One of the things I love to do when I have a little down time is to binge watch a good TV show on Netflix—not that that happens often given my schedule and due to the fact that “good TV show” is actually more of an oxymoron these days (emphasis on the “moron”). Still, there are some gems to be had and one of these shows has not only captured me but the whole family—it’s the BBC’s updated version of the Sherlock Holmes stories starring the marvelous British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role along with Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. Each episode is an hour and a half, almost like a movie, and it’s twists and turns are mind blowing.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock has had a revival of late, with the movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and the show “Elementary” on CBS. Sherlock has always been a bit of mess personally, “a high functioning sociopath” as the BBC’s Sherlock is quick to admit, but what captivates me about him is the fact that his mind is always seeing things that others miss. As Doyle’s Sherlock puts it in the novels, “A man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.”
I grew up reading Encyclopedia Brown novels and loved spending time trying to figure out who stole Mary’s homework or solve some other such adolescent crime, so I love watching Sherlock be smarter than everyone else in the room. As Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock often hisses at Doctor Watson, “You see, but you do not observe.” Holmes can tell at a glance if someone is a teacher by the slight presence of chalk dust on a sleeve, or that a woman is cheating on her husband by the fact that her wedding ring shows wear and tear while the rest of her jewelry is clean. Maria Konnikova, in her insightful book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes calls this “observation with a capital ‘O’” — the ability to know what and how to observe by directing attention to only those pieces of mental “furniture” that matter. As Konnikova puts it, Holmes-like observation “means not only looking properly, but looking with real thought.” It’s being intentionally mindful of the details even when, as she points out, “our minds are wired to wander.”
That’s especially true in a world where the average attention span is now 8 seconds (down from 12 a few years ago). Attention is a limited resource and our pride in being 21st century “multi-taskers” actually hurts our attention to detail, which is why a show like Sherlock captivates us. We could all use a little more mindfulness.
And if it’s true that we need to be more mindful of the world around us, it’s even more true that we need to be more mindful and observant of the world we cannot yet see but is no less real—the kingdom of God and the presence of the risen Christ among us. Remember Jesus’ words to Thomas in last week’s text? “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” How can we have that sort of faith, that sort of mindfulness?
Well, I think this week’s text gives us a case study of the sort that Sherlock would absolutely love—call it “The Case of the Missing Savior.” In fact, I think this story offers us some clues as to how we can become more mindful as followers of Jesus and learn how to recognize when he is at work around us and in us.
Indeed, the story of the Walk to Emmaus begins with distraction. Two disciples are on the road on Sunday, confused and distracted by the events of Good Friday, when a stranger joins them whom they do not recognize. I’ve always found it curious that in many of the post-resurrection stories the people don’t recognize the risen Christ. Is it because his body has been transformed? Well, that’s a logical theory and certainly the most plausible. But could it be simply a matter of not paying attention and excluding the possibility that a crucified man could be raised from the dead? And if they do not recognize Jesus, with whom they spent day after day over a period of three years, then how can we recognize the risen Christ among us?
Well, first we need to begin arranging our mental furniture, and as Anna Konnikova points out in her book, thinking like Sherlock requires developing certain habits and motivations that enable us to cut through the distractions so that we can both see and observe:
The first of these habits is: Be selective. Our retinas process ten billion bits per second of visual information but only ten thousand bits actually make it into the first level of our visual cortex, which is still a lot of furniture. With all the information coming at us, we have to learn how to discern between quality and quantity of information.
Our friends on the road to Emmaus are processing a ton of information as they walk away from Jerusalem—there are the images of the crucifixion still fresh in their minds, the questionable testimony of the women, the specter of their own grief, the need to be on the lookout for those who might be after them next, and even just the sights and sounds of the road. It’s no wonder that when Luke tells us that Jesus joins them on the road, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” The quantity of information led them to neglect the quality, the key things they needed to observe and remember.
Jesus had said several times that he would be killed and, after three days, rise from the dead but none of the disciples were able to process that information. It was beyond the scope of their observation, distracted as they were by their desire to be part of an earthly kingdom with Jesus on the throne in Jerusalem and them as his lieutenants. Their spiritual blindness led them to run in fear rather than wait for Jesus’ resurrection.
Selectivity, however, involves focusing on the most important data and for us that data is the promise of the risen Christ to be with us “to the end of the age.” No matter what distractions we might have in our lives—scenes of illness and grief, success and failure, prosperity and poverty—the key piece of information is that no matter what we see in front of us, we must observe that Christ is with us and wants us to show us the way to life. Despite our circumstances, he is present. We must not let our eyes be kept from recognizing him, but rather focus on him, especially when life is full of distraction.
The second habit we need to cultivate, then, is to Be objective. We tend to believe what we want to see and what our mind attic decides to see, thus we tend to interpret data with preconceived notions.
This is true when it comes to reading Scripture as well. Once we’ve read a text and settled on a particular interpretation, that tends to become the preconceived way we always see it. That was certainly the case for these two disciples on the road to Emmaus. As Jews they would certainly have been schooled in the Old Testament texts about the Messiah and, like most Jews, they had a preconceived notion about how the Messiah was to redeem Israel. Crucifixion was not part of their interpretation, nor was the resurrection of the Messiah from the dead. Their set-in-stone way of seeing things prevented them from seeing the possibility that God was actually up to something new.
“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” says Jesus. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer and then enter into his glory? ‘Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.”
One of the things that Sherlock often does is to put all the information about a particular case on the wall and go over it again and again looking for new insights. We do well when we do the same thing with the Scriptures, which is why we need to cultivate the discipline of reading them daily. It is often our preconceived notions that leave us blind to the deeper meanings that God wants to bring to us. We have to allow for the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the meaning of the text both for all time and for today, but what we’re really looking for in the text is Jesus Christ. That’s who it points to and the more we observe, the more our mental furniture becomes rearranged. We begin to see the Word of God become living and active in us. It’s a key habit that we need to cultivate if we are to recognize Christ at work in our lives and in the world.
But it’s not only the text that speaks, we need to bring more senses to our observation, which is why the third habit is to Be inclusive. Attention is about using all the senses — sight, taste, touch, sound, smell — and learning not to leave anything out.
It’s interesting that despite Jesus walking with them and interpreting the Scriptures to them, the two disciples still don’t recognize him. It’s not until they are in the house and Jesus breaks the bread that they realize it’s him. Their “eyes were opened” not by one piece of information, but by the accumulation of all that had come before—sight, hearing, and now tasting and touching.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has a refrigerator at 221B Baker St. that has less food in it than experiments where he can touch, taste, and handle particular pieces of evidence and test out his theories—things like a severed head borrowed from the morgue or a jar full of eyes in the microwave. It makes for a ghastly trip for a late night snack, but it’s extremely effective in getting all the facts.
For us to be fully aware of the presence of the risen Christ, we have to bring all our senses to bear. That’s one of the reasons we celebrate communion weekly—worship is not merely an audio and text event, it requires us to move, to touch, to taste, to smell in order to experience being at the table. We Methodists believe that in the sacrament we experience the “real presence” Christ—that even though the bread is bread and the “wine” is grape juice, in the sensing of these elements Christ is present with us as the gathered community of his body. Here, he is made known not only in the Scriptures, the prayers, and the songs, but also in the breaking of the bread.
This is the reason why many church communities offer different sensory acts in worship. The incense of Eastern Orthodoxy, the foot washing of the German pietists, Holy Water in the Catholic Church. The presence of Christ transcends the Platonist lines we have imposed between the spiritual and the physical. If we want to recognize Jesus, we will do so best when we open all of our senses to him. That means being present
Which leads us to the fourth habit: Be engaged. Many of you know that I write for a preaching magazine as well as writing my regular sermons and working on the occasional book. When doing all that writing it’s easy to wind up with a case of writer’s block occasionally—that moment when the blinking cursor mocks you from a blank page. But one of the mantras I’ve learned over the years comes from a Professor named Ron Carlson whose best advice to writers is this: “Stay in the room.” It’s too easy to want to walk away, to find something else to distract you, to procrastinate, to put it off for another time. Effective writers, however, stay in the room and stay with the task until it is finished. That advice, for me, has been hugely helpful and has enabled me to be productive as a writer.
I think it’s also helpful advice for a disciple of Jesus who seeks his will and way for his or her life. We have to be engaged, to give him our full attention. Notice that Jesus doesn’t ever say to his disciples, “If you love me, you will ponder me.” No, he said, “If you love me, you will do what I command.” You will stay engaged at the task of being a disciple by cultivating love, cultivating fruitfulness, and doing the things that Jesus did.
The two disciples immediately “got up and returned to Jerusalem” that same hour. They went from being sulking, confused, distracted friends of Jesus to being fully engaged disciples who could not wait to tell someone the good news that they, too, had seen the Lord. Their eyes and minds had been opened and they received new focus. They didn’t so much stay in the room as they stayed on the road back to Jerusalem and, from there, along with the other disciples, they stayed on the road from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Sherlock Holmes is obsessive about things, doggedly staying with a case and refusing to let it foil him. In between cases, he is manically bored. “I cannot live without brainwork,” he says in one of the novels, “What else is there to live for?”
Of course, Holmes also famously had times when he threw his brain out of action in order to reboot his thought system. Even Jesus did this in his ministry, heading to the hills when he could have been preaching yet another sermon. Knowing when to dig in and when to pull back and rest are the key rhythms of a disciple.
But the point is that we can never really experience the presence of the risen Christ unless we are engaged in his work of renewing the world in the power of his Spirit. Like those two disciples in Emmaus, we need to be engaged in the task of spreading the word that “The Lord is risen indeed!” We cannot live without Christ work. What else is there to live for?
Be selective. Be objective. Be inclusive. Be engaged. These are the habits of a world famous detective who, though fictional, has figured out how to organize the mind to do great things. Jesus said that we could do even greater things than he, but that requires given him our full attention and cultivating habits that enable us to not only know about his resurrection, but to live our lives every day as a witness to it.