Part of my training for priesthood included hospital chaplaincy. For 15 weeks, 40 hours a week, I served at a hospital just outside of Berkeley. The chaplain staff was small--there were 4 of us plus the supervising chaplain--and we were each designated certain areas of the hospital. My designated areas were the Emergency Room and the D4 wing. Since we weren’t a trauma center, most of the patients in the Emergency Room were there for stitches and broken bones...pretty routine stuff. Occasionally we’d have a car accident or some other crisis. Most of the folks on D4 were repeat visitors to the hospital because after being discharged the first time, they would not go to follow up appointments or take the prescribed medications, or follow doctors orders for self care. So they would return, sometimes multiple times, usually angry that the staff had not “fixed” them. D4 was not a particularly happy place; it was pretty mundane and routine.
Often during those 15 weeks I would find myself jealous of my fellow chaplains. One chaplain had been assigned the ICU as well as the birthing center...that must have been interesting and fun. Another had been assigned to the Oncology department...in my mind I believed she was having the most “spiritual” experience praying with all those who were receiving cancer treatments and second chances on life. The other chaplain was assigned to hospice...again, a very noble and spiritual placement. Me...mundane D4 and the ER.
One day during our chaplain staff meeting, I shared that I was rather miffed that I had been given such a spiritually unfulfilling assignment. While I was quite convinced that God was in the ICU and the Birthing Center, with the cancer patients and those who were dying, God was not with the broken bones or the man who refused to follow doctor’s orders.
The supervising chaplain, a Buddhist monk, reached over to the bookshelf in the chaplain’s office and brought the Bible into the center of our circle. He asked me if I was familiar with the story of Jesus meeting the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Of course I was. And then he asked if the disciples recognized Jesus. I said, “well, no, not at first”. Finally he asked what it took for them to recognize Jesus, and I said it was when they shared a meal together. He said “that’s right...in the middle of the most routine, mundane experience of eating, the disciples recognized Jesus”.
I share this story with you because we all have those moments when we feel like Jesus isn’t with us. We imagine that Jesus has more important things to do, people who need his attention more than we do, or that he just isn’t there at all.
So let’s put the Road to Emmaus story in context. After the crucifixion, Mary and the other women have gone to the tomb to care for Jesus’s body, but it is not there. According to Cleopas and the other disciple, the women had seen angels who said that Jesus was alive, but they themselves had not had this experience, and so they were on their way home. They were returning to their fishing nets, their daily tasks and the appointments they had missed. They were returning to their mundane and routine lives.
And it is here, in this journey from Jerusalem to home, that they encounter a stranger who asks what they are talking about. And when the two disciples hear this, they are stopped dead in the tracks--the text says “they stood still, looking sad”. How could anyone have not heard the story of Jesus’s crucifixion? And yet, this is where Jesus interrupts their lives once again. Even though they don’t recognize him at first, the disciples engage in a dialogue with the stranger that will not only recall salvation history and the story of the prophets, but that also includes dinner.
In the meal shared between Jesus and these two disciples, not only do we get a glimpse of what will later be known as the Eucharist--the thanksgiving, the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the meal--but the eyes of the disciples are opened. In the mundane and routine events of a meal, they recognize Jesus in their midst.
Over coffee recently a friend shared with me his idea of evangelism. Now before you roll your eyes or stop listening altogether, let me say that my friend demystified the word evangelism for me. For him, evangelism is all about welcoming another. No where in our conversation did he talk about knocking on doors or handing out pamphlets. Instead he said there are three things to know about welcoming another--inviting, including, and enabling.
This got me thinking...was Jesus an evangelist? Throughout the gospels we hear about him inviting people to join him--”come and see”. He invited Matthew the tax collector to be a disciple. He called people by name. He invited the unclean and the unwelcomed to be in his company. They knew they were welcome. Jesus also included people in his ministry; he wasn’t out there on his own talking about the Kingdom of God--he told his friends to go out two by two and continue on in the healing, teaching and preaching of the Kingdom. And he enabled them to do their ministry through the outpouring of gifts of the Holy Spirit.
And in this story of the Road to Emmaus, Jesus invited, included and enabled Cleopas and the other disciple. He invited them by joining them on their walk and in their conversation. He included them by accepting their invitation to dinner and then revealing himself in the breaking of bread, and in his revelation, he enabled them to return to Jerusalem to share the good news. In the mundane and routine lives of these two disciples, Jesus welcomed them back into new life...a life that we were reminded of in this morning’s other readings...a life of promise and mutual love.
After that day in the chaplain’s meeting, I never complained again about feeling cheated that God wasn’t on D4 or the ER. My supervisor had reminded me that in the mundane and routine--the stitches, broken bones, and neglected follow up care--Jesus was there. He had, as Cynthia Jarvis said, assumed our condition and accompanied us in life. But that’s not all. Jesus was there welcoming me to see him in the face of the patients...inviting me to deeper listening, including me in their sorrow and frustration, and enabling me to be more empathetic and compassionate.
On this third Sunday of Easter, this Sunday when we know that the tomb is empty, but we might not be sure what’s next, I invite you to consider when you’ve encountered Jesus in the mundane and routine. What is your Road to Emmaus story and how did it enable you to see the Risen Christ and share the good news?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.