April 26, 2020/Third Sunday of Easter

Opening Prayer

Risen One, like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, we struggle to recognize you in the everyday journey of our lives.

We seek your wisdom in the midst of the questions we have about the circumstances we find ourselves in—circumstances sometimes beyond our control, but often of our own making.

Open our eyes, to your work of transformation in and around us.

As we walk with you each day, may your new life be made manifest in what we say to others. Help us to understand the power of our words to hurt or to heal; give us the graciousness to make all our conversations holy.

Just as we desire that our speaking be holy, may our seeing be holy as well. We are bombarded with images everyday, O Christ, that shape our attitudes and behaviors.

As you opened the scriptures to the disciples and taught them everything, open our eyes to behold you in your Word, in the beauty of your creation, the beauty of another human being and the beauty of art, and song, and dance.

And in our seeing, help us to recognize and welcome the stranger in our midst. May our welcome be a celebration of the gifts and graces of persons who are different from us.

So often we forget, Holy One, that you invite us to abide with you; to have our lives hidden in you. We thank you that you travel with us each and every day of our lives.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Luke 24:13-35 (NRSV)

13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”  They stood still, looking sad.  18Then 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?”  19He 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, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  21But 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.  22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us.  They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and 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.  24Some 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.”  25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.  

28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  29But 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.  30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  32They 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?”  33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Message/Seven Miles to Nowhere

After his wife died, C.S. Lewis once wrote that he thought that his grief might be less if he intentionally avoided the places he and Joy had frequented by limiting his travels to only those places where they had never been together.  So he switched grocery stores, tried different restaurants, walked only along streets and paths that he and Joy had never taken.  But it didn’t work. To paraphrase Lewis, “I found out that grief is like the sky above—it is over everything.”

The two travelers in this morning’s text seem to think that by getting out of Dodge maybe they, too, could walk away from their grief, and leave the bad memories of the previous Friday behind.  Jerusalem had become like an empty house from which all the children had gone.  It was haunted with memories.  It was haunted by hope deferred.  Jerusalem was the place where their dreams had died.  It was more than high time to hit the road and see if they could leave their troubles behind.  And so they headed out on a trip I like to call seven miles to nowhere.

As any of us who have ever gone through the loss of someone we have loved or have had our dreams for the future dashed against the rocks, we know such an escapist strategy doesn’t work.  Indeed, grief is like the sky . . . Cleopas and his companion thought Emmaus maybe would be the place to go but as they trekked that way their conversation kept circling back and back and back again to the death of the One they had loved, the One in whom they had hoped. 

Perhaps nothing in the text better captures their emotions than that very phrase in verse 21: “we had hoped.”  “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  To borrow an expression from a Lutheran author and pastor Sharron Lucas, Cleopas and his companion suffer from what she calls “Past Tense Hope” Syndrome.  And she reminds us that this malaise can often be found in the church.  How often have we used the words “we had hoped,” usually accompanied by a sigh and a downward facial expression?  “We had hoped that giving would be better this year.”  “We had hoped to have some new members.”  “We had hoped to jump start a youth ministry.”  Unfortunately, we most often follow up “we had hoped” with the word “but” and then an explanation, rationalization, or theory about why what was hoped for did not come to pass.  “We had hoped that giving would be better this year, but with the economy, you know.”  “We had hoped to have some new members, but nobody came back after the first visit.”  “We had hoped our youth program would take off, but we’re just too small to have critical mass.” 

If Past Tense Hope Syndrome is the diagnosis, then its symptoms include defeatist attitudes, a flagging interest in worship or church activities or personal prayer and devotions, but even more worrisome, is the visual impairment that often comes from this malady, the inability to see God at work in our own lives and through the ministries of our faith community.  And accompanying this lack of vision is a wavering trust in God’s ability to transform and change the world around us.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion were on the road, in frank discussion about all that had happened.  Suddenly, a stranger comes up to them.  “Shalom! What’s up, friends?”  Goodness gracious, they must think, don’t you keep up with the news?  On what planet have you been living?  You must be the only one in the whole county who hasn’t heard about all this!

It is probably a sign of the enormity of their grief that they reacted like that.  In truth, there may have been lots of people who hadn’t heard the news.  Sure, to the disciples this was headline news, but to others, it may have been noted only in passing.  Just another Roman crucifixion.  Happens all the time.  It was just a side story buried on page 3 of the “Jerusalem Gazette.”  Big deal.  Pass the Sports section.

Well, this stranger on the road must have been one such clueless tourist because he didn’t seem to know a blessed thing about any of it.  So they explain things to the stranger, more or less admitting in the end that the One on whom they had pinned their hopes didn’t pan out.  They had made, it appeared, a rather large mistake.  We all make mistakes, of course, and when the mistake in question is no more significant than burning your breakfast toast or accidentally calling “George” “Harry,” you can pick yourself up and move on.  But when the mistake you’ve made is more along the lines of trusting a neighbor who ended up molesting your child or trusting your husband only to find he’s been a serial adulterer for decades, well then you feel not just embarrassed or a bit upset over your mistake but shattered by it.  “How could I have gotten things so wrong?” we want to ask ourselves.

But then, suddenly, the stranger, who had appeared so clueless a moment before, changes.  He has the audacity first of all to call these disciples foolish, and before they can object to this, the stranger has launched into a quite serious and thorough Bible study.  And after that, the rest of the trek to Emmaus just flew by! With breathtaking sweep and textual precision, this anonymous fellow traveler re-tells Scripture’s story.  It is Israel’s story, all right, but the stranger tells it in a quite new way.  The last time they’d heard anyone talk about the Bible in such an invigorating a fashion was when . . . well, never mind.

Before they knew it they were standing in front of the local Motel Emmaus.  With a slight wave and a nod the stranger says, “Well, it’s been nice talking with you” and then keeps walking.  So Cleopas chimes in: “Sir!  Look, the sun is setting which means the thieves along the highway will be coming out soon.  It’s not safe to travel alone—stay with us at least tonight.”  The man agrees.  After having washed the dust of the journey off faces, hands, and feet, the three find a place to eat.  And before they knew what was happening, the stranger reaches for the flat bread, lifting it up in a strikingly familiar way.  He then gives thanks, breaks it just so, and hands it to Cleopas and his friend. They knew instantly who he was but just as they are ready to cry out, “Jesus!” he was gone.

“I knew it!” Cleopas exclaims.  “Didn’t you wonder about this too?  The way he taught us, the way he understood Scripture, wasn’t it eerily familiar all along?”  Then, stuffing the bread into their pockets, they sprint back to Jerusalem, covering those seven miles in record time.  A little of their thunder is stolen, however, in that before they can spill the beans of their news, the others say, “The Lord appeared to Simon Peter!”  They then share the news of their encounter, making special note of the fact that Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

One of the best sermons ever written on this passage is by Frederick Buechner.  Buechner finds a great deal of hope in the understated nature of this tale of recognition.  Because, he says, all of us travel to Emmaus eventually.  We all, take off on a venture seven miles to nowhere at some point or another.  “Where is your Emmaus?” Buechner asks.  Do you have a place you go to get away from it all, a place to which you escape so that you don’t have to think about how lousy life in this world can sometimes be?  Maybe it’s the mall where the noise of commerce and the rush of people keep you from thinking about life a little retail therapy to take our mind off things.  Maybe it’s a bar where the booze and the beer nuts help numb you to the more bitter truths that swirl outside the windows of that darkened, smoky room.  Maybe it’s a matinee at the movies where you go to take in what Hollywood proudly touts as “escapist fare.”  Maybe it’s the TV remote that takes you away from it all as you mindlessly channel surf every single evening.  Emmaus is anywhere we attempt to escape our troubles, to get away from the push and pull of life’s disappointments.

But the good news is, believe it or not, that it may be precisely in Emmaus where you are most apt to find Jesus.  He cares enough for you to be there.  Maybe he meets you along the way and walks with you as you silently trudge along, maybe you find him waiting for you once you get to wherever it is you were going.  But he’s there.  You catch a glimpse of him in the kindness of a stranger.  You see him in that note of encouragement that came in the mail on the very day you needed it most.  Or a phone call from someone who reminds you that you are valued, appreciate. Maybe sometimes you come even to church but you don’t take joy in it. The kids had been a royal pain in the neck getting ready that morning, spilling their breakfast cereal all over the floor, howling when you combed their hair.  You and your spouse snapped at each other in the car on the way to church.  The whole week had been one disappointing and frustrating moment after the next until you wanted to throw your hands up and say, “Aw, let the whole thing hang.”  You settle into your pew feeling more surly than sanctified, more petulant than pious, yet before the service is over you catch a glimpse of Jesus and you just can’t shake the sense that it made a difference.  You can go on a while longer now.  You can get out of bed on Monday morning after all and face another week filled with tasks and responsibilities.

The simple fact is that we don’t spend all of our lives in obviously holy places like Jerusalem.  Sometimes we even think that a holy place is the last place we want to be and so we head out of town, head to Emmaus, go someplace where, if we’re lucky, we won’t run into anyone from church.  But then we do run into Jesus and even if our glimpse of him is momentary, we know for sure he was there, and we know all over again that the world changed on a day called Easter long ago.  And that in turn changes us.

There are any number of things in our lives that drive us to Emmaus.  But if we can find Jesus even there, then we sense with renewed wonder the punch of the line, “Surely, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  The first time Luke shows us the reality of that divine presence was in Emmaus.  Emmaus, of all places.  Of all places!  But that’s just the point: all places, all the time.  It’s Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

Reflection [Michael E. Williams]

Our footsteps sounded like a death toll

As we walked the dusty road

From Jerusalem to Emmaus.

Both words and silences spoke for us

As our feet trudged toward home

In search of whatever comfort

A familiar place might offer.

Along that same road,

Our faces set for Emmaus,

We spoke of one dear to us

Who was no more.  The journey home

Might help, but could not comfort,

Our broken hearts despite the offer

Of rest after grief’s expensive toll.

While the place, Emmaus,

Still lay some distance from us

We met a stranger, going home

Like us.  In need of comfort

Like us, perhaps.  We hope to offer

Of company to reduce our toll

Of mourning along that sad road.

The stranger began to question us.

The words that accompanied us home

So far, held pain and comfort.

“Are you the only one that does not know?  We’ll offer

A story that will wring from your heart a toll,

A price, no tax collector along this road

Could match from here to Emmaus.”

The rest of the long trek home

We told the stranger of Jesus, the comfort

Of god extended to the world, God’s offer

Of grace to cancel the excruciating toll

Of death.  But following Jesus’ road

Had led us nowhere but back here to Emmaus.

Arriving home

At dark Emmaus

We offer

Small comfort,

Food to ease the toll

Of the long, bleak road.

The bread is broken

Between familiar

Spike-torn palms

Now we recognize the face,

The voice, the hands, the gait.

We start to speak.

Our voices reach toward

An emptiness across the table

Where our guest/our host had sat.

The question returns

To us and turns on us—

Are we the only ones who did not know?

Then we return

Along a moon-lit ribbon

Of road, saying,

“Were not our hearts on fire?

Were not our hearts ablaze?”

Prayer of Intercession

You come to us in unexpected places, in a crowded room, in a journey on a dusty road, in conversation, in the stillness.

You come in the midst of our doubt, our fear, our sorrow.

You come in the power of the resurrection.

No pain and suffering is unknown to you.

You bring us peace. And we pray for the places where there is no peace: countries torn by war, refugees living in camps, prisoners facing an uncertain future.

You bring peace: peace to the tensions and conflicts within us, to the regrets, the failure, the broken relationships, the lost friendships

You bring peace; For you are a friend to us when we are alone, when we are lonely, unseen you are there.

You bring us peace and we pray that we too may become peacemakers.

The Lord’s Prayer

And now with the confidence of the children of God, let us pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Closing Thought & Benediction

Swedish economist and Secretary-General to the United Nations-Dag Hammarskjöld “You wake from dreams of doom and—for a moment—you know: beyond all the noise and the gestures, the only real thing, love’s calm unwavering flame in the half-light of an early dawn.”

We thank you, Lord, for re-igniting the flame of hope within us, for filling our hearts with light and evicting the darkness, and for giving a new vision of your glory.

Go now, as light-bearers to a world in darkness.

Go now, as hope-carriers to a world in despair.

We go in the name of Christ, in the love of God, and in the power of the Spirit.  Amen.