Here we are in week six of what has become our new normal – the people of our community scattered across Atlanta, and really now scattered across the country – still coming together on Sunday morning to worship.
And once again, as has been the case every week, scripture speaks to our situation, today in a story of absence and presence.
It’s one of my favorite stories in scripture. It’s the Sunday evening after Jesus’ death, and two of his followers are making the seven-mile journey from Jerusalem, the site of the crucifixion, to the small village of Emmaus, trying to get away from the scene of such despair.
Although Cleopas and his friend are trying to escape Jerusalem by going to Emmaus they still can’t escape their thoughts and grief. They are in in that state of shock that we all find ourselves in after a tragedy, when we can think of nothing else and still can’t quite believe what has happened.
They’re rehashing the story to one another over and over again, reliving the details, trying to convince themselves that this is real, that their world has been forever changed.
So when a stranger joins up with them on the road they are shocked that he seems not to know anything about what to them has been a catastrophic event.
It would be like someone stopping you now in the grocery store and asking why everyone is wearing a mask and gloves. How could anyone not know what has happened?
Cleopas and his friend fill the stranger in. “We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel,” they tell him.
What sad words – we had hoped.
Now they are living with the horrible despair of hope in the past tense, hope that has died along with Jesus. Now they are dejectedly walking into a life without Jesus, a life without hope.
For someone who seemed ignorant of what has happened in Jerusalem, the stranger is strangely able to interpret all of those events through the lens of scripture, and the walk becomes an amazing Bible study.
When they finally reach Emmaus, the stranger goes on ahead, but Cleopas and his friend invite him to stay and eat with them, an act of kindness and hospitality to one traveling alone.
When they sit at the table, the guest suddenly acts as host. He takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, then gives it to them.
In that instant, the travelers suddenly realize who the stranger is. And in the moment of recognition, Jesus is gone.
Life right now can seem like the long journey to Emmaus, as we try to adjust to the new reality that surrounds us.
Writer Frederick Buechner says that Emmaus “is the place we go in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is that we throw up our hands and say, ‘Let the whole damned thing go away.’
“Emmaus,’ he says, “is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; and that even the noblest ideas that we have had – ideas about love and freedom and justice – have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends.”
Those of us in Georgia can go to Emmaus by going bowling or getting a tattoo – or binge watching tv or ordering things online that we don’t need – anything to distract us from the reality in which we now live, a time when it can seem like hope has died.
What this story tells us is that the risen Christ meets us on the road to our Emmauses, in the ordinary places and experiences of our lives, and in the places to which we retreat when life is too much for us.
We tend to think that if God is going to make an appearance it will be in the grand gesture, in the cataclysmic event, like a comet streaking through our lives.
We are now living in the paradox of being in the middle of a worldwide cataclysmic event, and yet stuck day after day in the most mundane of routines.
And so it is a good time to be reminded that it is in the most ordinary of events that Jesus appears, in a simple act of hospitality to a stranger.
It’s in sitting around an ordinary table, breaking bread – like we are here today in our dining room, and all of you are in your homes – that Jesus is revealed.
And then in the moment of recognition he is gone.
God’s presence is like that – elusive, fleeting, dancing around the edges of our consciousness, not something that can be pinned down or grabbed and held onto.
Jesus is present, then absent in the blink of an eye.
But for Cleopas and his friend, that moment of presence is enough. It gives them strength and courage and resurrects their hope.
It causes them to jump up from the table and race back along the long seven miles they have just walked to spread the news that Christ has been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Absence is a huge part of our situation now. We’re separated from families and friends. We’re absent from our communities.
We can’t come together to celebrate moments of joy or to console one another in moments of deep grief. The rituals of our lives together, the structures that help give us meaning are gone.
In the midst of these absences may we experience new ways to be present to one another, and may they become for us new ways of Christ’s presence with us in things as unexpected and ordinary as the kindness of a stranger or the breaking of bread.