A Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
Usually, when we think of an “unexpected guest” my guess is that you think of an uninvited guest or an welcome guest. On Friday afternoon, I was surfing the Internet to track the NFL draft, and I saw a headline that said, “Unexpected Guest.” I thought, “What luck! That is my sermon title for Sunday, maybe I will find an illustration that I can use.”
I clicked on the link, and it was the story about that family in South Carolina ... the one that found a nine foot alligator on their back porch on Easter Sunday! Talk about uninvited! The alligator climbed a set of stairs, broke through a screen door, moved the furniture around, and was staring at the family through the glass sliding door!
“Mommy! The Easter Bunny looks really scary!”
When I thought of “unexpected guest,” I was reminded of a story from when I lived in New Hampshire. A friend of mine lived on Main Street, just as we did. And one night someone was frantically ringing her doorbell. That happens when you live on Main Street, New London. One time, a motorcycle crashed on my front lawn. *Ding Dong*
One time, a member of the youth group ran to the parsonage because a bird had flown into her house. *Ding Dong*
So, when Annie told me that someone was ringing their doorbell ... ding dong, ding dong, ding dong ... it was not a great surprise. Annie and her husband went to the door to see if someone needed help, and found a black bear scratching its back against their door jam! *Ding dong ... ding dong ... ding dong!*
Very cute ... but unexpected and definitely unwelcome!
When I thought of the term “unexpected guest” another story came to mind. Not long after Renee and I got married, my uncle came up from Virginia for a visit. He picked up my grandmother along the way, and we all went out for dinner. During the meal, we were discussing where Uncle Gordon and Grandma were going next and where they were planning to spend the night. Much to our surprise, the answer was, “We are going to stay at Scott and Renee’s house tonight!”
Umm ... unexpected. Scott and Renee lived in a third-floor walk-up apartment at the time, and we had not clean said apartment to my grandmother’s standards since we were not expecting visitors or overnight guests! I may have broken the speed limit racing to get home a few minutes before my uncle and grandmother arrived so that we could do a white tornado clean on the place. I still remember dusting with my sleeves while we showed them around the apartment.
I love my uncle and grandmother, but a little notice would have been appreciated! They were welcome, but NOT expected.
It was a different story in our Gospel reading this morning. The guest was welcome and invited. Cleopas and his companion followed the hospitality protocol. It was the end of the day and time for the evening meal as they reached their destination. The hospitality code required that they invite the stranger to stay. It was incumbent upon the host to insist that the traveler stay; they had to extend the invitation three times, or suffer the shame and embarrassment of failing to do so.
Inviting the mystery traveler to stay for dinner and spend the night was not the surprising elements of the story. The surprising parts were what happened upon the road, and what happened with the breaking of the bread.
The crafters of the lectionary have us do a little time-hopping in the weeks following Easter. Last Sunday, we focused upon the story of the disciples and Thomas, and a passage that occurred one week after the events of Easter Day. In today’s lesson, we jump back to Easter Sunday. Cleopas and his companion were traveling to Emmaus on that same day.
As they walked the seven-mile trek, Jesus joined them and walked with them, yet they were prevented from recognizing him. What was it that prevented them from recognizing the presence of Jesus? Did Jesus do it himself so that he would have an opportunity to teach Cleopas and his friend? I do not think so. I believe that it was the unbelief of the travelers.
As they walked and talked, Jesus asked them about what had happened. It might seem as though he was toying with them. But he was not. He was engaging them. Cleopas and his friend were flabbergasted that Jesus did not appear to know what had happened in Jerusalem! How could anyone who was in the city not know what had occurred?! So they recounted all of the details to Jesus. They shared all the information that they had.
Jesus, the great prophet was taken into custody. He was tried and crucified. He died. The women went to the tomb; it was empty. Some of the others went to the tomb to check; it was empty indeed. It was the third day and he rose like he said he would. We really thought that he was the one ... the Messiah.
But apparently, he was not the Messiah in the minds of Cleopas and his friend. That is why their eyes were downcast. That was why their hearts were as well. They shared all of the factual data with Jesus, but they did not believe. Their hearts were not filled with joy at the news of the empty tomb. They were downcast ... defeated. They had hoped that Jesus was the One, but their facts were not supported by belief.
So Jesus tried to help them. He taught them about the prophets, and all of the prophecies that pointed toward the hope that was realized in him. And yet, they still did not believe. Their lack of faith prevented them from recognizing the presence of the Son of Man walking on that road with them. They knew what they had heard, but they did not believe. Their hope, their promise was walking right beside them, and they did not see.
Oh, how their hearts should have been burning. How their spirits should have leapt to the heavens, how their voices should have cried out, “Hallelujah!” But there was no shouting or leaping. They walked.
And when they approached their home, Cleopas and his friend, the good and faithful Hebrews that they were extended the requisite hospitality to the stranger. And the Son of Man joined them for their evening meal.
Within the comfort and safety of their home, they still did not recognize the presence of Jesus. With the opportunity to look at him as he sat at their table, face to face rather than side by side as they were when they walked along the road, they still did not see. They did not recognize the tone of his voice as they talked and prepared the meal. How could they not see? How could they not hear the authority in his voice? How could they not sense the power of his spirit?
Jesus changed the dynamic. He turned the tables on the hospitality code and he assumed the role of host. Rather than sit in the place of honor and have Cleopas and his friend serve him, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, and then broke it. And in that amazing moment, they saw him, they heard him, they recognized him ... and he vanished from their midst!
We do not know if they had ever had an opportunity previously to be in such intimate contact with Jesus. With the growing throngs of supporters, they may have only seen him from a distance, they may have merely been two faces in a sea of people. But on that Easter Day, they walked with him, they spoke with him, they welcomed him into their home! But their unbelief prevented them from recognizing him!
Imagine the conversation that they could have had. Imagine the questions that they could have asked. Imagine the answers ... the truth ... they could have received. Imagine ...
But those precious moments were lost. They had considered themselves to be included among his followers, but they were no different than the crowds of unbelievers that heard him for the first time. Had they not heard him teach about the prophets before? Of course, they had. They had all the information, but lacked belief ... they lacked faith.
And when Jesus finally revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread ... he was gone. Vanished.
Cleopas and his friend got up and ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others! They had to share what had happened to them so that the others might believe too!
But would they? Would they believe? Would they recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst?
The questions are as important today as they were on that first Easter Sunday. Do we believe? Do we recognize Jesus when he is walking beside us?
We have acquired all of the information. We have read the book multiple times. We have heard the story, we have even told the story from time to time. Sadly, simply possessing the information does not necessarily translate into belief. Knowing the story does not mean that it gets put into action.
My guess is that we all know people, or know of people, that can quote chapter and verse from the Bible, but do not act in a fashion that would indicate that they understand what the words mean. We have heard the accusations of hypocrite levied against certain “believers.” Jesus himself accused the Temple officials of being hypocrites.
However, most of us do not fall into that category. Most of us see ourselves more akin to the two men walking blindly along with Jesus on that first Easter Day. Some people struggle with their faith. Some people find it hard to believe. The scriptures can be confusing; they can seem to be contradictory. Many people that live in today’s world struggle to see their relevance in a society and context that is so different from when they were written. Many of us have walked the paths of uncertainty in our lives. We find our way gradually, at our own pace. Many of us are or were like Cleopas and his friend. Our God moments may have come later along the way. Perhaps we needed something more tangible to help us with our belief.
Of course, there are times when we may find ourselves somewhere in between the hypocrite and Cleopas. There can be occasions when we fail to recognize Christ in our midst. We do not do it intentionally, but it may be a failure of our faith. There are times when we can fail to see the face of Christ in the face of our neighbor or the stranger. There can be times when we fail to act in ways of compassion or kindness. There can be times when our insistence that we know what is right, or what is true, can blind us to the actually truth that is before us.
In the Children’s Message today, Stripe was single-minded in the pursuit of his goal, stepping upon anyone that was in his path. It was not until he stepped on the face of someone that he knew, someone that he cared about that he changed his ways. Maybe Stripe caught a glimpse of Christ in Yellow’s face, or heard his voice in her tears.
That is the beauty of the grace and patience of God. Jesus took his time with Cleopas and his friend. Jesus took the time to allow their believe to come to them, to develop. He helped them recognize him in the sacrament of communion. Jesus did not push them; he walked with them until they were ready to see.
Wherever we are along our walk, Christ is walking with us. He is talking with us, teaching us, and patiently waiting for us to recognize his face. Jesus is calling our to our hearts. Are they open to his voice?