Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Kitchen Maid of Emmaus (J. Barry Vaughn, Christ Church, Las Vegas. May 4, 2014)

The story of the encounter between Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has been the subject of several works by great artists. The 16th c. Italian painter Caravaggio depicts Christ seated at the center of the table. Cleopas, on the right, throws his arms out wide in surprise when he suddenly realizes with whom he is dining. The nameless disciple has his back to the viewer and is about to stand up so abruptly that his chair is likely to tip over.


Rembrandt was fascinated by the story and explored it in several works. I especially like his etching of the Emmaus story. It is on the cover of my first collection of sermons - As One Unknown.


But I recently saw a painting by the Spanish painter Velasquez. It was actually Velasquez's first painting.  Velazquez has imagined the story in a very unusual way. He painted not Cleopas and his nameless companion and Jesus at table together. Rather, Velazquez imagines that the kitchen maid was listening in from another room. In the painting, the maid is front and center, and we can only see Jesus, Cleopas, and the other man through a window in the upper left hand corner of the painting. But you can see that she recognizes Jesus from the startled expression on her face.


The most interesting thing to me about Velazquez's painting is that he imagines the maid as a mulatto. In his time, mulatto meant something very specific. It meant the child of a Spanish Christian and an African Muslim. The maid is mixed race and even mixed religion. The mulattos were looked down upon and regarded as inferior.


Poet Denise Levertov saw the painting and wrote this poem about it:


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 wine jug she's to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.


I think that Velazquez the painter and Levertov the poet are on to something. They are on to something that the gospel writers realized 2000 years ago. According to the gospels, the first witness of the resurrection was either Mary Magdalene or Mary Magdalene and one or two other women. In the ancient world, women had little status. They were vulnerable. Their well-being depended entirely on their association either with their fathers and brothers (if any) or their husband and sons (if any). The woman in the painting is also black, a person of another race and perhaps even a different religion.


The point that I'm making is that the painting, the poem, and even the gospel texts themselves tell us that the resurrection is best glimpsed by outsiders -- the vulnerable, the marginalized, the persecuted, the poor and hungry.


A little over one hundred years ago the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that Christianity is the religion of slaves. He meant it as a criticism, but I take it as a compliment.


Nietzsche was absolutely correct. The New Testament is written in Koine Greek, the common Greek of the first century. Koine Greek was the religion of slaves or servants (which meant pretty much the same thing in the first c.). Latin was the language of Rome, the imperial power. It was the language of government, the powerful, the military.


Nietzsche and other European intellectuals of the late 19th c. believed that religious belief would gradually wither away, dispelled by science and reason. But he was wrong. Religion flourished in the New World, in America, a country that, as G.K. Chesterton said, has the "soul of a church."


However, there are signs all around us that America is beginning to catch up with Europe. Church attendance is dwindling. Churches and denominations are struggling.


I believe we live at one of the great turning points in the history of Christianity. The center of gravity of the Christian church has shifted decisively to the developing world. In 1900 the great majority of Christians lived in the northern hemisphere, but in the year 2000, the great majority of Christians lived in the southern hemisphere.


Christianity is growing at a staggering rate in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But the Christianity of the developing world is very different from our Christianity. It is evangelical and Pentecostal.


Not only is Christianity growing in the developing world, it is also starting to re-evangelize the developed world.


A couple of years ago my friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller invited me to lunch at his synagogue to meet his friend Israel who is a Pentecostal minister in Uganda.


You can imagine my surprise: A rabbi was inviting me to his synagogue to have lunch with an African Pentecostal minister.


Jonathan's friend, Israel, was in his 20s. He told the group assembled at lunch that he loved America, that America had brought Christianity to Africa. But, he said, today America needs Africa to bring Christianity back to this country.


Over the next century the Episcopal Church will be powerfully transformed by Christians coming here from the developing world. Many of those Christians are Anglicans. But their Anglicanism is very different from our Anglicanism. It is passionate and colorful.


A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet with Yann Redalie, the dean of the Waldensian seminary in Rome. The Waldensians are a small Protestant group centered primarily in northern Italy and Switzerland. Several years ago they combined with the Methodists in Italy. Dr. Redalie told us of a great problem and great opportunity that they are facing. Every year thousands of Africans immigrate to Italy. A great number of them are Protestants, many from churches founded by Methodist missionaries in the 19th c. So they often find their ways to the joint Waldensian/Methodist churches in Italy. Dr. Redalie said that they are thrilled to find their churches growing, but the culture of their churches is also being changed profoundly by the influx of the African Christians.


Precisely the same thing is going to happen to churches in this country.


You must be wondering what all this has to do with the story of Emmaus.


The connection is this: The story of Christianity in the developing world is exactly the story that Velazquez told in his painting.


It is more and more difficult to tell the story of the Risen Christ in the developed world, even in the United States. But people from the developing world are ready. They are hearing and responding to the good news of Easter. They are able to recognize the Risen Christ while he remains hidden to so many in our country.


I think one of the reasons that it is more difficult for us to hear the good news is precisely because of our wealth and power. We have so much and our riches tend to insulate us from the message of the gospel. Christianity is good news precisely for the poor and vulnerable, just as it was for those who spoke Koine Greek in the first c.


Make no mistake: We need the Christian message just as much as the people of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But it may be more difficult for us to hear and respond to it. The Risen Christ may be walking beside us and yet our eyes do not see him for who he really is.


When Mohandas Gandhi studied law in London, he also began to study the New Testament. He was enchanted by the gospels, by Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount convinced him that Christianity was the most perfect of all religions. Then later Gandhi lived for a time with a Christian family and he became disillusioned. He rarely saw the Sermon on the Mount lived out in their lives.


In the Emmaus story the disciples say, "Were not our hearts burning within us when he was opening the scriptures to us?" Do our hearts burn with passion when we read the scriptures? Are we passionate about the gospel?


I assure you that our sisters and brothers in the developing world are passionate. They read the scriptures with burning hearts. And they are coming here to share that passion with us.