Sunday, May 8, 2011

Our Road to Emmaus

Thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey, "Preaching Peace," and my beloved pseudo-daughter Genevieve Turkett for inspiration and assistance in writing this week's sermon.

My prayer is that as you read it, Christ will be made known to you.

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,
“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

1 Peter 1:17-23
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.

Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things 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.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 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; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Have you ever wondered why only one of the people who Jesus joins on the road to Emmaus has a name? There’s a lot of speculation about it. Some commentators suggest that the person traveling with Cleopas was a woman. Others say it was Luke himself. Really, though, it could have been anybody… and perhaps that’s kind of the point.

These two are members of a group of people who pinned all their hopes on an itinerant Rabbi from a Galilean backwater, a man who not only spoke the oracles of God, but who could perform mighty miracles, things never before seen! Perhaps Cleopas and his friend had eaten the bread and fish when Jesus fed the five thousand. Perhaps they had gasped in amazement when lepers were cleansed. Perhaps they’d reeled in shock when Lazarus walked out of the tomb. Perhaps they’d hidden a smile when Jesus put the Pharisees in their place, and had actually read what he wrote in the dirt while the angry crowd waited to stone the woman caught in adultery.

Perhaps, but all of that was ancient history now. Because they’d stood at a distance, watching Peter and John crouched at the fire, and heard the rooster crow as Peter ran away, they’d been in the crushing crowd, terrified to speak out as everyone around them screamed “Crucify! Crucify!” They’d followed at a distance as Jesus fell under the weight of his cross, and a man was forced to carry it for him, and they’d watched from a safe distance as he breathed his last.

I doubt either one of them knew why they’d stayed in Jerusalem after that. Perhaps it was the comfort of having others around to share the grief, to try and process all that had happened, to try to make sense of their world coming apart around them. But that morning, things had started getting weird.

First, some of the women of the group woke them all up, babbling about the tomb being empty. It made no sense, but when a couple of the disciples ran down to see for themselves, sure enough, the tombstone was rolled back and the slab where the body was supposed to be laying was bare, except for the wrappings. And there was crazy talk of angels, and confusion, and it only got worse throughout the day. There had been no time to process the horror and loss of death before the insanity about angels and rising from the dead had begun, and it was at last too much to take. Cleopas and his companion had to get out of Jerusalem.

Emmaus was seven miles from Jerusalem, but it might as well have been seven million, because of what it represented. Frederick Buechner speaks of it as a place they go – a place we go – or, better put, a place to run to when we have lost hope or don't know what to do. Emmaus is a place of escape, of forgetting, of giving up, of deadening our senses and our minds and maybe our hearts, too.

Before April 27th, I might have struggled to come up with a way to convey this sense of shock, of loss, of confusion that drove them to run away to this town of warm springs. We don’t have to dig very deep to understand this, though, do we?

I imagine Cleopas and his companion walking down what was once a quiet residential street in Pleasant Grove or Pratt City, or past the remains of a strip mall in Fultondale, or the rubble of downtown Hackleburg or Cullman, or past the terribly empty spot on McFarland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa, that place where there used to be a Chinese restaurant. My family tradition was to have Christmas dinner there, after we visited our family in Tuscaloosa.

I think of what my friend Genny Turkett wrote in her blog this week. Genny was in my very first youth group, and lives in Tuscaloosa. She writes about seeing what has happened to her adopted home: “There is ache harder than relationships, than drug addicted boyfriends, than car accidents, than failing math class, than losing friends, than losing everything. There is this bigger, different hurt, of overwhelming disaster and death right down your street. There is a house a few blocks from my own with one of those wretched X's on the door. The last number is 1. That nameless storm killed someone in my neighborhood, it orphaned a dog, it destroyed a family. And dear God I am just so furious.”

And in the midst of this unfocused rage, this anger that drives them to run away, go somewhere, go anywhere, but do it now, the stranger draws near, asking what they’re talking about. The two travelers are dumbstruck: is he stupid? Is he blind? They are aghast! Why, can’t he see what has happened to our lives, to our world?

Cleopas and his companion had the common Jewish view of a view of Messiah who was a political redeemer who would achieve victory through the use of force or exercise of absolute power. Now, they were not wrong to have such high expectations of Jesus. Where he disappointed them was precisely in his inability or unwillingness to defend himself, his refusal to achieve victory with shock and awe.

So they reasoned that Jesus was not the Messiah. He was just a fool, and they were the greater fools for having put everything behind him. He let himself get killed, and God’s emissary would never let that happen! God is all powerful, so the Messiah would absolutely exhibit similar traits.

But gently, as the miles tick off underfoot, this soft-spoken stranger speaks of God’s love and grace, bringing clarity and comfort from the Scriptures. Slowly, they see that Jesus’ vulnerability is the veil behind which God hides. Jesus’ openness to love and forgive is the camouflage of the heart of God.

Their cold hearts were warmed by the growing understanding that God judges in order to forgive. God loves, and does so without shadow of turning, without reservation, even to the point of embracing that thing we all fear most, death, and thus conquering it.
And then, as they rest from their journey and take a meal, this nameless traveler takes bread and breaks it, and they see him at last for who he is.

We are those travelers on the road to Emmaus. All too often we face fears, uncertainties, grief and loss. We seek escape, we go down our own road to Emmaus, and God finds us in that place, on that road, and speaks peace to us, and our cold hearts burst into flame.

We are the travelers, but we Christians are something more, aren’t we? Our hearts are warmed for a purpose! Sometimes, you see, we are the vessel that God uses to reach out to someone else on their Emmaus road. It wasn’t much, that breaking of the bread, but was what Cleopas and his friend needed. Sometimes that kind word, that late-night phone call, that cup of coffee in the Waffle House just off the interstate is all we need. And sometimes it’s all someone else needs from us.

Sometimes we’re the travelers on that road to Emmaus. But sometimes we are Jesus.

There’s a story told from World War two, and it’s never meant more than it does right now. In Italy, an American soldier came across a statue of Jesus which had been damaged in a bombing raid. The statue’s hands were missing, and nowhere to be found. The soldier took a piece of paper, wrote a quick note, and left it at the base of the statue. The note read, “Christ has no hands but yours.”

Christ has no hands but yours.

Right now, in Cullman or in Hackleburg or Sawyerville or Cordova or Henager or so many other communities, someone’s walked a long way from where their home once was, where they’ve been searching through a pile of sticks, looking for family heirlooms, throwing busted glass into the back of a pickup truck, shoveling shingles into a pile, maybe struggling to not think of their lifelong friend or close relative who didn’t make it through the storm. Right now, they are walking into an open-sided tent where a few tables are set up. Right now someone they don’t know hands the weary, soul-sick travelers a sandwich and a bottle of water.

And they sit down at last, open the water and unwrap that sandwich. It isn’t much, no. But it’s what they need. And in that moment Jesus is made known to them in the breaking of bread.

Let us pray.

1 comment:

  1. John,

    Interesting that in many ways we have not changed this past 2,000 years. Given that other person could have been anybody, it could have been me. Perhaps the original language does not support this, but putting myself in that group then it is with shame I notice how quick “we” are to point the finger at the chief priests and leaders for handing Jesus over to his torture and death. No mention of the throngs screaming out “crucify Him” when Pilate speaks to them.

    I know this is not the main thrust of this sermon/post, but it struck me – so I thought I should share it. I should also share that putting myself in that crowd rather than as a historical observer is a daily challenge still.

    I am intrigued a twist in here – one I’m not sure has ever grabbed me before. God as vulnerable – I’m not going to dig too far into this, I need to chew on that a while. But it makes sense – if I think in a simple relational sense, the person willing in a relationship to reach out to the other, is usually also making themselves vulnerable. I’m not going to say this is game changing for me, and it may be many would react to this as “well of course”, but thanks for putting it out there for me – for being a part of Christ being made known to me.

    And John, I am glad that if something like the tragedy that has engulfed your area must happen, that you are there to be the hands of Christ to so many dire need and even deeper hurt. I know there are many others there like you, some who know they are the hands of Christ and some who do not, but you are one I know. I am no less grateful to the others, especially those who do not know they are being the hand of Christ.