I would imagine that many of you are familiar with the prayer written by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which has been named the serenity prayer. The original version went like this: “God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Change is a part of life. Change is life. Every day is a new day and as hard as we might try to keep things as they are, things keep changing– I hate it when that happens. Changes can be small, like they moved the bread isle in the grocery story, they can be annoying, like you have to take your shoes off when going through security at the airport, and they can be life changing, like you will be on a certain medication for the rest of your life. Change is hard. Sometimes it’s for the better and sometimes it’s for the worse and sometimes it just is. Some of us are more adaptable to change than others. Some of us can accept cultural changes like email, texting, Twitter and Facebook and some of us are just fine with our landline, mailboxes, and 8 track 47’s thank you very much.
These changes are normal, expected and predictable. The changes that I find more life changing are transitions. Transitions are hard. They leave us vulnerable, unsteady and disarming. Transitions are always about leaving the past and entering a new normal. It always involves pain, loss, possibility and hope.
They were walking along a road to a town called Emmaus. It had been a few days, or was it a few weeks, or maybe just an hour had past since that horrible day? It was hard to say. So much had happened, time was measured differently and they were in a fog. Too much change was happening to them at once.
There was an arrest, a trial (if you can call it that), a flogging and eventually a crucifixion. It was awful. He was gone. They heard tell that he had returned but they hadn’t seen Jesus themselves. So they decided to get out of town for a while. Clear their minds. There was just too much change all at once.
They journeyed down a road they hadn’t planned on taking after an event that had not planned on experiencing. Ugh. Life didn’t work out as they had planned.
I wonder if they did some bartering. “Maybe if we had done this, this wouldn’t have happened” or some magical thinking, “Maybe if we just escape for a while, everything will return to normal.,” Maybe they were angry, “why did this happen to us?” Maybe they were grieving, “why can’t things go back to the way they were?” They are on a road between the past and the future. They are on the road of transition.
As they walk along a stranger shows up and starts listening and asks what they are talking about.
Surprised by the man’s lack of knowledge on Jerusalem’s current events, they see this stranger as the chance to let their story pour out of them.
They tell him the events of the last few days, and their loss of their friend and the rumor that he was alive. And then an unusual thing happens, this unknown companion responds to their story by referring to scripture. He puts what just happened in the big picture of Old Testament and he helps them remember what the meaning of Jesus’ life and death is all about.
It’s interesting that in dealing with grief and change the unknown companion reminds the travelers of the foundation of their faith. This is the first lesson of this famous story – when you are experiencing a great deal of change and transition in your life and everything is different, remember your foundation. What do you believe at your core? What keeps you grounded? What gives you stability? No matter what is going on in your life, these things will not change. If you are in a state of unknown, focus on what you do know. I have a good friend whose father was dying. After weeks of holding vigil and watching him suffer, knowing he was going to die, she was at the end of her rope. She went into the hospital room bathroom and sobbed and sobbed. Suddenly, the words of the Lord’s prayer came to her. She hadn’t said the Lord’s Prayer since she was a child, but suddenly she remembered the words. She prayed it over and over again, and the words provided a healing salve in the midst of great grief. Lesson one, when everything is changing rely on your foundation, return to your core beliefs – rely on scripture, prayer and calling on God to keep you grounded and aligned.
As the disciples remember who they are and what they believe, they start behaving in a manner that reflects their beliefs. They remember their manners and they invite the stranger to dinner. They extend hospitality to a stranger. Even though they are still in the unknowing and they have been taught. And when they sit down at the table and Jesus break bread and Luke says, “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” Lesson number two, Jesus reveals himself when we practice what we believe.
We have been through a huge transition the past 9 months. Our family is transitioning to a new town with a new life. Orchard Park Presbyterian Church has been on transition steroids for past three years! Not just changes in the bulletin or in the order of worship or in communication, but real challenging transitions. The old life has gone a new life has begun and that process is painful. There is a reason Paul says, the whole world has suffering in labor pains and Jesus says, “come to me all you who labor” because when you are changing and growing and transitioning, it is painful. So when we as a congregation or as individuals go through transitions, it would be wise for us to remember our foundational beliefs staying strong in our core values and practicing disciplines that remind us that we belong to Jesus Christ. Breaking bread together, praying together, being hospitable to strangers, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, teaching children, studying the Word, these practices are constant in the midst of change and remind us who we are and why we are here and that Jesus is with us. We keep our eyes on the practices we believe in, while the changes swirl around us.
This brings us to the third lesson: God journeys with us, always. This is what “Emmanuel,” God with us is all about. This is not some glib Christmas card cliché. This is always the case – God is always with us. Have you ever gone hiking through the woods and after a while realized that the whole time you have been looking down to the ground, watching out for roots and dips in the earth, for fear of falling, and you realize that you have to consciously make yourself look up. You have to trust that you will not fall and when you do finally look up you see such glory. I think walking with Jesus is like that. We walk along with our face to the ground, thinking, thinking, fretting, fretting, and all along if we just stop long enough to look around we will see something glorious.
In his book The Dance of Hope, William Frey, retired Episcopal bishop from Colorado, recalls how he volunteered to read to an older student named John, who was blind.
One day, Bishop Frey said, I just had to ask him, “How did you lose your eyesight?” “A chemical explosion,” John answered, “at the age of thirteen.” Still curious, Frey asked John, “How did that make you feel?” John responded, with brutal honesty, “Life felt like it was over for me, I felt helpless and I hated God with all my heart. For the first six months, I did nothing but stay in my room and I ate all my meals alone, by my choice. Then a curious thing happened. One day my father entered my room and said, ‘John, winter’s coming and the storm windows need to be up. That’s your job. I want those hung by the time I get back this evening or else.’” The John’s father turned and walked out of the room and slammed the door. John reported that he was so angry that he was thinking, “Who does he think he is? Who does he think I am? I’m blind.” He was so furious, he decided to do it. “I’ll show them. I’m gonna try to do it and I’m gonna be not only blind, but I’m gonna be paralyzed, ’cause I’m gonna fall. I’ll get them.” He felt his way to the garage and found the windows and located the necessary tools.
He found the ladder, and all the while he was muttering under his breath, “I’ll show them. I’ll fall, and they’ll have a blind and paralyzed son. That’ll be great payback.” Eventually, he did complete the goal, the assignment; he did get the windows up before evening.
But the assignment achieved more than that. It achieved the father’s goal as well. John reported that it was at that point that he slowly realized that he could still work and even more so that he could begin to reconstruct his life. As John continued to tell Bill Frey his story, John’s eyes, his blind eyes began to mist. “Seven years later, I learned that something else important had happened that day, that the entire day my father was no more than three or four feet from me.”
Long ago, there was an appearance on Old Emmaus Road. And there are appearances even today. Sometimes we find ourselves in places we never thought we would be, and we think, “how could this happen?” and we find ourselves in despair. When that happens, return to what you know. Open yourselves to the ancient words of the Bible, stay committed to prayer, find assurance in those words. Once you remember what you believe, practice what you believe. Show kindness to strangers, pray for each other, perform acts of justice…when you do these things, you will suddenly realize that Christ is sitting at your table, your eyes will be opened, and you will recognize him.
Let us pray:
God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Lord Jesus, stay with us. Be our companion on 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.