Let us pray:
Make our hearts to burn within us, O Christ, as we walk with you in the way and listen to your words; that we may go in the strength of your presence and your truth all our journey through, and at its end behold you, in the glory of the eternal Trinity, God for ever and ever.
Amen. (Eric Milner)
I can’t believe we missed it. Didn’t see it. I’m speechless really. No excuse. Just – flabbergasted. He was walking right beside us – for how long? You know, it makes me think of this poem – ‘Footsteps’, I think it’s called – it’s about how this traveler was walking in the sand (you know the one) and he’s worried that the Lord who had promised to walk the road with him isn’t actually walking the road with him because, well, when he looks back on that dusty road, there’s only one set of footprints. One traveler. And it isn’t until the end of the journey that the man hears the Lord whisper in the man’s ear, “My child, it was then, when you saw just that one set of tracks, that I carried you.” That’s a lot like my story. But that’s not my story. My story is far more embarrassing – and joyful. I wasn’t alone. I knew that. For starters, I had my friend, Cleopas, but more than that, he was right beside us on the road, and we knew it. Every step. He was our conversation partner. We were talking, and not just in the way that one might sometimes pray to God at night – a monologue in which you hope someone’s listening on the other end of silence – he was talking, too, and we heard him! We were speaking. Together. Clearly. We just didn’t know who he was. Didn’t recognize him. Could not put a name to a face. That’s a hard thing to say. Three years to the day after the day he called us, and I didn’t know who he was.
There was this one time I met a girl outside of Hebrew school. She was a foxy Jewish babe. We talked, I hemmed and hawed. I think she liked me. After a few minutes, she said she had to leave, but she’d see me around. Yeah, see you around, I said. Well, the next two weeks were chaos in my heart and mind. Every next face I encountered might be hers – I had to be ready. So I’m rounding every corner, looking at faces, almost walked into a tomato stand one day, looking for faces, and then panic – PANIC - what if I forgot what she looked liked? What if she came up to me and I didn’t realize it? What if I blew her off or worse reintroduced myself? That’s a reasonable fear after a three minute flirtation, but not so reasonable with this man. For three solid years! How could I not know?
I was tempted to blame myself. I should have studied harder. Been a better student of Scripture, more ardent in prayer, but that wasn’t true. I never missed a day of class. Never missed a Sabbath. Besides, in an ironic stamp of God’s humor, we were talking to the man we failed to recognize about the Scriptures and how well we new them! Let me ask you - how can one steep himself in his religious tradition – every day of his life – be a student of Scripture every day of his life – and still not see the whole picture or, more positively, still have more to learn? I don’t know how long you’ve known this Jesus, but I hope that you never stop praying that you still have more to learn. More to grow into. Not an on or off switch, the life of faith, but a constant growing, a gradual recognizing, more and more, your own eyes opening – but I digress.
I was tempted to blame myself. But of course, I had to learn who he was before I even knew what I’d missed. Up until then I was too clueless to feel guilty, and there’s real grace in that.
Hey, have you ever wondered how many famous people you almost meet throughout a given day? And of course how would you know? Will you ever know? And so regret - regret like the kind I was tempted to feel was less a thug from the past, come to rake me over the coals for my mistake, and more the discovery of a new and abiding reality for which guilt and blame were poor responses. He was dead, but now alive. I was blind but now I see. Alleluia! No second guessing, but thanksgiving. Because at that point - in that moment - the risen Lord at table with us, breaking the bread, blessing the cup, my eyes, my heart, burning, open, alive - well, what else matters?
Do you know what hit me in that moment? In the amber glow of a burning heart and the presence of my Savior, do you know what I was thinking? It’s a gift. It’s all gift. That’s how I finally knew him. Because he made himself known to me. Not what I’d done, how good I was, how much I wanted... He gave himself to us as gift. Everything we know about God is God’s gift. Which is also to say that knowing about God is not really important or possible apart from knowing God. Being known to God. Because God gives himself as gift.
One other thing I was thinking in that moment is how God gives us to each other, too. How can I put this? Have you ever shared a moment with someone else that wasn’t about either of you but that somehow changed the way you related to each other forever? Like the depth of what you saw and shared somehow transferred to the two of you. I cannot look at Cleopas without remembering that night. More than that, I cannot look at Cleopas without remembering how the love the risen Jesus had for me in that moment he also has for him. And not just the two of us. It’s a secret of that night that I don’t talk about all that much, but the burning of my heart I felt that night, it hasn’t stopped. A burning thirst to see, to share, the presence of the risen Lord in a world, fill a world, a world as broken and scarred as it is loved.
A friend of mine told me once - warned me once, really - he said, you know, for some reason we all get proud when we’ve been somewhere before. I know what he was getting at. Least I think I do. Asking me, silently, if my desire to share that moment was a kind of twisted pride, the desire to make those around me be like me, and I know enough about myself to think that might be true.
But then I remember that road the dust and how blind I was and how the life of faith is never ‘on’ or ‘off’ but growing, building, revealing. And I think back to the countless times in which my friends have held my faith. Have shared their burning hearts with me and kept mine strong. Those are the nights I ask God to keep it strange. Keep it amazing. Keep on surprising. Forgive my temptation to make the moment my own, but make me, and you, and them, Christ’s own. Forever.
After all, it's all gift.
That same friend - the one who warned me about my enthusiasm, also encouraged me along the way. He wrote a poem, Edward Keyes did, about that day, that road, and this meal. I end just now with that:
Road to Emmaus (by Edward Keyes)
Under the paschal skies the weight of dead hopes
lay heavy. Only the wan light of rumour
flickered fitfully. But who heeds women's tales
fashioned of drams, losing the fact in the dream?
The stranger was an irritant, dropping questions
upon their mournful musings
till he spoke again.
Old embalmed sayings broke from their cerements.
Hints and prophesies thrust quivering into the present
with heart-warming life. The past was now.
They walked through time on that Easter afternoon,
yet somehow time was in the stranger, soon to be
They knew him in the breaking of the bread.