A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
May 4, 2014.
Back in the mid 1990’s, there was a series of books called “Magic Eye” that had pages filled with patterns, and supposedly, if you relaxed your eyes and focused just right, you could see 3-D images popping out of the pages of the book. Any of you remember those books? They were the bane of my existence because no matter what I did, I couldn’t see the 3-D images while the rest of my family could see them. I tried tilting my head. I see nothing, while Beth said, “Oh, I see the statue of liberty!” I tried squinting. I see nothing, while Thea said, “Hey, I see a dragon!” I tried crossing my eyes. I see nothing, while Wes said, “Hey, why are Dad’s eyes all messed up?” Since then, I have been able to see some images. According to the directions, the key is to relax and let the image come to you.
Sometimes, we just can’t see things even when those they are right in front of our eyes. That happened to two disciples of Jesus -- one named Cleopas, the other unnamed -- as they were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the Passover festival. They had a lot to talk about and process because, during this Passover, their teacher and rabbi Jesus was sentenced to death and crucified. Then there were rumors of incredible stories told by some women and other companions about how Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb. Confused and perplexed, they were trying to make sense of all this, but you get the sense that they had doubts as to whether Jesus was truly the Messiah, the one that they hoped was going to redeem Israel.
While they were talking, the resurrected Jesus starts walking alongside them. You would think that they would immediately recognize him, but Luke writes that “they were kept from recognizing him.” Even after Jesus gives a lecture explaining to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself, there was still no hint that those two disciples recognized Jesus.
Why didn’t they recognize Jesus? Did God restrain their vision? Were they blinded by grief? Perhaps they just were not expecting to see Jesus on this road, just like sometimes it’s hard to recognize a church member when we bump into them in another context like during a vacation on the Outer Banks. Perhaps, however, there are times when we just don’t see things even when they are right in front of our eyes.
During my first months back at UBC, I sometimes heard comments about how we just don’t have many university students and young people attending our worship service. Starting this past January, we started doing a better job in tracking our attendance using the information from our registration pads (thanks for writing your names). As we collected information, it surprised us to see that we have around 20 to 30 students worshipping with us every Sunday, but we just didn’t see them!
Another thing I heard during those first months was that we didn’t have young couples and families, but as I looked out on the congregation, I saw young couples scattered all around the sanctuary. We just didn’t see them as a group, and frankly, they didn’t see each other either. But since then, they are beginning to form a community, and they also desire to engage and contribute more to the life of UBC. That’s why they are more visible to us during worship in the past several months. But even as their visibility is raised, I must remember not to overlook other groups in the church. I . . . we . . . are invited to see everyone in our church, to honor everyone’s presence, to enlist their input and gifts. I thank God for all the diverse groups we have here at UBC!
But it’s not just the groups inside the church that sometimes we don’t see. About a month ago, I was at a gathering of different faith groups that came together to address community challenges. One of the challenges we face is the issue of a shortage of doctors and facilities to care for those suffering from mental illness. Because of the stigma attached to mental illness, it is often an invisible and silent issue. If you personally know of someone who struggles with mental illness, can you raise your hand? You can see how it affects so many of us. In the past year, 376 students in Charlottesville and Albemarle schools seriously considered suicide, but unfortunately, because of the shortage of child psychiatrists, these children may have to wait an average of three months before they can receive care with Region Ten. At the IMPACT Nehemiah Action gathering tomorrow night at John Paul Jones arena, we will hear about how our faith communities can address this and other challenges in partnership with local government and other organizations.
As Christians, we believe the risen Christ is alive and at work in the world. And if what Jesus said in Matthew 25 is correct, we also believe that Christ is also present in the least of these, in those who may be a stranger to us, in those who aren’t as visible in our communities. What keeps us from seeing the presence of the risen Christ in these seemingly invisible strangers?
As Cleopas and the other disciple approached the village of Emmaus, the stranger among them was ready to leave their company and go on his way. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. Once there, as they prepared to share a meal, something strange happened. For one thing, Cleopas broke with tradition and didn’t preside over the meal. Instead, it was the stranger who was given the honor. And as the stranger took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them, Scripture says, “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” In their act of hospitality, these disciples finally saw the stranger as the risen Christ, the host who once welcomed sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors at meals, and now who also welcomed dejected disciples and opened their eyes.
Henri Nouwen was a brilliant professor at Harvard Divinity School who left his post in order to join the L’Arche community that cared for people with developmental disabilities. In his book Reaching Out, Nouwen writes: “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. . . . It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way. The paradox of hospitality is that it [creates] a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”
As we prepare for the Lord’s Supper, our risen Christ comes to be our host and extends hospitality to us. As we take these elements, let us ask ourselves, who are the strangers to whom we can extend hospitality and create the space for them to become friends . . . in our church, in our work, in our everyday lives? My prayer is that when we extend hospitality, our eyes too will be opened to recognize the risen Christ in the stranger who hosts us. I pray that as we receive the gifts of the stranger, we too can say, “I can see who walks with me,” and “I can feel the warm stirring in my heart” in the presence of the risen Christ. Amen.
 Henri Nouwen in the chapter “Creating Space for Strangers” in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, cited in http://scottemery.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/henri-nouwen-and-hospitality/.