The assignment was to spend twenty-four hours on the street, with nothing in my possession but the clothes on my back. I was living in Washington, DC at the time, but I was in San Diego for a week of training for my new job with StandUp for Kids – a national non-profit working with and for runaway, homeless and street-dependent youth. Being away from home, I didn’t know anyone in the area so there would be no cheating. I was on the streets for a full day and night.
Before going to seminary, I’d worked in shelters and transitional housing programs with homeless kids, so I’d heard plenty of stories about life on the streets. I’d studied the statistics. I knew the percentages. I had plenty of data on the tip of my tongue. None of that was the same as spending a day and night on the streets – which, of course, is actually nothing at all like being homeless.
For my training excursion I was paired with a young woman who’d been homeless in San Diego for years. She was there to help me see the streets through her eyes, to meet the people she’d built community with and, honestly, to keep me safe. In the course of our day and night together she taught me how to entertain crowds while panhandling (you make more money if you can get a chuckle out of folks than you do if you try to make people feel sorry for you); how to find a relatively safe place off the beaten path to sleep at night (one of the scarier moments during my twenty-four hours on the street); and how to make a filling hot dinner for two that will keep your tummy from growling for little more than spare change.
The food of our meal she called “spread,” and it was made entirely with ingredients purchased and combined at a corner convenience store in a matter of minutes. After panhandling for hours in parking lots and street corners, we’d saved up enough to make the following purchases: a bag of cool ranch Doritos, a package of really cheap hot dogs and some ramen noodles. The Doritos we crushed, still in the bag. Then, we broke apart the dried ramen noodles and added them to the mix, along with the flavor packets. We tore apart the hot dogs and tossed them in as well. Finally, to set the mixture, we went to the convenience store’s coffee station and filled a Styrofoam cup with hot tea water which was then poured into the bag in order to break down and reconstitute its ingredients. Once all the elements were in place, we wrapped our bag of baking foodstuffs in one of our sweatshirts to keep it hot while the water did its trick.
As we waited for our food to be ready, I was able to talk with my guide about her time on the streets. Like many homeless youth, she’d been forced out of her home. A missing dad and mom’s new boyfriend combined to make her feel less safe at home than out on the streets, so she’d decided to take her chances on the kindness of strangers rather than endure the cruelty of family.
On the street she’d found a new family, one where other young men and women took on the roles of mother, father, sister and brother. There were new rules, not no rules, to the street, and she’d learned them fast. There were stories the kids passed around, stories with lessons built in to keep you safe, to warn you, to give you hope. There were artists and songs kept in common. There was failure and forgiveness. There was church.
After about thirty minutes we had our spread. Heat and water had dissolved the starchy chips and noodles, and they’d reset as a thick paste laced with salty, salty flavoring and chunks of pork by-products. My guide ripped a hole in the bottom of the bag and forced the spread through it like frosting from a cake decorator’s funnel. After taking the first helping and showing me how to eat it, she offered the spread to me. “Here,” she said, “bon appétit,” French for “enjoy your meal.”
The early Christians to whom the letter of First Peter is addressed knew something of the alienation from family and new community found outside the home that my guide was showing me. Unlike our culture today, which glamorizes the “new and improved,” in the ancient world it was antiquity that provided legitimacy. Tradition, not innovation, was valued most of all. In the eyes of the world the early church of Jesus-followers, who had traded the hopes and traditions of two thousand years of Jewish law for marginalization in the temple and persecution by the empire, seemed the heights of foolishness.
The author of First Peter acknowledges this by assuring the people that their faith connects them to the most ancient power of all, writing,
“If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:17-23)
Like homeless youth fleeing from the abuses of their family, Peter reframes the relationship between the fledgling Christians and their Hebrew parents in the terms of a family conflict. It’s important that we hear that – that this is a family conflict, between people who are intimately related to one another.
The New Testament, as it describes the relationship between the early church and its Jewish context, is filled with all the pain and accusations of a family being torn apart – though, of course, we are generally only getting one side of the story. But, two thousand years later it is too easy to hear a phrase like “the futile ways inherited from your ancestors” as nothing but anti-Judaism. That would be too simple of a reading. Instead, we might try hearing this story as if it were being shared in the voice of my homeless guide to the streets of San Diego – filled with complicated longings for home, safety and familiarity, even as it extols the strengths of the new family created in exile.
People in exile stay alive by telling and retelling their stories. They turn them over and over, looking for evidence that there is hope for a future that will connect them to their past. That there will someday be a life like the one their parents or grandparents or ancestors had, or even better. For communities like the one gathered around the gospel of Luke, living decades after the life, death and new life experienced through Jesus, finding a way to make the stories of those first followers of Jes
us their own was critical to forming faith. So we get the one we hear this morning of the two disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas, named only here in this story and nowhere else, seems to know all the Jesus stories. He’d studied the scriptures and knew all the verses. He had all the knowledge of Jesus on the tip of his tongue. He travels with a nameless companion along the road.
One day, as Cleopas and his unnamed friend are traveling the road, sharing their disappointment in the way things had turned out, Jesus joins them – though they cannot seem to recognize him. They share with him the stories they had learned, the songs they had sung, the hopes they had nurtured, the disappointments they had endured. They shared with Jesus their many ideas about Jesus, and failed to notice the Jesus that was with them right then and there.
But something happened when they sat down to eat with Jesus. When Jesus took whatever it was they had in their cupboards to sustain them, bread and wine, or maybe just chips and hot water for tea, and blessed it and shared it with them. Then they saw that Jesus had been with them this whole time – not gone, not lost in time, not dead in the ground but alive and out in the world, going ahead of them. And as they see him, he vanishes from their sight, and what do you suppose they were left to look at?
I think it was each other. In the breaking and blessing of the bread, in the sharing of the meal, disciples see Jesus – who then vanishes from sight so that we can see each other. And they said, “were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening our stories up to us again?”
Cleopas and his traveling companion immediately get up from the table and return to the other believers, proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord and you can hear the beginnings of the familiar call and response we know even today as Cleopas and his friend declare, “Jesus is risen,” and the other followers of Jesus respond, “the Lord has risen indeed!”
As we gather here this morning, our hearts are full from the events of the past two weeks. As we wander the roads of this life, wondering what the Easter resurrection has to do with neighborhood politics and Farmer’s Markets, or tornados and the families of the three-hundred and fifty who lost their lives, or the execution of an enemy of the state after ten years of living in fear, all things that have taken place in the few short days since we declared new life for people and places left for dead on Easter morning, we can feel the old sense of exile and alienation creeping back into our stories. Like the people hearing the words of First Peter, we wonder what new life means for us in a world still caught in the grip of old sin and brokenness.
The answer is not to be found in ideas about God, but experiences of God. We can memorize the stories, we can sing the songs, we can set the table. But until we break bread with one another, until we share a meal with one another, it is all past and no future. It is when we finally sit down with the stranger, the exile, the immigrant, the homeless family, the grieving widow, the recent graduate, the new parent – when we come to the table together, not alone – that we see that Jesus has been living among us all along, not in our ideas, but in our bodies, in the life we share together.
Even as we see it and know it, Jesus vanishes from sight, leaving us with only one another to look at, and as we recognize the imperishable beauty of God written in each other’s faces we are able to declare, along with Cleopas and the unnamed wayfarer, and all those who follow God into the future and not the past,
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!
Bon appétit, and amen.