April 30, 2017 | Luke 24: 13 – 35 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
The story of the road to Emmaus contains elements of both surprise and familiarity.
It’s the same day some of Jesus followers have found his empty tomb, a man named Cleopas and his companion are walking on the road that leads from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. Presumably returning home, they are talking with each other about the events of the last few days. Lost in their grief they seem to be trying to come to terms with what has happened. They thought they knew what they were getting themselves into when they chose to follow Jesus, the Rabbi from Nazareth. They had been certain in their knowledge that he was the Messiah, the one to redeem all of Israel. But in the days and the weeks leading up to the moment in which we find them on the road, their secure and certain path had taken a dramatic turn. The Jesus they had thought they had known had been crucified and laid to rest and no one had seen it coming. The pathway to justice and freedom with which they were becoming familiar was suddenly strange and unrecognizable. Surely they were wondering who they were to become now that things had shifted so dramatically, wondering what would become of them now that they had to reconsider everything they had previously known? Suddenly, they are confronted by the appearance of a stranger. The encounter brings them to a stand still. The stranger challenges their thinking, seems to suggest they should have seen what was coming. There’s something compelling about him and so they ask him to stay the night. Gathered at the table, he blesses and breaks the bread. A sacred memory is evoked. Their eyes are open and they recognize him as the risen Christ.
This week I spent some time at Bethlehem retreat center in Nanaimo. I hadn’t been there for several years, but I used to go there quite regularly on silent retreats. My soul recognizes the landscape of that place and it is particularly familiar with a path that winds its way around the lake. I walked that path while wrestling with my call to ordination. I walked that path when I was preparing to come and serve in this congregation. It holds a lot of sacred memory for me. On Monday afternoon, shortly after I arrived at the retreat center, I headed out to walk the lake with a couple of my colleagues. As we stepped onto the path one of them started to walk in the opposite direction that I was heading. I quickly stopped him and said “No. That’s not the way I go. I always walk the lake in a counter clockwise direction.” In fact, in over 25 years I don’t think I have ever walked the lake any other way.
It was a visceral reminder of how our souls love familiar rituals and patterns. It’s often how we recognize the sacred. How many of you always sit in the same pew on Sunday morning? Or you love to hear that particular piece of music that you recognize. It’s not just that we are creatures of habit, these are rituals of our life of faith. It speaks to why Cleopas and his friend recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Our rituals point us towards those things our souls can understand.
And yet there’s something about the story of the road to Emmaus that reminds us that what’ s also true is that sometimes the only way for God to get our attention, the only way for love to open us up to the more that is possible when our vision of who and what we are has become short sighted, or when we become stuck in our ritualistic patterns, is to come to us in the unfamiliar, to interrupt our conversations and enter our lives in ways we had not previously anticipated, to say to us you thought you knew who I was, but I am more than you imagined me to be and so are you. Your love can be greater. Your heart can open even wider. Your vision can be even more expansive.
As most of you know, on Maundy Thursday, the two Syrian refugee families we have sponsored to come to Canada arrived at the airport. I’ve not met the families yet, but I have been avidly reading the flurry of emails about all the activities involved in helping them to settle in their new home being sent among the welcoming team. In between the details about who is taking whom to dentist appointments or to register for school, a more complete picture of who these people really are is beginning to emerge. More than one of the children aspire to be doctors, another an architect, one of the littlest ones, an astronaut. I don’t really know who we imagined them to be if we imagined anything at all, but I love the way these face to face encounters are finally helping those who once were strangers to become friends. Interesting how often sharing food is mentioned as part of that process.
I know from speaking to some of the people that were at the airport to greet them when they arrived that through these encounters, some of our assumptions about who refugees are and how they live are already being challenged. One person said to me she was surprised at how well dressed the families were when they disembarked the plane. In her mind, living in tents would have precluded that. It makes me wonder what they assumed about us before they came here and how their assumptions are being challenged. It also makes me wonder what it must be like to think your life was going to look a certain way, only to have your whole world turned upside down by circumstances beyond your control forcing you to rely on the generosity of strangers.
One of the greatest things about the Jesus story is that it paints a picture of a God who is known in the most intimate of ways, in the touch of a hand, the washing of feet, in the sharing of bread and wine. It’s why passing the peace on Sunday mornings is such an important and central part of what we do together because it’s calls us out of ourselves and into relationship with one another. It’s why the kitchen is always at the heart of church communities, why tea time for the Thrift Shop volunteers is sacred time. These are the places we connect with one another and see each other for who we really are. It’s also why the number one reason people say they come to church is for a sense of community, a sense of belonging.
Just like the early Christians, we love our intimate friendships with one another. It’s a gift to have people to call holy friends. But one of the challenges with these kinds of close knit communities where we get to know each other so well is that they often, if not always lead to exclusion. We are always living in the ongoing tension between those who are on the inside and those who are on the outside. On the one hand our intimate sense of community is a tremendous gift and on the other hand it creates barriers.
True Christian community, true hope filled community, is community that is always being broken open both to welcome the stranger and to be received by strangers who welcome us. To be in Christian community means we are always being formed and re-formed, always being challenged in our narrowness of heart. That can be very disconcerting for those of us who long for stability and familiarity. The very nature of this kind of community means we are always experiencing loss, loss of the community that was in order to gain the community that is becoming. Just when we like the way things are, someone new comes along and re-shapes and re-forms us into something different.
The same can be true of our personal lives. We think we know who we are and then something happens, we become a parent, we lose a spouse, we retire from a job, we are given a diagnosis and suddenly we have to figure out who we are all over again, we become strangers to ourselves, strangers waiting to receive our own welcome, for a while, we lose our way.
Back in September I was invited to my former congregation to preach. The folks from that community are now part of an amalgamated congregation. They have been reformed. In September they became what’s known as an Affirming Congregation of the United Church of Canada, a congregation that is intentionally welcoming of people from the LGBTQ+ community they asked me to preach at a service recognizing this new ministry.
Someone who knew I was going to the celebration said “I thought all United Churches were Affirming” open and welcoming to people of all gender identities and sexual orientations much in the way we say we are on Sunday mornings. In fact, there were a number of people in that congregation who wondered why they needed to go through the process to become an Affirming congregation. What they discovered was that they weren’t as open minded and welcoming as they thought they were. They were good at welcoming people who looked like them and “fit in” to their community, but they realized they had a distance to travel in welcoming people who challenged their norms. They had to learn for example, how to become a safe place for transgender people to worship. And they were startled to discover some of their prejudices. For many, the process opened their eyes to new ways of seeing themselves and others.
As we in this congregation launch our ministry for those struggling with their mental health this spring, I have found myself wondering how that ministry might open our eyes to new ways of seeing ourselves and others and how we might be transformed along the way. As we continue to welcome more and more refugees into our country I wonder the same thing. It’s a beautiful thing to wonder about really, to know God hasn’t finished surprising us yet. There is more that we can be, more who we can love.
The pattern of our lives is that one moment we have everything figured out. We know who we are and where we’re going, we’re comfortable and secure in our knowledge of ourselves and the world in which we live and then suddenly without warning, we are stopped in our tracks by something that causes us to lose our way. We suddenly discover there is something more for us to learn, something more for us to experience. The pattern of our life of faith is that we are lost and found, we die and rise over and over and over again. The presence of the one we call the Christ is forever and for always interrupting our lives, coming to us in a thousand different disguises, luring us towards life that is challenging and complex, delightful and diverse.
One of the things I love about the story of the road to Emmaus is that moment when Cleopas and his companion invite the stranger who has surprised them on the road to stay with them and share a meal. In that moment when the stranger takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it and their eyes are opened, they recognize him for who he is, there is suddenly confusion over who is the host and who is being hosted.
That’s what happen sometimes when enter into the practice of welcoming strangers. We think that we are the ones extending the welcome but so often the tables get turned around and we find our own insecurities, our own need to be loved and accepted, our desire to make a difference in the lives of others welcomed and received by the people we think that we are serving. Suddenly our lives are changed just as much if not more sometimes than theirs.