The Road Most Traveled
Securing a Place in the Story
Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
February 27, 2022
Scripture: Luke 24:13–35
I have the honor of wrapping up this chapter of our Command to Preach series, which is sure to make another return later this year. Jim Leslie submitted a poignant scripture tale that may be familiar to some: often called “the Road to Emmaus” and from the gospel of Luke, it takes place on the same day as the Resurrection, but much later. About these verses Jim writes, “This beautiful passage is probably my favorite from the Gospels because it speaks to the metaphor of the religious life as a journey of discovery; it emphasizes faith as seeing, and it celebrates Christian hospitality. In a recent email exchange, Jim also shared this, “As a convert when I was a young adult from my Evangelical roots to the Congregationalism of Plymouth Church, the Road to Emmaus story has a special place in my heart because I feel that we at Plymouth are encouraged to see the whole of life as a religious journey where our faith changes and grows over time and with meaningful experiences.”
How might you take personally the following words?
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Let us pray:
Holy One, break open our hearts to new understandings, and may this sacred text lead us to discover truths within our own faith story. Amen.
This passage of scripture holds a very tender place in my heart, for it was these words that invited me back into life. The year was 1999 and my body and spirit were weighed down with a grief so large it was swallowing me whole. Four months earlier, in December, our long-awaited first child entered the world still and silent, her once strong, prominent heartbeat ceasing at some point in the birthing process. Everything I believed about God and goodness, hope and faith lay like shards at my feet, and I was moving through the days with a sadness so palpable it was like an unbearably heavy brick I was forced to relentlessly carry. I had returned to work in the church I was serving, the congregation both bearing with me and steering clear, not really sure how to handle their pastor in her fragile state. Fortunately I was part of a team then, too, and my ministry partner was gracious and caring. Because while I had resumed all of my duties, the one thing I could not do was preach. Just thinking about it brought tears and some panic, and it was already a struggle to simply stand in the pulpit and pray on Sundays. This hallowed spot (pulpit, lectern, sanctuary) creates a vulnerable space. Easter came, as it always does, with the focus on new life and resurrection promises, but even the foundational practices of Easter Day did nothing to shift the heaviness with which I lived. The Road to Emmaus is a text most often preached the week or two after Easter, as it takes place on the same day as the Resurrection events.
In 1999 as I studied this scripture, determined to conquer my fear of preaching, the words infiltrated my heart in a way that was both healing and hope-filled. Some scholars speculate that the two travelers walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus were a couple. Whoever they were, they were overcome with grief over the death of Jesus, and I imagine they held each other up as they walked, trying to make sense of the horror of the prior days. When Jesus joins them, the couple does not recognize him. Grief clouds our vision—literally and figuratively—and whether Jesus’ appearance was altered is not the point here. Rarely do we recognize the divine in our midst because we are consumed with the burdens we are carrying. Jesus invites the travelers to tell their story, explain what happened, remember what they saw and felt and experienced. And then Jesus told his own story of coming to be, the prophecies which led to his very life. You have heard me say this before, beloved community: Everyone has a story and every story is sacred. When we are invited to share a piece of our story or offered a chapter of someone else’s, relationship blooms and, often, hearts are transformed. The couple may not have recognized Jesus, but his presence changed their grief and provided an opening for them to offer the gift of hospitality, something they may not have had the courage to do at the beginning of their journey. And as Jesus came into their home and shared the gifts of bread and cup at their table, eyes were opened and life was restored.
In 1999, my eyes were opened in a different way as I studied this text because I placed myself in the story. My husband and I were the travelers to Emmaus, our hearts splintered and sore as we tried to find meaning in our daughter’s death. Along our way so many offered us divine grace, nurturing us with food and hundreds of acts of kindness: strangers who knew me only from our radio broadcast delivering baked goods and gifts or sharing their own stories of loss, friends shoveling our sidewalks, packing and carrying our groceries to the car, offering the gift of presence even when there were no words to take away the pain, being the face and hands and the feet of Christ . . . inviting us back into life while not rushing us to feel something we could not. And because this Word of God became so real and personal to me, I stood in the pulpit the next week to share my story and to give thanks for the tiny transformation I could feel my spirit begin to make as the grief journey had started to transition to one of healing and restoration. All because I had secured myself in the story, and no longer were these verses of scripture simply words on a page. They were real; they were true; they became a mirror to my life.
The Road to Emmaus is, indeed, the one most traveled. How often are we moving along on life’s path . . . broken, battered, grieving, disillusioned. Sometimes we have a companion with whom to commiserate and sometimes we walk the road alone, wondering when the Divine might intervene and help us identify a joy-filled landmark along our way. I think Jim is absolutely right: This scripture text is a metaphor for the faith life journey, where keystones include hospitality and the ability to see in a new way. As we trudge along right now, eyes dimmed by pandemic weariness, atrocious world events, violence in our city, racial disparity, the abuse of our planet, not to mention our own personal ailments—loneliness, grief, fear of the future, angst in the present—what happens when another joins us . . . shows up on our path and begins to question our discontent? Will we risk the sharing of our story so as to potentially build a bridge and create community? Our charge as people of faith is to love our neighbor even when that neighbor is unknown to us. And when we do this, the divine shows up, we see with new eyes, and the road ahead doesn’t seem as cumbersome as we once imagined. Each of you can testify to this because you have your own experiences of walking a tumultuous path only to be broken open along the way by a word of grace, a listening presence, an unexpected experience, a demonstration of love. The Road to Emmaus is our story, each of us offered key roles of caregiver, care receiver, care companion, depending on the circumstances.
And now we, this beloved community, become a spectator to war: a story of which we want no part. But rather than turn away, we must stand together to witness the death, the loss, the destruction, the terror. The people of Ukraine are on their own Road to Emmaus, stumbling along, broken and bleeding, the sounds of bombs and bullets punctuating the days and the nights. And even though we are geographically distanced, we must show up as their companions along the way. To witness is to become a part of that traumatic story, and we grant hospitality to those we do not know through prayer, through financial support, and through the welcoming of the refugee and by refusing to ignore the suffering.
It was not simply the words on the Bible’s page that began to transform my pain. Rather it was the personal connection I felt to the story, the parallel narrative between scripture and my life. Last week during the Deacon’s conversation at Sundays at 10, DeWayne pronounced that his understanding of church is the coming together to intentionally make meaning: for worship, for study, for fellowship. In these days, it is hard to find opportunities to do just that, but when we participate in a faith community we determine to make our story meaningful, intentional, authentic. As our Road to Emmaus takes us in and out of the hallowed spaces we call Plymouth Congregational Church, may we trust that our place in the story that is Plymouth is one of beloved community, called to come together for nurture and to hear a word of both challenge and grace; called to fill up here through the ritual of worship, the sounds of music, the connections with others so we can continue our journey out into the world to stand up to injustice, speak out for the love of neighbor, show up for goodness. You see, we are all part of the story, and indeed, it is sacred.