Date – April 30, 2017
Text – Luke 24:13-35
Title – Our Road to Emmaus
A man approached a little league baseball game one afternoon. He asked a boy in the dugout hat the score was. The boy responded, “Eighteen to nothing – we are behind.” “Boy,” said the spectator, “I’ll bet you are discouraged.” “Why should I be discouraged?” replied the little boy. “We haven’t even gotten up to bat yet!”
I admire how this boy is hopeful even down by 18 in the baseball game. But if we were talking about the Red Sox game, I guess many of us would walk out thinking that we just wasted our money. We would simply walk away.
In our lives, there are many moments that we feel like that it is over. There is no chance of coming back from it. When there seems to be no hope and despair looms in, many people tend to take mental flight from their reality. Some go to the market and buy a big pint of ice cream. Some spend so many hours watching TV. Psychologists call it “mental escape from reality.”
And I believe that is what the two disciples are doing in our reading from the Gospel of Luke. They are traveling to a village called Emmaus which is about seven miles from Jerusalem. The scripture does not tell us exactly why they are traveling. But my prayerful assumption is that they are trying to escape from their reality because it is disappointing and ugly. I do that with my wife, “Honey, let’s go to Sonic for some milkshake.” She knows that our drive to Sonic in Smithfield gives us enough time to discuss what is happening.
While the disciples are walking along, a stranger comes near and starts to walk with the two disciples. He asks, “What are you discussing with each other?” They stopped their walk looking sad and unbelievable. “Don’t’ you know what happened in Jerusalem?” The stranger asks, “What happened?” They say, “Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word, was condemned to death on the cross. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
They say, “We had hoped…” Just like we say, “We had hoped that our job was going to make us happy…” But the statistics say that half of Americans feel unhappy about their jobs today. “We had hoped that our new-born child was going to make our marriage more solid…” John Jacobs, the author of All You Need Is Love & Other Lies, says that child is a serious threat to your marriage. “We had hoped that the doctor would be able to do something for my husband who just got diagnosed with cancer…” “We had hoped that our new president and government would do a better job than the previous one…” We are surrounded by “We had hoped…”
And when we feel that our hope does not meet our expectation, we travel to Emmaus. We try to escape the reality of brokenness and hopelessness. Maybe we think that there is nothing we can do about it. So, we just hope that the time would bring the healing or make some progress. Or we simply think that it is a time to move on.
For many Methodists and non-Methodists, yesterday it felt like walking our road to Emmaus. Karen Oliveto is a Methodist minister who served Glide UMC, the fifth largest congregation in the U.S. for 8 years. Last year, she was elected as a bishop and appointed to Rocky area. But some clergy and laity in South Central Jurisdictional Conference brought a charge on her to void her election. It is because she is a lesbian who has been married to her spouse, Robin, a deaconess in the UMC. Our Methodist doctrine still considers homosexuality as incompatible with the Christian teaching.
After 4 days trial, the Judicial Council ruled that her election as bishop is against the church law. To be honest, it was shocking but not surprising. It is because the Book of Discipline has not been changed yet regarding human sexuality. But many people are disappointed because they hoped that maybe the Judicial Council would affirm her election as a bishop and affirm our church slogan as “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.” And I see that people from other denominations invite Methodist clergy or those seeking ordination simply walk away. Our hope was not realized. It will never happen. So, we find ourselves walking toward Emmaus.
I do not know how many Methodists feel the pain from the decision by the Judicial Council. Maybe many are likely to say, “That is more social issue than spiritual issue. Church needs to talk more about the spiritual issues.” Frederick Buechner interprets Emmaus as “the place we go to in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, “Let the whole damned thing go hang.” It makes no difference anyway.” Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday.”
In the midst of despair and disappointment, the two disciples engage conversation with the stranger. As a matter of fact, they realize that they are learning from the stranger when it is supposed to be them who know more about who Jesus is. They urged the stranger strongly and said, “Stay with us because it is almost evening.” They share hospitality with him by offering a table and food. As the stranger took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, their eyes were opened and they recognized him. It was Jesus, their teacher who died on the cross in Jerusalem. Before they could say any words, Jesus then vanished from their sight.
The disciples did not even know who Jesus was until then. But they embraced the stranger and invited him to the center of the table. They gave the privilege of breaking the bread and blessing it to the stranger. In the midst of sharing hospitality, they realize that it was Jesus who had been walking along with them in their journey to Emmaus. Hospitality is not just that we act friendly with strangers with gentle smiles and handshakes. Rather, hospitality is to invite the strangers to the center of the table in which we are willing to lay down our own stories and tradition and learning from them.
Bishop William Willimon describes how stranger determines the vitality and identity of the church. In his former congregation, the people welcomed as a member a woman who was due to her addiction, homeless. As family was assigned to lead the church in receiving Alice as Christ would receive them. They had two years of successes and disappointments, frustrations and wonderful surprises, hard work that stretched patience and finances. When Alice had been off alcohol for a year and was thriving in a new job, Willimon thanked the woman who was instrumental in her recovery. “You should thank Alice,” she responded. “Before she joined Trinity, we were in danger of becoming a club for sweet old folks. Alice made us a church!”
While many churches say all kinds of nice things about them, it is actually strangers who often come from the margin of our society who reveal the true identity of who they are. We welcome you. But here are all the things we want you to follow if you want to be part of our church. We want you to come and join our church but you cannot be the leaders of our church. We want you to come but please don’t stir the water by talking about justice and righteousness. We just want peace in our church family.
As I also struggle with the conflict regarding homosexuality within the United Methodist Church, I come to it not as an issue to be solved, but as my memory of Union UMC in Boston where I attended as seminarian. One Sunday, the pastor invited any strangers to come and join the church by saying, “The door is open.” A gay couple, Bill and Mike, walked to the front and gave their hands to the pastor. Bill said, “We love God. We want to find our church family. But every church we tried, we were told that we could not join them. But here we find our spiritual home. We want to be here with you.” And they wept together in front of the congregation.
Mother Pilgrim, being in her 90s, slowly walked toward the couple and gave them a hug. And everyone including little children in the sanctuary came forward to give them a hug. She said, “Welcome home.” There were tears and laughter as these people finally found a place where they felt embraced as they were, as God embraced them as God’s beloved children. We talk about church doctrine. We talk about what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 or Galatians 5. But when people who were rejected by the church and community experienced the love of Christ, our theological and ideological debate dissolved.
Many try to find the presence of God from elegant music, praise band, or sight-provoking visuals. People declare that “this is a sacred space” when they feel something majestic that comes across much bigger than themselves. But I felt the presence of God in that moment when the strangers are welcome and invited to the center of the table. When we gather as one community and break the bread together with those who are rejected and denied by our society, that is when the face of Christ was revealed to us and realize that Christ has been walking along with us as strangers.
After the disciples realized that the stranger was Jesus, they got up and returned to Jerusalem. They go back to proclaim that “The Lord has risen indeed!” They were initially escaping from Jerusalem because it reminded them of the death of their teacher. The sign of failure. The sign of disappointment. But now, they go back to the same place to proclaim the good news in Christ. “He is risen! We have seen him!”
Although many of us want to escape the reality of disappointment saying, “We had hoped…” Christ calls us back to the messy place in our life and world. It is because the cross that symbolizes the ultimate sign of failure and death turns into the sign of new life and resurrection. Christ calls us to go back and proclaim that Christ is risen today. And that is why I believe that Christ walks with our church today although it is not perfect and it is often broken in its system. In the midst of brokenness and death, we are called to witness the resurrection of Christ who overcomes alienation with love.
In the midst of frustration and anger within the UMC today, my prayer is that we encounter the risen Christ through the strangers that we never expected. When we realize that Christ has been walking alongside with us through them, we are called to go back to Jerusalem where we can surely proclaim that Christ is risen today. And Christ will give us new life in what seems like death. As my Mother Saints used to sing, I am gonna join them and sing, “I’m gonna stay on the battlefield. I’m gonna stay on the battlefield. I’m gonna stay on the battlefield till I die…”
How about us this morning? Are you also walking your road to Emmaus because you are disappointed? You had hoped something good from your work, your relationship, your health, your church but disappointed that it did not happen? I invite you to recognize who is walking with you in your journey today. Although many of us tend to find some sign through extraordinary things, Christ is already walking with us as ordinary strangers inviting us to open our hearts with them and walk with them together. Maybe, the United Methodist Church needs to change its sign from “We welcome you” to “We need you, strangers.” Amen.
 NIB: Luke & John
 William Willimon, Fear of the Other, 71-72