I like to think that I’m perceptive. When I was in middle school I had a teacher who would praise me for that. “You are so perceptive…nothing gets past you.”
So I began to think that was true and that I had a gift for recognizing what was around me. And I got to be a little too comfortable with that idea. Surely, if there was something important for me to notice, I wouldn’t miss it.
Except here’s the thing…adulthood has taught me that I’m not as perceptive as I’d like to think. I’ve had a few times where I have failed to even recognize people when they are right in front of me, usually because they are in places where I didn’t expect to see them.
Like the time I was on a quick overnight trip to Washington, DC, and I was riding the Metro thinking about one of my best friends from college who lived there now, and how I should really look her up. And the train pulled into the station, I hopped out, and I walked right past this woman in the crowd going the other direction.
I looked right at her, even made eye contact. But I just kept going. And I got about ten steps past her when it clicked. We turned back around at the same time. And, of course, it was her.
Then there was another time, and I told this story once at a summer service, when I spent an entire breakfast with Aretha Franklin sitting at the next table. I was so engrossed in conversation, though, that I didn’t even know it until she left and the waiter said “Do you know who that was?”
Like, really, how do you miss Aretha Franklin?
I think about those stories whenever I read today’s Scripture. Because this is a story of missing what’s right in front of you. The disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus talking about Jesus. And you have to remember, this was later on the day of the first Easter. They haven’t seen the resurrected Christ yet, but they’d heard rumors.
Then a third person starts walking down the road with them and asks “what are you talking about”? And they say, “you haven’t heard about this?” They tell him about Jesus, and how they had pinned all their hopes on him only to see him arrested, and dead and buried. And they tell him how some of the women had found the empty tomb and how the angel had told them that he was alive, but no one knew what was happening yet.
And when they are done telling the man this, he begins to teach them about faith. And when they get to Emmaus, the disciples beg him to stay for dinner and eat with them. And it is only when they get to the table, and only when the stranger takes the bread and breaks it, that Scripture tells us their eyes were truly opened and they realized that they had been in Christ’s presence the entire time.
I like this story because it makes me feel better to know that there are others who miss the obvious. My guess is that the two disciples in this story were no slouches either. They knew Jesus. They probably thought they would have recognized him anywhere. And yet, they were looking right at him and missing him. And it’s not that they didn’t see him…seeing is overrated in some ways. It’s that they didn’t recognize him.
I think this happens more that we like to admit. We think we see what’s right in front of us, but our vision is a little off. It takes a little extra nudge for us to really get it. And, we think we would know if God was walking with us on our journey.
That last part is sometimes the hardest. Because the reality is that we are all on a journey. None of us, no matter how much we want to, gets to stay in one place forever. New things happen, unexpected things happen, hard things happen. The disciples walking that road knew about that.
Their lives had been turned upside down, and they didn’t know what was going to happen next. They were afraid, and anxious, and they weren’t sure whether they could let themselves be hopeful. And so when Jesus joined them on the road, they couldn’t, or maybe they wouldn’t, see what was right in front of them.
There’s a story of a man who was blind and who decided to sail across the ocean. And he was interviewed for a news program by a pundit who believed he was foolish and that he was so limited by his abilities that he didn’t even understand what he was doing. And after a while the sailor replied to him, “Wow, for a guy who can see, you sure don’t have a lot of vision.”
I think about the times in my life when my eyesight has been fine, but I have not recognized Jesus. And that’s because Christianity is not about how well we see with our eyes, but how well we recognize God in our hearts.
We Christians call ourselves “Easter people”. Because unlike these disciples walking down the road, we know how the story ends. We know Christ is risen. But that day, on that first Easter, the disciples didn’t have the benefit of knowing that.
But after Jesus reveals himself they say to one another “weren’t our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us”? Only when they went deeper than their sight, and listened to their hearts, did they recognize God among them.
Now, you may be saying “when did I ever physically walk with Jesus, and see him face to face”? The disciples at least got that chance. Why don’t I? And you’re right, I’ve never found myself sitting down to dinner with Jesus there in the flesh right across the table. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been there. They key is trusting the burning in your heart enough to recognize it.
And a big part of that, of staying perceptive to the world around you, is about remembering what’s important, and not getting distracted.
This weekend I was keynoting the annual meeting of the Vermont Conference of the UCC. At meal times I’d sit with different groups of people and they’d start to recognize me. “Hey, are you the one whose speaking?” “Hey, are you the one who wrote this book?” And when I said “yes” we’d start talking, and we’d have these great, lively discussions.
And then one meal I was sitting next to a six year old. And we were talking a little bit. And then out of no where he asked me this question, “Hey, are you the one who made the chocolate cake?”
And I said, “No, I’m sorry.”
And he said, “Oh.” And then…crickets. He was clearly all done with me.
I tell you this story, though, because I like his focus. He really liked that chocolate cake, and he was going to find the person who could get him more. And if that wasn’t you, he was going to keep looking.
So often in life we get distracted from the things we really want to find. We walk down our Emmaus roads and are so caught up in details and stresses of life, and in just getting to the next destination, that we fail to remember that we are on a bigger journey. And so, when God comes and literally walks next to us, we don’t even realize it.
The challenge is to spend out lives looking for the presence and love of God with the same focus as a six year old looking for cake. And when we find distractions along the way, you know, like boring people who don’t know where the cake is, we have to be able to keep our eyes on the prize, and refocus. We can’t let anything deter us from our vision.
God is not a cake, of course, no matter how great it might be. But God is something even sweeter. God is the one who can give our lives their greatest meaning. God is the one who can love us so much, that we will know how to love one another. And in a world filled with so many distractions, we have to learn to be perceptive enough to recognize God’s presence.
Because what if the kingdom of God is already surrounding us, and we just have to have the heart to recognize it? I believe it is. I believe the kingdom of God exists in many places in this world, and I believe Exeter is one of them. And I believe Jesus is already with us on this journey, and has been for many years. And because of that, I believe that we will never walk alone.