Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Back to a New Normal”
Rev. Art Ritter
April 26, 2020
Luke 24: 13-35
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Several years ago, the Washington Post conducted a social experiment. They took Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the entire world, and set him up to play at a Metro subway station in the heart of Washington D.C. Earlier that year Bell was voted the best classical musician in America and had played to sold out crowds in many cities. On that particular morning, Bell started playing about 7:45, right in the middle of rush hour commuters, wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, blue jeans, and a baseball cap. He put his violin case out, put in a couple of dollars and played to see how much attention and money he would garner. Bell used his own violin, one valued at 3.5 million dollars. He played six classical pieces in a style and manner that few artists could match. A hidden camera documented everything that happened.
A total of three minutes and sixty-three people passed before finally a middle-aged man altered his gait for a second and turned his head to listen to the music. A bit later, Bell got his first donation, one dollar thrown into the case. In all, Bell played for forty three minutes. Only seven people stopped and stood nearby him to listen. It is estimated that 1,070 people hurried by, oblivious to the musical master who was playing for free. Inside Bell’s violin case was a whopping $32, $20 of that from the only person who recognized Bell from a concert the night before at the Library of Congress. Most of the money in the case was pennies.
Few people that morning recognized the beauty of the music and the talent of Joshua Bell. Not many even saw him. Only one knew who he was. Their heads were down, their eyes looking straight ahead, and their minds were focused on the world as they knew it to be that morning.
Last Sunday night we had a session of B3, our pub theology discussion here at Meadowbrook that meets monthly. We had not met since the stay at home discipline has begun but Sunday we met via Zoom technology. After checking in with everyone to share how we were experiencing the pandemic, I tossed out a simple yet profound question. Where have you experienced God in our current situation? In the spirit of the season I rephrased the question to where have you experienced the Risen Christ in your lives in the past month? There were lots of good answers and some of those I expected. People saw the presence of God in the actions of doctors and nurses and medical workers who have been brave and unselfish and compassionate. People saw the presence of God in those who risk their own health providing safety and essential services. People saw the presence of God in hospitality and concern in friends and family. But the responses got even more interesting and perhaps a bit more unexpected. One person said that they found the presence of God in understanding those things beyond the ordinary, seeing and cherishing something eternal that has suddenly been elevated above the normal concerns of work and meetings and leisure. Someone spoke about gratitude and appreciation and an awareness of the gifts of others. Another person talked about a new realization of what is important, of the meaning of their life. I believe that because of the current situation, all of us are more likely to reflect upon our life and understand more clearly where God has been with us and how God’s promise builds hope for our future.
The bottom line is that the current pandemic has taken the blinders off many of us. What we deemed as crucial and important a few weeks ago suddenly doesn’t seem as crucial or important. We are in a place where we more readily appreciate the gifts of our work and of the labors of others. We are in a place where we better understand the sacrifice that comes with ordinary compassion. We are in a place where we look upon the world with a fresh perspective, one that views our lives from a transcendent and holy angle, rather than the immediate, utilitarian perspective that we are used to using.
The Scripture lesson for the third Sunday of Easter is the familiar story of the road to Emmaus. Emmaus was a village located about seven miles from Jerusalem and was perhaps the hometown of one of the two followers of Jesus who were walking there. As these men walked, they talked about the death of Jesus, perhaps about the rumors of his resurrection, but certainly about the disappointment they held that he was gone and their dreams and plans were now shattered. Their words express a lot of failure and regret. They wanted things to return to normal but the new normal was going to be one without the presence and promise of Jesus. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Suddenly Jesus appeared to them as a stranger. He asked them about their conversation and reminded them of the promises that he had made to his disciples. But their eyes were kept from seeing him and their minds were kept from understanding his power.
At the end of their walk, they shared a meal together. Jesus took bread and blessed it and passed it to them. Suddenly their eyes were opened and saw him. At that very moment he vanished from their sight. But also in that very moment they began to understand what Jesus was talking about on the road to Emmaus. Their hearts began to burn with inspiration and meaning. “The Lord has indeed risen.” Their perspective on life had suddenly changed. They were moving on to a new normal but that new normal would not be the same old things. Now they were the resurrection people. Now they were living out their daily lives in the promise of new life.
I think that we are all in a place like those disciples leaving for that walk to Emmaus. This pandemic has given us things that are perhaps more than we can handle. Our world has been turned upside down. What is next? What do we do? Where do we go with our lives? Will things change soon? Will things ever change? It is a place of pain and sorrow and loss. We don’t want to stay in that place. We want to get back to normal. We want to get to the place where life was predictable. We want to go back to the routine.
In the midst of this, some of us may be having an Emmaus experience. We are discovering the hand of God that has really always been behind the things we have overlooked or taken for granted. We are seeing something sacred in the gifts of family and friends, in the sacrifice of health care and essential workers, and in how we better use our time. We are feeling more connected to the holy, taken off of the treadmill of obligation to cherish those things that are truly important. Our eyes are opened to a new way of seeing, to a new recognition, to community and welcome and hospitality and love. God hasn’t abandoned us in this hour. God is there in our fear and our worry, providing hope and promise. The Risen Christ is there, just like always, only now perhaps we see and understand.
There will come a time when we enter the new normal. Like those disciples we will leave Emmaus and return to our Jerusalem. Yet Jerusalem will no longer the place that it used to be. Jerusalem won’ be the old routine and old habits and old way of seeing our work, our friends, our family, and our place in the world. Jerusalem will be a place of new life. It is in the new normal where we must take our new understandings and live them out in our priorities and choices and decisions. We are partners in this resurrection life of Jesus.
There has been a popular meme this week on Facebook, quoted by Brene Brown but written by Sonya Renee Taylor. “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection. Confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
In the meal at Emmaus, Jesus wasn’t just giving his followers bread. He was giving them back their true selves. He was restoring them to the gift of life. As we look to what is ahead, may we find these days to be a portal to a greater self-awareness, to a vision of the fullness of God, to an appreciation of ourselves and those around us. May the new normal, whatever it might be, not be a return to what was, but an understanding of something better that is yet to be, created by the hands of God and inspired by the Risen Christ.