4/30/17: The Scandal of the Heart, Luke 24:13-25, Rev. Julie Whidden Long preaching
The Scandal of the Heart
Third in the series: Scandalous Good News
Rev. Julie Whidden Long
Have you ever gazed into a newborn’s eyes, wondering what she is able to see of you? When each of my babies was born, I loved to watch them in those early weeks as they soaked in the world. I often wondered what was going on in that brain behind those eyes, what they were watching so intently and how it looked to them. Sometimes when I would follow their gaze, I would notice things that I had not paid attention to before – the way the lampshade cast a shadow, or the rhythm of ceiling fan blades. Though their visual ability was limited, they somehow were able to focus in on things I looked right past.
Much of what passes before our eyes as adults doesn’t register. Whereas we began life with the blurry, weak vision of an infant to protect us from all of the sensory stimulations we weren’t quite ready to handle yet, our eyes and brains developed. We figured out how to cope with these stimuli by focusing in on some and ignoring the rest. While those of us with full vision can see the whole world around us, we develop filters so that we actually recognize only the necessary things.[i]
Maybe this was what happened to the disciples on the Emmaus road on Easter Day. As we read the story, we think, “How in the world did they not know that the man they walked alongside was Jesus?” He was their friend. They had spent years under his tutelage; he had a surprisingly vast knowledge and keen understanding of the scriptures; he had even told them that this was the way it would all play out. Still, they did not see him for who he was. Talk about a filter.
I don’t get it, but I do get that sometimes when we are stressed or hurt or confused or lost, things that seem obvious to those around us just don’t always dawn on us. When we have a certain set of expectations about how things will be, and things don’t turn out the way we think they will, we don’t always see a way forward.
So much had happened to them. Still in the throes of grief from the loss of their friend on Friday, they heard a story just that morning that the tomb was empty and Jesus was gone. He was alive, the angel said, but he was nowhere to be found. They were shocked, confused, emotionally exhausted, perhaps even traumatized, and they just couldn’t process any more. Maybe that’s why they were on the road to begin with. They needed to get the heck out of Dodge, to clear their heads, to just go home for a while. Emmaus was the place to escape from it all.
If you’ve ever been there, you might understand just how thick the filter can be when you are feeling that way. If you have looked back at a situation in which you found yourself stuck and burned out and just plain done, you know that you are not at a place to imagine creative solutions or think outside of the box. When you don’t have hope, you can’t see other possibilities, even if they are as plain as a flesh-and-blood human being walking alongside of you and telling you the truth you need to hear.
But even with all of that chaos going on, something about their sudden companion connected with the weary travelers. Something told them that they shouldn’t let him go too far. So they asked him to join them for supper. And as they gathered around the table, the familiar stranger did something that resonated deep enough to remove the filter: he took a loaf of bread, and he blessed it, and he broke it, and he gave it to them.
Then, they knew where they had seen this guy before. They had seen him take and bless and break and share as he fed 5000 people on a mountainside, and they had watched him take and bless and break and share just three nights before as he gathered them for a meal and told them it would be his last. When they saw him lift the bread and bless it and break it, something shifted inside. Their memory penetrated the filter in their heads, and they were able to see with their hearts.
Sometimes these kinds of memories reside so powerfully in our core that when we recall them, sometimes even unexpectedly, they stir up something deep within us. My dad had a playful habit of singing jingles or silly songs, mostly songs from his childhood. About two years after he died, I put a new Christmas CD in the car, and one of the songs that he had sung to me came on unexpectedly. “I broke my bat on Johnny’s head, somebody snitched on me…I put a frog in sister’s bed, somebody snitched on me…. I’m getting nuttin’ for Christmas, mommy and daddy are mad, I’m getting nuttin’ for Christmas, ‘cause I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad.” I don’t think I had ever heard that song except for from the lips of my father, but when it snuck up on me, I found myself at the red light on the Bass Road exit ramp weeping. That silly little song stirred up a well of emotion tied to a forgotten but deep memory.
Has this kind of thing ever happened to you? Have you smelled a smell that took you back to your grandmama’s house? Run across a photograph that told a story you had forgotten? These kind of memories lie deep within us. Sometimes when they reach us, we can even feel our hearts pounding within our chests. These moments of remembering are portals for the Holy. There we are, cruising through life on autopilot, and we are snatched into a sacred moment of recognition.
It can be much easier to see God’s presence in retrospect. Like Moses, we usually only see the back side of God as God passes by. When we can’t recognize God in the here and now, God meets us in the past. Memory is so powerful.
This is why we as the church continually tell the stories of Jesus and read the scriptures, why we act out the waving of palms and the last supper, why we sing the familiar hymns and teach our children to memorize key Bible passages. In the moment, such recitations “may not strike fire…or be heard as matters of burning relevance. But the time will come when the congregation – or the individual – will remember and it will make all the difference.”[ii]
Think about all the places in holy scripture in which the writer is doing just this – calling on the reader or the listener to remember how God has acted in the life of the people. Remember when the children of Israel, lost in the wilderness, cried out that God had forgotten them. But Moses reminded them that God had brought them out of Egypt and made a way for them over and over again. And when the psalmist tells the story of God’s great deeds among the people from the very beginning of time until now, and declares that they will tell these stories to the coming generation so that they, too, might know the wonders that God has done.[iii] And again when the writer of Hebrews lists a roll call of heroes and heroines of the faith, reminding the reader that these people have been faithful, and God has been faithful, too.
Telling these stories reminds us that God speaks to God’s people. It gives us hope that God will still speak. Remembering activates recognition. When we remember how God has shown up in our past, we are able to recognize God in our present.
So how do we make space for this kind of remembering? How do we leave ourselves open for holy encounters to happen on the road? We pay attention to our hearts.
On the road, the disciples could not imagine the possibility that their crucified Lord would be near to them. But their hearts sensed that there was something special about this visitor all along. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”, they say to one another. Their hearts were burning within them, but in the moment they did not pay attention to their hearts. They did not see the meeting for what it was - a holy encounter, a moment of revelation. As Jesus put it, they were “slow of heart.”
This is a word for us this morning. In our traditional-worshipping, progressive-thinking, social-justice oriented, mainline Christian church, we tend to value critical thinking and acts of service over the stirrings of the heart. Some of us react against bad church experiences in which emotions have been manipulated or theological questions shut down. We know that an authentic and serious faith is one that engages the mind and motivates us to act in just and loving ways. We discount the value of the heart in matters of faith, and we push down any kind of emotional response.
Each Sunday morning, into this sanctuary come judicious lawyers, and analytical scientists and accountants, and professors trained in systematic theology, and pragmatic social workers, and well-read educators and skeptics of all sorts. We are quick to debate and discuss the idea of God, and eager to go and do the work of God, but we are unprepared or unwilling to let ourselves be moved by the experience of God, to feel the presence of God. But it is through the pounding and the burning of the heart that disciples come to recognize Jesus, and that we come to believe.
When is the last time that you followed your heart? When have you felt that burning of the heart within you, and did you pay attention to it? How much do our hearts burn within us when the scriptures are opened to us? How often do we recognize that the stranger in our midst is really the living Christ? These are the questions that the Emmaus road opens to us. These are the questions that point us to the promise and power of Easter.[iv]
When I was a student of our own Buddy Shurden at Mercer, Shurden would often talk about the “head, heart and hands” of the Christian faith. The “head” aspect of faith meant that one must approach the scriptures and one’s theology with a willingness to embrace questions and wrestle with doubt, to not blindly accept half-baked truths without careful thought. By “heart,” he meant a faith that was personal and heart-felt, one that seeks the Holy through prayer, Bible reading, contemplation and silence. “Heart” faith trusts mystery; it is compassionate and caring; it feels. And by “hands” Shurden meant a faith that does something, that is called to action. We are not in the world merely to “experience spiritual ecstasy or to store up biblical knowledge.” We are here as the body of Christ to act and live in the way of Jesus of Nazareth.[v]
Head, Heart and Hands– these three aspects of the Christian faith are like a three-legged stool. If one leg of the stool is too short, the whole thing is off balance. In order to be balanced Christians, to be whole people, we cannot ignore the “burning of the heart.”
I’ll be the first to admit that in our circles, this focus on the heart seems scandalous. It feels too touchy-feely, too uncertain, even irresponsible. It is hard for thoughtful Christians to trust our hearts. We are much more likely to put faith in our spreadsheets or our pro-and-con lists or our assessments of what’s working. We like tangible results. But when you think back about the times and places in your life through which God has guided you, hasn’t it more often than not been through a tugging of your heart?
I know that’s true for me. I know that when I was a college student trying to decide what to do with my life, the measurable things – my math aptitude, my SAT scores, my teacher’s recommendations – all said that I should study in the School of Engineering. But when I stepped into my first New Testament class, my heart burned within me and told me something different.
And when my head told me it might be smarter not to date my good friend Jody because of the risk of harming our friendship if something went wrong, my heart assured me that it might be worth the risk.
There was the instance that I didn’t think I had time for that hospital visit, but something nudged me to go anyway, and I ended up showing up just a the right moment to join a family at the bedside as their loved one passed on to the next life. So many of the holy moments of my life have been unscripted; they have happened because for a brief moment my heart burned within me.
It also makes me wonder how many holy moments I may have missed because I didn’t listen to my heart. How many times have I been the traveler on the road, and in spite of all of the evidence surrounding me, I did not recognize the stranger in my midst as the very presence of God?
The good news of the Emmaus story is that even though the two followers did not recognize Jesus, Jesus recognized them. Jesus saw them as if they were the only two people in the world. These two were rather unremarkable. It would make sense for Jesus to appear to the remaining 11 disciples or to the faithful women who showed up at the tomb. But Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple are apparently among that broader, largely unknown group who hung around Jesus. Nowhere else in the gospel story are they mentioned. But still, Jesus comes to them, in all of their confusion and grief and pain, alongside their loss of faith and hope.[vi] He takes a place at their table, and in the breaking of bread, he opens their eyes to his presence with them all along. He strips the filters from their eyes – filters of disappointment, loss, and fear that kept them from seeing him.[vii] And as soon as they recognized him, he disappeared.
He saw them on the road, and recognized them, and this is the same way he sees each one of us. The Risen Lord meets us on the road to our Emmauses, in the ordinary places and experiences of our lives, and in the places where we retreat when life becomes too much for us. Sometimes he comes in unfamiliar guises or when we least expect him, and our filters take over our sensibilities. And just as quickly and unexpectedly as the Holy comes, it disappears from our eyes. God’s movement is never constant, steady or predictable; we perceive God’s presence in fleeting moments and then the mundane closes in again.[viii]
Couldn’t God make things a little clearer – fewer elusive appearances and more straight talk, less deciphering between heartburn and the Holy Spirit? Can’t Jesus stay put for just a little bit longer so that we can really know that it is him? Oh, wouldn’t we like to be like the disciples, with a Lord that we can see and hear and touch, one that we could lean on and bask in his presence! We want a Lord nearby in case our questions need answering or our wounds need healing. But he will not stay put. We ask him to stay but he replies, “Follow!” So these are our choices: we can beg him to stay, or we can follow him.[ix] We can look for him where we expect him to be, or we can trust the burning of our hearts as we walk with him along the way. We can embrace this scandal as good news.
“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love.” Amen.[x]
[i] Yvette Schock, “Living the Word,” in The Christian Century, 30 April 2014.
[ii] Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentary Series, p. 283.
[iii] Psalm 78.
[iv] Susan Andrews, “Holy Heartburn,” The Christian Century, 7 April 1999.
[v] Walter Shurden, “Tender Hearts, Tough Minds, Trained Hands,” McAfee School of Theology Convocation address, 24 August 1999.
[vi] Amy B Hunter, The Christian Century, March 27-April 3, 2002, p. 18.
[vii] Schock, Christian Century.
[viii] Alan Culpepper, Luke, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, p. 482.
[ix] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Familiar Stranger,” in Mixed Blessings, p. 72.
[x] Book of Common Prayer, quoted by Hunter.