The road to Emmaus story is a story all about movement – movement on a road and movement at a table; movement of individuals, movement of disciples, an entire faith on the move. In the 24th chapter of Luke, the verses we heard this morning, there is much movement, containing at least nine verbs that describe being a people on the move. We hear there were two men going, that Jesus came near, and went with them. That then they came near to a place called Emmaus, but Jesus walked ahead of them. And then he was invited, invited to stay, to eat, to bless, and then he vanished from their sight, but they got up, they got up and returned, and ran to Jerusalem. You see, this is a story about Jesus and his followers on the move centuries ago, and still today.
The text tells us that these disciples walked what was about seven miles. These two utterly confused followers, bereaved followers, are then joined by a third man, a man that the beloved preacher Fred Craddock calls, the Incognito Jesus. The travelers, only one of whom is named, are processing the news of the last few days, all that they had seen, heard, and felt. From the palm fronds that they had waived overhead to the moans from the cross that were still ringing in their ears, to the truth that they hadn’t seen but were trying to believe, these reports of Jesus who was dead, walking and talking again. These travelers were grieving. These travelers were unsettled, and their conversation was unsettling, too. As one commentary notes, resurrection is just as unsettling as crucifixion. It doesn’t fit into any rational worldview, including the theology of resurrection of those first century Jewish people. They could imagine, even they talked about, the possibility of a resurrection of all humanity as the end of history, but not a resurrection like this, not a resurrection of a solitary individual. And so these disciples walked, walked through their doubt, their grief, and they told stories, one story ultimately contradicting another. One story, ultimately leading to the next.
In and amidst this walking, this conversation, this grief, this doubt, the two travelers, nevertheless invite a stranger to supper. And this movement and then this meal lead to the revelation that Jesus the Christ is with them. That he has indeed been resurrected. That the stories are indeed true. And the meal is shared and then Jesus vanishes, leaving those same disciples on the road again, this time returning to Jerusalem with hearts burning, ready to share their story with what has become not just the eleven, but many more. The interesting part of this story for me is that we’re never really told where Emmaus is. We really don’t know where Emmaus is located. We just know that these two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to the town. Over time, several possibilities have surfaced, but perhaps vagueness is a virtue, perhaps in the case of this story it is better not to know. In not localizing Emmaus, in not naming a real place, at an exact geographical position, we can be open to the possibility that Emmaus is everywhere. The story in fact encourages us to be open to the possibility that Emmaus is everywhere, on any road, at any mealtime. The possibility that Jesus might come to us, might fill us with hope, might bring our hearts to burning, might indeed teach us a new way of being a church on the move, if we would but give him our full attention, our most hospitable invitation. In this possibility we are given a profound opportunity to travel to Emmaus not just once, but again and again, in hope of not just traveling but actually learning new things as we travel.
For me, this leaves open the possibility that Emmaus is in South Dakota, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in a small town called La Plant, where a young Lakota boy named Sergio lives. It was in June of 2016, a Sunday evening, our first full day of our annual youth service trip, and Sergio came leaping off of the big, red school bus, calling my name, “Eleanor! Eleanor!” And he reached out to take my hand, pulling me down what was a brand new cement path that curved this way and that way, leading to the hoop house and the gardens. Not a garden that someone else had given to Sergio or allowed him to use, but a garden that he had worked hard to plant, to weed, to tend, a garden that he was now giving to his family and his entire community.
Holding on to my hand, he reached up on tippy toes to unlatch the garden gate, and with each step that he took into that garden space, a few of his hopes, those hopes that had been buried by a difficult home life, a life filled with violence and alcoholism, a few of those hopes began again to surface and to be resurrected. With each step that he took on that sacred ground, a few of his dreams that had been buried by a life lived in a FEMA trailer, a life lived with winters far too cold and summers far too hot, bit by bit, step by step in that garden on that sacred ground, a few of his dreams began to surface, to be resurrected. As he walked deeper in to the garden, a few of his words, words that had been silenced by a life time of pain, by generations of suffering, a few of his words began to surface, to be resurrected; words that named his pain, that named his struggles, words that express what it felt like to be bullied at school, to be worried about Mom, to be scared about tomorrow. With each step a few of those words were resurrected so that he could talk about his fears, his pain, his doubts, revealing his emotions and his reality, not in isolation but in relationship and in community. Crossing over that garden threshold, lifting up that gate latch, brought resurrection about. Sergio was more alive in that garden than anywhere else, and his joy burned deep inside of him, and he shared it freely, generously, abundantly. He shared it as he named the chives and the mint and the parsley. As he reached his hands into the soil to grab the new potatoes, resurrection, life, hope, all of those things surfaced with the potato from the ground.
And then he took me once again by the hand, leading me to the brightly painted picnic tables where we would enjoy a town-wide meal together. And it was at this meal, that I recognized and he recognized me, when Sergio yelled out, “hey, Eeyore, pass me those potatoes. Pass me *my* potatoes.” You see, he had not just remembered my real name, but he also remembered the nickname he had devised for me an entire summer ago. And as he proudly presented his potatoes, as he proudly called out my name, there were dreams, there was hope, there were words, and what I realized in that moment was that a walk and a meal could transform a life, my life. And that a walk and a meal could be a new beginning. That this kind of hospitality and openness make transformation possible, especially when brought to us from unexpected places by the most unlikely people, most especially, or particularly by strangers and by those we sometimes consider to be other. It was then in that moment at those colorful picnic benches on just the edge of a magical garden, that I was called to realize that this was my Emmaus, at least for the moment and that in this Emmaus, I was not called to fix something, but to meet someone. In this Emmaus, I was not called to fix something, I was called to meet someone.
I tell you this story about Sergio, about this realization that happened to me in an Emmaus in South Dakota because quite frankly the story of the Church being on the move, and of church-people being on the move, has been in many cases and continues to be in many cases, far too many cases, a terrifying thing for native people like Sergio. Our churches, our mission trips, our pastors and our priests, have for centuries justified genocide through Papal decrees and through doctrines of discovery. The church on the move has been a terrifying thing for people like Sergio. And what Dr. George Tinker, Lawrence’s theologian in residence and an elder in the Osage Nation, reminded us last week as we gathered in the Althaus Chapel was that I am, I am, perhaps not able to undo history, but I am able to retell history so that the consistent and persistent Euro-Christian violence associated with the conquest of Native lands and peoples is talked about, is learned about, is never forgotten, so that the immense suffering that we have caused as Euro-Christians is, in the name of a loving God, alleviated. Because today, every Native person, every Native person, including young persons like Sergio must repress and suppress the suffering that Euro-Christians like me have inflicted, repress and suppress this pain and suffering just in order to live daily lives in what is their Native land. People who look like me, I believe, have a moral obligation to understand our history of violence and to be sure that these histories are no longer forgotten, are no longer hidden away, in what Dr. Tinker calls an “unconscious fog,” an “unconscious fog” of denial and myth-making, of romanticizing a history that should be a tragedy. We are all called through the Emmaus story to see the world as we know it with new eyes, to see history as we know it with new eyes, and to be in fact, as uncomfortable as it may be, to be in fact disturbed and disappointed by aspects of our Christian history. But to move from that place to rebuild, to rebuild through relationships, to rebuild what we took away through violence, to rebuild as we turn together back towards Jerusalem, realizing that new beginnings are possible. So now, as we seek to be for the first time in mutually beneficial relationship with our Native brothers and sisters, the spirit of the living God that calls us not to fix someone, not to fix some problem, not to fix some city, but to meet someone on the road. The spirit of our still speaking God asks us to be present with, to walk with, to share a meal with, as we seek to live this Emmaus story that exemplifies hospitality, a hospitality that welcomes, a hospitality that listens, a hospitality that doesn’t think it must always lead, but is comfortable following, is comfortable with another going ahead, is comfortable with a stranger being invited to the table, is comfortable with a stranger breaking one’s own bread. We can, in relationship with one another, we can support one another in the opening of our eyes. We can be truly companions, companions of mutual respect on the road, moving from despair to hope, moving from death to life, moving together because there is so much hope to surface, so much hope to resurrect, so much hope to keep alive if we but dig our hands into the sacred soil. So much hope, as we walk, as we look, as we find resurrection and find resurrection together. May it be so and may it be soon. Amen.