The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday of Easter (Year A)
April 30, 2017
Last week I was in an establishment where John Kerry was having dinner. I played it very, very cool. I didn’t stare. I didn’t go over and say anything. I didn’t snap a surreptitious picture for social media. I just finished my dinner and left. No big deal, right? It’s New Haven. There’s a former Secretary of State. It happens all the time, right?
When I lived in Manhattan this sort of thing happened all the time. Folks in my neighborhood would see a celebrity and play it very cool, not looking, not gawking, just going on about their business. A colleague was constantly running into Alec Baldwin in a coffee shop, or seeing him pedaling on a Citibike. I never had these sorts of encounters. I learned Alec Baldwin takes a Citibike by seeing it online, probably in the New York Post, after he’d been given a ticket for cycling the wrong way on a one-way street.
It’s really pretty easy for me to play it cool with celebrity sightings. Mostly because I generally can’t recognize anyone in public! Sure, I know when I see Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live, but I’m sure I’ve missed him on the streets of New York dozens of times. I’m just not expecting to see him.
What’s more, I have a little bit of anxiety about recognizing people. Maybe you do, too. Have you ever run up behind someone and called her name, only to have her turn around—and it’s NOT your friend Jill from high school, but someone that just looks vaguely like her? The humiliation is just too much. So I just keep my mouth shut. I’m not one for recognizing folks.
I am pretty good about recognizing people from church, though. But, and here the tables are turned, sometimes folks don’t recognize me out of my collar! Whenever I’m in the Stop and Shop I’m pretty good at spotting parishioners—but sometimes I look different out of collar, out of context! And that’s a pretty funny moment, too.
So I’m a little sympathetic towards Cleopus and his friend from this morning’s gospel. They don’t recognize Jesus at first as they walk along the road with him.
On the same day Mary Magdalene found the empty tomb, Cleopus and his friend were walking along the road to Emmaus, a town about seven miles outside of Jerusalem, about three hours away. And we don’t know for sure, but it seems safe to assume they might be walking from Jerusalem. It’s likely they’d’ been in Jerusalem, because Cleopus’s mother was at the crucifixion—maybe he and his friend were too—and it’s likely they were coming from there because they knew of Jesus’s crucifixion and about the empty tomb. Nevertheless, they don’t recognize the stranger that joins them on the road; they explain to him why they’re sad—about the events in Jerusalem, the crucifixion. And the stranger starts to interpret these events to them.
So why is it that they don’t recognize him?
Maybe they really don’t realize it’s him because they aren’t very sure what Jesus looks like. Cleopus’s mother was there, but maybe he and his friend weren’t at the crucifixion. Maybe they weren’t that close to Jesus and haven’t seen him very much. Maybe it’s that he’s out of context—that they don’t expect to see him.
Maybe it’s that they have bad eyesight. Issues of recognizing people happen throughout scripture, and it’s worth noting that the ancient world didn’t have the same kind of corrective vision techniques we enjoy today. I can’t recognize people more than thirty feet away without my glasses, but, if I have my glasses on, I’m likely to see you down the street.
Or maybe it’s that they just can’t see, don’t expect to see, what’s happened. They’re overwhelmed by their grief, in their expectation that death is the final word, that the world really is the way they expect it to be. Maybe they expect death because they cannot find hope. Maybe they expect death because they cannot recognize the movement of God around them in the world. Maybe they expect death because they cannot see Jesus.
It’s hard to hold onto hope, isn’t it. The world can tell us that hope is foolish, naive, irrational. I’m reminded when I’m looking for hope of a story that Cope Moyers, Bill Moyers’ son, told. Cope had been in the 1980’s or 1990’s a producer for CNN, a successful and hard-working media professional in his own right, just as his father had done. But underneath the veneer of success and happiness, Cope had also developed a hidden life of drug addiction. He’d disappear for days and even weeks at the time to sneak away to flop houses, dingy apartments, drug dens in Atlanta and New York to smoke crack, to get away from his life, to self-medicate whatever the pain was that was chasing him. And each time his father would hire an investigator, find Cope, and go off and get him and take him to rehab. This happened again and again and again until finally Cope was done. And after years of expensive rehab, he finally was able to stay sober, and he dedicated his life to recovery work, serving as the development director for the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota.
I met Cope when he was sober, when he had just written his book Broken about his addiction and recovery experience. He was at a speaking gig, talking about his story, talking about the book, talking about recovery, and it was a hard and personal story to tell in public. During a question and answer session someone in the audience had a question for Cope. With some emotion in his voice, the audience member rose and asked his question, “So how many times do you go to rehab? I mean, if someone goes and gets clean and then starts using again, how many times do you keep going back?” I imagined the pain of a family member whose life had been twisted by addiction, whose savings had been dried up, who was experiencing the pain of watching a loved one die in the grip of addictive behavior. And Cope Moyers stood up, leaned into the microphone, and straightforwardly replied, “Oh, that’s easy. You just keep going back as many times as it takes. You keep going back until it works.”
There was no magic number after which it was too much. There was no point after which there was no hope. You just keep going back as many times as it takes.
Cope Moyers hadn’t given up. And he was alive. And lots of other folks surely are alive because of his story, his faith, his hope that things can be better. That there is recovery. That there is life.
Now there are plenty of reasons that this might seem like a glib reply. There are limits to what families can do financially; there are limits to what our souls and bodies can bear—sometimes we have to set boundaries to protect ourselves from hurtful behavior. There’s a limit physically to what the body can bear—witness the many deaths from overdoses even in our own city. All of those are appropriate and true sorts of limitations, boundaries, that respect the reality of death. But Cope didn’t get hung up on any of those limitations. He didn’t need to, for Cope had seen death—but somehow he’d come to believe in life.
And that’s what God shows us in the resurrection of Jesus. That the story is not yet finished. That there is hope beyond our wildest imagining. But we can miss it if we’re not looking for God.
Cleopus and his friend by all rational standards aren’t wrong to assume that Jesus is dead. But they have forgotten the thing that Jesus has revealed—that the God of Life, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, is ultimately in control. That God has swallowed up death. That, in Jesus, there is hope.
And so it’s no wonder that, as he sits at table, takes the bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them, that then they are able to see for the first time who he really is. That they are filled with hope. That they see Jesus.
And when they realize who it is that accompanies them, their whole world is changed. They run the seven miles back to Jerusalem to be with the apostles, to tell them what they’d seen, what they’d experienced, how Jesus was alilve and had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
How many times do you go back to rehab, the man asked Cope Moyers. How many times do we go back? How many times do we come forward to receive Jesus’s own self-offering, bread taken, blessed, broken, and given? His own body given for us? His own love poured out, shared with and for us?
Every time. Every time. For when we look for Jesus, when we really see him, our whole world view is changed. We can’t help but be filled with hope, for the God of Love has shown us that death is no thing. We can’t help be filled with hope, for Jesus is walking beside us. We can’t help running to tell this good news—that the Lord is risen indeed, and he has appeared to us!
Where are you in need of hope today? Where are you longing for the presence of Christ? When you come to the altar, receive the very body of Christ, broken for you. Receive his presence. Know that he is here. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.