Maybe it’s because this week’s lectionary text is the Walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35. Or maybe it’s because the whole Easter season is a journey that begins with the empty tomb and the Risen Lord. But for some reason I’ve been thinking about journeys and ways we can remember where we’re headed and why.
There is a story about Albert Einstein, the great physicist who taught at Princeton for many years. He was on a train and the conductor came through to collect the tickets. The great man searched his pockets and came up with nothing. The conductor said, “Sir, I’ll come back through and let’s hope you’ve found it by then.” When the conductor came back down the aisle, there was Dr. Einstein, his hair even more disheveled than usual, down on his hands and knees searching for the ticket under the seat.
Suddenly, his identity dawned on the conductor. “Oh, Dr. Einstein, it’s you!” he exclaimed.
“Never mind about finding your ticket. I trust you. I trust that you haven’t sneaked onto the train without paying.”
“It’s not a matter of trust,” said Einstein. “If I don’t find that ticket, I have no idea where I’m going!”
A friend of mine who collects these sorts of things, recently gave me a ticket to a Wesleyan class meeting. Wesley established small groups called bands or classes in 1739 for people to meet weekly to encourage one another in their walk of faith and to hold one another accountable. For a time, he signed the tickets with his own hand, reissuing them every three months for those who had been faithful to their commitment. Maybe this gift wouldn’t have been that exciting to lots of people. But I have a little statue of Wesley on his horse that I bought in the gift shop when I toured his home in Epworth, England last year. I have all his sermons and journals and several biographies. I admit to being, for lack of a better term, a Wesley nerd. So you can see how being given a ticket, an original ticket to one of his society meetings, would cause my heart to flutter.
As you can see, the name of the ticket holder is James Hart. Who signed it is an open question. Not Wesley (1703-1791), since he would have been 126 years old by 1829! Perhaps the leader of the group signed the ticket. Perhaps James Hart himself signed it.
I tried to analyze why I was so excited about receiving this gift. It’s not like it’s a ticket to salvation like a ticket to a playoff game or a rock concert. It’s not a guarantee of anyone’s entry into heaven. I take it to be a sign that we’re willing to respond to God’s RSVP. It’s our checking the “Will Attend” box on the divine evite.
Sometimes I feel like Albert Einstein on the train. I do a lot of traveling. I’m an expert at packing light, putting all liquids and gels in a quart size zip lock baggie, getting through security in record time, and picking up and dropping off rental cars. But sometimes, just for a moment, in the midst of a journey, I need to be reminded of where I’m going and why I got on the train, plane, or automobile in the first place. I need my ticket. That’s why I’m so excited about owning James’ Hart’s ticket to weekly Wesley Society meetings for the December quarter of 1829. It’s a reminder of the path he was on and the one I’m on too.
Now that I have the ticket, I’m worried about losing it. Right now, it’s encased in a plastic sleeve, sitting on my bookcase next to my prayer chair. But, what if moisture somehow gets inside the plastic and destroys my ticket? What can I do to prevent that, to preserve it? Should I frame it? I think I’ll consult with Timothy Binkley, the archivist at Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University where I teach. Surely he’ll know how to preserve a ticket. It’s strange to wonder what I would do if I lost something I didn’t even have until two weeks ago.
Somehow it must go deeper than that. The ticket must be a reminder of an invitation I’ve had all along but haven’t always recognized or responded to. The ticket reminds me of the fact that James Hart received an invitation 175 years or so ago. It reminds me of the fact that I’ve had God’s invitation since I was born. My parents answered it on my behalf at my baptism when I was an infant. I answered it for myself at my confirmation. The invitation and my response are renewed when I participate in the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, when I pray, alone and with others, when I attend worship, when I study the Scriptures and engage in acts of kindness and service in my community.
To hold the ticket in my hand is to go back way before a man named James Hart attending weekly meetings in the winter of 1829, way back to God hovering over the dust and breathing into us the breath of life, way back to a ragtag group of slaves walking to freedom through the sea, way back to a man breaking bread, blessing it and saying, “This is my body, way back to an empty tomb and a Risen Lord, way back to a journey of disappointed hopes that becomes a journey of joy once we recognize who it is that walks at our side.
To hold the ticket in my hand is to marvel at how something that old can be this new.