The old man and the cats…

The Day is Past: A Sermon on Luke 24: 13-35Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC, April 22, 2023

Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand, and the day is past; be our companion on the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.  Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.

This collect for the Presence of Christ appears twice in the Book of Common Prayer, on page 70 (in the older English of Rite I) and then in contemporary English on 124.  

The collect is a condensation of today’s Gospel, streamlining it down to its basic elements, and praying that we too, living two millennia after the strange experience of the two unnamed disciples at the heart of this story.  

There is a strangeness to all of these post-Resurrection encounters between Jesus and his followers, a dreamlike, confused meeting that suddenly grows sharp and concrete, but not at first.  

When Mary Magdalene arrives at Jesus’s empty tomb, she asks a man she thinks is the gardener, and only after he calls her by name does she recognize him. (Jn. 20: 11-17).  Similarly, last week, we heard of two encounters with Jesus in the Upper Room.  In the first encounter, Jesus simply appears in the room despite the shut doors in which ten of the disciples are hiding, and greets them.  Thomas, who was the first to recognize where the road to Jerusalem was leading them and had simply said “Let us go then, and die with him,” was not with them for this first encounter.  

I like to think that Thomas was seeing to their needs, the only one of the disciples who had the courage to go out in a Jerusalem that had turned deeply hostile to Jesus and his followers.

Then, a week later, when Thomas is among them, Jesus appears again, and Thomas, brushing away his doubt of the tale told by his fellow disciples addresses Jesus as “My Lord and my God!”      

Jesus gently chides Thomas, blessing those who believe even though they have not seen him, let alone seen his wounds (Thomas declines to touch Jesus’s wounds; Jesus’s presence is enough for him.)

So we have the paradox; Mary Magdalene, who loved Jesus and whom Jesus loved, fails to recognize him when they are face to face, and Thomas can’t believe his fellow disciples when they all tell him that Jesus had come among them, and that he had shown them his wounds.  

Like Mary’s confusion, Thomas’s doubt vanishes as soon as he sees Jesus among the disciples.  Or is it as soon as he hears that familiar voice, the voice Thomas had thought he would never hear again?  Maybe Jesus wasn’t speaking purely symbolically when he said that “My sheep know me and they know my voice.”

But today’s Gospel takes us away from Jerusalem.  Instead, we are following two disciples, one called Cleopas, the husband of the Mary who stood by Jesus’s Cross to the very end, and a second, unnamed disciple.  

When we meet them, these two disciples are leaving Jerusalem going to a village called Emmaus, about 7 miles or so from Jerusalem. Am I right in suspecting that hightailing it out of Jerusalem might have been a self-protective move on their part? Perhaps.  But what we do know is this.  Jesus catches up with them, and joins them, but they do not recognize him.   Jesus asks them what they are discussing as they walk on, and they stop, looking sad.    

Cleopas engages the stranger, asking if he is the only one who doesn’t know what has happened—that Jesus was a prophet, mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how his own people—the Chief priests and leaders handed him over to the Roman authorities, crushing the hopes that Jesus had roused in the people that he was the one who would redeem Israel.  

Cleopas and his companion go on to tell Jesus that on this third day after the death of Jesus, some of the women who were part of his movement went to his tomb, and were told by an angel that he was alive. 

Jesus calls them foolish, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had declared, saying “was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory—but then he tells the story of Israel from Moses, all of the prophets and up to his own ministry.  As they near Emmaus, he begins to walk on, and they urge him, saying “Stay with us, because it is almost evening, and the day is now nearly over.”  

They sit at a table together, and, as Jesus blesses the bread and breaks it—they recognize him at last, only for him to vanish, leaving them only the memory of how their hearts had taken fire as he opened the Scriptures to them.  Strengthened by the encounter, they return to Jerusalem, rejoining the other disciples, finding them celebrating that the Lord has appeared to Simon, and bring their own tale to them.

Cleopas and his companion, not knowing him yet, offer Jesus hospitality—they ask him to stay with them, for the night is coming on, and the day is dying. The welcoming and caring for guests is a duty in most ancient honor-based traditions, and their solicitude toward Jesus is a duty, but it is also their desire to extend the meeting with him; this unknown man has revived their hopes by his authoritative teaching, and his ability to explain the Scriptures about Jesus to them.  Finally, they recognize Jesus in his breaking of the bread.

And now we go back to the collect for the presence of Christ.

When we enter into this prayer, we take the place of Cleopas and his companion—perhaps we are frightened, or lonely, or just viewing a world that seems to be deepening in cruelty and exalting in the rush of power over the powerless—a sign we can see in new laws being enacted throughout the country, as rights are being eviscerated, learning disparaged, and free thought under siege.

The night need not be literal, although night has always carried a connotation of vulnerability, of exposure to the forces of cruelty that would harm those merely seeking to live their lives as they feel called to do.  When the day has died, the ancient fear of night and nightmares—sometimes all too rooted in present or past reality—can erode our faith in God, in ourselves, and in each other.

When we ask for the presence of Christ, we are asking Jesus to kindle our hopes, our courage, our beliefs—in other words to awaken our spirits and our courage.  To call us to become our best selves, and to ourselves give light and warmth to those around us, especially the needy, those who are friendless or helpless.  To welcome and value those who are the victims of a nascent anger trying to silence them in the name of a calcified version of Christianity, or worse, in the name of Christian Nationalism, that would strip human dignity from those whose lives do not fit into their narrow conception of God’s Creation.

We seek the presence of Christ so that we can know him, and be known by him.  We seek God’s blessing on us, through the prayers and the breaking of bread.  But that blessing isn’t just for us.  It’s for us to share.  I don’t have an easy answer for you to the darkness we can see in various places throughout our own country, and throughout the world.  But I can tell you this: Cruelty and malice, at the end of the day, are the weapons of the weak, who need to lie to themselves that they are strong, to hide their fears from themselves.  Greed is likewise just a never ceasing addiction to find more, to hide from the injured, torn soul the craving it can never fill. 

Those who marinate their souls in hate, and who valorize cruelty and raw power do not carry the love of God.  

As I’ve said before, and will again: Hate is always foolish, and love is always wise.

And, often, we do not carry God’s love as we need to, either.  That is why in this collect, we pray, we call to Christ, because when we turn to our Creator and ask for the gift of God’s love, we don’t say we deserve it, or that we’ve earned it.  We don’t claim it as our due.  No; we ask God to bring to life in our souls the story of the road to Emmaus, asking for our Savior God to act in love, not in justice—asking simply “Grant this for the sake of your love.” 

And if we are open to it, we can play our part, sometimes the host, welcoming the unknown Jesus, caring for our fellow traveler. Sometimes, we are the ones need care, and in our own needfulness, we must accept the help and support that we are incapable of providing for ourselves.  But in the circle of caring and being cared for, of loving and serving, we can bring ourselves closer to that small meal so long ago.

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