It’s the Little, Brief Things

Luke 24:13-35, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on April 07, 2024

My father was not a religious man. He went to Sunday School as a child, where his father was the treasurer of the Sunday School. (I suspect that my grandfather took on this position so he wouldn’t have to go to church. The very complete set of Lincoln pennies he found in the children’s offering was a nice bonus.) When my father got to college, he took a class on the Synoptic Gospels to meet the requirement for a religion course. The Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all have approximately the same story, the same “synopsis.” For whatever reason, this comparison of three versions of life of Jesus captured my father’s imagination and stayed in his memory. On those few occasions that he mentioned the third gospel, for example, he always referred to the author as “Luke the physician,” and opined that some of the healing stories were kind of gross.

Even though I, too, was sent to Sunday School (no, my dad was not the treasurer, but my mother was sometimes the “Craft Lady”), it wasn’t until I went to Seminary (in my 40s) that I was introduced to some of the themes that differ in the gospel accounts. Two that stood out for me in Luke’s account were traveling and eating. Jesus was often on the move, most notably toward Jerusalem at the end of his life. He told stories about eating, and he multiplied loaves and fishes, and he ate with others often enough and publicly enough that he got criticized for it.

Today’s story, from the end of Luke’s gospel, brings these threads together. You know how, at funerals and memorial services, we invite people to tell stories about the person, stories that will help us remember, and celebrate, and give thanks for their lives? This story might be what Luke would have told to help us know who Jesus was really was, and who the Risen Christ really is. It might have sounded like this:

Jesus was someone who walked with us, even on the most difficult parts of our lives’ journeys. He listened to the story we told, and he helped us to put our experience into a broader context, to make sense of it. And he loved getting people together, especially for meals. The blessing of food and companions was so important to him. Even after he had been killed, when we couldn’t recognize him anymore, he still walked with us and invited us to dine with him.

This is overgeneralizing and oversimplifying the text, of course. But this is a siren text, luring us onto the rocks of puzzling details. If we were returning to our Lenten practice of asking “I wonder” or identifying “I notice,” we would have a lot to ask and say: Where were the travelers going? Scholars have not been able to identify a village called Emmaus. Why were the disciples “kept from recognizing” Jesus when he joined them on the road? Who were these two disciples, anyway? Why were they arguing or debating as they walked along (the Greek word refers to a more spirited or contentious exchange than “talking and discussing”)? Why were they so dismissive of the women’s report of seeing angels at the tomb (a few verses before, their words were dismissed, not just as an “idle tale,” but as “delirious babblings”)? Why did Jesus agree to stop for dinner with the travelers when the custom of the time would have required him to refuse several times (like Minnesotans being offered strudel)? What did the travelers see when the stranger blessed and broke the bread that they hadn’t been able to see before? And why, for heaven’s sake, did he disappear as soon as they recognized him?

Those are all dandy questions, and if you are looking for a term paper topic, please take your pick. None of them feels to me like the heart of this story. The heart of this story is the world in which the two disciples lived. A world where power was expressed as violence and exploitation, and where religious authorities had a compromised relationship with political and military authorities. It was a world in which a peacemaker had been executed and robbers turned free. It was a world in which the same people shouted “Hosanna” one day and a week later demanded, “Crucify him.” It was a world that sounds far more familiar than we would wish.

The heart of this story is that the two disciples had broken hearts. Along with the harshness of their world, their hopes for the redemption of Israel had died. The prophet and teacher who had raised their hopes had died. 

We have broken hearts, too, for many of the same reasons as Cleopas and her companion (I don’t know if Cleopas was a woman, but I try to include as many Biblical women with names as I can). We, too, live in a harsh world, with violence and exploitation, complicated relationships among leaders; a world where peacemakers are murdered and thieves are set free; a world where cheers and jeers are competing and confusing.

The Good News of the gospel is that our prophet and teacher is still with us, albeit in a new and often puzzling way, in the Risen Christ. And that is, indeed, good news. Alas, this good news, however elegantly and compelling proclaimed, often seems underpowered to meet harsh challenges. 

Curiously, that brings us back to eating, to the power of sharing food. The travelers to Emmaus did not recognize Christ by his appearance. They did not recognize Christ by his mastery of the prophets, nor by his hermeneutical bias towards interpreting the Hebrew scripture as being about himself. 

They recognized him in the breaking of the bread. Not in words; in action. Not in thinking; in doing. Not by doing something new and amazing; by doing something familiar and dear. 

Recognizing, for our ancient spiritual ancestors, and remembering, for our contemporary selves, are actions of faith. Remembering is not the same as reminiscing or revisiting. Those are thoughts that come to us in the present moment, as nostalgic recollections from days gone by. To remember is to re-experience, to re-live, to enter again into what has happened before. 

My unexpected teacher about remembering was the Rev. David Maitland, long time chaplain at Carleton College. David was retired when I got to Northfield, and I’m not sure he ever really liked my ministry there. He was a staunch Congregationalist, suspicious of the UCC, and committed to the principle that the only appropriate hour for Christian worship was 11:00 am. One Communion Sunday he caught me after the service. As you may recall, the traditional words of institution for communion include “Do this in remembrance of me.” David told me, “What you want to say is ‘Do this to remember me.’ It is the doing that matters.” “It is the doing that matters.”

One way to hear those words is as a call to Christian service—acts of mercy, generosity, stewardship, justice. Another way to hear them is as a call to Christian piety. Yes, I know, piety is a loaded word, suggesting unthinking, insincere, or self-serving religious beliefs; but it is also a perfectly good word for describing a life of reflection, reverence, and humility. It is also a good word to describe looking for the holy one—whether you understand that to mean Christ, the Holy Spirit, God the Creator, or Divine by another name.

There is no more frequent nor universal act of piety than that of asking a blessing on a meal. Whatever the faith tradition, choosing to give thanks for food, and perhaps other things as well, is an act of seeking connection with the ground of being. It is also an act of remembering that connection, and of bringing it to life again. Saying grace is an occasion for reflection (however brief and cursory), for expressing reverence (even if rote or careless or humorous), and for experiencing humility. Saying grace in a gathering of people brings that occasion to everyone, however casual or resistant some may be. 

Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, can be understood as an expansive, communal occasion for saying Grace. We take time to reflect, both about our own lives and about the ancestors and stories that bring us solace and strength. We express reverence in prayer and singing. We take a humble place among Christians in all times and all places who have done what we are doing. 

Communion is traditionally, and almost universally, celebrated in the context of the Last Supper shared by Jesus and the disciples on Maundy Thursday. Today, instead, we will journey on Sunday with the Emmaus travelers, for whom Christ was revealed in the breaking of the bread. May our journey and our meal together be a blessing for us, and we a blessing for the world. Amen.