Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Emmaus" - April 23, 2017

Txt: Luke 24:13-35

Last Sunday we gathered here to celebrate resurrection.  With lilies and tulips and daffodils, with wonderful music, with joy and fanfare we celebrated Easter.  We read the account from the gospel of Luke.  Early on Sunday morning, a group of women went and found the tomb empty.  In their fear and perplexity, two angels appear and tell them that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he had said.  They were filled with amazement and joy and ran to tell the other disciples.  But the male disciples did not believe.  The report was dismissed as the wishful thinking of some grieving women.

We continued the reading from Luke this morning, picking up immediately from where we left off last Sunday.  Two travelers are heading away from Jerusalem.  They are on their way to Emmaus.  Why are they going to Emmaus?  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out why.

They had followed Jesus.  They had put their hope and trust, put their faith in Jesus.  But now he had died a humiliating death.  When you are at your lowest, when you have just been crushed, where do you go?  Where do you go for comfort, for reassurance, for healing?  Emmaus is the place you instinctively go to when your heart has been broken and your hopes have been crushed.

Cleopas and an unnamed companion are walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  Jesus had been killed, and the prudent thing, the safest thing to do was get out of Jerusalem.  We don’t have the name of the person walking with Cleopas; some have suggested it may have been his wife.  As they walked, they were talking about what had happened in the last week.  What a week.  One week before, the triumphal entry in to Jerusalem.  Since then, Jesus had driven the money changers from the temple.  Jesus had done a lot of teaching, including words of coming destruction.  There was the Passover meal on Thursday and then Jesus’ betrayal and arrest later that night.  And finally his crucifixion on Friday.  The disciples had stayed together behind closed doors, but then on Sunday morning some of the women in the group had shown up with an amazing tale about Jesus’ body missing from the tomb and angels saying that he had risen from the dead.

Cleopas and his companion were discussing all of this when they were joined on the road by another traveler.  The traveler asks what they were talking about.  And they just froze in their tracks for a moment.  They were filled with sadness, and finally Cleopas says, “Are you the only person around who doesn’t know all the things that have taken place?”

The traveler, of course, is Jesus.  And he plays dumb.  “What things?” he asks.  And they proceed to rehash what has happened, telling them about Jesus of Nazareth, and saying, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel?”

That has got to be one of the saddest lines in the Bible.  “We had hoped.”  These are the words of people whose dreams have been shattered and for whom there seems to be no future.  When you have no more hope, you say “we had hoped.” 

Jesus has been listening to their story but can’t hold back any longer.  “How foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe what the prophets have said.”  And he proceeds to go through the scriptures and what the prophets taught about the Messiah.  About himself.

They arrive at the village and Jesus acts as though he is going to continue.  But it is just sort of a head fake.  Cleopas and his companion plea with Jesus to stay with them, as the hour is getting late.  “Stay with us,” they say.  So Jesus stays and they sit down to a meal. 

If “we had hoped” are three words of great sadness, “stay with us” are three words brimming with hospitality.  Their hearts may have been slow, but their hearts were not closed.  Despite being wrapped up in a world of their own sorrow, these two disciples still had room for the grace to share hospitality with a stranger. 

In many ways, this story is a microcosm of the whole Gospel of Luke.  Like he always seems to do, Jesus is traveling and teaching and eating.  So many significant things happen around meals.  He is at a meal at the home of a prominent Pharisee when a woman anoints his feet.  When there is a large, hungry crowd, he feeds the 5000 with five loaves and two fish, and there is plenty to spare.  He was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton because he ate with common sinners.  He visits in the home of Mary and Martha, where a meal becomes the occasion for teaching about what is needed most.  He told parables about banquets and dinner guests and he had just shared the Passover meal with his disciples.

Cleopas and his companion invited Jesus to share a meal.  Except that at this point they still do not recognize that it is Jesus.  How can this be?

Well, part of the explanation is that we see what we expect to see.  We only see what we are looking for.  Maybe you have had the experience of shopping for a car, and you are interested in a particular car.  You’ve never really noticed this vehicle before, but now that you are looking for it, you see it everywhere.  It’s not that there has been a sudden surge in the number of Mazdas on the road, it’s just that now you notice them because you are looking for them.

Several years ago a musician, a violinist, set up to play in a Metro station in Washington DC.  He wore jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap.  He set up at a station where thousands of federal employees get on and off the subway.  He took out his violin and put a few bills and some coins in his case to prime the pump – seed money, which is always a smart move.  Then he faced the pedestrian traffic and started playing.  It was 7:45 in the morning, right in the middle of rush hour.  

This wasn’t just any musician.  This was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest violin players of our era, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso, a onetime child prodigy who performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14.  Three days before he had filled Boston’s Symphony Hall, where tickets for merely OK seats were $100.  He was in town to receive the Avery Fisher prize as the greatest classical musician in America.  But now he was a street musician, playing in the subway.  His instrument was a 1713 Stradivarius violin, which he had purchased for a reported $3.5 million. 

The Washington Post had arranged this performance with Bell as part of an experiment.  Would people notice this acclaimed musician?  Even if they didn’t know who he was, would people stop and listen?  Bell played difficult, intricate, beautiful pieces by Bach and Schubert and others.  He played splashy, attention-getting pieces and threw himself into the music.  Some were drawn to the music, including every child who walked by, some of whom had to be dragged away by their parents.  A few stopped to listen, a few put money in the violin case – but just a very few.  Over 45 minutes, a total of 7 people stopped to listen for a minute or more while around 1100 walked on by.  Bell made a total of $32.17 – yes, some people threw in pennies.  $20 of that total came from the one person who recognized who he was.  This is someone who regularly makes well over $100 a minute.

For commuters that morning, Joshua Bell was just another guy trying to make a buck in the subway.  We don’t see what we don’t expect to see, and you don’t expect to see or hear one of the greatest musicians in the world at the Metro station. 

That afternoon, walking to Emmaus, Jesus was the last person Cleopas and his friend expected.  They didn’t expect to see him - and they didn’t.

But then they sat down with this stranger at the table.  Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it, just as he had done so many times, and they recognized him.  As they walked along the road, filled with sorrow, filled with pain, they could not see him.  But in the hospitality offered, in the meal that was shared, their eyes were opened.

A meal can often be a lot more than just a meal.  Viktor Frankl was at the end of his rope in the horror of a Nazi concentration camp.  Every possession, everything he valued had been destroyed.  But at his lowest point, someone gave him a piece of bread.  “I remember how a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration,” he wrote.  “It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at the time.  It was the human ‘something’ this man also gave to me - the word and the look which accompanied the gift.”

When we share a meal, when we share food with one another, we share sustenance – we share life.  We share acceptance and good will and blessing.  This is why meals were so important in the gospels, and it is why they are so important to us yet today.  And it is why sharing a symbolic meal – sharing the Lord’s Supper – is an important act of worship for us.

Like Frankl, we need to stay on the lookout for that “human something” when we break bread with another person.  The words spoken and friendship shared may offer more sustenance than the bread in our hands.

Maybe you have noticed, but in the gospel of Luke, this is the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.  On Sunday morning, the women are visited by angels with the news that Jesus is alive, but no one has yet seen Jesus himself.  Later that same day, these disciples walk to Emmaus and it is Cleopas and his traveling companion who first see the risen Christ.

It is striking what they do when they understand that they have seen Jesus, that they have been in the company of the resurrected Christ.  They turn around.  They had been traveling away from Jerusalem, but now they head back.  They had implored this stranger not to travel any further because it was getting late, but when they realize what has happened, they turn around and head back to Jerusalem, immediately.  It would have been far safer to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the authorities in Jerusalem, but they head right back into the thick of it.

When they found the other disciples, they were saying that the Lord had risen indeed, and had appeared to Simon.  And then they told their story, of how Jesus had walked with them on the road and had been made known in the breaking of the bread.  And then later that evening, Jesus appeared to all of them.

One person wrote, “Emmaus didn’t just happen; Emmaus always happens.”  We can find ourselves in this story.  Cleopas’ companion is not named, but you might just insert your own name there for that second traveler.  We all have our own Emmaus, that place we go when we get the wind knocked out of us.  It’s the place where we head when grief and pain make our spiritual compass go haywire.  The road to Emmaus is the road of deep disappointment, and we have all traveled that road.

When we travel that road of disappointment and grief, it is sometimes hard to see that God is there.  It can seem to us that God is absent.  But then there can come that moment of recognition, that moment of revelation, when we understand that God has been with us all along, that Jesus was walking beside us every step of that difficult journey, and it changes everything,

Cleopas and the other traveler were mired in “we had hoped.”  They were stuck on what had been and what could have been.  Memory is absolutely vital to faith and vital to our lives.  But we have to have our eyes open as well to what is and what can be and what might be happening in our midst even now.  The two travelers could not see it at first, but by the grace of God and through the light they allowed in through their hospitality and welcome, they experienced the Risen Christ.

If you are anything like me, there have been those times of grief, or pain, of disappointment, those times when life was just blah.  Those times when we are walking that road to Emmaus.  But then there comes a time when we can look back and in retrospect, God was there all along, even in the difficult moments.

Maybe the challenge for us is to have the faith and the vision to look around us and to see all of the ways God is present with us.  In the beauty that surrounds us, in the care and love and joy we experience, in little things like a smile or a hug or a word of encouragement, in the grace that sustains us through hard times, in bread that is broken and shared. 

It’s interesting that while they did not recognize Jesus on the road, there is this one line in the story.  “Were not our hearts burning within us?”

It is not that they both reached for their Prilosec as they walked on the road.  His companion did not ask, “Hey Cleopas, do you have a Rolaids?”  They did not recognize Jesus, but there was something about him, something powerful and somehow hopeful.  John Wesley experienced Christ’s presence and spoke of his heart being “strangely warmed.” 

Maybe like Cleopas and his friend, we need to pay attention to those moments when we feel our hearts being stirred.  It may be a reminder that God is with us.  It may be that God is speaking to us.

And when we have experienced Christ in our lives, our response, like the two on the road to Emmaus, is to turn around, to head back to Jerusalem, back to the place where we can bear witness to resurrection.  Amen
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