The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Following the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote that he thought his grief might be less if he intentionally avoided the places he and his wife Joy had frequented and so he limited his travels to only those places where they had never been together. He switched grocery stores, tried different restaurants, walked only along streets and paths that he and Joy had never taken. Not surprisingly to those of us who have experienced grief in our own lives, it didn’t work. To paraphrase Lewis, “I found out that grief is like the sky—it is over everything.” True enough.
Take a moment and go back in time. It is the Sunday of the Resurrection. But don’t imagine that everyone had heard the good news. Cleopas and another disciple, are making tracks out of town, heading toward Emmaus, a village some seven miles distant. They are leaving Jerusalem—but their sadness is carried with them. And like a pall, it overshadows every step they take.
As they are walking, a stranger comes near and inquires: “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” And they share their sadness, their grief and abandoned hopes of Jesus with the person who is walking alongside them. They say: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Note, if you will, the past tense—“we had hoped”. Hope, for these two disciples, has come to an end. The crucifixion revealed the complete and final devastation of their hope. They go on to speak of the strange story brought by the women at the tomb; but even this seems too much for them. These two disciples, they have had enough. They are leaving the City of God in despair. They have become exiles in their own land.
And now, the stranger, who just a moment before, had appeared so clueless, changes. He actually refers to these two disciples as “foolish”; and before they can object to this rather disparaging description, the stranger launches into a quite serious and thorough study of the Bible, re-telling the story of Holy Scripture, and explaining just how the prophecies demonstrated that the death of the Messiah was necessary. And just like that, the seven miles between Jerusalem and Emmaus, fly by.
And before they know it, the three of them have arrived at the disciple’s destination. The engaging stranger appears ready to pass by—but Cleopas and the other disciple, they are captivated. They want to hear more, and so they invite him to dinner, and he agrees.
And now, here is where we find ourselves, in another room, and before the disciples there is set bread and wine. Before they know what’s happening, the stranger reaches for the bread, and lifts it up. He then gives thanks, breaks it and hands it to Cleopas and his friend. And their eyes are opened, and suddenly they understand, this anonymous fellow who has walked with them all this way, who has opened their minds to the promises of the scriptures, who has eased their pain—this man, is Jesus They know instantly who he is, but then, before they can open their mouths to utter his name, he is gone.
In his book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner writes of the many ways we seek to find a place, an Emmaus, to which we can run away when we have lost hope or don’t know what to do, a place of escape, of forgetting, of giving up, of deadening our senses and our minds and maybe our hearts as well. He asks: “Where is your Emmaus?” Because, let’s face it, we all have one.
And this, as well, is true. Isn’t it. The world changes: thousands upon thousands of people die, hospitals are overwhelmed, millions of people are out of work, children are out of school—all this as we enter the season of Spring—a time of new birth and the hope of new life, and here we have come face-to-face with the realization that life has not returned to normal and will not do so for some time to come. There’s grief aplenty. What do we do? Where do we escape when we are afraid to leave home?
There are a host of approaches. Some folks live in denial, demanding that they see no reason not to go on as we have before—open up the states, return to work and don’t give a thought to lowering the curve of those who are ill. Others escape in their homes by binge watching television or playing video games. Some folks are desperately organizing everything in sight. No matter, even these efforts cannot take away the enormity of what is lost. Perhaps, like C.S. Lewis, we have discovered that in the midst of grief, there is no where we can go where that sense of loss won’t find us.
Which is precisely why today’s story of the Road to Emmaus is so wonderful. It is a reminder that God comes to us in the midst of grief and loss. God is not absent, but present here among us.
So, ask yourself what it was that enabled the transformation of the disciples as they walked on that road to Emmaus, their sadness close upon their heels? For the truth is this: they could have ignored the stranger who came upon them on that road. And even after their greeting, they could have declared that in the midst of coping with their disappointment they simply weren’t up to listening to the prophecies of holy writ. They could have blown him off—then, or any time between Jerusalem and Emmaus. How many of us would have done just that?
Hospitality and openness make transformation possible. I find myself wondering how often we might be visited by the divine, but make every excuse possible to ignore any intrusion of grace as we comfort ourselves by holding grief, loss and disappointment close at hand—determined to continue on our way to Emmaus lest anything attempt to divert us from our path.
The lesson for today tells us that God came to those disciples to give them hope. Jesus met the women at the tomb; he appeared to those who had gathered in the locked room, he came to Thomas, and he even comes to these two disciples attempting to run away. Those disciples, make no mistake, they are ourselves.
Perhaps our task during this present dilemma might be to look more closely at where God meets us in the midst of our loss and disappointment—and engage. Clean and organize your home, by all means, but set a place for Jesus at the table, welcome God as an honored guest at your meal. Read, watch television, study—and ask yourself where God might be meeting you in these pursuits. Recognize that God comes to us where we are, in the people around us—and engage. Do these things and we may discover that though as C.S. Lewis observed: “Grief is like the sky. It’s over everything.” But now, with the good news of the resurrection of Christ, hope is over everything as well. In the name of the Risen Lord. Alleluia. Amen.
(Several ideas in this sermon were inspired by an article written by Scott Hoezee in the Center for Excellence in Preaching: The Gospel Lectionary)"