APRIL 14, 2002
We don’t know why they’re going to Emmaus, we are told only of the journey, not the reason for it.
Maybe they lived near Emmaus and were simply headed home after spending Passover in Jerusalem.
Maybe they had business there—business so vital that it had to be handled even though their hearts were broken and their minds confused.
Or maybe they felt they had to “get out of town”, had to escape the hysteria that had gripped the disciples since Jesus’ crucifixion. So maybe they just needed to get away and sort out their feelings and thoughts at a distance.
We don’t know why they’re going to Emmaus, we only know they are.
And we don’t know exactly who they are. We only know one of their names: Cleopas and his name appears nowhere else in the gospels. John’s gospel tells us one of the women who stayed near the cross was “Mary, the wife of Clopas.” The names are similar and if Cleopas and Clopas were the same person, we might speculate that his companion is his wife, Mary. But all that is conjecture. We don’t really know who they are.
We know this: they were not members of Jesus’ inner circle. But they must have been followers of his because they knew the details of the women who went to the tomb at dawn and came back to tell “the apostles.” Cleopas and his traveling companion had been with the Eleven before they sat out for Emmaus. More than that, we do not know.
Truth be told, we don’t even know where Emmaus was! There were two villages called “Emmaus”—one some seven miles from Jerusalem and the other nearly 20 miles away. Both are a long walk, even for people used to walking, so scholars have tried to locate some place closer to the Holy City. But, in the end, we don’t know where Emmaus was.
This is what we do know: two travelers set out on a journey and encountered a stranger on their way.
A friend of mine says there are really only two ways to start a story. Either “someone begins a journey” or “a stranger arrives.” This story is so rich and rare that both those things happen at the beginning.
And this is what else we know: the two travelers tell the Stranger their tale of pain and confusion and he teaches them what the story means.
And we know this, as well: as they arrived at their journey’s end, they “urged him strongly” to stay with them. The Stranger became their “host” at dinner and when he took, blessed, broke and gave them bread and in those actions, in that moment, they knew the Stranger wasn’t a Stranger at all. They had shared the road with Jesus.
Finally, we know this: after Jesus disappeared, Cleopas and his companion remembered how their hearts “had burned within them” as they journeyed on the road and they left immediately to go back to their community in Jerusalem, to share their news. And when they arrived, the mood of fear and confusion had been changed to rejoicing because Jesus was risen from the dead, Simon Peter has seen the Lord. And they shared their story too, the story of the breaking of the bread.
This is my favorite passage from the gospels—it is so rich and full that I wish we could spend hours just being with the Emmaus story.
I want to spend the rest of our time this morning looking at encountering Strangers and welcoming them into our lives and to our table.
I always tell the seminarians who minister with us at St. John’s that the best way to preach is to always “preach to yourself.” Preach to yourself, I tell them, and let the people in the congregation eve’s drop.
I’ve seldom preached a sermon so much to myself as this one. But you can listen in.
Of all the negative effects of September 11 and the events since, the one that pains me most is the new-found fear of the Stranger. It began with the irrational, but understandable, fear and distrust of anyone who seems to resemble an Arab or a Muslim. But it seems to me that it has mushroomed far beyond that. In many ways, it seems to me, we have “circled the wagons” as a culture. Our society has taken on a “siege mentality”—a distrust of whatever and whoever is not familiar and immediate to us.
I notice it in myself—and what I should talk about is ME, and let you see if you recognize yourselves in it.
I have a low-level anxiety that I didn’t have seven months ago. I notice that I don’t smile and greet people on the street the way I used to. I notice that I avoid crowded places—which I never much liked—even more than before. I haven’t had to be on an airplane and I’ve noticed I’m relieved that I haven’t needed to fly. Someone I care for deeply told me last week that I seemed “paranoid”. And since she said it, I’ve been wondering if there isn’t some truth in that. I know that I’ve been more self-absorbed—I find myself “complaining” more and being more skeptical and cynical and negative about world events and daily events than I’ve been before. My life-long tendency toward being a hypochondriac—something I’ve dealt with well for a decade—is creeping back into my day-to-day experiences. I sleep well, but I haven’t been dreaming much and my dreams have long been a way for me to sort though what’s going on in my inner life. I feel cut off from my inner life. I don’t pray as much. I feel lonely sometimes, something I almost never feel.
All little things—things that taken one by one might be explained by indigestion or too little sleep—but taken as a whole, I can see a shift in my life that matches our culture’s mood. This is just about me, but you can listen in….
At least I’m beginning to notice these things. I think they’ve all been true for months now and I’m only beginning to notice. But noticing is good: being present to the darkness is the first step toward embracing the Light.
And that’s what we’re called to do as Christians—face the Darkness and embrace the Light. Find new life in the midst of death. Cling to hope and live out of hope in the midst of despair. Remember how our hearts burned within us when all occasion spoke of chill and loss. Invite the Stranger into our hearts and lives and to our Table.
But all that is part of “the next steps.” The first step is to “notice” the darkness and pain and death and hopelessness—not flee from it, not deny it, not avoid it, but recognize and acknowledge all that.
The beginning of healing, for me (since this is about me) is to “notice” and recognize and acknowledge how broken and incomplete and dis-eased I am.
The first stranger I must welcome is the Stranger within me—the one who “always” journeys with me, the one I cannot leave behind, the one I cannot avoid except at my own souls peril.
How can I pray for the terrorists as well as their victims—and I know, deep down, I am called to pray for the terrorists—until I can embrace the revenge and anger in my own heart.?
How can I pray for my brother priests in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as for their victims—and I know, deep down, I am called to pray for those priests—until I can embrace the abuse and misuse of power in my own heart?.
How can I pray for the Israeli’s and the Palestinians—who seem literally “hell bent” on destroying each other—and I know, deep down, I am called to pray for both sides in that war—until I can embrace the resentment and jealousy in my own heart?
How can I pray for those who, in the name of SECURITY, would take away my rights and liberties—rights and liberties secured by heroism and sacrifice—until I can embrace the fear and distrust within me?
How can I pray for and support those more courageous than me who stand up and seek to make peace and find justice until I can embrace the cowardice and selfishness within me?
It is only when we can 'embrace' the Stranger within us that we are freed to 'embace' the Stranger beside us, sharing our road, opening our minds to 'the other', making our hearts burn within us....