Oh the People You’ll Meet, On the Road to Emmaus

This story of the Road to Emmaus has become one of my favorite lectionary texts. It wasn’t always so. Even though we read the Bible daily growing up, I didn’t remember this remarkable story until I first had to preach on it a few years ago, the same week something pretty startling happened to me on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.

It was my Road to Emmaus story.

It starts not on a dusty Near East road, but on the road between the chapel at my last base and our hospital, where I was heading to visit an injured Airman in the ICU. I was driving along when a police car pulled me over. I had no idea why except that a few minutes earlier a car had run a red light, cutting me off, and I honked. Not a huge deal, so I was surprised when the officer, hands on his weapon, told me to put my hands on the wheel and not move. Several minutes went by like that until six or seven squad cars screeched up and surrounded my truck. 10 officers emerged all at once, guns drawn, and I was told to get out of my car, walk backwards with my hands on my head, everyone’s gun aimed at me, until I was tackled, cuffed, and hauled over to the curb. I asked if this was an overreaction to me honking my horn on base, and was told to keep quiet. I never had fewer than three guns on me.

It was a Very. Exciting. Tuesday afternoon.

After about 20 minutes it all stopped. I heard “all clear … perp in custody” on the radio, and it was over. I was uncuffed and told “You can go now, sir.”

Now I pulled rank. “Sergeant, you just pulled over the base chaplain, jacked me up pretty good, and I am asking for an explanation.”

“Sir,” the sergeant replied, “get in your car, now, and drive away.”

I walked back to my car, closed all the panels and doors that had searched in my truck, and tried to ignore all the lookie-loos in oncoming traffic who were driving by slowly to get a glimpse at the scene. I was the scene.

Later I learned what happened. Some young soldier had mistaken my silver Ford truck for a silver Honda Civic which had just run through the back gate of the base. They thought I was a terrorist!

Have you ever had an experience like this? Well, not like this, but a time you thought things were going this way, and suddenly your world was turned upside down? Your sense of safety violated, or friends betraying you? Have you ever just been driving along, minding your own business, when something hits you sideways? What else can you do except move forward? And so, like those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I continued on my way to the hospital, away from the experience, to make sense of it.

In the hospital elevator, I met a friend, who happened to be the base priest.

You look shaken,” he said, and I told him why. He listened as we exited the elevator and walked down the hall. When I was done, he paused, and said, “What a gift.”

What a gift.

“A gift?” I replied, dumbfounded. “I was scared to death. I was looking down the barrels of like 10 guns. What do you mean a gift?”

“Yes, a gift,” he repeated. “Now you know how every person who has been oppressed for no reason feels. Whether for the color or their skin, or where they live, or who they are, you’ve now been given the gift of empathy.” He continued, “now you what it means to have your world upended in violence for no reason other than being mistaken for someone dangerous.”

He was right. It’s probably pretty foreign in Japan, but such treatment is common in my country for people of color–especially in Los Angeles, where I grew up, or Chicago, where Cindy and I raised our son. Because of the color of my skin, I’ve largely been immune. Now I had been given the gift of understanding what it felt like in my body.

It got me thinking. About the times I was pulled over and let go with a warning, and never even thought to be frightened. Or got a ticket, given as politely as if I were being handed takeout at a Japanese McDonalds. It’s a gift to be reminded that not everyone in the world lives with the privilege I do. It is something to notice. It develops empathy.

And so we turn to our scripture reading this morning.

Our story in Luke describes the aftermath of a violent and unjust law enforcement action. There were Roman officers chasing down Jesus’ followers. There was real and imminent danger for the disciples. There was danger of arrest and being mistaken for a violent revolutionary. There was the unexpected death, at least for the disciples, of their friend and teacher, Jesus. Now two disciples are walking on the road having lived through the worst, unimaginable week of their lives. They are told their friend still lives, but he’s nowhere to be found. They remain alone in their grief.

Imagine that. Everything crashes. Your world changes like that. Your faith heavy and threatened with doubt. Your future uncertain.

The Road to Emmaus is often portrayed as a pastoral scene: a beautiful walk through the woods. I wish I had a slide projector to show you some of the artwork I found online to accompany this passage. You’d think birds were chirping, light breezes blowing, and a beautiful new day breaking. That might have all been true. It might have been a beautiful morning, but I suspect the mood was much different. I doubt that any disciple was feeling beauty in the moment.

Let’s look at the text. The events of Luke 24 take place on the day of the resurrection. Two followers of Jesus are walking from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus talking about the last three days, from the trial and death of Jesus to the recent report of the empty tomb. A third traveler joins them as they walk. Now you have to ask, who is this person who just kind of appears and joins them? Did he run up from behind? Did he jump out of the brush? Was he waiting for them casually around a corner? In the passage, he just appears, and since this mysterious stranger is Jesus, he could have appeared any way he wanted.

Jesus asks them what they are talking about. They are dumbfounded. “How could you not have heard about what happened in Jerusalem?” and tell him the story of shattered hopes “that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” Jesus, as the stranger, admonishes them for their lack of scriptural understanding. They arrive at Emmaus, and the disciples, still not aware that the stranger is Jesus, invite him to spend the night with them. This is interesting. Here’s a stranger in a moment that spies are everywhere looking for Jesus’ followers. Why do they trust him? This stranger admonishes them, correcting their understanding of scripture! and they forgive him. Hmmm—seems a lot like things Jesus would have done.

Over their meal, Jesus breaks and blesses the bread. The gospel doesn’t say what words he used I imagine he said, “Take of my body, broken for you. Take of my blood, spilled for you.” Just as they recognize him, he vanishes.

In this story, these two disciples fail at least three times, which is a common way to interpret the story. The first failure is to notice is that even though the disciples have been living and working with Jesus for three years, they still don’t get who he is. Jesus doesn’t, however, seem terribly concerned about that failure. The second failure is to not believe the prophets, and he rebukes them for this one. And there is a third failure—they don’t get it when it’s explained to them.

There is, however, another way to interpret the story, says scholar Peter Dula—not as a failure, but as a success. He wonders if we shouldn’t actually honor Cleopas and his friend for their hospitality. They are the kind of people, even in their despair and grief, who make the lonely traveler part of an intimate conversation. Jesus would have done that. Unlike the innkeepers in the beginning of Luke who reject the holy family, these two invite a still unknown stranger to stay and share a meal and a room for the night. These two disciples invite a stranger into the Inn not knowing, caring, or wondering who he was. Jesus would have done that, too. Professor Dula writes what a profoundly hopeful thing to do. That the risen Christ is a stranger means an invitation to any random person, on any lonely stretch of road, may be an agent of transformation.

Then Luke gives us our marching orders, to keep our hearts on fire with the message that has been given to us. “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us,” the two say to each other, “When he spoke to us along the road?”

Keeping our hearts on fire. That’s the final point. How do we maintain that fire of commitment with our master gone? Where can we find God pointing you in the direction you should go?

Sometimes those signs are huge, like when you’re pulled over in a flurry of sirens and lights, and someone reminds you it’s a gift to have the experience–because it reminds you of the oppression of others. I drove away bitter, but was transformed by my friend’s admonition in the elevator. Being a follower of Jesus means paying attention to those signs.

“What a gift, my friend said in the elevator, for now you know what it feels like for people who live in fear every day.” Then, inspired, we can become God’s agents for change in a hurting world.

There’s Jesuit priest named Father Gregory Boyle in my home town of Los Angeles. I’ve admired his ministry for many years, because it was inspired by just such collisions with life to make change happen in the lives of others. In his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Boyle describes his work with gangs in the city of Los Angeles. It started with one young man’s life being turned around, then another, then another. Boyle sees so much death and oppression in his work that you wonder how he keeps it up. But Boyle knows that a life of faith is not easy, and today his organization is the largest gang intervention program in the country, offering job training, tattoo removal, and employment to members of enemy gangs. He says that Jesus didn’t heal the lepers and then touch them. He touched them first. He didn’t fix the lives of the “sinners” first and then dine with them. He dined with them first. First and foremost the example of Jesus’ teaching is less about casting out demons than it is about casting out demonizing. With all Fr Boyle sees, he maintains his faith in the results of his work, the children and families saved, the lives made whole, in each gang tattoo removed in an act of humility and self-forgiveness. Look for the miracles in the midst of the mayhem, he says.

Says Boyle, “Jesus didn’t ask us to embrace his strategy because it is harder, but because he knows that’s where the joy is.”

The story of Emmaus is a story of the Eucharist, about an invitation to a table. It is a story about scripture, an invitation to perpetual revelation of God’s will. It is a story about hospitality, trauma, and healing–about being the total Christian Jesus taught us to be. We return to the Eucharist to remind us of who. We return to scripture to remind us what. We return to hospitality, to people, to remind us that we are connected.

And so, what next? What happens after the Passover meal? What happens after Calvary? After the resurrection and Easter morning? What happens next?

The road back to who we are is what happens next. The road back to your everyday life where the biggest challenge you may have to face faces you: To live out Jesus’ mandate to create heaven on Earth absent that moment of transcendence his presence gave to us. Absent the transcendent moment, we carry on in his name.

A Christian faith is suspect if it cannot guide us back toward the suffering of humanity. It must make us better, more loving, more resilient people. It must console, illumine the dark places, and have the capacity to make us better practitioners of Love.

And so I pray,

As you find yourself on the Road to Emmaus, as we all will at some point in our journey toward home,

May He who taught us these things—to Love unconditionally, to console the brokenhearted and disenfranchised, to illuminate the dark places of our hears—

May He who taught us these things walk beside you, recognized or not, when you need him most,

And may you, when the time is right recognize his presence, accept his teachings into your heart, and be renewed.

A sermon delivered All Souls Church, Okinawa, Japan

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