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There and Back Again

April 23, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Lynn Dunn at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday after Easter / Emmaus Communion and Brunch, April 23, 2017

Emmaus Ivory

On the Road to Emmaus, Jesus (far left) meets the disciples, who invite him to share dinner within the walls of the town (right). Ninth Century Ivory, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection.

Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel According to Luke, chapter 24: 13-35.

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.

Please join me in prayer:

O Lord, where can we flee from your presence?
You hem us in, behind and before.
Such knowledge is too wonderful.
Search us, O God, and know our hearts;
Test us and know our thoughts.
See if there be any hurtful way in us,
and lead us in the way everlasting. Amen.

Two weary travelers trudge along toward home, discussing the grand drama they have witnessed, and in which they played their own small or larger parts. They ruminate as they walk, speculating about what it all might really mean in the long run.

They have seen incomparable beauty and frightful ugliness; they have witnessed acts motivated by craven greed, but also brave self-sacrifice. They have seen the virtuous and principled rise up against those driven by lust for power and gold. And it all culminated in terrifying violence. Now, they are going home. They think the story is over, but it is really just beginning.

Now, as they reach the crest of a hill and gaze homeward, the taller one turns toward his companion, as the other speaks these words:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

I hope you realize by now that the story I just summarized was not today’s Gospel reading, but was, rather, the ending to The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien. The two companions are Gandalf the wizard, and Bilbo Baggins, a small creature called a hobbit.

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What a great story! One of the wonderful things about reading great literature as a child or young teen (and, yes, I consider The Hobbit to be great literature), is that it stays with you for a lifetime and helps form your identity and character. I first read this story when I was in eighth grade, and in all these decades I had not re-read it until this week, (although I’ve kept my beloved and well-worn copy all this time).

As I was beginning my preparation for today’s sermon with a close reading and careful exegesis of the Gospel text, thinking about roads and where they lead, I could not get this rhyme out of my head. After all these years it came back to me: The Road leads ever ever on. And I remembered.

I remember now how inspired, how engaged, and how happy I felt when I first read The Hobbit, as if everything had just fallen into place and made sense, how my heart burned within me.

I now know, what I did not know as a young teen: J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and his writings expressed all of his deep love of language, his immense fascination with Norse and other mythologies, and also his heartfelt and absolute commitments to the essential Christian themes of hope, fidelity and kindness. However, unlike C. S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, his stories are not allegories, for there is no one-to-one correspondence between the elements of the stories and the Christian story. But the Christian virtues are woven into every part of his stories.

I also clearly remember the first time I heard the story of two travelers on the way, joined by a mysterious figure, who dispels their confusion, grief and longing, explaining that what they have witnessed was the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. (Now this time, to be clear, I am speaking of the Emmaus story from the Gospel of Luke, not The Lord of the Rings.) I was an adult, but somehow I had never heard this astonishing story before. Although I grew up in a church tradition that stressed reading the Bible daily, the passages that were selected for study were always taken out of context to prove some moral or theological point, never presented in the context of a story. Rarely I had a glimpse of the smaller stories, such as Daniel in the Lions’ Den, but I never saw the overarching grand sweep of the story that unifies our Bible.

Sitting in church that morning when I heard the Emmaus Road story, I was fascinated by the mysterious, hidden figure of Christ. I imagined him with a twinkle in his eye as he asked, “What things?” When the disciples recognized the risen Jesus “in the breaking of the bread,” suddenly resurrection made complete sense to me for the first time. Suddenly, the whole Christian story began to make sense in a deep way of knowing that had moved from my head into my heart. Of course Jesus immediately vanished! Because you just can’t hold on to that kind of numinous, powerful presence—a presence experienced as much in the aching longing of absence as in palpable heartwarming positive experience of literal presence. That is why the memory of such experiences is so incredibly precious.

This is what great stories do for us, and why they matter! Stories carry meaning in ways that we are able to receive. Psychological research has been recently exploited in business marketing strategies, showing convincingly that humans are literally made for stories and that stories are made for us. The best way to convey meaning, to teach, and to understand ourselves and our place in the world is through story. Stories delight us; and stories heal us.

Luke’s Emmaus road story is also a great story, one that conveys much meaning in a lean narrative framework. We don’t know exactly why these two disciples are headed to Emmaus: they might be going home, or running from what happened in Jerusalem, or perhaps they are on some other errand. But we do know that it is Jesus who has sought them out. “The initiative in encounter belongs to the Lord. But if we open the door of our being to him, we shall share his life, his supper. “ (Gustavo Gutiérrez) Sharing his life means being found, being fed, rejoining the community, and extending his mission “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47)

The travelers extend hospitality to the mysterious stranger, reminiscent of many stories of entertaining angels unawares, and before they (or we) realize it, the tables have been turned, and it is Jesus himself who is acting as host by taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. They recognize him now, and he vanishes. They are transformed by this recognition and rush back to be with the others who are in Jerusalem. Perhaps the clearest and simplest lesson we learn from this story that the spiritual presence of God is not a private gift, but it is to be found in offering hospitality to strangers, and is meant to be shared in community and with the world.

We might ask if the events in a story like this actually happened, but we don’t need to ask if the story is true, because we recognize the truth of it by the warmth of our enlivened hearts burning within us. Through the right stories, we may come to know truth in a deeper way. When we are moved by such stories, we have the sense that we have apprehended something real, something true, something important.

The travelers on their way to Emmaus think the story has ended, but it is only beginning, when they recognize Jesus, their risen Lord, in the breaking of the bread. Similarly, the wonderful story of The Hobbit ends, but it turns out to be the prelude to the sweeping drama of The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo recites another version of his Road song, as he prepares to depart for a very long, perhaps permanent holiday. Now his nephew Frodo takes up his quest and his song, giving it his own interpretative accent.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet,
And whither then? I cannot say.

Gandalf gently probes Frodo’s meaning, as did Jesus in the Emmaus story, asking, is this not Bilbo’s old song? Frodo replies, yes, and recounts his old uncle’s familiar peripatetic patter:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door…. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?

Indeed. You might end up anywhere. It might take you to places where people are imprisoned, poor, hungry, sick, or oppressed. Follow this road, and you will probably find yourself taking up the causes of kindness, love and justice and the healing of all creation, one way or another. This road might take you to a Black Lives Matter March or a Women’s March, or a Science March.  It might take you down other paths of service, hard to see from right here and right now. For the Unseen Author of this story has a plan.

If we meet Jesus on our own Emmaus Road, “open the door of our being to him,” and seek to follow the risen Lord, the road goes ever, ever on, and we must follow if we can, because each of us has a role we are meant to play in the larger unfolding story of God’s salvation and the healing of all creation. May it be so!

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