Reflection: Strangely Familiar
Readings: Luke 24:13-15; 28-31
Being a Pilgrim by Mark Nepo (p. 34 The Book of Awakening)
We have travelled more than 30,000 kilometers since we saw you last. We have been privileged to travel by air, rail, road and river, on planes, cars, and hydrofoil, spent days on trains and horseback and log lots of new miles on our feet.
We’ve been touched by country side of Germany, the amazing cities of Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude, Ulan Batar and Beijing, the taiga forest and Siberia’s deepest fresh water lake in the world, we’ve experienced the wonder and wilderness and remoteness of the Altai Mountains where China, Russia and Mongolia meet one another …we’ve camped on the Mongolian steppe. We’ve received the hospitality and help of countless people whose we will never see again.
We’ve been confused, lost, frustrated, overwhelmed, delighted, challenged, fascinated and amazed in the midst of languages we don’t speak, alphabets we don’t recognize, customs we don’t know, storied lands that have seen some so much upheaval in their geological and human histories. We’ve glimpsed ancient cultures, religious practices and amazing architecture that have shaped identities and with all their uniqueness have seemed strangely familiar.
We have been welcomed to make our home in the home of others, with a young entrepreneurial couple in Germany, with a remarkable Russian host in a Soviet era apartment in St. Petersburg, in a tiny family operated traditional courtyard inn in a Hutong neighborhood in Beijing, in a train compartment crossing Siberia, in nomadic Ger camps and in a tiny tent for oh, so many nights in Mongolia we’ve been challenged to find food each day from menus where we couldn’t read a word or in groceries stories with equally unreadable labels, to figure out money that had way too many zeros for easy math, to navigate transit and maps and streets. And always there were those who would do what they could to help us, those who made being a stranger just a little less unfamiliar.
We completed a kind of circle of our globe, travelling eastward from here to Europe and returning westward from Asia, a journey that kept immersing us in strangeness, in newness, that again and again miraculously became the familiar. Within a day, each strange and new place became familiar it became the familiar neighborhood to return to each night, the familiar face of a host, the familiar routine of a day on the train or the trail, the strange food we now recognized as familiar. It was a journey that kept transforming the strange into a form of familiar. Again and again we would see a face that reminded us of someone we knew in our lives, we would be amazed that what was totally foreign to us when we arrived became knowable and familiar, and there was something strangely familiar in each foreignness in which we found ourselves.
We all travel whether or not we ever leave the place we call “home.” We are always travelling through time and space, travelling through ages and stages, through seasons and situations, through beginnings and endings, and we are always traveling in ever widening circles as a planetary species. Maybe that’s why our literature is full of stories of journeys that take our characters into the woods, along the yellow brick road or through the bedroom wardrobe or platform 9 and ¾ at Kings Cross Station. From Little Red Riding Hood to Dorothy from Kansas to Harry Potter, we create characters who instruct us in the art of pilgrimage lest we just spend our lives travelling.
In the collection of ancient writings we call the Bible we have a huge repertoire of pilgrim’s tales. Stories of travelers who become pilgrims, even most of the stories we have of Jesus of Nazareth are stories of an itinerant life, stories told on the road, in the villages around the Galilee. Stories of a band of peasants who make their life on the road with their teacher.
The story we heard a few moments ago, a story that ends Luke’s gospel is a great parable of pilgrimage. It is not a ghost story or a story about a dead man walking, talking and eating, but a parable-a teaching tale-a story to instruct a grieving community in some way about the art of living.
In the world of the ancient story, Emmaus is an imaginary village seven dusty miles from Jerusalem. Those who first heard this story would know it was a teaching story, they would know Emmaus was a village no one ever heard of, a village that scholars and archeologists have been unable to identify, a village mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. John Dominic Crossan, a contemporary New Testament scholar, has suggested: “Emmaus is nowhere … because Emmaus is everywhere.”
And Emmaus is a story that never happened and is always happening, just like the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho tells a story of a victim who is helped by an unlikely Samaritan. It is a story that never happened and is always happening. It is a parable, a story that tells something about the truth of our human experience rather than relating an event in human history.
In the world of the story, two friends immersed in their grief are seeking to avoid the pain of seeing the world go on as though nothing had happened. They are walking away from the city that just broke their hearts toward the simplicities of a fictitious village life. They speak to each other of their pain, the death they have witnessed and the rumors of their teacher’s missing body. Footsteps approach from behind and a stranger intrudes into their private grief. It takes too much effort to explain their broken hopes. Impatiently Cleopas rejects the intruder: “You must a stranger … are you the only one in this country who doesn’t know the terrible and tragic things that have happened in Jerusalem this week? It is an experience we’ve all had with a cashier, a driver, a stranger who has no idea of the meteor that has struck our lives. They are inhabiting a different world than we are. But in this story, the stranger becomes a sensitive listener and invites them to share their grief, to tell their stories to talk the reality that they have left the city to escape.
The flood gates of pain open. The beloved face is named; the anger toward the enemy who executed him; the echo of their great and disappointed hopes for Jesus; their anger at their friend who had died and his failure to be the messiah they had hoped for; their utter confusion at the irrational news that his body couldn’t be found.
As the stranger places their story in the midst of all that is sacred to them, a compelling pattern emerges. They were close to their destination but the stranger appears to be going further.
They urge him to stay. Around the table, the conversation continues. Following the deepest instinct of all our grieving, they seek to find meaning in the midst of all that has happened. With simple deliberation, the stranger takes bread, blessed, breaks and shares it. As one ordinary moment follows the next, the deceptive simplicity assumes a shattering significance.
It is next to impossible to share a table and remain anonymous. As we eat together, we become known. The stranger becomes strangely familiar. The strange food becomes known. And then, there is the moment of profound knowing-the inexplicable “aha”-some brief moment of recognition, some flicker of knowing that whenever and however we meet one another in our deepest pain, in our profoundest joy, in our genuine wonder, in our real hopes. With authenticity and vulnerability, sharing our sacred stories, sharing a meal with each other. Our common humanity is exposed, our shared hopes, dreams, longings, needs connect us, we are no longer separate or strange to one another. We are together in the mystery and miracle of living, and for a moment or a lifetime strangeness dissolves into a familiarity that unites us. We are hungry for the same things, we are thirsty for the same things, the smile is the same in every language.
The heart has a great capacity for recognition, it has the capacity to recognize itself in another, to recognize truth and goodness, to transcend the particular and touch the universal and be changed.
Come this time next week, it will be 16 years since we began a journey together, a relationship of strangers becoming family to one another, sharing questions, fears, hopes, cares, concerns, joys and heartbreak with each other. On August 11, 2003 when I walked through these doors to share the life of this spiritual community you planned to welcome me with a meal; a surprise pot luck lunch. A surprise in many ways for all of us as it turned out. I was surprised that you thought it was my birthday just as you were surprised it wasn’t. I was surprised by your arrival in great numbers at lunch time and you were surprised that I had someplace else I had to be that day at lunchtime, but you waited and allowed me to come late to the table. It has always seemed fitting to me that our journey together began at a table: a place of meeting, a place of making meaning, a place for questions, a place for discovery, a place of relationship, a place where the face of a stranger can become a heart that is deeply familiar to us.
As I reflect on these 16 years that we have travelled together, I can confidently say that for me, it has been a pilgrimage. I have been changed by where we have been together. I have been changed by what we have seen together. I have been changed by those who have been at our table who are no longer here. I have been changed by those who have stayed at the table and those who have joined our table. I have been changed by the laughter and tears we have shared. I have been changed by those who lives we have blessed in rituals of welcome and those whom we have celebrated who have gone before us into death. I have been changed by the relationships we have blessed in marriage. I am asking different questions, finding inspiration in new and old places. I am not sure there is more that we can ask of any journey than that we are changed for having made it.
This is a day to celebrate the open road and the roadside tables we find along the way. It is a day to celebrate the strangers who become beloved companions sharing the journey and deepening our sense of pilgrimage. This is a time to consider how we are travelling whether we are simply visiting this world, whether life is passing without our attention or intention, or whether we are pilgrims open to the strange becoming strangely familiar.
After more than a decade practicing law, Nancy joined the ministry team at SSUC. In a rich collaboration with this congregation, she completed her Doctor of Ministry degree at Chicago Theological Seminary Focusing on “Setting a Spacious Table”. The discoveries which began in this project continue to evolve as we explore ways of gathering as spiritual communities that are congruent with an expansive spirituality. Nancy celebrates being a part of a diverse community of seekers who honor experience, seek inspiration from a variety of sources, are committed to social justice, and strive to live the values of our deepest and highest humanity.