Qoheleth is the author of Ecclesiastes whose name literally means “The Preacher.” Other than his famous soliloquy that begins with ”For everything there is a season,” the rest of the book describes life as nothing but wasted breath. Half of the pronouncements are on the negative side of the ledger, such as “a time to weep, a time to mourn, and a time to seek” while the remaining half make their way to the positive side of the ledger, including “a time to laugh, a time to dance and a time to lose.” 28 qualifiers in all frame life and death in measurable terms. The Preacher says, There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their daily work. This is God’s gift; for apart from God, who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping,
In other words, our approach to life’s balance between joy and struggle is up to us.
In this my 40th year of ordained ministry, I have conducted at least 200-300 funerals in those years due to working as a hospital chaplain and frequent requests by a funeral home to conduct funerals for those who did not have a minister. This also is our 40th year of marriage and in that time, I conducted the funerals for numerous family members, including my mother-in-law, father-in-law, sister-in-law, as well as the funeral for my own sister last fall. I know what it means and how it feels to walk away from a graveyard and so do you.
With that backdrop you can understand the heartache and confusion of the two people who walked 7 miles away from what was all practical purposes – a graveyard. They left Jerusalem where in a whirlwind of days, there had been a kangaroo court trial, shade-tree justice with a conviction and death sentence, followed by a hasty crucifixion and to top it all off, a missing body! The only thing left to do was to trudge their way home, all 7 miles, but before long were joined in their walk by a stranger, obviously not from around those parts since he had no clue why they were so down in the dumps. Like one of those annoying people who are much too jovial and too verbose. “What are the both of you talking about?” They could as easily have said, “Have you been under a rock for a week or stopped taking the newspaper?” They were kind in their reply as they asked, “Are you the only one in town not to know about the dark cloud hanging over Jerusalem these days?”
Pointedly their diagnosis is explained by the line, “They were kept from recognizing him.” Plainly, their emotional state kept them in the dark from recognizing the irony of their dilemma that day. Their leader was missing. He had been killed. Now what were they going to do? How would they cope? As the left the cemetery that day, their lives were nowhere near being able to process a hopeful future. We have left plenty graveyards in our own day with the questions raging, “How can God be Missing IN Action, choosing to instead not to rescue us? How familiar are with with struggles that sound like, “Why God, Why?” and “When, God, When?” “Their eyes were KEPT from recognizing him means they were infected with spiritual cataracts and all they could see was the surrounding darkness. The irony was that in their very presence, the one they missed the most was the one that walked beside them, talked to them and told them all the stories about himself. All they needed was a brick to fall on them to go with the 2 X 4 they already had with them. Yet they continued the entire 7 miles home in the same overwhelm and the weight of their struggles keeping them in the dark. Perhaps God needed to take out his handy pocket Torah and read the passages about himself “I will not leave you.” How often have you felt that you have traveled as far as you can and are still no closer to having answers for life’s dilemmas than before? Our wounded heart blinds us just as their hearts and minds blinded these two that day as well. Too often the soles of our own shoes lead down discouraging paths and it seems that our only option left is to head home, shut the door and close out whatever you can. Pay attention. Look up. Listen. This is a story that describes how life too often caves in upon us. Look at what happened. They travel their 7 miles and arrive home still confused who it was who accompanied them. Still it was the end of the day and regardless of anything else, their custom was to open their door, home and table to whoever had a need.
In biblical tradition, the practice of hospitality comes from the word philo, one of the four Greek words for love of stranger. Love of stranger is about as counter-intuitive as you can get. For many, xenophobia—fear of stranger—comes much more naturally. According to Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, “the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger.’” Why should we do that? Because we have been strangers ourselves, the Bible says. If we have never been strangers, it is because we have never left home. The people of Israel left home, repeatedly. They knew what it was like to hear keys turning in locks and shutters being shut when they approached homes in distant lands. The church was not a place but a people who met in one another’s homes and ate at one another’s tables. Jesus did his best to teach his followers how to do it too. Bosnian-born theologian Miroslav Volf says, “It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference.”
There was no option other than welcome this stranger into their home and no way that Jesus could have continued his travel because His main desire was to enter life at its most real and desperate moments. As Jesus was welcomed into their home, they gathered around a table where communion and conversation happen, where life is shared and where we are perhaps more human than at any other place. To me it is strange that rather than the hosts, it was Jesus who broke the bread, but maybe that was the custom, such as asking the guest to say the blessing. But the scene moves from Jesus breaking the bread to the startled expression on the faces of the two who suddenly, after all that had been said and done that day, finally miraculously recognize who it is they had been missing all along and who they thought would be absent from their lives forever.
Jesus was present when they thought he was absent. During the worst time in their lives, when their future looked bleak and when their lives were at their darkest; Jesus was present and walked beside them. I am confident enough to claim for you that same assertion. That when you think life is at its bleakest and most hopeless, there is a power greater than your own that walks beside you to befriend you, in front of you to guide you, beneath you to support you and behind you to hold you up. Never doubt that. Never forget that! The way that presence of God operates is not ours to control and certainly not ours to summon at our own whim. But perhaps the greatest part of the story this morning is the miracle of God’s Presence at all – when life is at its worst.
Two things happened that day. Have you noticed that one of the two is unnamed? He/she is a stranger to us just as Jesus was, throughout most of this event, a stranger to them both. This unnamed person is easy to overlook when both were deep in their grief. They wanted to run home and shut their door and close the curtains but instead they walked and they grieved. They answered questions and they listened. Then perhaps the most difficult thing they may have done was to ask a stranger into their home for a meal and for the night. Someone once said that God other name is “Surprise” and these two were willing to go outside their comfort zones in order to have God surprise them. When were you last “surprised” by God? When was it that you placed yourself, perhaps in your worst moment, in a place where God just might “gob smack” you in surprise? Isn’t that at the very root of what hospitality is all about? It happens when we are willing to allow God to surprise us even when we least feel that is impossible!
Above all this is a story about giving up our need for control enough to allow God to surprise us. The second thing that happened that day is that these two were open to wonder who this stranger might truly be? Similar to Moses who saw a burning bush and said, “Wait, this is unusual. Let’s stop and take a look.” Similar to a woman who had been bleeding constantly for 12 years and asked herself, “What if I just touched the robe of Jesus? What might happen?” All were willing to leave the familiar and comfortable, be open to wonder enough so that God might surprise them with a miracle of His Presence. For me that is the definition of hospitality!
It led to a miracle which is an event that strengthens faith. Perhaps you felt that God is not responding in the timely way that you feel you need or expect God to respond? Maybe your miracle is right in front of your nose – in the form of the most common act known to us all – something as simple as breaking bread – or bowing in prayer – or giving a hug – or sending a card of gratitude. “Faith in God has less chance of being found from miracles than miracles from faith in God.” Perhaps the story says that our wonder and God’s surprise may have more to do with our own hospitality than we might ever imagine. In our world there may be no greater miracle than welcoming the stranger and no greater avenue of experiencing the Presence of Christ than within our own acts of care and kindness. Leaving a graveyard may be the most difficult struggle of our lives. Could it be that it might also provide our best opportunity to experience God’s surprise. May it be so. Amen.