“What Happened on the Road”

I love the walk between my house and the river. It’s a journey that’s not always pretty. Most of the tall trees are gone, since the tornado. Some days, the air stinks with exhaust and industrial pollution. Following the banks of the creek where it curves beneath the interstate, I meditate over the garbage, which lies thick on the ground and floats in the water. There is no escape from the drone of cars and trucks and the earth-shaking booms of freight trains. I love this walk because it reminds me of all that is hurt and broken in the world, because it keeps before me the urgent need to show love and do justice. And I love this walk because, even amid all the ugliness, the beauty of creation never fails to astound me. The spring buds on the trees, bulging with green; the children laughing in the park; the gliding herons, perching eagles and twitching cardinals; a quick “Hi,” and smiles exchanged across barriers of gender, race and class; the weighty presence of the river itself, deep and damp, brimming with the spirit of life.

Wherever we walk, God walks with us—that is the Gospel we hear in today’s story about the two travelers on their way home to a village called Emmaus. They had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. While there, they witnessed the trauma of Jesus’ arrest, torture and execution. On Easter morning, the third day after Jesus’ death, the women reported that the tomb was empty. But no one could make sense of this strange news. So, near the end of that same day, these two travelers began their long, slow, sad walk home. As they walked, they agonized and debated: What in the world just happened? What does it all mean? What do we do now? When a stranger joined their walk and asked, “What are you discussing?” they literally stopped and stood still, their body language an expression of shock, grief and regret. Telling the stranger about Jesus, they concluded, “But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel” “We had hoped…”

The disappointment and resignation of hopes raised and then crushed—all too often this is our human experience. We had hoped… to do better in school, to find a job, to fix a troubled marriage or mend a torn friendship. We had hoped for companionship instead of loneliness, health rather than illness, common sense in the place of madness. We had hoped that immigrants and refugees would find welcome among us. We had hoped for real reform of our justice system. We had hoped that our schools would meet the needs of all children. We had hoped that peace would come, in Syria, Iraq, North Korea, the United States. We had hoped our marches and songs and petitions would stop the pipelines and heal our changing climate. We had hoped for an awakening, a coming together across our differences, a truly transformational moment.

Wherever we walk, God walks with us. Something happened to those two disciples on the road. First of all, the stranger who walked with them listened to them. He accompanied them as they poured out their story, their feelings, their unanswerable questions. He matched the rhythm of their footfalls. His heart beat with their hearts. He interpreted the present situation to them in light of their faith. He showed them the evidence they needed to see that life comes out of death. He taught them that we do not have a rescuer God, an all-powerful, controlling God, but a God who walks with us on the road, a God who breathes hope into hopeless hearts, a God who transforms fear with love, a God who, like the deep, damp, river, is life itself, flowing through us from one generation to the next.

Today is a significant moment in our journey as a community of faith, our walking together with God. So much is happening to us on this road. Those we love are preparing to get married or give birth, caring for ailing spouses, moving out of longtime homes, laboring toward death, living with depression and doing their best to stay sober. On this road, so much discernment is happening. We’ve been discerning, with contention and patience, passion and humility, what our place is in the sanctuary movement and how to work toward reforming our broken and inhuman immigration system. We’ve been discerning how best to organize our life together and what it takes to tend 130-year-old living stones. We’ve been discerning over carpet colors and cracks in the plaster. And we’ve been discerning how to pay for all this great work! We will continue to discern how God would like us to use this beautifully restored space to serve our community. Wow, I’m tired after all this discernment! I need a sabbatical! How about you?

I laughed the other day when I heard our Moderator, Joy Gullikson, say she had no idea what discernment was when she began serving in her role two years ago. Now you know, right Joy? Maybe we’ve overused this word just a little. And yet, discernment is a powerful and important practice of faith. It is about much more than preparing to make an informed and thoughtful decision about some issue. Discernment means making a habit of trusting that God is walking with us. It is the act of intentionally opening ourselves, and our community, to God’s presence and activity, God’s guidance and leading.

In the process of preparing to depart for three months of sabbatical, I’ve been doing some of my own discerning. As excited as I am about this time away, this time of renewal and rest, travel and discovery … it’s also hard to let go. I’ve been feeling such a powerful sense of gratitude for you. I’ve realized, once again, how much I love this work we do together. I’ve been reminded what a profound privilege it is to walk with you as God walks with us.

When the two disciples arrived home, the stranger began to walk on, but the men “urged him strongly, saying, ‘stay with us, because it is evening and the day is now nearly over.’” Perhaps they invited the stranger in at nightfall for the sake of his safety, his comfort. But really, I think they begged him to stay because they needed him there. After all they had been through—the cross, the crushed hopes, the long walk and intensive talk—they were empty, exhausted. They were hungry. They longed to be together, to eat together, to share life, to work side by side, energized and fed by the life-giving spirit that this stranger seemed to carry with him. As Saint Augustine said: “The teacher was walking with them along the way and he himself was the way.” The stranger took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. They knew, in that moment, that it was the risen Jesus, and they knew what his rising meant for them and their world. Remembering the burning of their hearts on the road, they recognized that God was walking with them in a way that changed everything.

“That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem,” Luke writes. At face value, this sentence appears to be a rather boring stage direction whose function is merely to move the plot along. But the word translated as “they got up” is anastantes, the same word used to describe Jesus’ rising from death. In other words, the two disciples, like Jesus, were resurrected. They got up and walked into a new life. Filled with hope, they ran back as fast as they could to the place they had left in despair only a few hours ago.

I believe that if resurrection were only something that happened to Jesus, it really wouldn’t matter much. But like those first disciples, we, too, rise with Jesus. In this rising, we become the body of Christ—for each other and for the world. We match the rhythm of our footfalls with the sad, slow steps of those who grieve. We mourn all the dead hopes. We listen, with a burning heart, to the heart of creation. We gather, as friends and strangers, at the table God sets for us. God feeds us with companionship, with meaning, with joy. Our eyes are opened to recognize the God who walks with us on the road, the God who flows through us, deep and damp, a river of unending life.