The Presence and the Absence

Luke 24:13-35

As I sat with this week’s gospel lesson, the story of Jesus meeting with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I found myself remembering a wonderful, bittersweet book I hadn’t read in years, The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne.  In that book Christopher Robin is trying to find a way to tell Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Eeyore and the others that life is about to become very different for them because he’s leaving for boarding school.  Pooh and the animals get the gist of the idea that something is changing; there is a vague uneasiness in the Hundred Acre Wood, but mostly they don’t understand.  In the midst of their uneasiness, without realizing they’re doing it, they begin to cling to each other and their relationships a little more closely.

I found myself especially remembering a brief, touching moment between Piglet and Pooh where Piglet reaches out for a little reassurance.

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

“Pooh!” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

I just wanted to be sure of you.  I think we’ve all known that feeling.  I think that’s why, if your family is at all like ours, you’re texting and messaging and calling each other a lot more during this time of pandemic isolation.  We feel the absence of those we love more keenly than in normal times when we know we could just go see them if we wanted to or needed to.  But right now it’s dangerous to go see each other, so we reach out in other ways for reassurance.  It’s our way of saying “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

We want to feel their presence in their absence.

The resurrection stories in the gospels, and particularly the Road to Emmaus story, are stories of Jesus’ presence and absence.  They are reminders that the risen Christ both appears and disappears.  They are also reminders that Jesus gave us ways to reach out for reassurance.

In the Road to Emmaus story, Luke gives us a pattern for how Jesus interacts with us in our own lives.  Jesus meets us on the road.  He falls in step with where we’re headed and inserts himself into the conversation, even if it’s an internal conversation we’re having in our own heads.  He asks questions and gets us to restate what’s worrying us or troubling us or making us feel whatever it is we’re feeling.  He listens to our whole spiel even though he already knows the story better and from a much better perspective.  He accepts our feelings, even our anger—even if we’re angry at God, at him.  He accepts our disappointment.  He accepts our doubt and disbelief.  He accepts our anxieties and fears.

And then he teaches.  He helps us see another way.  He restores our hope.  He restores our calm.  He helps us see how God might be at work in things that look godforsaken.

And while Jesus is doing all this, unless we’re very, very perceptive and accustomed to his company, we usually don’t recognize him.

The disciples on the Emmaus Road didn’t recognize him, but they found comfort in his presence, his listening and his teaching.  So they invited him to stay.

“Stay with us because it’s almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”  How many times have we prayed that prayer?  The light is fading on the horizon.  I see the edge of darkness.  I just want to be sure of you.  Stay with me.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.

This is the way we recognize Christ’s presence, the way we reach out for a touch of reassurance.  This is communion.  Blessing, breaking and sharing bread.  Such an everyday event.  I don’t want to take any luster from the sacrament—I’m a pastor in a sacramental church—but I do want to say this: if Christ is present then any meal is sacramental.  There is a holiness in everyday things if you are mindful of Christ’s presence.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

This, too, is part of the pattern.  The presence and then the absence.  But even when we feel the absence most keenly Jesus is with us.  We share with each other the feelings and thoughts Jesus has inspired in us.  We share with others our stories of times our hearts burned within us.  We break bread.

And in between times, when we’re sequestered and isolated because of circumstances beyond our control, we remember.  We keep our own experience alive, we remember that Jesus promised to be with us always, and we hold Christ in our hearts the way Christopher Robin and Pooh held each other in their hearts. That’s how The House at Pooh Corner ends—with Pooh and Christopher Robin holding each other in their hearts.

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world, with his chin in his hand, called out “Pooh!”

“Yes?” said Pooh.

“When I’m–when–Pooh!”

“Yes, Christopher Robin?”

“I’m not going to do Nothing anymore.”

“Never again?”

“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”

Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.

“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Pooh helpfully.

“Pooh, when I’m–you know–when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”

“Just me?”

“Yes, Pooh.”

“Will you be here too?”

“Yes Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be Pooh.”

“That’s good,” said Pooh.

“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”

Pooh thought for a little. “How old shall I be then?”

“Ninety-nine.”

Pooh nodded. “I promise,” he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt Pooh’s paw. “Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I–if I’m not quite–” he stopped and tried again– “Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”

“Understand what?”

“Oh, nothing.” He laughed and jumped to his feet. “Come on!”

“Where?” said Pooh.

“Anywhere.” said Christopher Robin.

So, they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

It’s something like that for us with Jesus.  If we are running off anywhere in the world, he is with us.  If we are sitting alone in isolation and feeling his absence, he is with us.  When we bless our bread and break it and share it he is with us in the promise he made.  We can reach out and touch it—touch him– because, as Piglet said, “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

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