Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Road to Emmaus

“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Luke 24:15-16

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Easter 3A – April 30, 2017

            The young man emerges from the subway and positions himself near the top of the station escalator. There seems to be nothing special about him: a white guy in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. From a small case, he removes a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly throws in a few dollars as seed money, and begins to play.

            It is the morning rush hour on a Friday in Washington, DC.  It is a Metro stop I know well, having lived in Washington most of my life, although I was not there that particular morning in 2007, much as I now wish I had been. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performs six classical pieces, 1,097 people will pass by. Almost all of them are on their way to work. Each passerby has a choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where street performers are part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Or do you hurry past, mildly annoyed at this unbidden demand on your time? Or, more likely still, are you just in a fog of semi-conscious routine, barely even aware of the musician’s presence?

            No one knew it at the time, but the fiddler standing in the subway that morning was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, Joshua Bell. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities – and I owe this description of the occasion to one of the newspaper’s reporters, Gene Weingarten.[1]

            So, here is the $64,000 question:  what do you think happened?  How many people stopped to listen to Bach’s Chaconne from his Partita No. 2, one of the most wonderfully complex pieces ever written for the violin? Or to Schubert’s Ave Maria, a breathtakingly beautiful work of adoration to the Virgin Mary?

            Well, for three full minutes nothing at all happens. Sixty-three people pass by without so much as a turn of the head until, finally, there is a breakthrough of sorts:  A middle-age man alters his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seems to be some guy playing music. He doesn’t stop, but at least he notices. It is not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stops for more than a few seconds. 

            As Weingarten reports, in the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell plays, a crowd never forms. Only seven of the more than one thousand people who pass by that morning stop what they are doing to take in the performance for at least a minute.

            There are many painfully awkward scenes in the video of the experiment, but one memorable one is of a mother hurrying her toddler off the escalator, trying hard to whisk the child by the music so that he won’t notice and want to listen. She puts her body between the boy and Bell, wanting to block the child’s curiosity. But the boy is drawn to the music, and tries to escape his mom’s clutches to get closer.  But her determined momentum is too much for him.

            The poet Billy Collins once observed that all babies are born with an openness to poetry, because the lub-a-dub-dub of a mother’s heartbeat is in iambic meter. But then, Collins noted, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. The same may be true with music, too.

            I wonder if it is also true of our capacity to experience God?

            In our gospel reading today, we get one answer to this question. Cleopas and his friend are walking along a dusty road a few miles outside of Jerusalem toward a village named Emmaus. They are trying to sort through the events of Good Friday – the betrayal, the injustice, the cruelty, the death of hope itself. They stand at the intersection of what is and what might have been; locked in memories, memories of what they had seen and known in Jesus, the joy they felt in his presence, the promise he held for them.

            The two disciples are leaving Jerusalem just wanting to get away from the overwhelming sadness of it all. Where is this place Emmaus toward which they are going? We don’t know. Scholars speculate about its location, but there is no certainty as to where this town actually was or is. Emmaus is wherever we go to make ourselves forget the tragedy of this world: to forget that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest among us suffer and die; that even the noblest ideas that humanity has to offer are in the end twisted out of shape by selfish men and women for selfish ends.

            As writer Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Emmaus is the road you walk when your team has lost, your candidate has been defeated, your loved one has died – the long road back to the empty house, the piles of unopened mail, to life as usual, if life can ever be usual again.”[2]

            But then, in the midst of this confusion and grief, a stranger appears.  He asks Cleopas and his friend:  What are you talking about? What are these things that distress you so? They, in turn, tell him their painful story – which, of course, is in truth the stranger’s own painful story.

            The stranger observes that our sacred texts have long pointed to the inevitability of this day – that suffering and death are built into the fabric of this world. But the Scriptures also assure us, the stranger explains, of God’s intention to redeem the pain and loss and that God’s love for us is steadfast. But Cleopas and his friend still don’t quite understand.

             “How foolish you are,” the stranger quietly whispers, “and how slow of heart to believe.” But the stranger doesn’t give up on Cleopas and his friend; he walks with them still. While they can’t quite fathom what he is saying, there is something about the stranger that draws them in. His presence helps, a balm for what ails them. And so they invite him to stay, to break bread, and to rest awhile. And he does, gladly.

            And then, their hearts warming, the disciples realize that it is in the stranger’s quiet persistence, and in their openness to him, that grace comes. In a holy moment of hospitality, their friend Jesus, now gloriously transformed, himself emerges to greet them, restoring their hope, healing their wounds, giving them back the life they thought they had lost.

             The Joshua Bell story is an amusingly ironic study of human busy-ness and preoccupation, but at the end of the day it leaves us feeling profoundly sad about the human condition and our obliviousness to moments of grace. The Emmaus story, on the other hand, while unflinchingly honest about this same human brokenness, doesn’t end with our obtuseness. The stranger in the Emmaus story, unlike Joshua Bell, won’t go away until we recognize him and experience his life-giving presence.  This stranger refuses to let our preoccupation with ourselves have the last word.

            To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again:  “The blindness of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus does not keep their Christ from coming to them. He does not limit himself to those with full confidence in him. He comes to the disappointed, the doubtful, the disconsolate. He comes to those who do not know their Bible, who do not recognize him even when they are walking right beside him. He comes to those who have given up and headed back home, which makes this whole story a story about the blessedness of brokenness.”[3]

             But more than a story just about the blessedness of brokenness, Emmaus is also a testament to the relentlessness of God’s love.

            Will Willimon, the former dean of Duke University’s Chapel recounts a coffee conversation he once had with a parishioner, a mom with a troubled son.[4] “How have you been?,” Willimon asks her. “Not so good,” she says. “Our son’s been putting us through hell.” “I’m so sorry,” said Willimon.

            “We haven’t known where he has been for the last six months, and then he shows up the other night, unannounced, during dinner, just pounding on the front door asking to be let in. We open the door and there he is. And then out of his mouth comes this string of profanity.”

            “I said to him, ‘we’re eating, come on in, sit down and join us’; but he refuses to sit down at the table, instead storming into his room, slamming the door shut, and locking it shut. My husband sits there a minute, then gets up, pours himself a drink, and turns on the TV. His way of coping.”

            “Not entirely sure what to do, I get up and go out to the garage.  There, I pick up this big hammer from my husband’s toolbox.  I go back in the house, upstairs to my son’s room, stand in front of the door, and say: ‘Open the door.’”

            “And then, again, a burst of profanity pours out of his mouth on the other side of the locked door. So I take that hammer and I lean back and, with all the strength I can muster, I slam the hammer against the doorknob. I knock the whole knob clean off the door, the lock, and everything. And then I barge through the door to confront my son. He looks terrified. And I go over to him, throw my arms around him in a bear hug, squeeze him as hard as I possibly can, and I say:  ‘I went into labor because of you. The hell if I am giving up on you now.’”

            The good news of Easter is just this, my friends. We have a God whose love for us breaks through every door we are able to put in the way; a God who refuses to leave our side no matter our self-absorption and bewildered indifference; a God who walks with us through even the darkest hours of our despair; a God who, like a mother, longs to embrace us.  Let us open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts this Easter season and greet our risen Lord. He is waiting . . . for us.

            [1] Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” a column in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, April 8, 2007.

            [2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Blessed Brokenness” in Gospel Medicine (Cambridge: Crowley, 1995), pp. 20-21.

            [3] Id. at 22.

            [4] Taken from Willimon’s first lecture, “Jesus Saves,” delivered at the Midwinter Lectures, Austin Theological Seminary, Austin, TX, February 4, 2008.

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