In a cupboard in my parent's house there is a treasure, a box of old 8mm movies recording our family history since the time I was five, my sister was two and my brother was yet to be. There I am with my sister singing in silence by the Christmas tree. We're wearing our new red cowgirl hats. These movies are all silent, made before the days of camcorders with built in mikes. There's my grandfather throwing ears of corn into the wagon -- what a wondrous thing to see Grandpa moving, laughing, so fully alive, years after he died. Even without sound those moving pictures bring people to life as a still photograph cannot.
Yet, I also treasure the snapshots in albums or out of envelopes in the buffet drawers. No sound, no movement but you can sit and look at a photograph for a long time. The picture stands still long enough for memory to fill in the story, to bring buried feelings to the surface.
If you wanted to tell today's gospel story, would you tell it as a movie or in still photographs? Neither, because you never liked Bible movies and it is dangerous to choose photographs that look like Jesus. Let me ask the question another way: when you heard this gospel story read, were you most aware of moving or standing still? Do you remember walking on the road or sitting at the table? Is it more like a movie on the road or a photograph of bread in wounded hands?
I'm not speaking only of artistic sensibilities here. This is a matter of faith and of revelation. How does Jesus Christ come to us? What does it mean for Jesus to stay with us? Such questions are of pressing importance for Luke, the author, of this gospel. Today's story stands between the resurrection of Jesus and the mission of the church described in Luke's second book called Acts. How will Jesus be with the disciples when he is no longer with them? This story stands between Easter and Pentecost. Which is where we are now, you and I.
It seems the story has to begin as a movie. Two of them were going -- walking, talking, discussing what had happened to them in recent days. Jesus, (disguised somehow) came near and joins them. "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" His words point to their movement -- then suddenly, everything stops. They stood still, looking sad. It is no longer a movie, but a still photograph. A closeup of their faces let their sadness sink into you. Take your time.
Then, Cleopas speaks and the movie continues. (They must have started walking again -- for somehow they will get to Emmaus by the time the story ends.) But we still hold the sad photo in our memories as they speak. Sadly, they tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in word and deed who had been condemned to death. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. How do you capture that hopelessness in a photograph? There is no future. Nothing ahead, everything behind. No dreams, only memories made bitter by loss. This must be a still picture. But we had hoped. You can see the photo, can't you? What would it look like in your own life? What have you hoped for? When did those hopes die? This photograph doesn't ever really go away.
Even as they move on, the hopelessness weighs them down. They had expectations that Jesus did not meet. Jesus of Nazareth failed them. So the next part of the story doesn't seem to make any difference to them. Some women from their group had gone to the tomb and found it empty. But that news doesn't change anything for them -- they left Jerusalem. (If you had heard that the tomb was empty, wouldn't you have gone to see for yourself? Wouldn't you have stayed in the city to see if Jesus would appear?). Their hopelessness had no room for good news. "Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him."
We know the stranger is Jesus (the narrator has let us in on the secret). We know the two disciples have been telling Jesus about his life and death. Now we must be absolutely still. Some women, then others, found the tomb empty. But they did not see him. Could a photograph ever hold such irony? Two disciples stand looking at Jesus and say, "But they did not see him." They did not see him. They couldn't. They had already decided he was not the one.
Who can say how long that moment lasted? "Then, he said to them, 'Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!'" The one they would not see, began to teach. To interpret the scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets. They are walking again. If we were making a movie, perhaps we would move behind the three of them now. The two disciples turn and stay close to this stranger to catch every word.
Then we see the stranger moving on ahead of them as though he means to keep going. But something has happened to these disciples. Something has overtaken their hopelessness. They cannot let him go (whoever he is.) Now the narrator slows the pace, repeating words and phrases.
"Stay with us," they urged him strongly.
"So he went to stay with them,"
"When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them."
"And their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he vanished from them. They followed him and he was gone."
Their eyes were opened. But, when? Is there one picture that will give the answer? Was it when they sat at the table, when he broke the bread? Or did it begin when they walked on while he opened the scriptures? Remember, I told you this is not really about movies or still photographs. It is a story of faith and revelation, a story of remembrance and recognition. While we may long for a special moment of revelation, a datable time of being saved, a heightened experience of God's presence -- this story from the first Easter day reminds us that faith is not so neatly captured. Would the disciples have recognized Jesus at the table if he hadn't opened the scriptures? Was revelation in the slow-walking journey as surely as in the breaking of the bread?
These questions cannot be all past tense. Is something slowly happening to you in the prayer you stammer each morning on the way to work? Or at the end of a day? Is something happening in the weekly Bible Study at your church when there seems no great revelations?
Hopefully, you now know that this is not just a story about two disciples on the road to Emmaus two thousand years ago. There are two disciples. One was named Cleopas, and the other? The other is you. Or me. Luke left a blank space for us to fill in our own names. All our hopelessness is there on the road, every broken down dream, every doubt we've ever had or still have. Are you waiting for a clearer revelation, for deeper assurance of Jesus' presence in your life? I would like that, too, and some days, that assurance is as close as my own breathing. But not always. I know what Kathleen Norris means in her book, Dakota; A Spiritual Geography, when she says, "Conversion means starting with who we are, not who we wish we were. Conversion doesn't offer a form of knowledge that can be quantified, or neatly packaged. It is best learned slowly and in community."
The journey of faith moves slowly frame by frame, most of the segments utterly ordinary. A few still photographs hold particular moments we might dare call revelation. Along the way we are sustained as they were by hearing over and over words of scripture we have heard before. Sometimes, it happens that our hearts are opened and we hear as though for the first time. Then at a table or an altar, beside a hospital bed or in a nursing home, someone takes bread, blesses and breaks it and holds it out. One of those who receives the bread is named Cleopas. And the other? You know.
O God go with us on ordinary days; open our minds and hearts to your will and feed us with you bread of life. Enter our hopelessness with your grace. Amen.