Emmaus: A Sermon

A man estranged from his son, gets a call from the chief of police in a small town in France. I’m sorry sir, your son is dead. There was an accident. Tom, played by Martin Sheen, in the film, The Way, gets on the first plane. The small town, Saint Jean Pied de Port, the starting point for the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims have been making the 500 mile trek across France, the Basque country, through Spain to the Cathedral of St. James, where it is believed that the remains of St. James, disciple of Jesus are interred. Since the 9th century pilgrims have walked The Way of St. James, to atone for their sins, to experience a miracle they have heard happen on the trek or at the cathedral. More recently, contemporary travelers walk to get away, for a time out from modern life. Or they walk for the sheer challenge of walking 15 to 20 miles a day.

For Tom, the ophthalmologist from Santa Barbara who was extremely disappointed when his almost 40 year old son said he was not completing his Phd and was instead traveling around the world, was more personal. His son had died on his first night out on the road, from an accident or exposure, we aren’t really sure, and Tom decides to have the remains cremated and takes on the challenge of walking the 500 miles in honor of his son and to scatter his ashes along the way. Tom is a hurt, lonely man, who has done it all correct, this life he chose. There is a certain way to do things, and his son, Daniel didn’t play by the rules. Tom’s heart is closed. He’ll make the trek but he isn’t going to enjoy it, or make friends, or feel anything of anything along the way. And then something extraordinary happens.

The long and winding, yellow brick road, the roadless traveled, the high and low road, the Royal Road, Tobacco Road, lonesome road, open road, crooked, straight and narrow road, private road, trudging the road, and the road to hell. King of the road, on the road again, country roads take me home. Roads as metaphor for our life journey.

Today we hear the story of two disciples, Cleopas and his friend walking the road to Emmaus. The day of the resurrection.  Talking, mulling over, processing the events of the last 3 days. Their beloved rabbi, teacher, this man who did these incredible things, miracles and preaching and teaching as they had never seen before. Like the prophets. He was a great prophet, they thought. The one who would destroy the tyranny of Rome and restore Israel to its rightful place as the mighty kingdom it once was. But that isn’t what happened. They’re talking and Jesus walks up to them. And remember, as Jaime talked about in last week’s sermon, this isn’t an angelic Jesus with blonde hair and blue eyes, perfect, submissive, pastoral. This is the Jesus who died a torturous death on a cross. Who has wounds where the nails were hammered into the cross through his hands and feet. And the open wound in his side where the soldier pierced it with his spear. But these two guys, they don’t see any of that. They see a stranger and a stranger who clearly has been out to lunch these last three days because he has no idea what has been going on. They are kept from recognizing Jesus, they don’t know him. Jesus asks them, what are you guys talking about. What are we talking about? Are you kidding! Have you been living under a rock? What everyone is talking about! Our teacher, Jesus from Nazareth, a prophet mighty in word and deed before God and all of God’s people, was thrown to the wolves. Our high priests and leaders betrayed him and turned him over to the authorities to be condemned to death and crucified. But we thought for sure he was the one that was going to redeem Israel. Not only that, the women from our group went to annoint the body this morning and when they got to the tomb the body was gone. Two angels were there and told them that Jesus had risen.

And these two, like so many others of Jesus’s followers were disappointed, confused, and shocked. How could they have been so wrong? All the signs pointed to Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. How did this happen? We don’t understand? How did it turn out like this? It wasn’t supposed to end this way? How does one who is the messiah die such a horrible, humiliating and violent death? And Jesus, probably rolling his eyes, right? Like are you kidding me with these two! Maybe Jesus is thinking, I spent 3 years with you guys. All of ya’ll. The women, now they got it! But you guys, so attached to the mighty sword, to kings, and rulers, and power! You two, how foolish you are. And Jesus starts to reveal to them in their own holy scriptures, the story of the Messiah, all that he had said to them when he was alive. It happened this way for a reason. He interprets the scriptures for them, saying again, all the things he had said and taught them when he was alive. They still don’t know it’s him. Then they finally get to where they are going and the two disciples insist that the stranger stay with them. It was when Jesus broke the bread, blessed it and gave it to them that their eyes were open and they recognized him. And then he vanished from their sight. The funny part is when these two said, oh yeah, weren’t our hearts on fire when he was opening up the scriptures to us! So like us, revisionists. Yeah, that’s right, our hearts were on fire!

Scholars have never definitively located Emmaus. They can’t  agree on where it might have been. My former professor, new testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan says Emmaus never happened; it’s a metaphorical distillation of the early years of Christian thought and practice that centers around the experience of gathering together as a community of faith, sharing a meal remembering every time the bread is broken and blessed, the life and ministry of Jesus. Emmaus happens over and over and over again. Or as Crossan says, Emmaus always happens.

Crossan’s friend and fellow new testament scholar Marcus Borg said the Emmaus story is a parable of resurrection. It didn’t happen as a factual event to be reported on the 6 o’clock news. It is a story reminding us that the life, ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ are known, the risen Jesus journeys with his followers even when they don’t know it.

There is no way to travel this road of being a human without experiencing trauma, or disappointment, death or devastation. We walk with our friends trying to make sense out of the insensible. Because to not analyze it and figure out what the heck happened, where did I or you go wrong, means I’m left with a lot of feelings that suck and lots of unanswered questions.

Tom, traversing the Camino de Santiago, who says throughout the movie, I’m not a religious man, begins to experience moments of grace and healing on his journey. He comes upon a pensione, 1/3 of the way into the film, a group of pilgrims and their host at a large table outside, a feast, talking, drinking and eating. As Tom sips his wine he looks down the table and sees the face of his son, smiling, nodding approvingly at his father. Tom begins to make friends, he opens up about his reason why he’s on the walk, he listens to the stories of his fellow travelers. He connects with these people in a way he hasn’t connected with anyone for a very long time. He’s transformed, on the road, with his fellow travelers, and the divine peeks his head in all along the way, involved in the details of Tom’s journey.

As Christians we participate in this never ending story of God’s promise of being raised from the dead, of new life, second chances, forgiveness, mercy and grace. Often, what we experience in life leaves us as asking all the same questions that Cleopas and his companion were asking. How did this happen? We don’t understand? How did it turn out like this? It wasn’t supposed to end this way? And while we are wading through our grief, disappointment, and confusion, God is relentlessly pursuing us. Walking along side us, wanting desperately for us to see, to recognize God’s presence. God, knowing the pain and suffering of the human condition from having lived it through the incarnation, uses people to communicate this love, grace, and mercy. Then we come here, after spending a week out there, and we gather around that table, and the priest recites the words of institution, the same words Jesus said to his best friends on the night before he died, with bread and cup in hand. So that no matter what happens out there, we can be assured that when we come in here, gather together, as a community of faith, that our memories will be jogged.  We remember where we belong and to whom we belong. We gather around our table, and like Tom at the feast of the pensione surrounded by new friends, we will look around and the face of the Divine is right here with us. We remember Jesus, we remember that nothing we have done or has been done to us, can separate us from the love of God. And if that’s true. If we walk out of here today, with the faith that God will not turn God’s back on any of us, but always open God’s arms to enfold us in mercy, grace, and love, regardless of which road we are walking down, how might this courageous faith change the way we look at our lives, what’s happening in the world today, and the call Jesus has for us to participate with him, in the renewing of the whole creation? Amen.

— April 30, 2017