Walking to Emmaus
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Third Sunday of Easter
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.
Aunt Pete lived across the road from my Gibson grandparents in a house that was Pepto Bismol pink. Surely, it was the only pink house in Albemarle County, Virginia, and I’ve never seen a house before or since whose color could startle someone passing by in the dead of night. Her husband, Ray, was a gruff, mountain man of few words – a former Marine – who spent his life as a game warden tracking poachers and other lawless characters through the back woods of Virginia. How Aunt Pete, whose real name was Beverly, ever got Ray to paint that house pink will forever be one of the great mysteries of love.
As a child I loved to sit at the kitchen table in that pink house, drinking tall glasses of sweet iced tea and eating tomato sandwiches: tomatoes still warm from the vine sliced thick and slathered with mayonnaise between slices of soft, white Sunbeam bread. The Gibson aunts would talk and laugh while the old air conditioner hummed and rattled and dripped down the long summer afternoons. My sandwich done, expect for licking my fingers, I would slip into the next room, where I would always find Jesus waiting.
Aunt Pete was a religious woman; the surest visual symbol of her faith was the Jesus I found in the next room. The living room was dominated by a large copy of Robert Zund’s painting “Way to Emmaus,” the same one that’s printed on the bulletin cover this morning. There, Jesus was forever walking down a dusty country road, which wound through tall, shady oak trees. Jesus was forever talking to two disciples, and I heard their whispers in that still room. I would look out the window, down the dusty, tree lined road to my grandparents’ house, and look back at the picture, and the past would collapse into the present as I imagined myself into the painting, overhearing the conversation on the road to Emmaus. “What do you mean, you don’t know what has been going on in Jerusalem this past week,” one disciple would exclaim indignantly! “What things,” came the stranger’s quiet question? The two knew if they hurried, they could make Emmaus by nightfall; it was only seven miles away from Jerusalem. Cleopas and his companion, most likely his wife, Mary, were no fools, they knew it was over. Why stay in Jerusalem, where all of their hopes and dreams had died along with Jesus? The city stank of death and danger and disappointment, and they just wanted to get out, to get on with their lives, to get back to normal. But what was normal anymore? How do you live when the truth seems dead?
Where is Emmaus? We know where it is, and we don’t need a map to show the way. Emmaus is where we go to get away from our failed dreams, broken relationships, dashed hopes, and derailed futures. Emmaus is where we go when there is no where else to go. As Frederick Buechner says: “Emmaus is whatever we do, or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die, that even the noblest ideas that people have about love and freedom and justice – have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish people for selfish ends. Emmaus is where those two went to try and forget about Jesus and the great failure of his life.” We know where Emmaus is; we’ve all been there.
They hurried along, their pace regulated by their discussion. One would stop and gesture extravagantly, while the other poked at the dust with his sandal. When they weren’t talking or weeping, a strange and heavy silence hung between them. They didn’t hear the stranger’s footsteps behind them, and when they sensed a presence beside them, they instinctively pushed their purses further into the folds of their robes. Apparently the stranger had overheard part of their conversation, and wanted to know who and what they were talking about. “You must be the only person who doesn’t know about the things that have happened in Jerusalem in the past few days.” Then the stranger, the one who had been at the very eye of the storm of events, said “What things?” He knows the story, but he doesn’t presume that he knows their story, their version, their experience of the events. They tell him their story, out it pours . . . and then he offers a new way of looking at it all. He re-frames it, gives the narrative new meaning.
We come here this morning because we want to hear something about the resurrection that makes sense to us in our lives, a word of explanation or a word of hope or a word that exposes or reveals or clarifies. Although I can’t offer you scientific proof that the resurrection is real, I can tell you a story, because the resurrection is a mystery, an inscrutable truth that changes our lives. The scriptures testify to the mystery by giving us a handful of disjointed details: an empty tomb, a rolled away stone, some frightened women, cooking fish for breakfast on the beach. But they tell the same story. And the story is this: we are walking down the road to nowhere, leaving hell behind us, moving toward an empty and uncertain future, and suddenly we find that we are not alone. A presence joins us, and there is someone who enters into our story, and we offer the only thing we have: our version of events. And somewhere along the way, in the telling, something happens: we see things in a new light, and absence becomes presence and emptiness becomes fullness and mere bread becomes the promise that love is stronger than the grave. Though we have gone to Emmaus to get away from it all, we find that we were seeking the resurrection all along, and the risen Christ has come to find us. We are changed by this finding. We sense that someone is there beside us, and we call out: “Are you Jesus?”
My Aunt Pete died a hard death. By the time they had diagnosed the ovarian cancer, the hopes of her surviving the disease were fairly slim. The surgeries and the chemotherapies and other treatments did not go well. The strokes and other complications left her dying inch by inch: she was on the road to Emmaus. Aunt Pete had a complex emotional story, as we all do, and in her story she didn’t feel secure or loved from childhood onward. But it seemed that a healing presence was at work throughout her dying, and in the end, she discovered she was not alone on that Emmaus road. Aunt Pete was surrounded by loving friends and family whose tender care gave her messages of love and compassion that she could not dismiss. Her husband stayed home from work to care for her, gently feeding and bathing her day after day. Something started to shift inside of her as she took in that love, an unexpected gift of healing came to her on her Emmaus road. As she lay dying in that pink house, I imagine Aunt Pete gazing up at the painting, seeing the risen, unrecognized Christ, forever walking in her living room. Surrounded by the tender ministrations of those who cared for her, she was finally able to see the truth: that she was a beloved daughter of God. And as her eyes dim with death, with the hum and rattle of the air conditioner in the next room, someone sits down beside her and breaks a slice of soft, white Sunbeam bread and presses it into her hand and I hear her call out “Are you Jesus?” Amen.