Whenever I read scriptural text, my spirit grabs onto a few phrases. I can’t do what Tom Zych or Elizabeth Shaw are able to do. I can’t tell you the intricate narrative threads of the Bible. I don’t know who begat whom or when Paul traveled to Corinth. I couldn’t name all of the disciples if you forewarned me and offered me a million dollar prize.
I just can’t keep it all straight.
But I do know that our sacred teachings include a God who is constantly redefining cultural and personal norms. They include Jesus, who was a prophet and a teacher. Who is a prophet and a teacher. And they include stories, holy spirit stories, just as relevant and instructive as they were when they first happened. Those stories offer – by metaphor — a new way.
While I suspect you expected me to talk about how Jesus revealed himself in this text, I was more drawn to the disciples. Maybe that’s because I am – we are – disciples too. So when I read this text, I locked onto the importance of 1) the walk, 2) eyes that need to see, and 3) the heart that burns.
First, the walk.
I have three go-to people, maybe four. When something in my life is really confusing to me, when events seem unbelievable or improbable or without obvious resolution, much like they were for Cleopas and his friend, I don’t say let’s meet for coffee, or could we grab a quick dinner. I simply say — and I suspect you do too – “Can we take a walk?”
I think that is a common plea, a safe way to say I need help.
There’s something about that combination of moving forward while not looking directly into the eyes of the companion that creates the needed conditions for revelation. That real talk, that deep talk, seems to rip a hole in any problem and create room for peace to enter in. Several of you in this congregation have been those walking companions with me. Several after a horrible break up. One when I needed to talk about the fear I have about my weight. One after a terrible falling out with a family member.
Have any of you ever gone on one of those late night, rain falling, heart breaking, soul shifting walks and not come home feeling better? Walking always teaches us something.
Several times when he was healing others, Jesus says, “Get up.” To a paralyzed man. To a dying child. I think these words are not just about miracle making, but are instructive. Especially when we feel stuck or lifeless — depressed and confused like the disciples were that day. Get up. Get off the couch, stand up from your desk, push away the remote control. Move your body to reset your mind – be someone who chooses forward and has a destination.
There’re four famous road stories in the New Testament, at least that I can think of. This one — when the disciples did not have a clue that Jesus was with them. The Road to Damascus story where Jesus is said to have spoken directly to the non-believer, Saul/Paul, leading to one of the most radical conversions in history. The parable of the Good Samaritan, where the least likely candidate acts in the most holy way. And Palm Sunday – moving on the road with praise and glory.
I love that. God leaves it wide open, saying: I may speak to you directly, I may speak to you directly and you may not know it, I may be invisible to you. Or I may speak with you alone. In a pair. In a crowd. I may speak to you in metaphor. I may rain my love down upon you.
No matter what the method, God makes one thing clear. God is always hanging around.
Because we may not know who is being God with us, we need to pay attention. Open our eyes. Expect profound counsel from strangers. We should anticipate — unlike Cleopas and the unnamed disciple — that there will be holy companions with us on the road.
I was at a summer writing retreat several years ago, and while others were taking afternoon naps, my teacher specifically sent me outside to have a new experience. I said, “But I already had so many amazing things happen at River’s Edge; what else do you expect?” She smiled, nodded like a shaman, and said, “Go. Ask the world to teach you something you need to know.”
I headed out of the retreat center and ran smack dab into a nun. Sister was sitting on a bench right outside the door. I plopped down next to her, completely enamored by her pressed blue shirt, her pressed blue skirt, her Little Kitty socks, and the bag of Cheetos she was munching on. I introduced myself and we talked about all kinds of things: baseball, how she was a high school physics teacher, the food in the dining hall. I shared my more liberal views and she listened. When the conversation wound down, my new friend said, “Now that we know each other better, we should pray for each other.”
I thought, that’s it! My lesson for the afternoon assignment fulfilled! We need to take time to know people and, once we do, we should pray for their well-being! Simple. Done.
Then, I decided to take a hike that I thought would wind me down to the river, but it didn’t. I just ended up at the bottom of an impossibly tall hill and had two choices. I could either hike back the way I came, a low-grade slope that was swarming with mosquitos, or I could try to climb straight up the really steep hill.
It was hot and muggy so I opted for the shortest route, up the hill. Even though I was a hundred pounds overweight with cranky knees, I started to climb. I was admittedly kind of scared. I thought, ‘Who the heck is going to find me out here when I have a heart attack?’ And soon enough, my heart was beating in my ears, my hands swelled, and my breath became labored. But I grabbed trees and vines and climb-crawled my way to the top. I emerged from the woods near the retreat building. I had done it. Big old me had climbed the big old hill.
I saw a woman sitting on a bench just ahead of me, and when I reached her, she greeted me. I barely said hi, instead blurted out in my delight, “I just climbed that hill!”
“You did?” she replied. “I’ve only ever climbed that hill once – years ago – with some of my students. It’s a killer.” I noticed, as she spoke, that this nun had a slur in her voice. The slush of a stroke. She was holding her right hand steady.
Then she said this. “And what did the climbing hill teach you?”
I paused. Here was my mystic, the person I was supposed meet. I replied, “I learned that my heart is stronger than I thought it was.” And it was true, my physical heart and my spiritual heart were stronger than I’d ever imagined they could be.
We chatted a bit longer, then I said, “You remind me of my mother.”
She laughed, “I can’t remind you of your mother. I’m not that old.”I asked how old she was, and she said fifty-eight.
“Yes,” I said, “you remind me of my mother when she was your age.”
“How old are you?” I told her that I was 48. She perked up noticeably.
“I have to tell you something very important. I wish someone would have told me this when I was your age.” She had my full attention, and continued. “Next year is your seventh seven. 49. It is the most important year of your life. Judaic law says that you need to clear your fields, remit all of your debts. You have to set your slaves free.”
That phrase, set your slaves free, gutted me. Knocked me out. I teared up and said, “I was sent out here by my teacher to be taught something important. I thought the conversation I had with Sister Somebody was the lesson. Then I thought that climbing the big hill was the lesson. But now I know that you are the lesson, your words are what I needed to hear.” Set your slaves free.
I had – at that point in my life — so many slaves, things within me that I had imprisoned. Feelings of shame and fear about being gay. The pervasive habit of measuring my life against others. The recurring belief that I was not worthy of love. There was so much I needed to set free.
While writing this sermon, I learned that the word shame is, most likely, derived from an old German word meaning “to cover.” The thing that’s held me most captive is shame. And since meeting that nun at the big hill I have purposefully uncovered my life, uncovered the truth of me. I have reaped the harvest of this chance meeting, her wise counsel. It’s amazing what happens when you release fear. I actually occupy my life as if I belong here.
But beyond that, meeting that nun reminded me that there are holy companions all around us all of the time. We may or may not immediately know we are having a life-changing encounter. You may or may not recognize your Christ when your Christ comes, but one thing will be sure. When you meet holy instruction, something in you will be sparked. Your heart will burn with transformation.
I tell you: meeting that nun was an Emmaus moment for me. I can’t even thank this person who’s had a profound effect on me — I don’t know her name — so all I can do is thank God, because I’m certain it was a divine moment. We just can’t help it — if we are open to God, we will keep bumping into God all over the place.
Frederick Buechner wrote this in an Easter sermon entitled “The Secret in the Dark.”
I believe that whether we recognize him or not, or believe in him or not, or even know his name, again and again Jesus comes and walks a little way with us along whatever road we’re following. And I believe that through something that happens to us, or something we see, or somebody we know, he offers us – the way he did at Emmaus – the bread of life, a new hope, a new vision.
We know that Jesus teaches us about two things most powerfully: love and resurrection. Those two ideas are bumpers that will guide us all to grace and glory. They will give us new hope and new vision.
But this story, the Road to Emmaus story, reminds us that we must be culpable in our own resurrective moments. We must be people willing to move, we must have walking companions, we must keep our eyes open to holy wisdom from obvious and less obvious sources, and, when our hearts burn, we must follow them.
What is your Road to Emmaus? Whatever it is, get on it. Whether it’s the road of justice. The road to forgiveness. The road to marriage, the road to amicable divorce. The road to dream chasing, the road of letting go. Choose your road and get on it. Find companions. Figure out what you need to say along the way. Trust your heart to speak your deepest fears and wishes.
Ask yourself – are your eyes open? Are you ready to meet Jesus in whatever form he takes? Are you brave enough to let your heart be kindled with a new fire?
As Easter people we must answer, “Yes, yes, yes.”
This story, the Road to Emmaus. asks us to rise up to the risen Christ. Our journey, like every journey, starts right now with the next step we take. So let us praise God who will create the path. Praise Jesus, the one who will always return for us and speak to us along the way. And praise the Holy Spirit who will ignite our choices and make us burn with love and hope till we get to where we need to be.