Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.. (Lk. 24).
What are you failing to recognize in your life? This week the mother of sixteen year old Ralph Yarl sent him to pick up his twin brothers at their friends’ house. He went to the door at Northeast 115th Street instead of Northeast 115th Terrace. The 84 year old white homeowner Andrew Lester shot him in the head and arm. Maybe he would not have done this if Ralph were white. Ralph had to go to three different homes before someone finally agreed to help, but then, only if he would lie down on the ground with his hands up.1
Twenty year old Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed when a car she was driving in mistakenly turned into the wrong driveway.2 Armed to the teeth, Americans keep hearing how dangerous our society is. And then, out of fear, we fail to recognize each other.3
An Australian named Glenn Albrecht coined the word “solastalgia.” It combines the words solace, desolation and nostalgia to describe, “an intense desire” to take care of the places that give us comfort or solace. It also refers to the pain that comes from the destruction of natural places.4 I feel this suffering profoundly as I watch the ongoing death of the forests here in Northern California. According to aerial surveys 36 million California trees died in 2022 (that is three times as many as 2021).5
We yearn for places of wholeness, for relationships with each other that nurture and heal. We long to be recognized for who we are, as children of God. This morning we are going to study one of the most formative stories in the Bible and how a twentieth century poet came to recognize Jesus in her own life.
1. Over the year many people have invited me to prisons, shelters, emergency rooms and hospice unit, into places of absolute despair. This is where Jesus comes to us. In the Book of Luke, Jesus does not first meet the most famous disciples (like Mary Magdalene or Peter). He does not appear at the tomb, the temple, or Herod’s palace. Instead he walks with two of the most ordinary people (Cleopas and Anonymous) to Emmaus a town that is so insignificant archaeologists are not sure where it is.
Jesus speaks with two utterly demoralized people, two disciples who gave up everything to follow someone they loved and then saw that person tortured to death by the state. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him. When he asks what they are talking about, they stop, stand there and look sad. This is the same word (skuthrōpoi) that Matthew uses when he teaches that when you fast do not look dismal, so that people can admire you for fasting.6
These friends are so upset, so wrapped up in their grief that they cannot believe he does know what happened to them. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there…” (Lk. 24)? The Greek word (paroikeis) means to live alongside but separate from the people who belong in a place. Jesus is a stranger to them because he does not inhabit their world of grief.
The friends tell Jesus all the things that happened. This feels even more tragic because they do not believe. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” They mention the women who did not find the body at the tomb. Even though the women describe angels who said Jesus was alive, the friends still could not believe.
Jesus explains scriptures and prophecies. His two friends still impossibly do not recognize him. Finally, Jesus takes bread and breaks it with them and in an instant they really see him. They exclaim in one of my favorite lines in the Bible, “were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…”
My friend Matt Boulton proposes three reasons that Jesus’ friends do not recognize him. First, cannot see through their tears. Sorrow and despair might must make it impossible for them. Second, perhaps this sadness has caused them to turn in on themselves, to be self-absorbed, like a house with the window shades drawn. Finally, it could be because Jesus is somehow different, so new in resurrected life that they cannot see him.7
The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) regarded this last reason as most compelling. It gave him the chance to write about the difference between Jesus’ earthly life and his resurrected life. So what does Barth think happened when Jesus broke bread with his friends? In that moment Jesus came to them in a form, “in which he could never leave them again… He could never be to them a mere figure of the past… The limitation of the past had burst.”8 Jesus encountered them, “emerging from the past as a figure of the present, alive forevermore…”
This is who Jesus can be for us too, if only we will recognize him. In another book Barth writes that, ”believing is not an obscure and indeterminate feeling. It is a clear hearing,
apperceiving, thinking and then speaking and doing. It is a clear human act… believing… does not control its object.” God does not exist for us; we exist for God. And so Barth calls faith, “an irruption into this reality.” It is the “removing of a barrier” to true seeing.9
2. The poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) has written about the barrier to believing that she experienced. It had to do with despair in the face of suffering. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s (1821-1881) book The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan exclaims, “I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself.”10 This kind of hatred of human cruelty and suffering consumed Levertov. In England, her Hasidic father had converted and become an Anglican priest, but Levertov stopped participating in church as a teenager. She migrated to the United States in 1947 and became an anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear activist.
Then in her fifties Levertov began writing a poem called “Agnus Dei” or “Lamb of God.” The poem goes like this, “… sheep are afraid and foolish, and lack / the means of self-protection, having / neither rage nor claws, / venom nor cunning… This pretty creature… / leaper in air for delight of being, who finds in astonishment / four legs to land on, the grass / all it knows of the world?”
She goes on, “What terror lies concealed / in strangest words, O Lamb / of God that taketh away / the Sins of the World: an innocence / smelling of ignorance, / born in bloody snowdrifts, / licked by forebearing / dogs more intelligent than its entire flock put together? // God then, / encompassing all things, is defenceless? Ominpotence / has been tossed away, / reduced to a wisp of damp wool?”
“… And we / frightened, bored, wanting / only to sleep ‘til catastrophe / has raged, clashed, seethed and gone by without us, / wanting then / to awaken in quietude without remembrance of agony… // is it implied that we / must protect this perversely weak / animal, whose muzzle’s nudgings // suppose there is milk to be found in us? / Must hold in our icy hearts / a shivering God?” “So be it. / Come, rag of pungent / quiverings, /dim star. / Let’s try /if something human still / can shield you, / spark / of remote light.”11
As she struggled with those exact words Levertov found her heart being converted to Jesus. Looking back later she explains, “The experience of writing the poem – the long swim through waters of unknown depth – had also been a conversion process.” She began to see in a new light, that agonizing question about why God does not intervene in suffering.12
Levertov explains that she, “began to see these stumbling blocks as absurd. Why, when the very fact of life itself, of the existence of anything at all is so astounding why… should I withhold my belief in God… until I am able to explain to myself the discrepancy between the suffering of the innocent… and the assertion that God is just and merciful.”13 Writing about the world led Levertov to faith in Christ.
I want to close with the poem Denise Levertov wrote about today’s reading. In this modern world of doubt she seems to be imagining herself in the scene. It is called “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velázquez).” “She listens, listens, holding / her breath. Surely that voice / is his – the one / who had looked at her, once, across the crowd, / as no one ever had looked? / Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her// Surely those hands were his, / taking the platter of bread from hers just now? / Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well? //” “Surely that face – ? // The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy. / The man whose body disappeared from its tomb. / The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?” // Those who had brought this stranger home to their table / don’t recognize yet with whom they sit. / But she in the kitchen, absently touching the winejug she’s to take in, / a young Black servant intently listening, // swings round and sees the light around him / and is sure.”14
My thoughts this week keep returning to the old men who shot the young people who appeared at their houses rather than welcoming them. In our fears over the dissolution of our society and the desolation of the living world, what are we failing to recognize?
The limitation of the past has burst. Jesus emerging from the past will be with us forevermore. Jesus will come to us and not in the way we expect so let us be flexible and imaginative. May we pay attention not just with our eyes but with the hearts that are burning within us.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, stay with us… be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen15
3 Friday night I had dinner with my friend Barbro who is in her eighties. She saw the destruction of Europe, the aftermath of the holocaust and the advent of the nuclear age. And yet war in Ukraine, dehumanizing poverty on the streets of San Francisco, American political polarization and our worsening climate crisis makes her despair. You can hear the pain in her voice. Maybe you feel some of this pain too.
4 The word solastalgia combines the words solace, desolation and nostalgia to describe, “an intense desire for the place where one is resident to be maintained in a state that continues to give comfort or solace.” Dorothy Dean, “Climate Grief and the Secular Spirituality of Earth-Mourning,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Spring/Summer 2023, 70.
6 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you they have received their reward” (Mt. 6:16 NRSV).
7 Matthew Boulton, “Breaking Bread: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 3,” SALT 17 April 2023. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/4/20/breaking-bread-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-easter-3
8 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2 The Doctrine of Creation tr. H. Knight, G.W. Bromiley, J.K.S. Reid, R.H. Fuller (New York; T&T Clark, 1960) 471-3.
9 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. Harold Knight, G.T. Thomson (New York; T&T Clark, 1960) 506.
10 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov tr. Constance Garnett (NY: Modern Library).
11 Denise Levertov, “Agnus Dei,”
Given that lambs
are infant sheep,
that sheep are afraid and foolish, and lack
the means of self-protection, having
neither rage nor claws,
venom nor cunning,
is this ‘Lamb of God’?
This pretty creature, vigorous
to nuzzle at milky dugs,
leaper in air for delight of being, who finds in astonishment
four legs to land on, the grass
all it knows of the world?
With whom we would like to play,
whom we’d lead with ribbons, but may not bring
into our houses because
it would spoil the floor with its droppings?
What terror lies concealed
in strangest words, O lamb
of God that taketh away
the Sins of the World: an innocence
smelling of ignorance,
born in bloody snowdrifts,
licked by forebearing
dogs more intelligent than its entire flock put together?
encompassing all things, is
has been tossed away,
reduced to a wisp of damp wool?
wanting only to sleep ‘til catastrophe
has raged, clashed, seethed and gone by without us,
to awaken in quietude without remembrance of agony,
we who in shamefaced private hope
had looked to be plucked from fire and given
a bliss we deserved for having imagined it,
is it implied that we
must protect this perversely weak
animal, whose muzzle’s nudgings
suppose there is milk to be found in us?
Must hold in our icy hearts
a shivering God?
So be it.
Come, rag of pungent
Let’s try if something human still
can shield you,
of remote light.”
12 Peggy Rosenthal, “The Conversions of Elizabeth Seton and the Poet Denise Levertov,” Seton Shrine, 21 January 2021. https://setonshrine.org/the-conversions-of-elizabeth-seton-and-the-poet-denise-levertov/
15 The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 124.