“Back where we started”

“Back where we started”

This is the sermon the Rev. Casey Shobe, rector, preached at the ordination of Ted Clarkson to the. priesthood on July 8, 2021, at The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas.


Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 119:33-40
Acts 18:1-4, 18-21, 24-28
Luke 24:13-35
© 2021 by the Rev. R. Casey Shobe

Sometimes, in God’s good time, we wind up right back where we started.

Sometimes, we head out into the world, filled with our questions and hopes and faith, and before we know it, we are right back where we began.

Sometimes, we send someone else off with our love and prayers, and in what seems like the blink of an eye, they’re back among us with visions of the risen Christ being known in the breaking of the bread.

Sometimes real life feels an awful lot like Easter Day on the road to Emmaus.

Welcome back, Ted Clarkson.

It’s the perfect story to hear on the occasion of an ordination, isn’t it, because what is priestly ministry, if not walking along the road of life with friends and strangers, talking about Scripture, wondering about the mystery of faith, and pausing from time to time to meet Jesus in the breaking of bread? So, as happy as we all are that you’re journey has ended, at least for a while, right back here among us, in a sense, every day from now on will be a day on the road to Emmaus.

Beyond the poignant parallels for Ted, this is a perfect story for many of the rest of us to hear today, because it helps us remember something terribly important, something that is all-too-easy to forget when we’re deep in the work of serving the Church: we are not in charge of the transformation of hearts and souls; that’s God’s work. Our job is simply to walk the road as faithfully as we can for as long as we can, and along the way, remember to invite the presence of Christ into the midst of the communities we serve, because somehow, through our meager efforts, and in spite of our weakness and confusion – just like that evening with those two confused and weary disciples in Emmaus – somehow, amazingly, Jesus is revealed.

Now there’s a risk that needs to be acknowledged here, one that is especially problematic for those of us who have been called into the priesthood: it’s the risk that even as we invite Jesus into the lives of others, we will forget to invite Jesus to stay with us, too. Because inviting the presence of Christ on behalf of others is not the same as inviting the presence of Christ to abide with us. Even in my very modest 15 years of ordained service, I’ve witnessed too many priests who made the mistake of assuming that helping others sit down at the table with Jesus will suffice to fill their own spiritual bellies. But that’s like standing before a lavish feast and inviting others to Bon Appetit, but never sitting down yourself. We can’t assume we will absorb holiness like some sort of spiritual osmosis simply by being near others who are encountering God.

The best priests I’ve ever known have remembered that presiding at the altar is not always the same thing as sitting down at the table to be fed. Like the two disciples in Emmaus, we won’t have energy for the road back to Jerusalem, let alone the road beyond, without the sustenance that can only come from the Bread of Life. So take time, Ted, and my sister and brother presbyters, and everyone else who has an active ministry, and remember that you need a piece of that broken bread to feed your soul, too.

But even before he was known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread, our Lord was with them on the road. Now, I know we’re all good Episcopalians and so we love the Sacramental connections of the meal in Emmaus, but I have spent every bit as many hours prayerfully imagining what it was like walking with Jesus all day and not realizing it. It’s a great reminder to us all that the ones we think should be able to recognize the presence of God aren’t really any better than the rest of us. Many people think that ordained people should know what God looks like, presumably because we spend all day hanging around in churches. Well, I hate to break it to you, but we have the same propensity to blindness that Cleopas and his wife had that Easter Day. Because no matter who you are, or what your job may be, or how much of your time you spend at church, most of us only see what we expect to see.

I recently read that one of the most unreliable and inconsistent forms of evidence in a criminal trial is the eyewitness. Just ask the dozens of people wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death on the basis of eye-witness testimony, who were later exonerated by more accurate forms of evidence. Eyewitnesses are biased by all sorts of other conscious and subconscious influences. It’s not necessarily that they are trying to be wrong; it’s just that we don’t always see what’s actually in front of us the way it actually exists. We usually see what we expect to see.

And it blinds us.

Several years ago the Washington Post conducted an experiment in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, right in the heart of federal Washington. They had a violinist perform six classical pieces during morning rush hour, and the conductors of the experiment counted 1,070 individuals who passed through the station that morning.

The twist in the experiment was that the performer was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, who only a few days before had sold out two concerts at Symphony Hall in Boston at several hundred dollars a ticket. And he was playing some of the most elegant music ever written on a nearly priceless 1713 Stradivarius.

In the 45 minutes that Joshua Bell played, out of the 1,070 who hustled through the station, only seven people stopped what they were doing to take in the performance. The other 1,063 who passed through the station saw only what they expected to see: another street performer scratching out a living in a busy thoroughfare. They certainly didn’t see Josh Bell playing a Stradivarius, because that is not what they expected to see, and we nearly always see what we expect to see. Which is why, so often, we are blind to what is actually in front of us…to who is actually in front of us.

Friends, I don’t think Jesus is hiding from us. I don’t think he became human and lived and died and rose again so he could stay safely concealed from us in heaven. Which means that we are on the road to Emmaus far more often than we realize, standing in the divine presence, if only we would pause to notice.

Of course, we know to look for Christ in the breaking of the bread, which is why we share the Eucharist each and every week. And if you’ve been around the Episcopal Church very long, you’ve no doubt heard many a sermon about how we need to look for Jesus in the faces of the poor and hungry. Matthew 25 has become a guiding Scripture for our day, reminding us to look for our Lord in the least and lost of our world.

But on the road to Emmaus, Jesus does not appear in a piece of bread or a burst of flame, nor is he a beggar or a refugee in desperate need of our help. He is simply another person on the path. He is the unremarkable and perfectly ordinary person right in front of us.

The truth is that the great majority of us, and especially those who will dedicate their lives to the church as priests, spend most of their time not on the streets or in homeless shelters or refugee camps. We spend our lives in parlors and parish halls and kitchens and living rooms, in ordinary places with ordinary folks. They are the vast majority of our companions on the way, and in them, we must be able – we must choose – to see Jesus.

This is harder than it seems, don’t you know. For they aren’t peacefully contained in pretty worship services like the Sacrament. Nor are they as obvious as any of the dramatically vulnerable people Jesus tells us to notice. No, just like that day on the road to Emmaus, it is their very ordinariness that conceals their holiness. But they are the Body of Christ, which means they are manifestations of the same one who healed and forgave and blessed and fed and lived and dead and rose again. They are the ones through whom Christ will come. They are the ones in whom we must see divinity. Ted, they are the ones to whom you are to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness and blessing, and with whom you will now have the privilege of sharing in the sacred mysteries.

Yes, we mostly see what we expect to see…so Ted, I hope you will expect to see Jesus in all of us. We’re not much to look at, honestly, and we’re as likely to bore or irritate you as we are to impress you by our righteousness and faith. But we sure see a lot of Jesus in you, and we’ll be looking to you in hopeful expectation to show us the risen Lord in bread and wine and water, in careful listening and thoughtful sermons, in hugs and handshakes and kindness and love.

Yes, you’re back where you started, but this journey is only just beginning.