“Were not our hearts burning within us?” Luke 24:32
If there is one thing that makes me really uncomfortable, it is a stuffy, airless room. Ever since I was a child I have always slept with the bedroom window open and only when we were sick would my mother come and light a fire in our bedrooms. It was always a rare treat to watch a flickering fire through the haze of some juvenile, high temperature ailment. But for the most part, a stuffy room is a source of deep loathing. I feel the same way I have to say, about religion. Like a closed room, my religious mind needs regular draughts of fresh air, of outside stimulation or else I fear becoming stuffy and stale.
There is something about revisiting a familiar text in a new place, seeing it as it were with new eyes or in a new context that can blow the cobwebs away and be revelatory. We think we are familiar with a famous story, we think we understand it until suddenly, in the light of a new hearing and a new situation against which the text is read, we see these familiar words in a wholly new light. It is as if a breeze has entered into a stale, airless room and reviving freshness has blown in.
Walter Brueggemann has written a book about such experiences, he has called it, “Texts that linger, words that explode”.
I often wonder if we are ready enough, courageous enough, daring enough to open the windows on our sometimes stuffy religious institutions and re-read texts to the extent that the seize hold of us, refresh and renew us and guarantee that we will never be the same?
In the context of the consecration of a new ministry we ought to hope so. It is not that the air might have become stale in the wake of a long and distinguished ministry, but we ought to anticipate a breath of fresh air as a new ministry begins. We ought not simply to anticipate that things will be “business as usual”.
Bruegemann refers to old, familiar passages of scripture being reheard in an explosive and compelling way, it is he argues the work of the Spirit that blows where it will and is not confined by the perimeters we create around our institutional life. He writes about moments when something familiar can be as it were, “reheard” or “re-spoken” thus, “the speaker and the hearer recognise intuitively that this is the right text in this moment……it discloses something about this moment that would, without this utterance, not be known, seen heard or made available”.
I want to share with you some reflections on the texts that I asked to be read for this service. First the very familiar passage of the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and secondly, the passage from the prophet Micah that acts as a charter for obedient living.
Like many, I had always taken the Emmaus Road story to be illustrative of the shape of Christian worship. The stranger expounds the scriptures and in the moment of breaking bread, Christ is revealed. It is a wonderfully neat exposition of the idea of word and sacrament as being at the core of our liturgical practice. When the two go together, then we encounter the risen Christ.
Now I am not so sure that this is all it points us to. There is something about the stranger and the outsider that haunts this passage and I am sure haunts many of us in the practice of our ministry. What does it mean for us to be a national church, to be ministers of parishes, not just chaplains to congregations, when there are so many around with whom we are unfamiliar? My ministry experience has led me to re-read this passage in a wholly new, astonishing and revelatory light. The text not only “lingers” in my imagination, it is “explosive”.
These two men walk to Emmaus to clear their heads following a trauma. Probably the last thing they wanted was to be pestered by a stranger. The fact that he appears un-summoned and clearly quite unaware of anything that has been going on in Jerusalem may well have unsettled the two disciples, “Crikey, we’ve got a right one here, he must be totally out of it”. Just like the wino or the heroin addict that accosts you in the street, Jesus may well have been an unsettling presence not just because of what he says but of what he seems so unaware of.
It is at the moment when these two men open their hearts to this stranger, when they offer him hospitality, not hostility, that they encounter the risen Jesus. The text explodes, when I realise that maybe we are being challenged to do likewise, and to open our hearts in hospitality to unlikely, even disturbing people. Maybe what lies in store for us when we open our doors to the apparently empty handed stranger are gifts of incalculable richness? A fresh encounter with the risen Christ, for as a man up the road said to me once, “the task of the parish minister is frequently to protect those on the fringe of the church from the people at the centre”.
One of the important features of our ministry at Greyfriars is our ministry to those vulnerable to homelessness in Edinburgh. I know that here at Canongate there was an important youth ministry in years gone by. Not long ago, I had a conversation with one of our volunteers at the Kirk who welcomes visitors. I was telling him about our plans to create a small social enterprise to employ some of our service users in maintaining and improving the environment of the Kirkyard. “Sometimes, I said, it has been the men from our Kirkhouse who have been seen as the problem when they have been drinking in the Kirkyard. One of our plans is to employ them to look after the place instead of just excluding them?”
The volunteer replied, “yes, the men from the Kirkhouse are very good, they are never a bother, they know to stay away from the Kirk”.
Earlier that same week I had had a conversation with one of our service users. A man who had spent 15 years as a heroin addict and had lived rough or in hostels for most of that time. Since coming to the Kirkhouse and being welcomed and helped, his life has totally turned around. He is now one of the team that offers support, understanding and encouragement to the many vulnerable people who come to our drop-in centre. I hear the words of Jesus saying, “which of these do you think was a neighbour?”
Donald Mackinnon was one of the great theological minds Scotland produced in the 20th Century. He was Professor of Moral Philosophy in Aberdeen and then Norris Hulse Professor of Theology at Cambridge. There were two features of the life of the church that preoccupied his long, distinguished career.
One was his concern that, “the conversion of Constantine to Christianity was possibly the greatest disaster ever to overtake the Christian church”. His concern here had to do with the conflict between a church that exercised political and institutional authority, as it does even now, and how such an institution could be true to the concept of kenosis (the self-emptying of Christ of power in love and service to his friends and the world). He feared that establishment had been a ground for boasting rather than an opportunity for presence.
His second concern was with the need for moral seriousness. He perceived a tendency in church to descend into banality, triviality and self-preservation. In a world that knows so much pain and injustice, so much hurt and division, he worried that we had not read and re-read our texts in the light of all that lay around us. He wrote “The idiom of a superficial cosmic optimism, often expressing itself ritually in patterns of liturgical symbolism, is currently fashionable, as if a world that knows, as ours does, extremities of terror as well as hope could be consoled by a remote metaphysical chatter”. Mackinnon worried about a tendency that he saw in Anglicanism, but it could equally be applied to Scottish Presbyterianism, of what he described as “a cultivated avoidance of extremes”.
Our task as Christ’s people in our community is best summed up in that charter for living before God that Micah advocates. God does not want sacrifices of thousands of rams or rivers of oil. He does not require pomp and flourish so much as that we do justice. That means to be “actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world”. It means working to correct inequalities, like those I have described in which some feel it is their task to police the boundaries of the church and exclude whilst others feel themselves unwelcome in our midst because they are strangers and outsiders.
The prophet continues to blow his freshness into the stuffy room of Israel by suggesting that they should love Covenant loyalty. This in not just and invitation to kindness, or “do-gooding” charity it is about working to create a community in which there are “enduring relationships of fidelity”. In which people are no longer excluded and shunned whilst others enjoy unwarranted privilege and unequal leverage.
And thirdly, the prophet invites his hearers to “walk humbly with God”. So often we are concerned about the church’s status, its right to be heard. What the prophet suggests is that those who profess loyalty to God do not need status. All that is required of the Christian is to attempt in humility and compassion to represent the manner of God’s presence in the world.
As people summoned and appointed by Christ, we are invited to live in the identity which Christ has given us and to attempt to reproduce the manner of the life that Christ has shown us. That requires of us only the status of a servant and the capacity for presence, a real presence to all.
So often however, we are blind, we do not see the stranger, let alone listen to what he has to say as these two disciples did on the road. The other day a homeless man said to me that when he begs on the street he is not remotely cross when people pass by and give him no money. “What makes me cross”, he said, “is when people walk past as though I don’t exist”. As I re-read the story of the Emmaus Road in the context of work with those who are vulnerable and marginalised in this city, the text explodes and freshness blows into the room. I see that the text invites us to re-imagine the meaning of hospitality and welcome and to reconfigure our boundaries if we want to encounter the risen Christ we must welcome the stranger not just mix with the familiar.
It is my hope and prayer that the freshness of the Spirit will blow and familiar texts will be re-read in new, explosive and revelatory ways and the hearts of the people of this place might burn within them Amen.