A Sermon for Covenant
“Labyrinth to Emmaus”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
May 4, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
We call it the Road to Emmaus, though I am inclined to call it a labyrinth. The Labyrinth to Emmaus: because there is nothing straight-road, straight-line, straight-path about this story. The two men are kept from recognizing Jesus, and Jesus does not instantly make his identity known.
Why not? Why the long meandering journey before they get to understand? Why doesn’t Jesus make a beeline to the revelation of his resurrection? Why not alleviate their grief immediately? Why not help them see straight away? Why not make it easy, make it quick, make it simple, make it straight? Why extend agony and confusion? Why not take them where they need to go as swiftly as possible?
Instead it happens this way: two men are traveling, deep in discussion of recent and tragic events when Jesus meets them on the way, only they do not recognize him. “What are you discussing?” Jesus asks, and the two stop in their tracks, incredulous. Essentially they retort, “Were you born in a barn? Have you not heard?”
Their shocked response to Jesus’ question is the way all grieving people feel. When we suffer a deep and terrible loss, we look at the rest of the world in astonishment, stunned that everyone else is just carrying on, going to work, buying groceries. This is a contradiction we cannot understand—how the world keeps right on spinning though our private world has ground to a halt, how something this intense on the inside does not cause some earth-stopping catastrophe on the outside. And so the two men on the road to Emmaus just stand in their sorrow and shock and say, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know . . . ?” and Jesus does not correct them regarding his perceived ignorance. He merely asks that they tell him more. He lets them tell the story of their grief . . . and then he tells he them a story of his own.
Jesus starts his story all the way back at Moses, then winds through all the prophets, leaving none of them out. Both of these stories—theirs and his—take a long time. Why go through all of that, when he could have just said, “It’s me! I am he!” from the start?
For years of Christian history, commentators have noted in this passage how Jesus is not revealed for who he is until the breaking bread, and this is true, and it is a detail laden with beautiful Eucharistic overtones. But also, Jesus is not revealed until the stories have been told in their entirety, and this is also true. Word and table, table and word are both present here.
The Biblical story gets recounted here, but so does another one. Jesus tells the history of God’s people, but first the two travelers tell their own individual story, their individual experience, hope, and disappointment. Jesus asks them for this, and so both stories get told—the Biblical one and the personal one side-by-side as if these stories are meant to co-exist. Jesus listens to their stories, draws their story out, pays attention to them before he tells any stories of his own. This is a God who listens before speaking, and that alone feels rather miraculous to me.
It is as if Jesus knew these men needed to talk, to tell. He regarded their lament as important and worth being heard, even if they don’t quite have the story right. They have heard rumors that Jesus is alive, but you can sorta tell they don’t believe. The text reports that they are sad, and they tell him, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” This certainly doesn’t sound like two people for whom the possibility of resurrection has taken root. When they talk about the empty tomb, it seems only to confuse them more. Do you think Jesus was itching to interrupt them? These two men are quite close to the 12 disciples, so we can assume they were followers too, friends of Jesus, ones he had spent time with before his death. When he spotted them on the road to Emmaus, he recognized their faces and their mannerisms; he could surely tell that they were overcome with sorrow. But Jesus does not interrupt. He does not intrude on their lament. In fact, he asks to be told more.
The lengthy conversation between them is deliberate on Jesus’ part, and I think this tells us something about how we must deal with grief. You cannot beeline your way out of pain. There are no shortcuts to getting out of there. It takes a slow meandering. We need to tell how bad we hurt, how bad it looks, how lost we feel, how dismal it was and is and possibly ever shall be, world without end, amen. Jesus, being a man of sorrows, knows this, and so when he meets the men, he listens.
If you do not touch the center of your sorrow, reach all the way in there, with words or tears or therapy, if you do not find your own way to wail and wear sackcloth, then you do not meet the sunrise on the other side of darkness and you cut short the story of your deliverance. You microwave your healing, which does not work the same way slow cooking it does. Your grief asks to be a crock-pot recipe.
Have you ever noticed how long it takes to walk our labyrinth? It takes awhile just to walk the winding path from the parking lot or the baptistery that gets you to its entrance, and then you’ve only just begun. Have you ever noticed how long it takes to walk our labyrinth? Especially if you walk it slow, especially if you walk all the way in and all the way out. It is annoyingly slow if you’re in a hurry, and that is precisely the point. Walking the labyrinth alters your normal pace, alters your normal inclination to get from A to B as efficiently as possible, alters your normal drive to work against the grain of a meandering life, alters your regular insistence on avoiding detours.
Something that bugs me is when people use the word labyrinth when they really mean the word maze. Those of us who walk labyrinths know that there is no way to get lost in one, though the path is windy and curvy and forever long, it always takes you to the center. If you give up before you get to the center, it will be because you are bored or tired, but never because you cannot find your way.
It still strikes me as mostly mystery that suffering actually serves our growth and deepens our love. I’ve been making regular and repeated bargain with God, “I promise to keep learning and loving and growing if you’ll just give me happy.” I cannot understand why the sorrow seems to be necessary, and I do not, for even a second, believe in a God who takes any delight in our pain. But I do believe in a God who holds our pain with enough gentleness and ingenuity to keep making beautiful stories out of what we were certain was waste and mistake and regret.
The men on the road to Emmaus tell Jesus one story: a grief story, a disappointed dream story, a bellyache story, and Jesus takes this story into himself with God-attentive ears . . . and then he tells a different one. That is, they think it is a different story, an old story they’ve heard before about their people, about the ups and downs of God’s deliverance and their denial, the ups and downs of exodus and exile, of prophets and promises, of sinful kings and unexpected heroes. But really Jesus is taking their story and weaving it into the fabric of this one. He is reminding them of just how many times God’s people have been disappointed, and also confused. Lost, wandering, plundered, pensive. He is reminding them how many times God’s people have stumbled right into deliverance, mercy, and help. How many times angels appeared when one was on the brink of death, how many times babies were born to the barren, how many times food fell from heaven upon the famished. It is a long meandering story that approaches a happily-ever after ending, then gets jerked right back towards despair and conflict. While such meandering may not make a good Hallmark movie, this kind of labyrinth resonates deeply with the human story and in it we recognize ourselves.
And so I want you to imagine something with me. You may even want to close your eyes:
Imagine that you are standing at the entrance to a labyrinth. You’ve journeyed a long way already, just to get there. You figure you will have to go at this alone, but suddenly someone is there with you whom you do not immediately recognize. “What were you thinking about on your way up here?” he asks kindly as if your thoughts had something interesting to tell him.
You hesitate. You’re not sure you want him to know. You feel half-naked, exposed and shameful to say it out loud, your grief. But you’re half-angry too, that he can’t just tell what it is you are carrying. Can’t he see how weighed down you are? Then why is he smiling? You freeze for a moment. “Don’t you know these things?” you ask incredulously. He kinda looks as if maybe he does know, but he asks you anyway, “What things?” So, you begin to tell him. You surprise yourself, how much pours forth once you begin walking. You do not have the eloquence of a Psalmist, but turns out you do have the audacity of one, and with no more reservation, you launch straight in to a Biblical-sized lament, though you would never in a million years think to call this complaint a prayer. You talk and talk and talk, seems like you are wandering all over the place, going in circles, getting lost, but you are never lost. You are following the path of your own story, and it is taking you somewhere though you do not know it.
You are amazed that this man is still listening to all you have to say and all you have to feel and all you have to question. At one point, maybe at the center or maybe at the fringe, you begin to weep and he holds you in a long silence. Then he asks, “May I tell you a story?”
“Yes,” you shrug through sniffles. And he begins to tell a different story but it feels sorta like you are trudging back over the same path you just walked, re-laying the stones. It is not your story, and yet, you recognize yourself in it. Sometimes, for a split second, you look into his storied face and think to yourself, “I’ve seen him somewhere before,” but the instinct passes and he is enigmatic to you once again. You walk and he talks and you begin to feel this sensation in your chest, like a slow and tender burning, like you are coming alive inside your heart. You cannot quite explain it, cannot quite define it, but something is happening to you.
You offer him food, not knowing all your food comes from him. You just offer it ‘cause something in you hopes he’ll stick around just a bit longer, just a little bit longer. “Please linger,” you are asking by offering a loaf.
He takes it and breaks it, blesses it, then shares it, and suddenly you see in this strange companion the love that has sustained you through sorrows all your life and you realize he is not a stranger at all but the embodiment of all your hopes, and to your astonished amazement, he is living. He is alive, and he is with you. Amen.