Sermon, April 30, 2017
My youth group at First Congregational Church of Crystal Lake was called PF, which stood for Pilgrim Fellowship. That wasn’t a very hip name for a youth group. Or a very descriptive one, really. There’s little indication from Pilgrim Fellowship that this is a fun group of youth that focus on providing a warm and accepting space for kids to be themselves and learn about God. But – it did require an explanation, and that explanation has always stuck with me.
In the United Church of Christ, and indeed in Congregational churches whose history stretches all the way back to the Puritans and the Pilgrims who landed on this continent in the mid-1600’s, we call ourselves Pilgrims. Pilgrims are defined as people on a journey to a sacred place for religious reasons, and a pilgrimage is a journey undertaken as a search for holy ground. People who travel to Israel and Palestine – Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, are making a pilgrimage.
Sometimes the search for Holy Ground doesn’t work out as expected. When our class was in Israel, we saw all varieties of pilgrims, especially at the holy sites of Bethlehem and the cave; or the church of the Holy Sepulchre – the location claimed for Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, and the location of the tomb where he was laid. People exhibited a wide variety of reverence at these sites. Some people would touch the stones of the church and weep. Some would get down on their knees and pray. One of my classmates made a practice of making herself prostrate, kneeling and touching her forehead to the ground, much like Muslims do in prayer, at each holy site we went to. Others, often including me, stood around curious, dazed, perhaps a little skeptical. Wishing to feel the power of the place, but also intimidated and distracted by others’ displays of faith. At big ticket sites like these, I found myself mostly coming up empty, confused and searching. Sometimes you don’t find holiness at famous holy places. Sometimes ordinary places become holy ground only because we meet God there.
In the UCC we consider ourselves people on a journey. It is a journey of faith, and one in which God is still speaking. There are some walks that are longer than others -- not because of the miles or even because of the landscape, but because of the burdens. Sometimes the real path we are walking is vastly longer and more difficult than it looks.
What kind of journey are you on? Where have you been? Are you getting close to your destination? What joy, or grief, or hope are you carrying with you?
In our scripture today we encounter two people on a journey. Only one is named, and the other is left unidentified….perhaps so that we could think of ourselves as that unidentified journeyer.
Do you ever wonder if you lived in Jesus’ time, if you would be part of the 12? Sometimes I wonder that. Would I have had the devotion to walk away from my home, my livelihood, my family, and everything I cared about – everything that makes me, me – to dedicate my life to an amazing man?
If I’m honest, I can’t be certain I would. But, in this story, in these persons, I can find myself.
The people we meet today are not part of the 12. But they are obviously part of the Jesus movement. And we know, from Palm Sunday, that there were crowds who were for Jesus. And, inside of the faceless crowds, eventually there will be 70 chosen and sent. And within those 70 are the 12.
It may be confusing to hear this morning, because we are 2 weeks past Easter and have been hearing resurrection stories mixed in with Pentecost, the day that the 70 will be sent – but this appearance of the Risen Christ, which begins with, ‘Later on that same day,” occurs on Easter Day. And so, even though we know Cleopas and his companion are not one of the 12, they are connected enough to the Jesus movement (and an unconnected world without cell phones or text message alerts) to know what the women discovered that very morning – that Jesus was notin the tomb.
Why were they on this journey? Perhaps these two were good Jewish pilgrims. Remember, it was the holiday of Passover, when the city swelled to 6 times it’s size. Perhaps these people were returning to home after their holiday in the holy city. Perhaps they were going back to work, back to their responsibilities, back to their routine after what they had hoped would be a transformational moment.
Or perhaps they were fleeing in terror, in full retreat, trying to make sense of defeat, wondering how their hopes had been dashed. How had the one they thought would redeem Israel been lost to the conspiracy, violence and overwhelming power of the establishment?
I suspect this was one of the more difficult, long journeys. It was a seven-mile walk, a walk up and down the rocky landscape of the holy land, a walk you would notice in your ankles and calves. But it was also the walk of hopes in shambles. It was the walk taken through the valley of disillusionment. It was a walk burdened with despair, disappointment and shame.
“We had hoped…” they said. That’s a deeply sad statement.
We had hoped that mom would get better…
I had hoped for that job opportunity…
You had hoped that a person wouldn’t disappoint you…
What kind of old hopes do you carry with you on your journey? And what kind of betrayal? For the pilgrims acknowledge, ‘our leaders did this. “Our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be crucified…” Disappointment with a dash of betrayal is often the most bitter pill to swallow. What do we do in our disappointment and despair on our journeys? Sometimes, we find God.
These two pilgrims find themselves at a crossroads on the journey, when it’s hard to hope. They are bewildered. Despondent. Processing the turn of events, when they meet a stranger with a strange energy. They could have ignored his question and kept to themselves because it was the safer thing to do. But instead, they listen to the stranger Jesus with his unpacking of scripture and prophesy.
At the second crossroads, they could have gone their separate ways. Gave a cordial goodbye and dismissed the conversation out of hand; but at the second crossroad in their journey, they asked him to stay. Hospitality is the foundation and the building block of the Christian faith. Hospitality and openness make transformation possible, especially when brought to us from the most unexpected places by the most unlikely people. But it wasn’t just hospitality shown, it was the request for company, for more time with the stranger Jesus. They were hungry for his peaceful company, his strange energy, his prophetic insight. Even in our darkest moments, we often still reach out and invite people to stay. Share their lives with us. Share their meal with us.
Holy ground, or a holy interaction with God, is often found in a crisis. It is often when we feel most defeated that we become most vulnerable to the in-breaking of God. It is in our brokenness that God can find a way to break into our journeys, into our lives with the Holy Spirit. The road to Emmaus shows us that anywhere can be holy ground if we meet God there.
We are looking for that revelatory moment – that epiphany of experience. But that is not when the two disciples recognized God. It wasn’t in the approaching, or the teaching, or the prophesying when they recognized him. It was only in the things that he had done with them every day - our every day activity – that they realized he is with them.
Sometimes we return to the mundane to make sense of our lives. Sometimes we have to return to our routine, to our home, to our Emmaus, to help us process. But God still shows up in the mundane. In the blessing and breaking of the bread - the act of service, hospitality, friendship, and relationship, their eyes are opened. Their despair was getting in the way. They thought the relationship was over, but now they can see that it’s not.
It was in the mundane, not the sacred, where they recognized God. It is in our every day activities on the journey that may be our closest journey with God; in our visits with people in the hospital, in the ride we provide to a friend, in making coffee or in the caring and nurturing of our children, or in the tilling and seeding and watering and weeding that God appears. It is in our sharing of food, or sharing of meals with each other that we offer the blessings of God.
You can watch and wait for an epiphany, a revelation, but sometimes God’s in the action rather than the revelation. At the crossroads in our journeys, sometimes revelation comes to us based on small decisions that seem non-descript. Small decisions, like entering into conversation or inviting someone to dinner, that changes our lives.
One of the things I get to learn from you all when I sit down and listen to your stories is about your pivot points in life, your crossroads. About the small decisions that turned into life decisions. About the times when you were processing your grief and discovered wisdom, discovered love, or discovered God. About the times you invited someone to share a meal with you, and it turned into sharing your lives with each other. Our crossroads in our journeys tend to define our journeys.
At the end of this revelation, when the disciples recognize themselves in the company of the Risen Christ, they run. Once their eyes were open, they ran back to the disciples “right then”. Even though the day was almost over. Even though they had taken care to have stranger Jesus stay with them because it was getting late. Even though it was the middle of the night. Even though it was dangerous. They ran, because they had to tell about their experience. They had to tell about what happened to them on the road. They had to tell the full story of what happened, not just that the Risen Christ appeared to them. but about how it affected them. They told how they had been walking on Holy Ground without knowing it.
Sometimes your crossroads are complete 180-degree pivots, sometimes they are small decisions. But our pivots define our lives. And when we do recognize holy ground, we often want to camp out there, like Peter after the Transfiguration. But God doesn't meet us just so we can have an experience; there is always a call and a job to do.
The UCC is the church where God is still speaking; meeting us on our journeys with a few words and a blessing that helps open our eyes. We are with each other on the journey. God continues to abide with us in our routine responsibilities. It is in our actions that we realize Jesus stays with us, that God’s spirit abides with us throughout our journey, because we are pilgrims in fellowship with each other and with God’s love.