Springfield Cathedral—Luke 24:13-35
Back in the late 1940s, there was a young man named Elson who was from overseas and worked in his country’s embassy in Washington, DC. There was also a young American woman named Elizabeth who had a job as a typist in the same embassy. Elizabeth shared an apartment with her sister Virginia, and Elson made friends with both of them. After work, he would often come by their apartment with his “little black book” and use their phone to call women for dates. Elson obviously saw Elizabeth and her sister as “friends” and not potential “girlfriends.” He saw them one-dimensionally, in a certain way. It didn’t occur to him that either Virginia or Elizabeth could be for him what was represented by the names in his little black book.
Indeed, how often are we so consumed by our own anxiety over some adverse circumstances that we pay scant attention to what’s actually going on right in front of us? The year before I began college, the college I went to had just concluded a long and exhaustive search for a new president, and everyone was very excited about him. He was bright, energetic, had an excellent track record, and seemed just the ticket for what the school needed at that time in its history. But, right at the end of my freshman year, he resigned, plunging the trustees back into a funk of anxiety.
This is the situation Cleopas and his unnamed companion found themselves in on the afternoon of the first Easter day. They had been disciples of Jesus—not part of the inner core of the 12, but part of the larger group that followed him around. Just a few days earlier, that had held onto high hopes that he was the promised Messiah, the one who would deliver Israel from the yoke of Roman oppression. But now those high hopes were dashed. Jesus was dead, executed by those same Roman oppressors. Their disposition was sour. Their heads hung low with sadness.
Then a third person, a stranger whom they do not recognize, joins them on their late afternoon walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. He seems to be completely clueless. He asks them why they’re so dejected and it makes them want to put their faces in their palms. How could he be so ignorant? How could he not be aware of the world-shattering events that had just transpired? Cleopas and his companion only have the eyes to “see” their new traveling companion in one dimension. They can only see him as an ignorant fool.
During all those times Elson came over to his friends Elizabeth and Virginia’s apartment to make phone calls from his little black book, Elizabeth got in the habit of cooking for him. I’m sure he was polite and said “Thank-you,” but he kept messing with his book and kept dialing numbers and, presumably, going on dates.
The ignorant and foolish stranger who found Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus began to gently interrogate them. He began to gradually remind them of things that they already knew, or at least should have known, clues scattered around the holy books of their common religious tradition. He most likely reminded them of Moses, through whom God had revealed his righteous will for his chosen people. He probably reminded them of the great prophet Samuel, who had identified and anointed not one, but the first two of Israel’s kings, Saul and David. And he no doubt mentioned the prophet Elijah, the original speaker-of-truth-to-power. And I’m sure Isaiah’s name came up as well, the consummate servant of the Lord, in whose writings Israel’s hope for a Messiah is most clearly documented. He probably also mentioned Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and Hosea and Joel and many others.
After a while, Elson put his little black book away and started paying attention to the one who was cooking for him. I’m sure it involved a variety of foods, but meat loaf seemed to be emerging as his favorite.
When Cleopas and his companion and their new friend arrive at the village of Emmaus, they invite him to stay and eat with them. I doubt meat loaf was on the menu, but in the process of sharing a meal at the end of a long day’s journey, they were somehow able to see the mysterious stranger, who at first had seemed so ignorant but turned out to be very much not so—they were able to see him in a very different light, through different eyes. It dawned on them that he was, in fact, none other than Jesus, the one whom they had been talking about in the first place when they first encountered him. Talk about a face-palm moment, they probably wanted to slap themselves over how stupid and blind they had been.
After a few more meat loafs, Elson’s eyes were opened, and he saw Elizabeth in a completely different light, and probably wanted to slap himself over how stupid and blind he had been. What he had been looking for all that time in his little black book had been right there, under his nose. His eyes were opened in the cutting of the meat loaf. He asked her to marry him, and she said Yes, and, a couple of years later, Elson and Elizabeth became my parents.
The trustees of Westmont College were worn out by the earlier presidential search process that turned out to be a bust. Suddenly, they began to see a bright and popular member of the faculty in a way they had not previously seen him. He was a known quantity; there was no mystery about him. They reminded themselves of things they had known all along, since the beginning of the first presidential search, and began to see this professor in a different light, with different eyes. To everyone’s amazement and acclaim, they made him the next president of the college, and his signature is on my diploma.
My father didn’t ask my mother to marry him because he found out some new and startling information about her. He just started to see her differently. The trustees of my college alma mater didn’t randomly do a background check on a young professor and discover that he was good presidential material. In both cases, it was what they already knew about somebody that enabled them to look through a different set of eyes.
Jesus didn’t tell Cleopas and his companion anything new as they walked to Emmaus together that afternoon. It was stuff they already knew, because it was in their own scriptures. They experienced Jesus present with them in the present because they knew him to have been present with them in the past. That’s the way God rolls. God is present to us in the present precisely when we remember him being present with us in the past.
And the most powerful way we experience this is in the very thing we’re doing at this moment—celebrating the Eucharist. We have read scripture together this morning—from the Book of Acts, from the First Epistle of Peter, and from St Luke’s Gospel. We have offered verses of a Psalm together in prayer. Now a teacher is standing up and doing the best he can to shine a light on one of the passages of scripture. None of this material is new. We’ve read and heard it all before. We’re on the road together, walking toward our destination. Soon we will gather at the table, and in the breaking of the bread, in the sharing of a meal, we will know Jesus to be with us. We will know him and the Father and the Holy Spirit to be the same God who has been our hope in ages past, the one who has sustained the generations of believers who have come before us, the one who has been present in each of our lives from and even before the day we were made his children in baptism, the one who sustains us now with his very life, with his Body and Blood.
Every celebration of the Eucharist is an enactment of the walk to Emmaus. In every celebration of the Eucharist, Jesus comes to us, first in Word, then in Sacrament, drawing us ever more tightly into the orbit of his love. Alleluia and Amen.