We read today’s story as part of Easter-tide, but I found myself coming back to it again. Because it is an odd story that calls us to look deeper. The disciples were walking with Jesus. But they did not recognize him. How could they not recognize Jesus? Why did they not see? Just as on Pentecost I talked about how sometimes it is really hard to hear and understand one another, sometimes it is also very hard to see. So I ask you to take a moment and reflect on these questions: What do we fail to see because we don’t expect what is actually there? What do we fail to see because we don’t want to see it? What do we fail to see because we don’t believe it? What do we fail to see because something isn’t where we expect it to be?
There once was a little boy named Sam who was very excited about Halloween. But his parents kept putting off getting his costume until finally the day of Halloween his mother came home with a costume that Sam hated. It was of some comic book character who had been big once but who now was seen by all the kids to be ridiculous and only for the littlest of children. Sam was devastated. How could he ever wear this? He couldn’t possibly go out on Halloween in this costume! He was so upset, he ran down the street to where an older couple who had become surrogate grandparents to Sam lived. He ran into their house and cried and cried about the terrible costume his mother had picked out for him. Well, Norm, the older man thought for a few minutes and then he said to his wife, “Don’t we have some old costumes up in the attic from when our kids were children?”
“Why, I believe we do!” she replied. Up they all went into the attic and down they came with an old ghost costume. Really, it was just a sheet with holes cut in it for the eyes. But Sam was so thrilled with the costume, he just couldn’t wait to put it on. With a look of awe in his eyes, he pulled the sheet down over his head and before anyone could stop him, he went running out the door to go trick or treating and ran straight through the yard and bam into a tree! Norm saw this and he dashed out after him, picked up the little boy, but before he could stop him, there Sam took off again, running as fast as he could until bam he ran smack into another tree! This time the force pushed him flat onto his back where he lay still until Norm came running up. Norm wondered what on earth was going on until he looked into Sam’s face and realized that Sam had not lined up the eye holes to match his eyes. He had been virtually blind, running around the yard, completely unable to see where he was going. Norm gently but firmly took hold of the sheet, pulled it around until Sam was able to see through the eye holes, tied a rope around his waist to hold the costume in place and sent Sam off on a much more successful and enjoyable Halloween evening of trick-or-treating!
One day a boy was walking down a road when a frog called to him, “Boy, if you kiss me, I will turn into a beautiful princess.” The boy picked up the frog, smiled at it, then placed the frog into his pocket. A few minutes later, the frog said, “Boy, if you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, and I will stay with you for a week.” The boy took the frog from his pocket, smiled at it, then put it back into his pocket. A few minutes later, the frog said, “Boy, if you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will do anything you want!” The boy took the frog from his pocket, smiled, and put it back. Finally, the frog cried, “Boy, what is the matter, I have told you that I am a beautiful princess, and if you kiss me, I will stay with you and do anything you want!” The boy took the frog from his pocket and said, “Look, I am an engineering student, I have no time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog is cool!”
The boy saw a different reality from the frog. The boy saw farther, or at least he saw differently.
About twelve years ago, on my birthday, Jasmyn brought me a present wrapped up. Jasmyn was the ripe age of four and a half. She was little and she was a typical young child who couldn’t really see beyond herself in so many ways. I knew it was a store-bought present, as opposed to something made for me. And I had been told by all of the adults who knew what the gift was that I should not to expect much in this gift because Jasmyn had insisted on buying this particular present despite being strongly encouraged to pick something else. It was given to me with looks of apology and even discomfort from the adults who knew what the gift was. So I opened it without much hope or expectation. This is the gift (show them the miniature). What do you see in this?
I’ll tell you what I see. I see Jasmyn herself. Especially at that age…a little dancing fairy girl. She found a replica of herself at that age, what I saw most profoundly, most deeply within herself at that age. And that is what she gave to me: a memory of Jasmyn at the age of almost 5. And I felt that in her insistence on this particular gift, she actually had a deeper insight into what I loved most than anyone else around her at the time. She had sight into who I was, into what I saw, and into what I valued, that the adults around did not see.
A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me something so very precious - Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
Sometimes the darkness or the challenges in life themselves carries a gift for us. I am reminded of a MASH episode in which Hawkeye had a stove explode in his face which caused eye damage in both eyes. He lost his vision and he didn’t know if that loss was permanent or temporary. The day before he was to see the doctor to have the bandages removed – the day before he was to discover if the eye damage was permanent or temporary – he seemed in a frantic mode of insisting on walking around and moving around. BJ confronts his frantic walking around and going out saying, “Hawkeye, I know what you’re trying to do. And I know how you feel…You don’t want to think about what might happen, so you keep running.” But Hawkeye insists that that’s not the case. He says, “Look, when Dr. Oberman comes in here tomorrow, and unwraps my eyes, I hope to God I’ll have my sight back. But… something fascinating has been happening to me…One part of the world has closed down to me but another part has opened up. Sure, I keep picturing myself sitting on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers, but I’m going through something here that I didn’t expect. I spent two incredible hours this morning listening to that rain storm. And I didn’t just hear it, I was part of it. I bet you have no idea that rain hitting the ground makes the same sound as steaks when they’re barbequing. Or that thunder seems to echo forever. And you wouldn’t believe how funny it is to hear somebody slip and fall in the mud… This is full of trap doors, but I think there has to be some advantage to this. I’ve never spent a more conscious day in my life.”
When we are given the opportunity to see things, hear things, understand things from a different perspective, it is an incredible gift. It helps us to see, to really see, beyond what our eyes tell us. And sometimes our eyes get in the way. I have a friend who did some work helping people fix up their houses. She was painting rooms in a house one time and told me that the old paint in one room had had to be scraped off before they put on the new paint because the wall had been textured. However, the previous paint had been sponge painted on. That meant that the wall looked textured even where the texturing had already been scraped off. She told me she had to scrape the walls with her eyes closed because her eyes did not tell her the truth about what she was seeing, about whether the wall was still textured or just looked that way because of the sponge paint.
As you know, World War I was a very bloody and aggressive war, a time of great death and tragedy and loss. At the Western Front it was bloody and violent like everywhere else. But on Christmas Eve, 1915, things changed for a moment. Soldiers heard across the lines, across the divisions in politics and beliefs, other soldiers singing Christmas carols. In listening to one another, the German soldiers from Saxony were inspired to make a brave choice. Bringing food across the front, and singing Christmas Carols, they came to the British soldiers they were fighting in a Christmas spirit. The British soldiers, shocked at first, were also moved and found themselves responding by joining in the singing and offering up what they had to share in the festivities as well. After a time of singing and faith celebration, pictures were shared, personal stories began to be told, sometimes only through hand signs, between people of many different nationalities. In one version of this story, officers had to break up the comradery as they realized fighting would soon become impossible between these two groups if they continued to get to know, share and celebrate with one another. In another version of the story, the bonds made that night were so great that those soldiers could not be compelled to continue fighting those they had come to see as human brothers and sisters. These soldiers, then, on both sides, would no longer kill each other and had to be moved off the front. In the midst of tragedy, in the midst of war, in the midst of violence and death and anger, new sight was gained, new vision given, through sharing, through seeing one another as the human beings that we all are.
A mother told this story: We were the only family with children in the restaurant. I sat Erik in a high chair and noticed everyone was quietly sitting and talking. Suddenly, Erik squealed with glee and said, 'Hi.' He pounded his fat baby hands on the high chair tray. His eyes were crinkled in laughter and his mouth was bared in a toothless grin, as he wriggled and giggled with merriment. I looked around and saw the source of his merriment. It was a man whose pants were baggy with a zipper at half-mast and his toes poked out of would-be shoes. His shirt was dirty and his hair was uncombed and unwashed. His whiskers were too short to be called a beard and his nose was so varicose it looked like a road map. We were too far from him to smell, but I was sure he smelled.. His hands waved and flapped on loose wrists. 'Hi there, baby; hi there, big boy.. I see ya, buster,' the man said to Erik. My husband and I exchanged looks, 'What do we do?' Erik continued to laugh and answer, 'Hi.' Everyone in the restaurant noticed and looked at us and then at the man. The old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby. Our meal came and the man began shouting from across the room, 'Do ya patty cake? Do you know peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek- a-boo.' Nobody thought the old man was cute. He was obviously drunk. My husband and I were embarrassed. We ate in silence; all except for Erik, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring skid-row bum, who in turn, reciprocated with his cute comments. We finally got through the meal and headed for the door. My husband went to pay the check and told me to meet him in the parking lot. The old man sat poised between me and the door. 'Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik,' I prayed. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back trying to sidestep him and avoid any air he might be breathing. As I did, Erik leaned over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby's 'pick-me-up' position. Before I could stop him, Erik had propelled himself from my arms to the man. Suddenly a very old smelly man and a very young baby united in love and kinship. Erik in an act of total trust, love, and submission laid his tiny head upon the man's ragged shoulder. The man's eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, pain, and hard labor, cradled my baby and stroked his back. No two beings have ever loved so deeply for so short a time. I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms and his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm commanding voice, 'You take care of this baby.' Somehow I managed, 'I will,' from a throat that contained a stone. He pried Erik from his chest, lovingly and longingly, as though he were in pain. I received my baby, and the man said, 'God bless you, ma'am, you've given me my Christmas gift.' I said nothing more than a muttered thanks. With Erik in my arms, I ran for the car. My husband was wondering why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly, and why I was saying, 'My God, my God, forgive me.' I had just witnessed Christ's love shown through the innocence of a tiny child who saw no sin, who made no judgment; a child who saw a soul, and a mother who saw a suit of clothes. I was a Christian who was blind, holding a child who was not. I felt it was God asking, 'Are you willing to share your son for a moment?' when God had shared God’s son for all eternity. How did God feel when God put Jesus in our arms 2000 years ago. The ragged old man, unwittingly, had reminded me, 'To enter the Kingdom of God , we must become as little children.' Sometimes, it takes a child to remind us of what is really important. We must always remember who we are, where we came from and, most importantly, how we feel about others. The clothes on your back or the car that you drive or the house that you live in does not define you at all; it is how you treat other people that identifies who you are.
A blind person asked God once, is there anything worse than losing your sight? To which God responded, “yes, losing your vision.”
When we try to see with our eyes, we often fail to do so. That blindness, that inability to see without help is a common problem for humans. We walk around in the dark, not because it is dark, but because our vision is covered, obscured in some way. It can be obscured by our politics, obscured by our beliefs, obscured by what we expect to see or what we fear seeing. It can be obscured by our pride, or even by our shame. Oftentimes this blindness causes us to err, to sin, to take a wrong path so that somebody gets hurt, ourselves or someone else. We all have blind spots, we all need God’s help to see.
Today’s story on the road to Emmaus is a human story. A human story of failing to see God, to see Divinity, to see Christ, in the one who is with us, in the one walking along by our side. The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus. And we often don’t recognize the God in the person we are with. But it is our call to try, to crane to see a little deeper, a little more where, what and who God really is. It is our call to see God in the ones we are with, no matter what road we walk. My prayer for all of us is sight, is vision. Thanks be to God. Amen.