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The Long Road Home
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
April 26, 2020
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
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 very last stop on our pilgrimage to Israel last summer was meant to be, appropriately, Emmaus. On the last morning of the trip, we went to the Garden Tomb and then piled back into the bus for one more stop, one more church built on top of some traditional biblical site, this one the site of this meal where the disciples are joined by the risen Christ and he takes bread and blessed and breaks it for them, and it would be such a lovely place to end a pilgrimage together, to be known and blessed together in the breaking of the bread. But much like many other of Israel’s Biblical sites, and perhaps more so, the location of Emmaus is largely mysterious. It’s not a town that appears in other contemporaneous documents; it exists almost entirely in Luke’s Gospel, which gives modern archeologists fits. We don’t really know where Emmaus would have been. All we know are all the places allegedly that been Emmaus over time. And one of them, our destination for that morning, built on the spot that the crusaders claimed to be Emmaus, is now the Benedictine monastery in Abu Gosh, St. Mary of the Resurrection.
Luke says that Emmaus is about seven miles from Jerusalem, but of course nowadays if you go seven miles from downtown Jerusalem you are still in Jerusalem. Abu Gosh is in a neighborhood, on a busy street, without much for bus parking. If you picture something like the corner of Mesa and 2222, you’re not far off. So, we parked a block away and walked down the shoulder to the gates of the monastery, while the normal morning traffic of the modern city whizzed around us. And then we got to the gates, and because God has a sense of humor, St. Mary of the Resurrection was closed. The humble sign on the door said that on the occasion of it being the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the monastery was closed to visitors between 10:15 and 2:30 that day. Now, admittedly, the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is not something I learned at Presbyterian school but was enough to close their doors for the day. And so, we did what you do when you’re trying to end your pilgrimage at Emmaus, you can’t get there. We sat there on the side of the road. And we listened to the cars.
The irony wasn’t lost on us. The whole point of the Emmaus story, after all, is what happen when you get to Emmaus. The disciples are leaving Jerusalem on the afternoon of the resurrection, they must think the story’s over. Somewhere along the way, they meet a man on the side of the road, and they strike up a conversation. They start telling him about the events of the Passover, and the crucifixion of Jesus, even whispers of his body moved and rumors of his resurrection. The whole thing is cloaked in gossip and skepticism; these disciples either don’t quite believe any of it or they do but they’re too scared to admit it to one another; either way, they take this stranger for an unwitting audience to all the trauma they’ve just endured, the story of the friend they just buried, and a death they just fled, the story of the brutality of the week just passed, and the confusion that now hangs over the entire countryside. Nothing about this roadside moment feels joyful or reconciling. Nothing about it feels full of the promise of the feast that we know waits for them once Emmaus opens its doors.
But of course, once they get there, the party breaks out. Once they get there, and they invite this stranger into the place where they’re going to stay, then, the Gospel breaks forth. It’s Jesus, of course; it has been the whole time, why they haven’t recognized him is one for the ages. But they do recognize him, finally, when he takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it. And they have this meal, together, these disciples running from their city, and this their friend who has slipped the bonds of death itself. Surely the human story has never seen a meal so full of the promises of God as this meal. He disappears again, but it hardly matters — I like to think that time slows down for them first, in this moment, for this rapturous celebration of the victory of God’s grace and the victory of God’s providence and the surefooted promises of all creation. Emmaus is sublime. Emmaus is transcendent. Once you get there. Emmaus is everything. Once you get there. But the road to Emmaus is full of misunderstanding, and anxiety, and fear, and traffic, and noise. There’s not a lot of room on that shoulder for tender sacred moments. All you’re trying to do is not get run over.
And yet here we are, you and me. And I suspect we may be on this road for a while.
I have this vision of what it will look like when we get there. When the crisis fades, and the restrictions lift, and the sanctuary re-opens and we can all gather together again. And in my vision, you are all there, we are all there, together. The choir has packed out the chancel. Kids are running through the aisles. There is water in the font and bread and wine on the table. Keith has opened every stop on the organ so that the glorious hymns of resurrection can shake the foundations of San Antonio Street to their core. And they will be hymns of resurrection, because nothing will better fit that moment of reuniting with one another in body as well as in spirit than to revisit the liturgy of Easter morning, to proclaim Jesus Christ Risen Today, that day, whenever that day might be, even to gather the congregation for the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus because nobody could possibly enter that space except with a smile that would gladden the hearts of all the saints, and with all the saints we will take bread, and bless it, and break it, and Jesus will be with us in the breaking of the bread. Emmaus will be sublime. Once we get there.
But it may be a long road. Nobody has any idea, of course, what the shape of the curve is exactly going to look like a week from now, a month from now, or two months from now. We have no idea when local Austin public health restrictions will begin to ease or even what that easement might look like. Nor, of course, do I imagine that the easing of health restrictions will automatically make all of us rush out to our favorite local restaurants and theaters and church sanctuaries. I imagine that for some of us it’s going to take quite a bit of time to begin to feel comfortable with the idea that going out in public is something it might be okay to do again. Which means that Emmaus is also going to be a little elusive. Just because you can go outside doesn’t mean you’ve got there. Just because you can go back to your shop doesn’t mean you’ve got there. And for sure just because the sanctuary will open again one day doesn’t mean we’ll have got there, not that quickly or easily. This is gonna take time. And patience. And persistence. And the reality is that we are going to be stuck on this road for a while. And we are going to have to make do.
But of course, in the story, the road to Emmaus also offers its own opportunities. Yes, the disciples are fleeing Jerusalem, but potentially for good reason — better to regroup in Emmaus than be hunted down by soldiers in the city. And yes, they’re clearly gossiping a bit about the events of the past few days — but I also see them having time, the first time they’ve had in some time, to reflect and process the whirlwind experience of having followed this rebel Messiah. In some ways, this conversation is I think the first step in what healing and transformation is going to look like for them. Furthermore, of course, Jesus joins them on the road. Just because they don’t recognize him doesn’t mean he’s not there. And the journey gives him the opportunity to teach. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them…” the whole story of God, the whole story of God’s grace. Jesus takes the time they need for all of it to sink in again, for all of it to have new resonance again. Yes, of course, Emmaus will be sublime, whenever they get there. But road is also a meaningful place to be. The road is where you learn.
And we’re learning something. We may be stuck on the road but we’re learning something. This past week your UPC session met and began trying to articulate precisely this: that we’re learning something on this road, even though we’d all much rather get where we’re going. We’re learning something about our community of faith, and the bonds that tie us together. We’re learning something about our worship, and what we value, and what we long for. We’re learning something about our mission in west campus and in the city of Austin, and about the ways which our church can intersect with the cracks in our community exposed by the onslaught of this virus. It was a long session meeting, but it was a long meeting precisely because so many members of our church body are working overtime to figure out who we are and who we can be in this adaptive moment, and it was beautiful to witness what is clearly the persistent grace of Jesus Christ walking with us every step along the way. Just because we don’t recognize him doesn’t mean he’s not here.
Surely this is good news. Surely it has been the good news for every pilgrim who has ever wandered the long road towards Emmaus. Surely it has been the good news for every pilgrim who has ever taught the path that leads towards the kingdom. Yes, of course, when you get there, the table is set, and the feast is ready. Yes, of course, when you get there, the trumpets sound and the angels sing. Yes, of course, when you get there, you are known, and Christ is known, and the whole body of Christ is known, in the breaking of the bread. But you don’t have to get there to find Jesus. On the contrary, you will find Jesus, where we’ve always found Jesus, where Jesus has always found us. On the road. And I promise you this: that just outside Emmaus. Just outside the locked gates of the monastery. Just on the shoulder on the side of the busy street. You can have church right there. I’ve seen it happen. Because we gathered on the road. And we said our prayers on the road. And we said our blessings on the road. And we said our farewells on the road. And we were known, right there. On the side of the road.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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