I Am Not Religious, butBy imironchuk • May 8th, 2011 • Category: Pastor's Message
Rev. Scott Summerville
May 8, 2011
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
Yesterday Mary Ellen I traveled north to Saratoga Springs to attend a memorial service for Mel, an old family friend. He was indeed an old friend in that he was ninety-five years old, and he was an old friend as well in that he and his wife, Gracie, who died some years ago, were close friends of my parents for more than forty years.
Mel’s eldest son spoke in the service. He said that his father retained his mental acuity to the end of his life, although he did become forgetful toward the end. His son said that he imagines his father arriving at the pearly gates and saying to St. Peter, “Do I come here often?”
The sanctuary of the Methodist church in Saratoga is a modern one. Behind the pulpit there is an enormous screen built into the wall. For part of the service the organ played in the background while photographs were shown on that large screen – photographs spanning more that a century – his parents, childhood, courtship, marriage, children, career and retirement. Here and there among the photographs I saw the faces my father and my mother.
Of the two couples, Mel and Gracie, and my mother and father, only my mother remains alive. As we watched the slides with my mother beside us, I could sense all the deep emotions welling up in my mother reflected her face and eyes.
For many of us this day Mother’s Day is a day of remembering; perhaps remembering with a sigh and a tear – mothers and grandmothers, great grandmothers – it is a day in which we are acutely conscious of the generations and of the passage of time.
Naturally there is a lot of sentimentality that accompanies the celebration of Mother’s Day. Sometimes the sentimentality can obscure the deeper truth – the deeper truth that it is a profoundly challenging thing to bring another life into the world and to bear the responsibility for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the fragile mortal life of another human being, and to be the parent of that being for all the years to come, through all the changes of life – all the predictable changes of life – and all the unpredictable changes of life.
There is an image today in the gospel lesson that is one of the most vivid, spiritually rich images in the entire Bible. It comes at that moment toward the end of the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and their strange encounter with Jesus. They walk along with him and talk with him; they are discouraged and weary; they persuade them to stop at the inn with them. There at the table with them he breaks the bread. As the bread is torn, their eyes are opened, and they recognize him. There is this moment of recognition connected to the tearing of bread, but at the very moment the bread is torn a strange thing happens:
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight”
It is in the tearing of the bread, the breaking of the bread, that the disciples recognized the face of Christ. Then he is gone.
Is very common these days to hear people say things like:
“I am not religious, but I am spiritual.”
“I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the sacredness of life.”
“I don’t believe in the church, but I believe I find God in nature.”
It is a common modern experience for people to find glimpses of holiness, a flash of awareness of the divine presence, a whisper of God’s presence in music, or nature, or the face of a loved one. But many people feel they cannot package all these glimpses of the holy into a conventional creed. Or as a woman once said, “Sometimes it seems I only believe in God when I am nursing my baby.”
Our story today of Jesus mysteriously appearing and disappearing to the disciples on the Emmaus journey resonates with the modern experience of finding fleeting fragments of sacredness, of holiness – which slip away from us.
The way Jesus breaks the bread and disappears leaves us with a mystery. What is the point? Where did he go? What was it about the act of breaking the bread that makes the stranger known and then causes him to disappear? So many questions.
Certainly this story points us to the Eucharist, to the Lord’s Supper, to the Christian experience of communion with Christ in the sacrament. He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Going a step further: in the tearing of the bread, in the breaking of the loaf, is the sign of Christ’s suffering, so that the one was recognized is the one who has suffered.
One of the great poets wrote: “Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.” [WB Yeats] The greatest love is revealed where life is torn.
When I counsel couples in preparation for marriage, I ask them: “What is the most difficult thing you have had to go through together?” Of all the questions that I use in my interrogations, that question often provokes the deepest conversation. How will people deal with pain together? That is such a crucial question in terms of how they will grow together or grow apart over time.
This has been an extraordinary week – though it seems these days that every week that passes brings news of some extraordinary event. The death of Osama bin Laden touches upon something so deep in the collective psyche searchingly of this country, if not the world. The death of one who exalted in death. The death of one who led so many so willingly to their deaths. The death of one who so wantonly took the lives of thousands of others, and received the news of their deaths with a gentle smile. His death is in some ways a release, a relief, while at the same time it brings back powerfully the memories of the dreadful tearing apart of life and the tearing of the soul of the people – the tearing of our own souls.
Living a Christian life, or – I should say – trying to lead a Christian life, since I’m not sure that there is anyone who ever really does – trying to live a Christian life does not protect any of us from suffering or tragedy. It does not give any of us an easy explanation for our own hardships or the hardships of those we love or the tragic events of the world.
But the Christian life offers is a way of embracing the world eucharistically. That is, remembering the Christ who breaks the bread, and who is himself the broken bread, can change the way we relate to pain in our lives and in the lives of others.
By remembering the suffering one who breaks the bread,
we do not escape from pain;
we do not get a pass that takes us away from the troubles of life,
but we receive a greater capacity to enter into the troubles of life,
to enter into the pain of life,
and not to hide from it.
To live eucharistically is to live open to pain as part of life.
Living eucharistically enables each of us to be a better friend,
to be more present and engaged as a mate,
and to have more endurance and strength as a parent.
Living eucharistically enables one to be a compassionate presence in the world, rather than tuning out.
On the road to Emmaus there are two travelers. They are tired and discouraged, but they have each other – they are not alone. They meet a stranger, and they stop for the night to catch a bit of rest and some bread to eat. In the breaking of the bread they catch a glimpse of the holy one.
Even though it is a fleeting glimpse — even though he vanishes from their sight, their hope is restored They have the courage and faith to go on.
That is all we can ask each time we gather in the spirit of Christ: that we regain the courage and faith to go on.
So be it,
grace and peace to you.