“Off to Emmaus” Pilgrim Church UCC, April 30, 2017, (Luke 24:13-35) Third Sunday of Easter (Final Sunday at Pilgrim Church)
Our Gospel story this morning is about a journey. On the surface it’s a short journey—it’s only seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. But if we go a little deeper and pay closer attention, it ends up that this journey is a long road trip. Because it’s a faith journey that Jesus takes beside two grieving disciples, though they don’t even recognize it’s him until they break bread together. These disciples believed that Jesus was the Messiah, a prophet mighty in word and deed. Jesus was going to be the one to redeem Israel. Except he got handed over to the Romans, condemned to death, and crucified. Now the women in their group are talking about empty tombs and visions of angels, so clearly they’ve lost their minds! Cleopas and the other disciple hit the road, trying to make sense of what’s happened or to escape the heartbreak as they walk with heavy hearts feeling defeated.
Now unlike other well-established places in the Holy Land, there’s debate about where Emmaus would have been. The boundaries of Jerusalem have changed so much that measuring seven miles from Jerusalem is not that easy and which direction would you go? A contender for Emmaus is a town called Abu Ghosh. That’s where the Crusaders thought Emmaus was so they built this beautiful church with stunning frescoes and it became a Benedictine Monastery that people call Church of the Resurrection and Emmaus of the Crusaders. A community of sisters and brothers continue to worship in the church and offer hospitality. There’s a wall and a gate, but you’re welcome inside. Our group traveled to Emmaus of the Crusaders by bus (we didn’t walk) to see what many have called the best-preserved Crusader church in the country and it’s beautiful. By offering hospitality, the brothers and sisters who live there reflect this Gospel story. So whether it’s historically accurate or not, the spirit of the Road to Emmaus can be felt in Abu Ghosh even today.
As this is my last sermon at Pilgrim Church, it was fitting to contemplate faith journeys. For there’s been recent times that my own Christian faith has been tested and ultimately deepened. Here I accepted my call to ministry anew and leave with a clear understanding of what God needs from me. After six years in Lexington, I know who I am and what’s important to me not just as a person but as a pastor. And I trust God and God’s lead in my life more fully—so I’m at peace and thankful to you who supported me, trusting that God goes with me and God stays with you.
What better passage to bring this message home than the Road to Emmaus? Because it shows that Jesus meets us where we are and sometimes loves us too much to leave us there. It shows that Jesus is constantly inviting us to deeper and fuller understandings of our faith and what God requires of us. This story shows that we’re not always going to get this faith thing right at first. That there will be times when we doubt or get lost or make mistakes. Yet our God is a God of invitation, a God of blessing, a God of grace. God is persistent and at work in our lives and in the world in ways that we may not understand until years after the fact.
A focus area of my ministry will always be faith formation—teaching and preaching in ways that hopefully help folks deepen their Christian faiths. In worship services my continued goal is for people to learn something new, be moved somehow, and then go out into the world to do something about it! Years ago we explored a great understanding of faith formation from Public Theologian Brian McLaren and it’s important to remember as we journey on. He lifts up doubt as being essential to faith formation writing, “All Christians are committed to lifelong spiritual growth. That means that five years from now, your set of beliefs will hopefully be different from today’s … your beliefs will be more fine-tuned, more tested, more balanced, more examined. What causes you to examine a belief and test it . . . something inside you isn’t at rest about a belief … by doubting it, and then examining it, you can either call it a keeper because it passed the test, discard it, or adjust it.” We can work toward lifelong spiritual growth no matter our age. That’s part of what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ—learn and grow, challenge and discover those beliefs that can ground us as God is the Ground of our Being.
McLaren explains that in his view there are four stages of faith formation. The First Stage is Simplicity—everything is black and white, simple and easy. Stage Two is Complexity where you focus on techniques for finding the truth. Stage Three is Perplexity where you become disillusioned in your learning, you doubt all authority figures and absolutes, everything is relative and hazy.
Stage Four is Humility where in his words, “You come to terms with your limitations, and you learn to live with mystery, not as a cop-out, but as an honest realization that only God understands everything. You carry out of stage four a shorter list of tested and cherished beliefs that you base your life on.” This process continues throughout our lifetimes. None of us need to achieve Stage Four and just stay there. That actually isn’t a healthy place to be if we want to stretch our minds and hearts. To figure out how we’re supposed to be living our lives. To figure out where God is calling us to go or the needs of the community God needs us to address—for we are the hands and feet of Christ.
Because how do we deal with that co-worker we don’t like very much or handle your children doing things that drives you crazy? Or deal with the frustration that comes with being so busy that you’re not spending quality time with those you love? Or handle a setback in your health? Or whatever it is that you encounter that’s just plain hard to deal with? Doubt is essential for faith formation. Though it’s hard to cling to doubt in those moments when we need to know that God loves us and walks beside us on our roads to Emmaus and that we’re part of a faith community that walks beside us too.
Our challenge in the days and years ahead is to keep engaged and wrestling with God until we have that blessing! As Brian McLaren says we can have that “shorter list of tested and cherished beliefs that you base your life on.” With these tried and true beliefs we are onto something transformative as people of faith. We take those beliefs and we go beyond these walls and put them into practice out in the world.
In Bible Study, adult education classes, and hearing your insights after worship it’s been a joy to witness Pilgrims discovering cherished beliefs that help you serve God and the people of God with gladness. Beliefs that help you when the going gets inevitably rough in life. I’m grateful to have worked alongside staff members as we supported one another on our respective journeys. There’s been genuine companionship throughout these six years among our incredible church staff—we even had our own version of the Last Supper at Sweet Cheeks BBQ in Boston to celebrate our time together. And though I still refuse to answer this last Confirmation class’s question of if they were my favorite Confirmation class or not—journeying with our bright and hilarious high school students has been an honor. And remember the story of the Prodigal Son, will you please, past Confirmands? (Found in Luke 15!) That God will come running out to meet you no matter what you may have done or left undone in your life.
At the end of the day, when those disciples were walking alongside this person on the road to Emmaus (who they didn’t even recognize as Jesus yet) there came a point where he began interpreting scripture. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets he shared his wisdom. The disciples kept walking, listening. Their hearts were part of the conversation. They come near the village and Jesus walked ahead as if he was continuing on his own journey. But they stop and ask him to stay because it’s almost evening.
The disciples didn’t just learn about the role of the Messiah in scripture and stop there, happy for the knowledge they gained and ready to get on with their lives. Instead, they put their faith into action even as they were grieving the loss of their teacher and friend. Taking that knowledge they gained from Jesus they immediately showed compassion. Don’t go ahead. Come inside and get off the road—then continue on your journey. And after that hospitality is extended, after Jesus accepts that compassion, they sit down to the table and break bread and see Jesus for who he is. He disappears. We can take that literally, metaphorically, not really know what to make of it. The point is compassion—hospitality shown, bread blessed and broken and shared around the table. For Jesus is always meeting us where we are, loving us into wholeness, and inviting us to embody compassion on the journey. May it be so with us—always. Amen.
 Luke 24:19-24, NRSV.
 Quotes from Brian McLaren taken from, “Doubt: The Tides of Faith” (written for Christian Single Magazine), http://www.brianmclaren.net/emc/archives/resources/doubt-the-tides-of-faith-written.html