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What I most love about the Sundays after Easter is what they tell us about our faith lives, the distance we have walked since the Lenten journeys and the expectations we have carried with us since then. And they do it in the quietest ways. We can look back and see the territory we have covered in our souls, from the restoration of sight and faith in the blind man, the dialogue with the Canaanite woman at the well to these whispered encounters among friends about what has happened to them during the time they have walked to a dusty town called Emmaus; we are learning what it means to have faith in a place where the extraordinary happens in the most ordinary encounters. While we hear Peter proclaim to those in Jerusalem that, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified,” weeks after the resurrection, the encounters we witness immediately after the event are deeply intimate. We simply walk, as we do with these strangers this morning, trying to make sense of all we have seen and heard of stories told by us by women, stories so unlikely that they can scarcely be believed but pull so hard on our hearts that we feel we have to pay attention to them. Or at least we feel we have to talk about them, because if we cannot talk about the things that make our hearts skip a beat, we might forget what it is like to even imagine having a world changed by hope.
And so we are glad for the company when another stranger joins us on our walk to Emmaus with these two disciples. It's only seven miles from Jerusalem and even if we cannot recognize this stranger, we can at least spread the word about the strange stories we have just heard, stories corroborated by others, about an empty tomb, things none of us can make sense of. We are so dependent on what we see, the testimony of our eyes and ears, that we are brought up short by this one we cannot recognize, who says to us, “How slow of heart we are to believe all that the prophets tell us”. Even as we listen to him explain all that these prophets had to say in the scriptures, we cannot help thinking that we had believed for three years in these things, that we had set our lives by them, that we had given up everything we had ever known for them. What this stranger is telling us is that there is more than one way to see, and that we can only do that through our own willingness to believe, to see through the eyes of our own hearts.
I remember making another journey several years ago, a call to this part of the country where I had not been since I was in school, to answer a call from a nearby parish and, in part, to be closer to my parents. As it happened, my parents had an inexhaustible supply of home movies from when my siblings and I were young, films which they had transferred to videocassette for far-too-ready access. There were plenty of incriminating moments for everyone: birthday parties and bee-stings and school plays that we would all have rather forgotten. But what we couldn't see was the love of parents who stood behind a wobbly camera, not because what they were filming had any real intrinsic value but because they felt that in recording these things, they were holding onto a piece of us, the people that meant most in the world to them. That is why, when they brought out these tapes and asked us if we want to see them, there was only one answer, because amid all the goofy sleigh rides and pictures of us being thrown off horses, I could see what they were looking at through their hearts. What made them all the more moving was that they were soundless, on ancient 8mm film, and we have to whisper among ourselves about what they mean, to see what it looks like from the heart of a parent whose obsession with recording all we did was a symbol of the depth of their love for us.
That is why these Sundays after Easter are so special because they all happen in hushed rooms or forgotten roads, among strangers trying to make sense of things that can only be felt most deeply within themselves. There are no shouts from above, thundered declarations about a beloved son, the drama of a mock trial. All we have is the stranger we urge to finish our journey with us, who gives us the chance to see the sacred in the midst of our despair. There is only the voice in a hushed room telling Thomas and the others, “Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe”, to the two disciples and all of us, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” It is in the stillness of these exchanges that we invite him on with us, into our hearts and the middle of our souls.
When I worked at Emmaus House in Atlanta, a poverty-relief center connected to an Episcopal chapel, it was the intimacy of the encounters that was so transforming; it was a walk with strangers who, in that period of my life, became Christ to me. I would meet the children and their parents early on Sunday morning, amid broken bottles and used needles on the street, but it would become clear to me how foolish of heart I was, once I saw the smiles of the children, the walk to the chapel for the Eucharist we would share after our Sunday School lessons; I learned to listen with my heart as well as my senses to understand the transformation happening around me.
Actually, it is only in the stillness of table fellowship that the disciples really are able to see whom and what they have invited with them. When this stranger joins them in the intimacy of a meal, then they can recognize what their encounter meant and to see all that comes after it as what would define them from this point forward. At the end of their long journey, there is no fanfare or divine announcement, no proclamations or mass-conversions. There is only the stranger who takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread in a meal they all share, and it is in the sharing that they recognize who he is. In fact, it is only in the sharing of bread and wine that begin to understand who we are, bound by the sacrament to one another and to our work in the world, bringing our lives and ourselves in hushed, holy words to strangers, into our families and among those we love. It is communion in its deepest sense, as the writer Henri Nouwen has said ,that, through Jesus, “God wants not only to teach us, instruct us or inspire us but to become one with us.”
As hard as it is to believe, there are fewer than ten miles from Bethlehem to the tomb outside Jerusalem, as short a journey as it has been these past few months for all of us. Now that we have made that journey, we look for him and he has vanished from our sight. What we have instead, looking back at us, is the sacred presence of each other, where he is inviting us to see the risen Christ in each of our faces. And the irony is that, at the end of our memories of divine pronouncements, he is inviting us to take him in, in the quietest way, in the faces and the lives of everyone gathered around our table.