A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
April 23, 2017
My friends and I pass books back and forth. If there is a book we enjoy, we’ll pass it on when we’re done with it. One of my friends sent me a book a while back. I read it and loved it. I asked her how she had heard of it and she said she had picked it out because of the cover. Even though we know you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, she did. And it does have a nice cover.
We do it all the time.
When we’re judging THINGS because of their packaging, that is one thing. We’re usually the ones to suffer for bad judgment—occasionally a great book cover doesn’t mean a great story on the pages.
But when we judge people by their packaging, we enter into a whole different problem. Because people’s lives can be on the line. Appearances can keep people from getting jobs. They can keep people from making friends or being accepted in a community. Skin color, accents, behaviors, religion, sexual orientation, and political beliefs are examples of ‘book covers’ we use to judge others. Lives are at risk when we allow discrimination based on our differences. Instead we must protect our differences and support what we have in common—our shared humanity.
We all do it. We see someone and decide we know all we need to know because of what they are wearing, or because of the bumper stickers on their car, or because of who they are with.
It is easier for me to point out other people’s judging of people by their covers than it is for me to attend to my own complicity. There is something in human nature that “keeps our eyes from recognizing” the truth of each other, as our passage describes.
Watch this video of some Adele impersonators:
This is the clearest illustration I’ve seen in a while of people’s eyes being kept from recognizing someone. I love the look of dawning recognition as people recognize a voice that doesn’t match the face they are seeing. They know her voice and it is stronger than the “cover” with which she has camouflaged herself.
Our scripture passage this morning made me think of books and their covers, judging by appearances, and being kept from seeing something, or someone, truly.
Two followers are walking to Emmaus, talking about the crucifixion of Jesus, which they had seen, and the stories of his resurrection appearances, which they had not seen.
Somehow, on the road, Jesus joins them, and “their eyes were kept from recognizing him”. He asks them what they are talking about and they look at him like he’s been hiding under a rock. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
“What things?”, he asks.
Listen to what their answer says about their perceptions of who Jesus is:
“The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. And besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.”
“And, I know this is almost to ridiculous to repeat, but some women from our group told us this crazy story. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, (I know this is crazy, right?) who said that he was alive. So some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see him. So I’m sure there’s a logical explanation, somewhere.”
Quite a story.
How’d you like to have to tell that story to a stranger you meet on the road? How much confidence would you have to repeat the women’s story?
And then, proving the point that hospitality is ALWAYS the right answer, they invite Jesus to join them for the night. And it is while they are at table, as the bread is blessed and broken, that their eyes were open and they recognized him. Sort of like when the Adele impersonators heard her sing. Sort of. Almost.
Here is what one of the commentators had to say about this passage:
“The hospitality of the traveling companions becomes the doorway to grace. The willingness of the stranger to enter their space suggests trust and hope—and Jesus more than repays their convivial overture. Hospitality expresses deep vulnerability; welcoming a stranger is always risky, and the tables might be turned—for good or ill. It is not readily apparent who the guest might really be. Jesus becomes the host at this meal, which becomes an expression of thanksgiving and deepened faith.”
(Molly T Marshall in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 2, WJK, 2010, page 422).
He vanishes at that moment, but they start talking like they knew to whom they were talking the whole time. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us?” By taking a risk and engaging with someone they thought was a stranger, they found God. In the act of hospitality around a table, they saw God.
And they turn around and immediately head back to Jerusalem. This is a story that must be told.
What are the stories we are compelled to tell? And are we willing to have a sense of vulnerable hospitality as we do it?
Because it requires vulnerability to repeat a claim that people might not understand or believe. And when we’re talking about faith, it also requires hospitable vulnerability to share something to which people might be very much opposed. Can we welcome people into our space even if our eyes are kept from recognizing them? Can we offer hospitality to people we don’t recognize because their views, their identity, their politics are different than ours?
Maybe we would be more comfortable with this story if the men on the Road to Emmaus recognized Jesus at the moment they espoused pure doctrine, or when they showed physical or political might or power, or when they won a million dollars. Instead, they recognize him at the moment they have been vulnerable and gracious. Surely being vulnerable and gracious is easier than being rich, strong, or full of right answers. Why do we give so much more societal power to people with wealth, people who convince us they have the right answers, people with strength?
Do we, in our post-Easter lives, want to recognize Jesus?
Evangelism is the term we use to describe telling the “good news” (which is what Evangelism means in Greek), as the men went to do after they recognized Jesus.
I think we experience people’s evangelism efforts as not being very vulnerable—often people ask “Have you found Jesus?” in a way that makes it clear that if you haven’t found him (was he lost?) in exactly the same way they have, then they need to correct your error or else your eternal salvation is in question. People still try to evangelize me, even after I confess I’m a minister, which always lets me know they aren’t interested in my story, in hearing about my own encounters with God. They just need to bring me to their side. Our eyes are kept from recognizing each other. We do not see God.
If we thought about evangelism—telling the compelling story of the Good News of Easter—as an act of vulnerability and hospitality, how would it look?
In my own life, I think back to the people who didn’t judge this book by her cover, and who welcomed me in. I’m grateful for the people who looked past the facade I put up and who accepted me as I am, without expectation of changing me or bringing me to their side. I’m grateful for the times I’ve seen people take the risk of welcoming a stranger, trusting it can be a doorway to grace.
Presbyterian flavored Christians are often hesitant to use the word “evangelism” because we often see it used by people who use the word without any vulnerability or even a hint they might not have all the answers. And I hate for us to lose the word which literally means “good news”.
How can we reclaim it? How can we meet people where they are on the road? How can we become people of welcome and hospitality? Can we be vulnerable enough in our encounters with others that our eyes won’t be kept from recognizing them, as they truly are? I think we all need more of that kind of encounter, so our eyes may be opened to encountering God.