For the past couple of weeks, I have been going through old photos – sorting, culling, grouping by date. In addition to noticing a broad-based family ability to take dull, badly lit, barely-in-focus photos, I’ve been caught off guard by the emotional impact of this task.
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These captured-in-time glimpses into the people and places and events of my life and the lives of my closest relatives, cause me to revisit not just the extraordinary times but also the ordinary times – and the people who were adjacent to me in those times and places.
Perhaps the most meaningful photos to me, are those taken in the most mundane settings. As most of you know, I worked in a school office for a dozen years and in many ways really came into myself in those years… yet from those 12 years, there are perhaps five photos. It might be different now, with everyone having a smartphone camera within arm’s reach, but at that time well, work was work; and nobody thought to take photos to document the daily grind. As I plowed through boxes of photos, one birthday blurred into another with little notice, but those 5 snapshots from the place where I spent my days were like pennies from heaven, happily punctuating the task of sorting and culling and organizing.
The gospel stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances also present to us a series of snapshots that can be revisited time and time again. Some of the snapshots relate to showy, memorable, supernatural events, and those have certainly built and enhanced my faith life. But at this point in my life, the pictures that cause me to stop and reflect on the role that the risen Christ plays in my life, are the ones in the most unassuming, everyday settings.
Today’s reading from Luke is typically separated into two readings, which we heard back-to-back today because each of these describes Jesus in the most natural of settings: at table with friends. The first scene has two slightly mysterious travellers walking to a familiar yet elusive town named Emmaus, when they are joined by an unknown companion. They engage in dialogue, some of it a bit on the testy side, and as it is getting dark the two travelers discourage their companion from travelling into the dark, inviting him instead to spend the night at their lodgings. Still not recognizing their travelling companion, everything changes when they “break bread” together – at which point they recognize the risen Christ – and he disappears.
Christ is recognized in the breaking of bread. Often hearkened to as a reminder of Christ’s presence when we break communion bread, this also reminds us that any time – every time – that hospitality is offered, Christ is present. The offer of a safe place to stay the night, is a decision of companionship and welcome, giving opportunity for bread to be broken and shared. Only once they were sharing table fellowship, did the words spoken on the road take their full shape; in the simplest acts of hospitality, the meaning of the moment took shape.
Shortly thereafter, these travellers – only the second group of witnesses to the risen Lord – found the inner circle of disciples, to tell them what had happened. Before long, Jesus miraculously appears in their midst and what does he ask? “do you have anything to eat?” which they answer with a serving of fish. Such a mundane request, yet one that confirms that this risen one was no mere ghost. In the shadow of his unexplained appearance out of nowhere, it’s the request for fish that stays with me and makes me smile: Glorified Jesus, in the everyday. Extraordinary Jesus, in the ordinary.
I invite you to take a moment now, in the midst of these two everyday scenes – pause the YouTube playback if need be – to consider some of the ordinary moments in your life, when the love of God and/or the tangible presence of the risen Christ have been particularly real for you. Whether it was a simple act of kindness that you witnessed or received… or a place where you feel God’s presence most acutely… a favourite taste or scent or song or texture… a simple yet precious memory fixed like a photograph in your heart and mind… Whatever comes to mind, I invite you to ponder for a moment, and perhaps even jot them down, in a time of grateful remembrance…
Most of those scenes, I expect, will be one where you have been the recipient. I now invite you to recall a time or two when you were the messenger… when you were the one conveying God’s love by your words or actions, with a simple gift, through an encouraging glance, by showing up in solidarity for an injustice or remaining present to someone’s needs a bit longer than you had intended. If you cannot remember anything specific along these lines, let me assure you that someone out there remembers a moment when a simple gesture on your part made a significant difference for them. Again, take a few moments now, to remember these moments, and jot them down if you’d like…
I’ve suggested these two pause-and-remember times, for a couple of reasons.
First, it’s never a bad thing to spend time with gratitude. Especially as the pandemic drags on, and folks who have been on the front lines or confined to quarters since day one are grinding down, the power of the simple gesture, or the enjoyment of a familiar treat, or birdsong or emerging pussywillows signifying the change of seasons, can make such a difference to a day. In one of our recent Ministerial meetings, a local clergy colleague talked about the simple act of thanking someone for putting on a mask on the trail or sidewalk, rather than just processing it as “well, that’s what they’re supposed to do, why would I thank them for that?” Whether we are the one expressing gratitude or the one receiving it, an environment with room for gratitude is going to make these days go a LOT easier.
Second, learning how to recognize God in the moment is an important part of our Christian journey. As we recognize God in holy moments that we remember as holy, we learn to expand that ability, to find God’s will and presence in the broad sweep of things. When we get used to looking for evidence of God’s influence on life, we will become more and more able to do so.
Susan Beaumont, whose work on liminality I mentioned a few weeks ago, has also taught me much about discernment. In the course of life, and most definitely in the tasks of Church governance, we spend a lot of time in decision-making. We evaluate alternatives, we balance risk and reward, we analyze data, we solve problems. But Susan suggests that discernment is what we really need in these unsettled times. While utilizing some of the same skills as decision-making, discernment listens for the prompting of the Spirit, and “seeks the heart and purpose of God in the moment.” (Ruth Haley Barton, quoted by Susan Beaumont). Whether we are thinking of the future development options facing the town of Canmore, or the best ways forward as our Rundle and Ralph Connor congregations seek a healthy path into the future, or the next steps to be taken by the United Church of Canada as a national entity, we seek not just to decide, but to discern: to listen for what God calls us to do and who God calls us to be.
The two travelers on the road are engaged in conversation with their unknown companion but it’s not until that bread-breaking moment that they discern that it is Christ with them. The gathered disciples are frightened by a ghostly apparition, until a request for fish moves them away from their assumption that this is impossible, to acceptance that yes, Jesus really is with then. In these days when we yearn for something familiarity, Christ is very much “in the room” with us, encouraging us to discern ways beyond what we already know.
I make no secret of the fact that I love these stories in the season after Easter. The sense of Christ’s active presence in the here and now fits so well with the transitions that nature is making, as the trees attempt to bud out and the wildflowers start poking their heads through the soil, even as the snow isn’t quite ready to go away. And these scriptural reminders of everyday journeys in which we recognize Christ in the mundane, are so key to our recognition of the will and presence of God in the paths we walk and the tables we share. Yes, it’s important to identify the glorious presence of God in the big, camera-worthy vistas of life, but that thing that feels like God’s holy presence in the minute and mundane scenes that would never warrant a photo? Yes, that is God-with-you, as well. In each of your days and all of our days, may the loving, health-seeking, justice-bringing love of Christ, both wondrous and familiar, be recognized, welcomed, embraced, and shared. Amen.
Barton, Ruth Haley. https://transformingcenter.org/2009/01/discernment-finding-god-in-all-things/
Beaumont, Susan. How to Lead when you don’t know where you’re going – online format workbook. © by the author, 2019-2021. pp.36-38.
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.