One of the interesting facets of a city parish is that on any particular Sunday there are a number of people, newcomers or welcome visitors, who come from somewhere else. At the same time, a certain number of parishioners, friends of the place, people we get used to seeing here, are often away for the weekend; in the mountains, at the sea, in the bush. Sometimes it seems like everybody is on the move! So, when we hear the Gospel for this week it looks like the early apostles are taking the same route, in this case, a trip away from the City for refreshment and renewal, a very early post-Easter vacation.
That is what is happening towards the end of the Gospel of Luke in the lesson we’ve just heard. Cleopas and his friend are taking the road out of Jerusalem past the usual suburbs they inhabit, heading for the bush. It is understandable that they need a break! They’ve been through a lot: After such a glorious beginning too, for those not yet named followers of this Jesus: seeing his truth, joining his company, following his way, learning something about the grace and glory available to those who walk that road, live that life.
But after all that promise, they’ve come up against failure, betrayal, suffering, death, And even now, even if there is this slightest hint that there may be more to the story, some strange -beyond belief - uprising hope. Maybe even with that, it is just time to get out of town.
So, the disciples head to the bush to talk it out and walk it off. And Jesus comes along as well. As an unexpected, unrecognised companion on the way. And maybe, after all they have been through, they can be forgiven for not seeing him clearly right away. They have been through a quite a lot. And so have we.
It is important to remember that we all work so hard at all this faith business. We try to prepare, show up, do the right thing; we try to make sense of scripture, we say, “This year I am going to read the whole Bible again, I am going to pray more, attend more services, I am going to read Rowan Williams, CS Lewis, Richard Hooker, whoever,” We all try so hard! We go to the services and the meetings, read the books, pray the prayers, follow the way, do the best we can. Yet things still fall apart, and good people – young and old – still die and life goes awry, and there are wars and other terrors and you can’t help but wonder why? Why try to attend church and deal with the bother of belief, when bad things keep happening to good people, and people – doing the best they can - are handed heavier crosses than they can seem to bear. So some days it just doesn’t seem right or fair and we might as well join Cleopas and his friend and just get out of town! It is not an uncommon feeling: it makes some sense. We all do it.
Seven years ago, in the space of 6 months, my mother and my older brother both died. My father had died three years before, and this was the end of very bad three act play. It had been a long sickness for all three of them. Tough deaths: not a sweet slipping away and a sense of great release. but sad and scary, mixed up with anger and confusion, denial and sadness. Even for me, as the surviving, it was like living in the soap opera from hell. A time when life hit me like a fast train and left me wondering why.
The day my brother died, a good friend from college - who now lives outside of London - called to tell that his mother had had her last stroke that same morning. We talked a bit that day, the next day too, and on the third day I made reservations for a cheap flight from San Francisco to Heathrow on the following Wednesday, which happened to be Holy Week. But it was one of those times when it was good to get out of town with a friend. So I flew to London and trained to Sussex and got there and we drank tea and ate a lot and talked about what had happened, what was happening, what might happen, and how it all had been with our families and our friends and ourselves. I did attend the local parish church to hear the absolutely worse Easter sermon ever, but otherwise we stayed pretty close to the fire in that late English winter.
The day after Easter my friend had things to do, so I took the late-morning train into Victoria and walked around London: through Kensington and Notting Hill and Oxford Street, and in the mid-afternoon I ended up at Westminster Abbey. I sat in silence for a time in the circular chapter room and looked at the fresoes, as I was leaving, saw a little wooden door that opened into a chapel I had not seen before. It was very small, not much except a few seats; an altar and a crucifix, there might not have even been a window. I walked in there with no particular agenda or prayer in mind, and a question came from the deepest part of my insides like a flash-fire into the silence of the room. “Why in God’s name does it have to hurt so much? And the answer was right there like love. And the answer was simply, “I am here.”
“I am here in the pain with you, I am here on the journey with you. I am here living in the middle of the question with you, in the painful listening, in the incomplete solution, in the making sense of it. I am here with you in the night flight over the pole to London, in the very middle of your very painful journey. I am here with you and with the others, in the hospital beds, in the embarrassed silences, in the incomplete explanations. Without complete solutions, with no easy answers, just meeting you in the very midst of where you are. I am here.”
The answer came before the question was finished, even before the tears had started.
It came like meeting a good friend after a long time away. But it did not heal, the pain did not go away, I was not instantly relieved. Instead, there was a connection that began to bring me back to myself. As much as it hurt, my heart came back to life.
This is what happened to me; and I think this is what happened on the road to Emmaus, Somehow, when you don’t expect it, whether it is Cleopas or you or me, Jesus shows up. This stranger who feels like a relative and seems somehow like the closest friend you’ve ever yet met, meets us when we’re heading out of town, hears the questions that have been burning in our hearts, and gives us a response that is so close that it is almost impossible to see it clearly let alone live it out. He may not answer all the question, we may not even get the answer we want, but we will know this: he will be with us in the middle of it, and we shall be with him in the end. It still may hurt, but we are not alone anymore. We will never be alone again.
According to the written tradition, Cleopas and his mate get more. As they walk on Jesus unravels the scripture for them, gives them chapter and verse, shows them all the how’s, why’s, and what’s of evil, pain and suffering. And that is nice, good for them, it doesn’t happen for everybody, hasn’t happened for me, and, although some days I would enjoy that fundamental and literal certainty. I don’t think it is the most important thing; which is softer, more intimate, more like the life and love, it is what comes at the last of the story. For he went in to stay with them in the village, and “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.” That meal stands at the meeting place: that is the food for the long journey; that is what will bring us home at the last. That table is here, that time is now. Jesus stands ready to share it all. The moment has come to supp with the Lord of life