Talking With Strangers
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
The two disciples were leaving Jerusalem. Leaving it with downcast hearts. It was the third day, the tomb was empty; there were rumors; but most suspected the worst. Jesus of Nazareth, their hope, was gone. Defeat was everywhere. Jerusalem was in shambles. They left for a village called Emmaus.
No one can say where this village, Emmaus, was or is – we have guesses, but nothing certain. Luke tells us it was seven miles away from Jerusalem. About a day’s walk.
We know more about the spirit of their conversation than about the village itself. The words used by Luke suggest that it wasn’t an easy talk they were having. Intense, emotional, perhaps accusatory. That’s why it was a long walk – not the miles but the memories; not the ETA at Emmaus but the seeming collapse of hope.
Jerusalem. They were leaving it behind. They were leaving not only a city, but a story with an unhappy ending – an ending they did not know how to undo.
You know the way to Emmaus? Where do you go to forget? Frederick Buechner sees Emmaus this way. It’s wherever you go to forget. It might be an addiction. It might be an activity — buying a new car, reading trashy novels, binge watching on Netflix, or maybe only talking to our “peeps” – the people from our tribe.[i] Funny thing. Have you ever noticed, when we go to our Emmaus, we’re leaving something that we can’t quite leave. It’s like being on the I-695 loop forever. Never really arriving. Never really leaving. Just repeating, a negative loop from which escape (or exit) seems impossible.
That’s when Jesus show up in today’s text. But the disciples don’t recognize him. Or rather, their eyes are kept from recognizing him – I always take that as implied God-activity: God keeps their eyes from recognizing Jesus. And Jesus himself doesn’t do very much to dissuade them from thinking of him as a stranger. We may wonder about that: Why would God appear to them as a stranger, walking alongside them?
Perhaps we are looking at what might be a minor key in the biblical witness – and not unimportant because it is minor. Today’s text shares something in common with other God-appearances recorded in scripture.
To name just one, Moses saw a burning bush. Burning bushes were not strange on mountainsides, lightning strikes being what they were and are – but what was strange was that this burning bush was not consumed. Moses saw this and turned aside from his day job, tending his father-in-law’s sheep, to see this strange sight. Then, as if that were not enough, a voice from the bush that was burning addressed Moses. He didn’t know to whom the voice belonged. It would be a little while before Moses could say he knew this God.
God came to Moses – seemingly as a stranger – but ultimately as one who would call him by name.
And perhaps this is how Jesus comes to the disciples here today. As a stranger, at least initially. The text circles around to the major key of scripture, which is proclamation; the disciples come to recognize this stranger as Christ and God.
That’s the climax of the story. Then they go back to Jerusalem to tell the rest of the community about their experience of Christ. But today, I want to linger with the minor key of this text, Jesus as The Stranger from Heaven.
Do we need to revisit our parent’s warning: Don’t talk to strangers? Probably good advice, but even good advice has its limits and this may be one of them. Could it be that if Jesus comes to us under the signs of bread, or wine, or water, or as a vine and its branches – many of which you could probably find at home or in your garden — could he also come to us as a stranger? And I mean by that a stranger in the most radical sense possible: An other so profoundly unlike our ordinary experience that we are, in some way, turned aside from what we take as the only path given to us, to an alternative possibility which we had not considered? That in some way, Our Stranger from Heaven opens us up to a resurrection reroute?
You know how the GPS system works: You get going down the wrong road and the GPS system doesn’t say, “You idiot, you’re going the wrong way!” Maybe it should. But it doesn’t. The screen goes blank, as if it’s in a strange land, and it says, “Rerouting” – and that’s the grey space of being a stranger in a strange land. Maybe today’s text is giving us a resurrection reroute – and that grey place is where we do some thinking out loud.
Jesus, our beginning and end, Alpha and Omega, speaks to us in that grey space, a stranger in a strange land; he comes up alongside the two disciples and asks, “What are you talking about as you walk along?”
They thought it was an odd question. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place here in these days?”
Imagine somebody asking you, “What’s everyone talking about?” on September 12, 2001. What do you mean, what’s everyone talking about? Where have you been?
The irony of course is that it is Jesus himself walking beside them: He was no stranger to the crucifixion. Jesus doesn’t talk about the cross. He carries it. Still Jesus continues as The Stranger. A stranger, perhaps, for our sake and for our healing.
Jesus asks, “What things?” In the Greek, it’s a one word question, “Things?”
It’s wide open.
And they answer. Or Cleopus answers Jesus’ one word question with a 112 word answer.[ii]
The answer, by the way, is a pretty clean account of what they had experienced to that moment. “The things about Jesus of Nazareth . . .” he began. A prophet. Condemned to death by religious leaders. Crucified by the Roman Empire. But we had hoped . . . but our hopes amounted to dust. It’s been three days. Three days and not even a word of redemption, or at least, not one we could believe. “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see” (24).
After hearing this, you might expect Jesus to say, “Touch me and see!” He will later. But for now, Jesus teaches them all about himself, still under the sign of stranger, beginning with Moses and the Prophets.
Did you wince a bit with the way Jesus began his resurrection reroute: “You fools!” Ouch. Personally, I’m a little too close to that reality. Well, I’ve got good news and bad. Bad news first: we do get lost. Good news: it’s not a harsh rebuke. As in, “How could you be so stupid?” You might translate it, saying, “Oh you silly goats! How long until your hearts believe?”[iii] I imagine Jesus smiling, sweet as ever, with fondness and recognition. He knows his sheep – that they sometimes act like goats. But their his all the same. Something changed at that moment – as if somehow they knew that this stranger could sympathize with them in their weakness. Have you ever been a stranger to someone else? Or maybe you’ve been that person who, as they say, “dumped” their emotional troubles in a stranger’s lap?
Every Friday, often as I’m writing my sermon, an Alcoholics Anonymous group meets in Backus, across from my study. They come, almost strangers, to meet together, from different walks of life, and they share their struggles with addiction.
Anonymous in the sense that they do not “know” each other but in other ways they know each other, quite deeply, more deeply in some ways than they may know their own families.
We need strangers. Sometimes those strangers are therapists. Or hospice chaplains. Do you know that dying people want to talk about dying more than anything else? But the people closest to them can’t do it. But a hospice chaplain, otherwise a stranger, this person will talk about dying. Or listen to the dying talk about dying.
Strangers come in other forms. Rev. William Abernethy was interviewed by his cousin, Bob Abernathy, one of the hosts of NPRs Religion and Ethics program. Bob and William are not “strangers” but being interviewed by your cousin in his capacity as a religion reporter is something like talking to a stranger.
William, a United Church of Christ pastor, had something he’d been struggling with for almost twenty years – for eighteen years, he had lived with Parkinson’s Disease.
“What,” asked his cousin, the NPR religion reporter, “goes through the mind of a religious man when he discovers he has a disease like Parkinson’s?”
Being religious, he explained, doesn’t make much of a difference. You experience the same things. Confusion. Anger. Challenge. All of it. But you also find it’s difficult to talk to God.
Or maybe you do talk to God, but it’s a different language. It’s more like complaint than praise:
“God, if you can heal me, why don’t you? You had an abundance of opportunities. I have been sick for eighteen years. You talk about how you are a God of healing, so why don’t you make healing possible?”
The anger, frustration, impatience in that prayer, he said, it was all real. At the same time, he believed he was a “better person because of the disease” – but, he adds, “I would also say [and he look upwards, to God – God who is seemingly absent from this conversation] – [God] could have found a less drastic way to making me a better person. I’m not sure God had to do a Parkinsonian treatment on me to make the better person I am.”
That’s the vertical or theological direction of his experience. But it also contains a horizontal dimension. Lately, he asks himself, “What do I want to say to someone who first discovers he has Parkinson’s? Or multiple sclerosis or Huntington’s or whatever?”
If you want to read what he would say, you can read the book, The Life of Meaning, edited by Bob Abernethy and William Bole. But I do want to single out one thing he encourages – “Be open,” he writes, “to what God is doing through that [journey]. And if that’s not the language that’s comfortable to you, try to find some language that allows a deeper power to work through you. Maybe, just maybe, that would open possibilities that you can’t see right now.”[iv]
Did you hear that? Estranged from the God-language of your growing years? Does the God of scripture give us permission to listen to the testimony of different tongues?
This appears to be happening in today’s text. Jesus has not ceased to be Our Stranger from Heaven when he opens the scripture to the disciples. Their eyes do not recognize him. Their hearts burn within them, with something like recognition. But they don’t recognize him.
Under the sign of the stranger, Christ interprets the things about himself from Moses through the Prophets. Perhaps, in our day, an imam will open our story for us. Or perhaps a migrant. Or perhaps a widow, or an orphan, or perhaps someone we may consider our enemy.
The climax of today’s text isn’t a word spoken, but rather in the actions of Jesus’ hands, almost using sign language, as he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it. Jesus’ hands speak the quiet assurance of communion — and their eyes were opened and they recognized him.
What if by showing hospitality to the hungry, to the alien, to the poor, we are sharing bread and also, engaging in biblical interpretation, giving our scripture as we share bread to the least of these and saying, “Open these words to us so that we might understand, so that we might begin to recognize Christ, the stranger in our midst?”
At the end of the text it seems as if Jesus, Our Stranger from Heaven, intends to continue on down the road, but the disciples plead: “Stay with us; the day is spent and the journey long.” He was their guest, but Christ was their host; he was with them on the way, even as he himself was the Way.
Maybe that’s what we are – beggars for God. Maybe we should carry cardboard signs out of church this morning, with the words, “Come into my home you poor, you tired, you weary, you downtrodden, you persecuted. Take shelter in my house and sit at my table. Stay with us for a while. Let us break bread together. God bless you!”
It would be a foreign tongue in America’s political and economic streets. A reroute of resurrection proportions.
Think of it – Presbyterians, cardboard signs in hand, panhandling, pleading with the poor, for the least of these, begging, and imploring that we might be givers of bread and shelter to strangers in a strange land.
It might even be a strange tongue in church.
But, then again, we talk with strangers here . . . strangers we have come to know as friends.
[i] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Seabury, 1966), 85-60, quoted in R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 482.
[ii] Culpepper, “Luke” in New Interpreter’s, 477.
[iii] Inspired by David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), 285.
[iv] Bob Abernethy and William Bole, interview with William Aberneth, “Damning the Disease, Not (Ultimately) the Deity” in The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), 91-3.