January 24, 2016
World Fellowship Sunday
A little over a week ago, Thad Holcom and I went to Olathe to meet with a representative of the Islamic Center. I was driving and Thad, who does not have a smart phone, was navigating with directions he had printed off from his computer. “Take this exit. Three more miles. We’re looking for Renner Blvd. You need to be in the left lane. . . . OK. The next turn will be a right. I think just a few blocks up. . . .”
It seemed to take forever. I felt like I was twisting and turning in circles, headed to some coffee shop we might never manage to find. We did, of course, find it and were able to have a lovely meeting with Ruaa, the social chair for the Islamic Center. And when it was time to come back to Lawrence? I popped out of the parking lot, made a turn or two, and flew down highway ten right into town.
There are probably others here who experience this same odd time phenomenon—how much longer time feels when you are headed to someplace than when you are making the return trip. This is especially true for me when I’m going to an unfamiliar location—like a coffee shop in Olathe. But I’ve experienced it plenty of times when we go places we’ve been before—the Kansas City Zoo, my brother’s house, Newton. Getting there takes forever. Getting home, somehow, goes much faster.
Turns out, even back in Jesus’ day–before GPS and cars and highway 10—people experienced the same distorted sense of time. Or at least that’s how the writer of Luke makes it sound in this story about the trip Cleopas and his companion take to Emmaus.
The story begins with the two travelers “going to” or more like “going along” the road to Emmaus. We don’t know what time it is, but it is day time. And they are walking and talking and the stranger comes up and they stop for awhile to be sad and relate the story of Jesus’ tragic death and then even though the text doesn’t say it they must, at some point, start walking again as Jesus explains all that the scriptures say about him “beginning with Moses and all of the prophets.”
This trip feels pretty long to me. How about you? It is “almost evening” when they reach their destination.
This trip the two disciples make to Emmaus feels long. And this journey we are on as Jesus’ disciples can also seem long. I imagine each of us, individually, have had various legs of our spiritual journeys that seemed like they might never end, like we were stopping and starting and mostly stopping. Times of deep grief, deep frustration, times of spiritual dryness, times when nothing was really wrong but things just weren’t quite right.
I imagine many of us have experienced those long and winding journeys. It is part of being a follower of Jesus.
It seems to me that this is also the type of journey we are on right now together as a congregation, as we continue to talk about what kind of space we want—and can afford—for our church. I suppose the Israelites wandering in the wilderness would be a more obvious metaphor, because a lot of us, in terms of this process, have felt and may even feel now that we are lost, that we are wandering in circles, that we won’t see the “promised land” in our generation.
But I think the forty years of wilderness wandering is a bit dramatic for what we’re experiencing. Because, while six years feels like a long time, it’s not forty years. And these conditions we are wandering in are pretty comfortable—we haven’t been hungry or desperately thirsty or scalded by the sun or battered by the wind. And we have not turned our backs on God, railing against the almighty and melting our jewelry down to make idols.
Yes. I do think the wilderness metaphor is a bit over the top for our situation. I like this metaphor of the road to Emmaus. It’s a relatively safe and comfortable road. And we are walking, however slowly, together.
As Cleopas and his companion were walking down the road, they were also “discussing”–which sounds pleasant enough in the English translation.
But in the Greek, well, it’s not so much “Let’s discuss what to have for lunch today,” as it is “We need to discuss why I am always the one who has to figure out what we’re having for lunch.” The Greek word definitely has the connotation of a disagreement. The two disciples are talking about all of the things Jesus did and taught, and they do not agree about the entire situation.
And that sounds like the discussions we have been having as well. Talking about what Jesus is doing in our midst, what God is calling us to be as a church—and we don’t always completely agree. We keep walking together down the road—because we like each other, we love each other, we know that ultimately we want to be together with Jesus—but along the way we have discussions.
It is in the midst of this discussion between Cleopas and the other disciple that Jesus shows up—though they don’t recognize him. And so the companions stop their discussion—they literally stop–in order to tell the Jesus story to this stranger. Because whatever their points of disagreement are, they agree on the basic story. They agree on the story. And they agree in their doubt. “Some women went to the tomb and came back saying they saw angels who told them Jesus was alive.” But neither of the travelers is quite sure. They don’t know what to believe.
That piece sounds familiar to me, too. Sharing in the story. Sharing in the confusion and the doubts.
And my hope is that we are also doing a good job—a faithful job—of continuing to follow the example of these disciples. That as we discuss and share and meander down the road, we are, together, listening to the voice of Jesus. This voice that comes to us through the scriptures—“from Moses through all of the prophets” and into the Gospels and the writings from the early church. This voice that comes in the silence of prayer, in the melody of song, in the warm rays of sun or the cool brush of wind on our skin. This voice that comes through the voices of each other—as we discuss and as we discuss.
The irony of the story, of course, is that the travelers do not realize they are hearing the voice of Jesus until they sit down and break bread with him. There is that moment, that moment, when the Holy Spirit opens their eyes and they recognize that it is Jesus—that through the heart-breaking, confusing, long, meandering journey, they have been listening to the Divine voice all along. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” they ask each other. “Were not our hearts burning?”
All of this listening that we do—that we have done, that we continue to do—is good and faithful. But the listening along the road doesn’t mean much until the moment of revelation. Until the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and we are able to recognize what it is that the voice of Jesus has been saying to us all along. Where it is that God is leading us. What it is that God is calling us to do.
And the thing is. The frustrating thing. The maddening thing. The holy thing. Is that we cannot control the revelation. That is up to God.
So we walk as faithfully as we can. And we discuss. And we listen. And we pray. And we sit down together around the table with the expectation that God will in fact open our eyes. That the Holy One is among us, speaking and acting and leading. And our role, together, as a community, as a church, is to help each other hear and see and follow whatever it is that the Divine One is doing in our midst.
I know that for many of us it feels like it has been a long time. A long, meandering journey. And I have no guarantees from God or clear insight into the future. But I do have a sense that eyes are opening, that God is revealing some things to us about our church and our calling. I do see the dinner table—or the after worship potluck table—in our not-so-distant future where we will eat together and see Jesus together.
The journey to Emmaus feels long. But once Jesus is revealed . . . Well, for Cleopas and his companion, Jesus vanishes into thin air—which is weird. And then, writes Luke, “That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.”
Such a long, meandering journey to Emmaus. Such a quick, straight trip back to Jerusalem. A seven mile walk covered in that one line: “they got up and returned to Jerusalem.”
In their book Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as Spiritual Practice for Congregations, Gil Rendle and Alice Mann write, “There is a difference between a consensus that allows us to move ahead and a clarity of purpose that compels us to move ahead.”
Suddenly, when Jesus was revealed to them, the two disciples had a clarity of purpose—to go and share the good news with other disciples in Jerusalem: Jesus is alive! This clarity of purpose compelled them forward—or backward, as it were—and made the trip to Jerusalem fly by.
And that is my prayer for us. That we will not find consensus. That we will not come up with some solution to our space problem that everyone is willing to live with. But I pray that we will find clarity of purpose. That our eyes will be open to the word Christ is speaking in our midst and we will all, together, be compelled to go to the place to which God is calling us. That place where we can most faithfully live into God’s call for us to create peace, work for justice, care for creation, serve others, and nurture thoughtful faith. That place where we can speak out and live out the good news that Christ is alive! Christ is alive in our church. Christ is alive in our world.
Thanks be to God.