“Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Today our Gospel is one of my favorite Easter Stories, the story of the two disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Before diving in, though, I’d like to tell you about another journey to Emmaus, one that Robin and I took a few years ago.
The year was 2019. Now it seems weird to say it like that, like 2019 was somehow ancient history, but doesn’t it seem that way? For me, anything before the pandemic seems just like that, like ancient history. Anyway, I had just completed my first year of seminary, and Robin and I had to move out of the student housing we were in because they were renovating the building. My school had a different apartment waiting for us, but it wouldn’t be ready until the end of the summer, so we had about two and a half months without a home. We packed up most of our stuff into storage, kept a few suitcases full of clothes, and set out on what we thought, at least while it was happening, to be one of our most difficult summers in the ten years or so we’d been together.
We stayed at a combination of various AirBnbs, family members’ homes, and the occasional hotel. We sometimes stayed at four to five different homes in a week, an exhausting schedule which was finally broken up a little when I went to California for a month to be near my dad, whose health was declining rapidly. During this unsettled time, our car was totaled in Philadelphia, our dog became very ill, and it became clear, while I was visiting my dad, that he would soon need a much higher level of nursing care than he was getting. At the end of the Summer, just before moving back to New York into our new student apartment, we ended up staying for a little over a week at a tiny AirBnb on a farm in Emmaus, PA.
By the time we’d gotten to Emmaus, our previous life was unrecognizable. We had slept on dozens of strange beds, totaled our car, almost lost our dog. The last of my dad’s physical health was ebbing away. We were tired, and confused, and I was pre-emptively grieving my father, who was no longer the man I once knew.
Robin’s and my road to Emmaus seemed, at the time, to be a difficult season, a rough summer. But looking back, and not even that long afterwards, it turned out that there were many, many blessings, many ways that God showed God’s self to us. God showed God’s self to us sometimes in the moment, but in moments we didn’t necessarily recognize at the time, some moments were seeds that were planted that would bloom much later. In the midst of our journey that ended in Emmaus, PA, we spent a lot of time with Remi, the sister of Raya who was baptized here just a couple of weeks ago. During that month with my father, I was able to have good conversations with him, and ask him questions that I’d always wanted to ask. Also, that was the summer where a completely chance meeting between Robin and Bishop Kevin led not only to my being ordained a priest in this Diocese, but to eventually becoming your priest.
On our summer road to Emmaus, PA new life was right in front of us, even when we thought our life, as we thought we wanted it to be, was no more. But in the moment, while it was happening, our eyes were kept from recognizing God right in front of us. I don’t think it was until six months later, when Covid hit, that we realized just how many blessings there actually were in that rough summer.
Now, in today’s Gospel journey to Emmaus, which we read two weeks after we celebrate Easter, it is still Easter day. Our two disciples, Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, are having more than a rough summer; they think the worst thing that could happen has happened: Jesus has died. There are rumors that his body is no longer in the grave, there are rumors that angels have said he has risen, but because those rumors have been told by women, the disciples can’t quite bring themselves to believe them. They are confused, and grieving, and upset. They had hoped that Jesus was the one who was going to redeem Israel, overthrow the Roman Empire. They had thought Jesus was going to make Jerusalem great again. And now, with Jesus dead, there’s no reason to stay in Jerusalem.
And it is precisely in this state, this place of desolation and grief, that Jesus comes to them. And when Jesus comes, they don’t recognize him.
Now, there’s a lot of ways Jesus could have come to the disciples. Sorry I keep referring to this painting behind me, but I suppose he could have come down like a superhero on the clouds to announce himself. But he meets them on the road, intimately, not needing to announce himself, but wanting to talk to them, listen to them. The first words out of his mouth are, “What were you discussing with each other as you walked along?” And when they tell him, he has a slight moment of annoyance—in our translation this morning, he says “how foolish you are,” but in some translations he actually calls them idiots. And after this moment of annoyance from a very human Jesus, he tries to explain to them, to appeal to their intellect, to remind them of what they know about the history of Moses and the Prophets. And still, even as Jesus tries to explain who he is they do not recognize him.
But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been changed. As they continue walking, they find themselves wanting to ask this man, this man they didn’t recognize as Jesus, into their most private of places, their home. Remember, they still don’t recognize him. It is only when they have invited him to their table, and broken bread with him, that their eyes are opened, and they see Jesus as he is.
Grace, like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, and like Robin and I on the way to our Emmaus, we don’t always see Jesus, even when he’s standing right in front of us. Jesus has risen from the dead, and new life is on its way, and all we can see is our heartache, and our loss, and our busy lives. These days, we are hit with a lot, on every side: school shootings, and political unrest, and Artificial Intelligence that’s advancing so rapidly that even its creators are asking the government to slow it down. And while we’re processing all of that, we are supposed to be highly productive performers, at school, or our jobs, or even our homes. Still, even in all of that, even when all we can see is what’s right in front of us–the totaled car, and the sick dog, and the parent who’s slipping away, even when we can’t believe that resurrection is possible, Jesus comes to us. He joins us on the road to transform us with his presence.
Just because we are in the presence of Jesus—and we are, right now--doesn’t mean everything gets better. We don’t stop grieving just because we’ve seen Jesus. However, we do start recognizing Jesus in people we may not have recognized him in before. In fact, once we start recognizing Jesus in one person, we start recognizing him in everyone. And when we see Jesus in everyone, we can’t help but want to open our hearts to them in love. I really love the fact that in this story, it is just the mere presence of Jesus that causes the disciples to feel a fire in their hearts, that causes them to want to invite him back to their homes. Even though they still don’t know who Jesus is, their hearts are re-oriented toward love.
The more we see Jesus in unexpected others, the more we set aside our preconceived notions of who we thought Jesus would appear in. Many of us have ideas of who we think Jesus is going to appear in. One of the things I noticed when I was starting my discernment process six or seven years ago was people would hear that I was considering becoming a priest and say, “Oh, yes, you absolutely look like a priest.” I know they were trying to be encouraging, but I also knew that what they meant was that I fit a culturally preconceived notion of what a priest looks like. That is to say, tall, male, straight, and middle-aged, with a little gray hair. It still makes me uncomfortable. I know a few of you read the ministry profile I submitted when I applied to be your priest. In it, I said that I consider myself to be a transitional person, a bridge person, who is helping make the way in the church for others, both lay and ordained, who are going to show us how to re-orient our hearts toward love. People like Sandy Milien, who preached last week, and others I hope to invite to Grace soon.
When our hearts are re-oriented toward love, we recognize other people who need his love, and join them on their journeys, and invite them into our lives. We recognize Jesus in people who don’t look like me, Reverend Jay. We recognize Jesus in women, whose stories we start listening to, not ignore, like the disciples ignored the women who were trying to proclaim Jesus’s resurrection. We recognize Jesus in the incarcerated, who are not the worst things they’ve ever done. We recognize Jesus in the transgendered person who is undergoing their own resurrection into their own new life. We recognize Jesus in the one who seems to be so politically different from us that we have a hard time looking at them, let alone walking along a road and discussing Jesus with them.
When we enter into relationship with people we didn’t recognize as Jesus, we change each other with mutual love. This is the genuine, mutual love spoken of in today’s reading from I Peter. It’s not a love that merely welcomes but invites others to belong. It is not the judgmental love some of us were taught, that judgmental love which says you can love the sinner but hate the sin, which actually means you identify them more as a sinner than as a beloved child of God. It is a genuine, mutual love where, as Peter says, we love one another deeply, from the heart. (I would take today’s bulletin with you and cut out that reading from I Peter, it’s that important.) This is the love with which Jesus loved us, and with which we are called to love.
And then, even if we still don’t recognize him, Jesus follows us back to our homes, to the places where we are the most vulnerable, and the most ourselves, and gathers us around the table with all those people whose faces are suddenly, recognizably, the faces of our brothers and sisters and non-gender conforming siblings in Jesus. And then, finally, around the table, we all break bread with Jesus together, we recognize him, and he recognizes us.
Grace, like Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, we find ourselves on roads to Emmaus again and again. We think the worst thing has happened, even when more is yet to come. And yet, in the midst of these moments, Jesus comes to us in all his humanness. He asks us, “What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?” And he listens to our worry, and our sadness, and our desire for things to be the way we imagined they were going to be, and our doubt in the good news that he is risen again. And he even speaks to the side of us that intellectually wants to be reminded of all the prophets that came before, and he reminds us that we have been told things and understood things before, causing our hearts to burn within us, filling us with love that longs to be expressed in mutual relationship with each other.
Grace family, no matter how many times you’ve walked down an Emmaus road, no matter how many times you’ve been filled with doubt, no matter how many times our ideas of how we thought our lives would be have died, Jesus is coming to you. Unlike our dominant culture, Jesus isn’t asking you to learn to live with Artificial Intelligence. He isn’t asking you to look good on Instagram, or to follow capitalism’s insistent demands for constant productivity. He’s coming to ask you what you are discussing on your road, and to listen to you, and to remind you that he is in everyone you see.
This morning, as we enter our time for Holy Eucharist, I’m going to ask you to do something a little different; it’s something you can do totally privately, without words. This morning, as we come forward to receive the bread and wine, I invite you to look at those who come to the table of Jesus with you. As they stand up from their pew, and move toward the front, then come back toward you, look to see Jesus in them. And as you return to you seat, do the same; look at those behind you in line, or who have already returned to their seat. See the Jesus in them through the eyes of Jesus.
Let us see Jesus in others, and let us be Jesus to each other, and let him be known to all of us in the breaking of the bread.