We see parallels lots of places, parallels to this cusp of the Mystery/non-Mystery zone. For example, in the church, in the United States, and in our individual lives:
1. In the Church:
The liturgical church calendar has big days of celebration, often preceded by preparatory days. Like Christmas, preceded by Advent, or most centrally, Easter, preceded by Lent. And in between these high holy days are stretches of just plain old normal, everyday kinds of days. In the liturgical church calendar they’re called Ordinary days.
2. And in the United States:
Yep, I guess our country has something of the same thing. Special days: Presidents’ Day, Flag Day, Memorial Day, and of course, the most central one – just gone by, Independence Day. Some of these days are preceded by preparatory days too, better known through the ever present count down of shopping days. But then there’s a return, between them, to lots of normal ordinary every day, days.
3. And in our Individual lives:
Our individual lives, too, have these big days and these long stretches of normal, ordinary everyday days. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can begin to feel like my days are more insignificant than I’d like – even though I have family and friends and a job I care about, sometimes it seems like an awful lot of my life is spent in repetitious, mundane stuff. For all of us there are some big days, days which are celebrative days again, with preparatory periods: like marriages, or baptisms, or confirmations, or desired moves, or retirements. These may be days of endings and beginnings with great hope – like college beginning, or retirement starting, or a first (or second or third) baby joining the family.
And some are days of great loss or grief that forever mark our lives in before and after categories (a car wreck, a Mom’s death, the death of a long, dear partner or friend, a stroke or other serious health threat). And while these are not celebrated and often we have no time to prepare, even these are followed eventually by days which try to be normal, at least, where we try to find some kind of new normal, perhaps.
SCRIPTURE: Luke 24:1-35
The scripture we read today is about THE central day in the life of the church, many would say - about the resurrection and the few days after that BIG day.
In scene one, the crucifixion had happened, the completely disorienting loss of hope and loss of a leader for the followers of Jesus had occurred. The women had found Jesus’ body missing, and the angels had shown up to try to explain it all; the women ran to tell everyone else, and while there just might have been a little sexism at work, you can almost forgive the men for not believing the pretty unbelievable story. And they were all reeling from the events!!
In scene two of the story, we drop in on a couple of the followers of Jesus, Cleophas and some other guy, who are stumbling along the road to Emmaus, grieving and confused, talking about the events of the past few days. And Jesus shows up! Here, as in the other gospels, though, he’s not, initially, recognizable. I LOVE that fact. Jesus, about whom they are talking, shows up and they/we don’t recognize him. I don’t think we ever learn what the gospel writers make of him not being recognizable, but it is how all the gospels tell it. Jesus isn’t at first recognized in his post resurrection appearances.
So, this unknown guy just sorta shows up and wants to lead them in a bible study right there on the side of the road. According to Luke it was a pretty comprehensive bible study, too (sorta like my “Intro to the Bible” in a single course in college), “beginning with Moses, and all the prophets, he interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Bible study over, they get back on the road (still with the two of them just thinking this is some guy who likes scripture, it seems). It appears that the stranger is going to keep on keeping on down the road, but the disciples start looking for a Holiday Inn with a vacancy where they can crash for the night. And even though they don’t recognize him for who he is, for some reason, they encourage him to stay with them. The reason they give for their encouraging him to stay is that it’s late. In hindsight, they mention that they knew there was something special about this guy, (hindsight is always 20/20) but maybe, really, it was just good old-fashioned hospitality for a stranger. “Stay with us, it’s late.” And he accepted their hospitality.
Sitting down to a simple meal, then, the bible expert guy says grace, but even then they don’t recognize him: not in the Bible Study, not even in the prayer, BUT as he starts to do the modern day equivalent of dishing out the potatoes, they realize who’s with them there! In that everyday activity of breaking the bread to share it, they know him. They recognize him for who he is, the presence of Christ in living form again. Perhaps the bible study prepared their hearts, perhaps the extra time together with him and the prayer made it possible and helped them to see later. Perhaps the opening of their hearts through a simple act of hospitality also opened their eyes to see God. But according to scripture, it was not until that everyday kind of experience, spooning up the potatoes, (breaking the bread) that they actually knew he was there.
Kathleen Norris, a great contemporary spiritual writer (who you may know more through her books, The Cloister Walk, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography or Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith) wrote a little book entitled Quotidian Mysteries. Not one of the other Mysteries, joyful, sorrowful, glorious or luminous, but quotidian. (Q: Anyone know what “Quotidian” is?) She gives the Merriam-Webster definition on the first page: “Quotidian: occurring every day; belonging to every day; commonplace, ordinary.” This one is a book about ordinary days and tasks, and it invites us to open our eyes in the midst of them, to experience the mystery of God in the everyday, ordinary parts of life.
She begins the book telling a story about her excitement one day when she saw in such clear form the coming together the everyday, mundane, and the holy. It occurred when she was visiting a Catholic church and after the beautiful and ornate Holy Communion service, she noticed the priest washed the dishes, right at the altar during the service. In writing about the ordinary things of life, the quotidian mysteries, Norris recognizes how these boring, thankless, repetitive, daily tasks of life can become mindless and depressing and how often we see them as unimportant or as a waste of our time. She mentions washing the dishes, doing laundry, sweeping the floor, baking bread, and walking. I would surely add straightening up my desk! She writes, noticing the link between the small and insignificant and the universal, though, that “what is closest to us is also the most universal.” She writes that we must start where we are, as embodied people with daily needs, not where we wish we were, perhaps above the embodied reality of our incarnation. We must look for blessing to come from unlikely, everyday places (out of Galilee, as it were) she says, or in the breaking of the bread. “Our task, she writes, is to transform the high romance of conversion and the fervor of call into daily commitment.” And that the “paradox of human life is that, in worship as in human love, it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for the greatest transformations.”
Another spiritual writer I have been so blessed by is Frederick Buechner. We read from his book Sacred Journey earlier this morning, as the service began. In it, he also writes about this seeing God in the ordinary stuff, like a walk to the garage. Hear it again:
“The question is not whether the things that happen to us are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak - even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere. God speaks, I believe, and the words God speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys. We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music. Sometimes we avoid listening for fear of what we may hear, sometimes for fear that we may hear nothing at all but the empty rattle of our own feet on the pavement. But ‘be not affeared,’ says Caliban (one of the book’s characters), nor is he the only one to say it. ‘Be not afraid,’ says another, ‘for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ The one who is with us on our journeys, has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for that one. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of God.”
We can listen for the one who is with us on our journeys, even in those sometimes deadly normal days, in ways we can so easily miss and through the daily tasks we tend so much not to value.
Let’s return now to the scripture we read. There are many paintings of this extraordinary/ordinary Emmaus Road biblical story - you can find lots of them on the web, and it is really interesting to compare how they portray the story. Most of them are of the men and Jesus on the road. I want to end today, though, introducing you to (or reminding you of) a painting of the meal itself, at Emmaus by the Italian master painter, Caravaggio. This is one I was introduced to by a current student of mine. I had hoped to display it for you this morning, but we didn’t quite have the technical crew or the right light to show it. I have a printed copy if you’d like to see it after the service. In this one, the three men are at the table with the waiter standing nearby. Jesus has just broken the bread and awareness is quickly dawning on Cleophas and the other fellow. One of the men has both his arms outstretched sort of like a baby startle reflex. The other has both hands on the chair arms and is about to jump up. What I like most about the picture though, is that there is an empty space at the table. And not only is there an empty space, it is our space, and there’s a plate about to fall off the table if we don’t take our seat pronto and catch it.
Sometimes, when in crisis or in a huge transition, we just need to take time to celebrate or to grieve, to be in the midst of those Big Days. And perhaps unrecognized, the spirit of God will come to us. At other, ordinary times, tedious times even, if we can value them differently, if we can allow it, we may suddenly be surprised by the presence of the holy one in the midst of the ordinary. We may realize that it is time to sit down and catch the plate, we may see the ordinary in a whole new way. (This morning, just after I had reviewed this sermon again, I went downstairs to pick up the book to bring it, and what was there in a pile in the basement floor but some quite quotidian dog poop. I thought it the perfect challenge – could this quotidian task be seen in a different way. New eyes, new heart for daily tasks. Pretty cool.)
So here we are, after the big days of Easter and the 4th of July, or perhaps of graduation or retirement. And now what?? Perhaps freedom didn’t come quite as we had hoped, as it did not for the earlier disciples (“we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free”) but these are significant days, too. Perhaps we can, even if we are in the ordinary-type days, see anew the presence of the Christ, even in the repetition of our lives. So let us go forth today, living into the Big Days or if we are in ordinary time in our lives, catching the plate that is ours, and knowing that God is there, even and perhaps especially, in the scooping of the potatoes, in the ordinary quotidian days of mystery.