Stories on the Road
THE WORD 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.
THE MESSAGE “Stories on the Road”
I just returned from a two week vacation in sunny, WARM, California; and believe me, I drank up every bit of sun I could. During that two week road trip I was invited to stay at the homes of eight different friends, and invited to dine with many more. Needless to say I wasn’t a stranger in their midst, like Jesus here.
But it made me think about this passage, which I was planning to preach on when I returned home, and how grateful I am for the love and generosity and hospitality of my friends - how important those relationships are, many spanning decades.
It’s getting to be that time of year again, when I would imagine many of you are planning your summer vacations - time visiting friends and family, or exploring some new places.
Many of us keep journals of our trips - and now, equipped with digital cameras, we take hundreds of pictures to share with our families and friends, as we recount our adventures. Sometimes, it’s in looking back and remembering, that the real significance of a trip or event becomes apparent. It’s in hindsight that we come to a realization and understanding of the real meaning of that time for our lives.
In 1983 I spent two and a half months in Europe, studying art and visiting friends there, and I realized after I returned that it had changed the way I looked at the world, and my life. It even set me on a new career course. My eyes were opened, you might say, to a new world. It happened again on sabbatical four summers ago.
This morning Luke takes us on a road trip, one of many in the Bible; there’s the road to Damascus, the road to Jerusalem, the road to Jericho, and here, three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, the road to Emmaus. It was a long trek, with their feet supplying the only mode of transportation. They moved at a slower pace back then, which provided time for contemplation and conversation.
We meet up with two unknown disciples. One is given a name, Cleopas. The other remains nameless. Being as this was a patriarchal society, this unidentified person was probably a women, perhaps the wife of Cleopas.
They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about a seven mile trip. And while they walked, they were reminiscing about the horrific events of the past three days - trying to make sense of what to them seemed an incomprehensible series of events. It was a trip most likely filled with grief, hopelessness, and possibly some fear. After all, if this happened to Jesus, his followers could very well be destined to the same fate.
Their conversation was interrupted by a stranger along the way, who started walking along side them, inquiring as to what they were discussing. Reading this reminded me of the time I was walking down the street with a friend in Athens, Ohio. We were starting graduate school at Ohio University in the fall, and had come to look for housing. As we were walking we became aware of someone walking very close behind us, whistling in our ears. We didn’t know anyone in this town, and we turned around to glare at this stranger. To our surprise it was a friend of ours, also in town to look for housing. He had a place to stay and invited us to stay with him for the weekend.
These two disciples in our story didn’t know this stranger who approached them, but they didn’t glare at him, or cross to the other side of the road. Instead, they engaged in conversation, and when they came to their destination, they even offered him food and lodging.
How often have you offered a total stranger food and lodging? The closest I’ve come is putting up friends of friends who were traveling through town and needed a place to stay. In each instance, it turned out to be a rewarding experience.
I’ve had many kind offers from people I’ve met on my trips out of the country, especially when I was traveling alone. The last one came from a couple with a young child, from Pakistan, of all places. We met waiting for a train in the Rome airport. We actually had a conversation about politics and religion - those two tabu subjects! They were rather surprised to find out I was a minister. When we parted ways, he handed me his card and said if I happen to come to Pakistan some time, call them and be their guest. That almost left me speechless.
Reading this story in Luke, some may ask, “Did it really happen like this?” If so, why didn’t they recognize Jesus? Where did he disappear to after breaking the bread?” and others might say, “Of course it happened. It’s in the Bible.” Like many stories in the New Testament, it echoes a story in the Old Testament, in Genesis, a story of Abraham and Sarah. Three men appeared at their tent in the heat of the day- strangers - and Abraham provided them water to wash their feet, food and drink, and a place to rest during their travels.
Whether you understand this story on the road to Emmaus literally or metaphorically, we’ll see that it still teaches the same message.
Some scholars suggest it might have been written to be used in a worship service, with its focus on the Word and Sacrament. Cleopas recounts to the stranger events from the gospel, and Jesus, still unknown to the disciples, gives them a little sermon, a theology lesson on how the Gospel of Jesus Christ continues and brings to fulfillment the law, the prophets and the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The lesson is followed by Cleopas and the unnamed disciple finally recognizing Jesus in the Eucharist, in the sharing of the bread and wine, after which the disciples run back to Jerusalem to share the good news to those other disciples still wallowing in their grief and hopelessness. Sounds like worship to me. Luke is writing not only the story of Jesus, but the story of the early church and how they came to know him.
John Dominic Crossan proposes that this story is actually a parable about Jesus, intended to teach us a lesson, just like Jesus’ parables taught his disciples lessons. And the key verse to understanding the lesson starts with verse 28; “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.’”
Jesus didn’t ask them for food or lodging, they invited him in, the stranger in their midst.
Jesus accepts their invitation. When they sat to eat, it was customary for the host to break bread and pass it around, but here Jesus plays both the guest and the host. He breaks the bread, blesses it and gives it to them, and it is within this act that they recognize him. And then he vanishes - poof - gone. Where to? - the story doesn’t tell us. That’s not what’s important.
Looking back on this series of events, Cleopas and his traveling companion finally get it, and run back seven miles at night to tell the others - they have experienced the risen Christ. What a round trip! - from despair to hope. We’re getting a lesson here, just like they did, on what it means to see Jesus - and it wasn’t with a blinding flash of light.
Luke tells us the risen Christ is with us when we study the scriptures about Jesus. But that’s what Crossan calls the” or'deurve”. The two disciples, in hindsight, remembered that mini - lesson Jesus gave them on the road from Jerusalem, and it warmed their hearts, but they still didn’t recognize him.
You’ll really meet Jesus, as Crossan puts it, “when you take the stranger in to eat with you, not to share your food, but because you believe the world, creation, food, belongs to God and you’re sharing God’s stuff with God’s people.” In this way Emmaus never happened and always happens.
It happens to all of us in the stuff of our everyday lives. Emmaus can be anywhere. It’s up to us to recognize it, to recognize Christ with us - as I said on Easter Sunday, Christ Eastering in us.
Looking back, it’s what I recognized as I broke bread and drank wine with all those friends in California - Christ in our midst through the love and sharing of friends.
It’s what I experienced after our Easter service here at Eliot when Peter and his extended family joined Josephine and I in hosting two families from a homeless shelter for Easter dinner in our parlor.
It’s what our confirmation class experienced about this time last year serving in soup kitchens in NYC the week after Easter. I remember Izzy saying that she expected it to be depressing, but it wasn’t. It was filled with joy - the joy of those who invited the stranger in and the joy of those serving. Many of you have experienced that joy serving the community dinner at the Brighton Alston Church.
Molly Baskette, the pastor of our Somerville Church [First Church Somerville UCC], wrote a Stillspeaking devotional that came in my e-mail while on vacation. It spoke to me about this message. She calls it Pay it Forward. It’s based on Ecclesiastes 11:1 “Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.”
In it she writes: “Mason Wartman always has a line of customers out of the door of Rosa's, his pizza shop in Philly. It might not be the best pizza in town, but it's the kindest. Colorful Post-its flutter on the walls of the shop like Tibetan prayer flags. Each one is a love-note to the future: a voucher for one free slice of pizza, bought by a paying customer who knows that the next person in the door might be broke.
In the last year alone, Mason's community has bought more than 10,000 slices of pizza for each other, using the simple, elegant post-it strategy Mason devised. Mason's ritual works because it's not charity. It's communion. Charity can do a lot of good, but charity also sometimes brings dented castoffs from the back of the pantry to the food drive and calls it love.
Charity makes inequality radically visible. Communion makes inequality radically invisible. In the early church, communion was not a symbolic ritual, but a full meal--for some, the only meal they'd get that day. Imagine: platters of hot bread as big as your face gracing the table, and everybody eating their fill. Theoretically, nobody knew who was rich one, poor one, beggar one, slave. It was a meal designed to erase those boundaries, because we are all beggars in the eyes of God.” Thank you Molly.
Keep bringing the food that goes to the food pantry across the street. Our community still needs charity. But how do we do communion, with those who might never walk in the the doors of this sanctuary? How do we reach out to the stranger in our midst, and make inequality radically invisible?
I left soon after that Easter meal, so I’ve had no time to catch up with Josephine, but I’m hoping that Easter meal, and those we met that day might hold the key. I invite your ideas.