child, or up the street at Renee’s Personal Care Home just last week. Perhaps you were in a hospital bed or beside one. Or maybe, in a moment of grace, someone said to you something that, to them, seemed ordinary, but for you was a word of affirmation that said “God loves you; I see some of God’s best work at work in you.” Are you ready to recognize the risen Christ in new ways -- today?
And I know that there are children and youth here today who are looking at us older folk -- we who have more experience in church life -- and they are wondering: “What are we doing here? Where IS Jesus anyway?” Today, they are looking to us to set tables for them as they begin to experience the presence of the living Christ -- tables of learning, tables of welcome, tables full of food and laughter, tables where the good news is told, and sung and celebrated in ways they understand, and they are even hoping we will take them to share the bread of life at tables beyond these walls.
The WAY WE ARE COMMUNITY matters. THE WAY WE DO COMMUNITY matters. Community Life is a ministry and a mission. Community life doesn’t just happen in these walls because we have a sign outside that says “church.” Community means we unlock the doors. Community is having more greeters that we seem to need. Community is each person who is here being here, fully present to the community. Community is name tags!
And about my childhood Sunday School teachers -- I thank God for them regularly. I did challenge them -- and you can bet I was THE challenging kid in all of the place and not in any way that was fun or exciting for them. And they also had their own flaws and rough places and -- at times -- unkind language. Even so -- they set the table for me in Sunday School class week after week. They never gave up on me. It never occurred to me that a Christian adult would ever give up on me or any child in church. It was only as an adult -- and an adult pastor at that -- that I found out that there are people who do give up on the church, they sometimes give up on each other and they sometimes give up on what God might be doing in the midst of a church mess or a personal mess or in their dealings with a challenging church member (sometimes a child) because they can’t figure it out and it’s too hard to stay in church. If you sometimes find me to be a pastor with determined to challenge the assumption that it's just fine when people give up on church or give up in church, whether you give up and leave or whether you give up and stay in limited ways, it’s because I know it means EVERYTHING to a community -- and to a child -- when people stay on the road and stay open to the stranger who comes along, when people don’t leave the table before the presence of the risen Christ -- there all along -- is recognized.
So, come to this table of welcome and hospitality. YOU have been on a long trip and YOU are welcome. Come with your eyes open expecting to recognize the One who has been among us all along -- the risen Christ. Come to this table with your whole self -- body, mind, soul, strength and even the parts of yourself you thought you had left behind or safely kept out of sight. Come, and then be surprised once again. For this table is not a destination, this table compels us to go on as a community of faith and to go OUT as witnesses of the resurrection. Cleopas and his wife left the table so filled up with the good news of the reality of the living Christ that they had to GO -- they couldn’t keep it to themselves; they had to share the good news. So, come and fill up with the gifts of God for the people of God and then let us GO to be the good news community overflowing with the presence of the living Christ. Amen.