"The Power Of Recognition"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 4/18/1999
We have all heard the saying, "Hindsight gives us 20/20 vision." Most of us have experienced the truth of this statement. We often have a better understanding of events once we are removed from their consequences and we can look back on them with a different perspective. As we look back, we do so with two additional tools. The first tool is detachment and the second is the knowledge that we have already moved on.
Several weeks ago, the Angel Gang found itself reminiscing about some of their mischievous experiences of childhood. One gentlemen in the group told how he and his friends used to soap the trolley tracks so that when the car tried to travel up-hill it would sit there and spin its wheels.
My Dad used to tell us how he and his friends would hop on the back of trolleys and pull down the feeder coupling that provided the car with electricity from the overhead power lines. The car would stop and the engineer would have to get out of the trolley in order to restore power.
Of course, everyone laughs about such events that took place over fifty or sixty years ago. Today everyone is in a safe place and those experiences fit neatly into the days when we were growing up. We all have such memories.
The same process happens each time we read various stories in the Bible. We read these stories from the comfort of our homes or a classroom setting. We are looking back with 20/20 vision and reading each episode in its completeness, from its beginning to its conclusion. As we do so, we miss the stress of uncertainty taking place within the people during each passing moment of the unfolding story. We miss sensing the confusion, the knee-jerk reactions, the abandonment, the sense of being lost that the participants are experiencing while they are in the middle of some particular drama.
For example, during Lent when most of us followed Jesus' experiences leading up to the Cross, we did so knowing that his resurrection was the conclusion. By seeing the entire picture, we can easily miss connecting his story with our own, a story that featured uncertainty, unanswered prayer, betrayal, and the inability to communicate meaningfully with those in authority. In the middle of any drama we often experience the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen next.
When we are upset, how many of us find ourselves thinking, "I don't feel like going to church today. I am so angry with what our son's school teacher did to him on Thursday. Or I am so stressed by work that I need to spend today at home. Or I have tried to communicate with my spouse, my boss, my mother, whomever, and I am not connecting. I'm not being heard. I am too upset to think about God today." Do we see how easy it is to put our response to the unexpected and our faith in different places?
How many of us find it difficult seeing any relevance at all between our faith and our experiences? We reason, "How can what I believe help me with this particular problem?" There are a lot of people in this category. Eighty-nine percent of Americans believe in God. Yet how much difference does such a belief make in how we interpret our world or how we adjust and respond to life's events?
In our lesson this morning, we see this very process unfolding. Two of Jesus' followers are making the seven mile journey from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. As they walked they were joined by Jesus. Our lesson says, ". . . but somehow they did not recognize him." Keep in mind, the Scriptures tell us that they were "Jesus' followers." They knew him well. They were so distracted, however, that they were unable to recognize who he was. How many times have we been there ourselves? "Where is God in this?", we ask.
As the drama progressed, the two disciples became aware that this stranger apparently knew nothing about the crucifixion and resurrection of their master. The three stood still as Cleopas expressed his dismay. He said, "Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn't know the things that have happened there these last few days?" As if urging them to tell their impressions of the events, Jesus asked, "What things?"
Notice what happened next. After they finished their rendition of events in Jerusalem, Jesus began reminding them about the truth in the Scriptures. Since the hour in the day was late, they invited him in to stay with them. The lesson says, "Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him." After Jesus disappeared, they said to each other, "Wasn't it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?" They experienced recognition and that changed the direction of where they were going.
One of the most challenging aspects of life is to remember who Jesus called us to be during moments that have the potential to cause us to go in the opposite direction. One of the reasons Jesus made such an impact on history is that he succeeded everyday in remembering who he was. Nothing could defeat him. Nothing could erode his confidence in God's power within him. Nothing could destroy his resolve to remain unshaken even though his world was being systematically torn apart by his enemies.
Answer this question: Who had the greater power, Jesus or his enemies? Even though we know how to answer this, we still cave in to the power-symbols of our world. There have been many pharaohs, caesars, kings, queens, generals, cardinals, popes, and bishops who have all used power of one kind or another. Jesus impressed the world with a power that was completely internal, a power that radiated from within him. As he extended that power, nothing in this world could defeat or diminish it.
Centuries ago, St. Theresa set out to build a convent with half a crown. She was absolutely convinced that spending that half crown was the necessary first step. Someone said to her, "Even St. Theresa cannot accomplish such a thing." She responded, "True, but St. Theresa, a half crown and God can do anything." It was not long before her convent was completed.
As long as the two disciples remained distracted by the dilemma in front of them, that was all they could respond to. They were so disturbed by the crucifixion and confused by the news of the resurrection that they would not recognize who was standing with them. They had become totally absorbed and consumed by their experience. This is what happens to us and why hindsight gives us a much better view.
How often we get trapped in the passion of the moment? Who wants to go to church when we have judged life as having been cruel to us? Who wants to celebrate God's presence when life's reversals appear to be pushing in on all sides? Who wants to hear words that appear irrelevant to the results we just received from our CAT scan? When we cannot move through our experiences with confidence in the role we were invited to play, we are held prisoner by them. We cannot see beyond the mountain in front of us.
Jesus called us to be a presence of peace, humility and hope. He never taught us that the world would change to accommodate our values and desires. What he did was send us forth as changed people to live in the midst of our world. To be that presence, we need to remember every day who we are. The disciples said, "Wasn't it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road." That is what remembering does to us. We remember our role and not the mountain that only appears to stand in our way.
It is no easy task to detach ourselves from the world and its seemingly powerful symbols. Many years ago the Susquehanna River flooded the home of my grandparents who lived on Second Street in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My grandmother sat on a dining room chair just a day after the flood waters had receded. The mud was two inches deep on the carpeted hard wood floors. Tears flowed down her cheeks. I said, "Oh, Grandma, these are only material things." She said, "No, Dick, they are more than that. I am crying because your grandfather and I have so many memories attached to what was destroyed by this flood."
Indeed, my dad, his brother and sister grew up in that home. It had been the family's gathering place for generations. The curtain had now come down on the home where all those many incredible years of traditions and memories had been experienced. Within a short period of time, my grandparents left their three story house on Second Street and moved into an apartment in Camp Hill.
It is difficult to remember who we are called to be when rapid changes occur in lives that are frequently governed by and entwined in our families, our jobs, our homes and our relationships. When change comes as dramatically as it did for the two disciples, they walked away from Jerusalem. It was over. Jesus' enemies had killed him and now there were confusing rumors about his resurrection. All these two needed was a reminder of what Jesus had given them. Once they remembered that, they got up at once and returned to the others.
So often that is all we need. We have all had those moments when events have been very confusing. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason for what happened to us. Then uninvited and totally unexpected, someone joined us and because of what they did or said, we had recognition. The event no longer held us prisoner. That friend reminded us that life is bigger than the sudden change that occurred, that God surrounds us even when our distraction may prevent us from seeing it, and that we were created by God to move through the experience with confidence.
All of us have the capability to experience this ourselves and also to be the one who helps another person remember. Life is simply too precious to be destroyed by cancer, a flood, a divorce, a death, or a change in our job status. There is too much to do for such an event to erase all the laughter and joys of our past and to blind us to all our capabilities to extend ourselves meaningfully long into the future. This is who Jesus invited us to be. He taught us that even a little faith will prevent a mountain from standing in our way. All we need during the unexpected changes of life is to be reminded of that.
In one of his books, Neale Walsch has God say: "Learn to listen . . . The words to the next song you hear. The information in the next article you read. The story line in the next movie you watch. The chance utterance of the next person you meet. Or the whisper of the next river, the next ocean, the next breeze that caresses your ears -- all these devices are Mine; all these avenues are open to Me. I will speak to you if you will listen. I will come to you if you will invite me. I will show you then that I have always been there. All ways."
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that you are eager to bless us with as much truth as we can absorb. You have given us the ability to discover and yet we remain satisfied to form conclusions from information that is on the surface. Our telescopes and microscopes do not allow us to see you in what we observe. We make decisions about the quality of people because of their behavior. We often insist on certain interpretations of the Bible. We want inspiration to empower us through the methods we have determined. How often our understanding is blunted because of what we already know. We often misplace the power you gave us to cease making our lives complicated. Inspire us once again to let go and to trust. Help us to remember that to fly we must spread our wings and learn the ways of the wind. So may we seek your spirit to guide us this day with greater understanding. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, that in the midst of all that surrounds us, we each have an opportunity to turn aside from our dramas and talk to you. We admit that we are not as articulate with you as we are with each other. We confess to a self-consciousness. With you, we are sometimes unsure about what to say, what to ask for, or how to tell you about our thoughts and feelings.
Yet we are convinced that in spite of our confusion with what words to use, you know everything before we speak. You are aware of our thoughts long before we give them voice.
This morning we would ask that you pierce the veil of our blindness so that we can more readily see where you surround us, where you walk beside us, and how it is that you love us in spite of our limitations, our waywardness and our inability to perceive with love.
We want to live with a spirit of thanksgiving and gratitude. We want to become less judgmental. We want to be blind to the faults of others. We would like to become one whose words heal and whose spirit is forgiving long before hurtful experiences come our way. We want our presence to make a creative difference with every opportunity you give us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .