“Their Hearts Burned Within Them”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 4, 2014

Scripture:  Luke 24:13-35


He was halfway through his junior year of college, and he was going to Nicaragua for a study abroad semester. He wanted to practice his Spanish, to explore the rain forests and the mountains, to meet the indigenous people, to hear their stories, to find out what life was like so far away from his New England home. It took two flights and a long bus ride to get to the town where he’d be staying, but he finally arrived, a bit bleary-eyed from the travel, but full of excitement and anticipation about what was in store. When he met his host family, he tried to explain that he didn’t want any special treatment, he didn’t need any extravagant accommodations, he hoped they wouldn’t go out of their way for him at all. He wanted to live as they did, he said, to find out what their lives were like.

And they would let him do that… eventually. But not at first. That first afternoon, his host mother went to the market and she bought meat. She bought milk. She bought rice. She bought fresh vegetables and ripe, juicy fruit. She cooked him a feast that you wouldn’t believe. He knew she had spent several weeks’ worth of grocery money on that one single meal. He knew she had been scrimping and saving and pinching pennies in anticipation of his arrival. He knew that that family had a meal like that once a year if they were lucky. And his heart burned within him as they ate homemade tortillas at that tiny kitchen table, and he knew for a moment just how eager and extravagant and unstoppable God’s love is.


*          *          *

Middle age was creeping up on her as she settled in to her life as a mother, and a professional, and a wife. But she was also still a daughter herself, and her father was very ill. She went to see him in the nursing home as often as she could, in between work and grocery shopping, daycare drop-off and meals with her family. She would wheel him out into the sunny atrium and they would sit together for as long as she could stay, talking about nothing and everything, or just being quiet together.

One sunny Sunday, she decided to take her daughter with her for a visit after church. They arrived just as lunch was ending and found her dad with a little plastic cup of chocolate ice cream, struggling to spoon it into his mouth with his trembling hand. And that eight-year-old girl said, “Grandpa, let me help you with that.” And she climbed up into a chair, and took the spoon in her hand, and her mom’s heart burned within her as the melting ice cream trickled down her father’s chin, and smeared all over her daughter’s hands, and dripped across that formica table. And she knew for a moment just how gentle and tender and unstoppable God’s love is.


*          *          *

He spent his days standing at intersections holding a cardboard sign, or standing in line at soup kitchens, or trying fruitlessly to land a job somewhere, anywhere. He was 54 years old, but years of sleeping on park benches in pouring rain and blazing sun made him look at least a decade older. When he was lucky, he spent a night indoors in a shelter, but mostly he slept outside under whatever doorway or overpass or tree he could find. And in the morning, he’d wake up cold and stiff, and he’d gather his few possessions together and start the cycle again.

But Sunday was different. Every Sunday, he made his way to his church, where people didn’t look the other way or wrinkle their noses or clutch their purses tighter when he approached. Every Sunday, the preacher spoke about mercy and hope, about justice and dignity. Every Sunday, they told the story and broke the bread and shared it around, and his heart burned within him as he dipped that bread into the cup, and he knew for a moment just how wide and welcoming and unstoppable God’s love is.


*          *          *


Those two disciples were walking on the road to Emmaus, bereft, disappointed, lonely. Their leader, their teacher, their healer, their friend, the one they thought would be the Messiah, the one they thought would save them from oppression and suffering—he had been tortured and killed in the most barbaric and humiliating way possible. And in spite of the story the women had told—the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, the linen cloths on the ground, the mysterious man dressed in dazzling clothes—in spite of that testimony, it seemed that they would never see him again.

They were making their way along a lonely dirt road, commiserating about the disappointment and sorrow and guilt and pain that they felt. And then a stranger showed up and walked with them a while, and when it was evening, they invited him into the village with them, and they shared a meal together. And when he blessed the bread and broke it and gave it to them, their hearts burned within them, and they knew for a moment how living and everlasting and unstoppable God’s love is.


*          *          *

Friends, my question for you today is this: when have you come face to face with God’s love in the breaking of the bread? In the church or in the nursing home, in the cafeteria or at the soup kitchen, at the Chicken Barbeque or the Christmas Fair luncheon, in a restaurant or beside a campfire or around your supper table… with whole wheat or sourdough or rye, with bagel or pita, with tortilla or rice cake or even melting chocolate ice cream… when have you caught a glimpse of God’s love as you shared a meal?

In whatever setting and with whatever ingredients, the sharing of food is a holy thing, a universal thing, a powerful thing. It is a moment of hospitality, of welcome, of tenderness, of grace. It is a moment when differences can be overcome, when relationships can be deepened, when time and distance can be collapsed and the scattered can be gathered together again.

As we share any meal, and especially as we share this meal, we make ourselves one—one with our church family here, one with our sisters and brothers around the world. One with that host mother in Nicaragua, and one with that exchange student. One with that eight-year-old girl, and her mother, and her grandfather. One with that homeless man and the congregation that embraces him. One with those disciples on the road to Emmaus. One with Jesus himself. When we share this meal, we make ourselves part of the whole communion of saints, with all those parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who have gone before, and with all those children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren yet to come. When we share this meal, we make ourselves part of the human family, which is to say, part of God’s family.

So as we share communion today, think of all those people throughout time and space who are breaking bread with us, even here, even now. See if you feel your heart burning within you. See if your eyes are opened. See if you find yourself face to face with God’s love—eager and extravagant, gentle and tender, wide and welcoming, living and everlasting and unstoppable. See if you find yourself in the presence of Jesus, our brother and teacher, our savior and friend, our gracious host at this glorious feast, the bread of the world that nourishes us all.