Each time I’ve traveled by plane recently, there has been a big surprise at the end of the journey. Unfortunately, both times it was snow. Despite nice weather that continued in Colorado while I was away in balmy Mexico and steamy New Orleans, I was greeted by cold and several inches of new snow on my return. Some surprises are better than others. Today’s Gospel reading is about a good surprise at the end of a journey.
Who would have expected that the man two disciples chatted with and expressed their exasperation to, would turn out to be their friend Jesus? You can’t blame them for being cranky on their walk. The whole point of following Jesus was to benefit from his wisdom and hopefully be in the right place at the right time when their hopes for a powerful Messiah were fulfilled. Jesus hadn’t seemed to use the right language that would overturn governments, but they understood him to be a remarkable leader and to have powers that others did not. Even if Jesus didn’t appear during his ministry to fulfill all of their expectations, he did create a community of followers who truly cared about one another. They were lost without him. The disciple named Cleopas isn’t mentioned anywhere else in Scripture, and the second traveler in the story isn’t even given a name. Despite their near anonymity, they represent a group of people who had staked their lives on the message and the presence of Jesus.
And so they walked. Seven miles isn’t a terribly long distance, though roads in first century Palestine were rough and there was always danger. No one today knows where Emmaus was located, but many have suggested it was in the hills of Judea. The geography might have been similar to the road to Jericho where Jesus set the story of a man who was beaten and robbed before a Samaritan rescued him.
Cleopas and his friend had a lot to talk about. Nothing made sense. Who were they supposed to follow now? Should they be mad at Jesus for dying on them and then somehow getting misplaced? How would they save face now that their friends knew they had been duped? When a stranger approached them, they just continued their tortured conversation and let him join in. It was unbelievable to them that he seemed unaware of their misfortune, so they filled him in on Jesus’ on Jesus life, death, and mysterious absence from the tomb. When I read over this text this week, it seemed like a long therapy session where those who were hurting unloaded everything they could think to say about how they got into such a mess. The most poignant statement is this: “We had hoped that that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel.” Their hopes had been dashed, and there wasn’t much left to do but lay out the pieces of the story and commiserate with one another.
This week, the members of our service and learning team to New Orleans heard a lot of stories. There was a pattern or rhythm that emerged through them. Despite the dire predictions about Hurricane Katrina broadcast in August 2005, no one seemed to grasp the enormity of tragedy that awaited them as the category 5 storm approached. At least each person we talked with did heed the warning to leave their home. They fled to cities to the north and west, assuming they would return to their homes within a few days. Rachel prepared our meals at the mission house where we stayed. She left her most valuable items at home when she fled, believing they were safer there than at a motel. When she and her family finally returned to see their house several weeks later, it was marked outside with a big spray-painted X and the number 1 to indicate that one body had been recovered inside the house. When the levies failed after the hurricane, the resulting flood and everything it carried with it crashed through the windows. Ten feet of water covered the neighborhood and survivors who did not heed the warnings had to be rescued from their roofs.
Ms. Gwen is an African American women whose home four of us worked on all week. She is a strongly-opinionated, quite funny and hard-working grandmother whose home in the Upper Ninth Ward was mostly destroyed by the flood. In 2005, she was proud of acquiring her own home following a difficult divorce. When residents were told to leave the Ninth Ward, Miss Gwen found refuge with a relative in another city. Like, Rachel, she expected to be home within a few days. Those sheltering her said she couldn’t bring any pets, so she secured her poodle in the bathroom with food and water. Five weeks later she was allowed to return to the house for the first time, and of course the dog had perished in the flood. Thankfully, the house’s basic structure was solid, and Miss Gwen was able to have her home repaired and resume her catering business from her remodeled kitchen. Twelve years later, shoddy workmanship became evident and she engaged a contractor to make extensive repairs. The contractor absconded with the money, which is a familiar story in the aftermath of Katrina. The a non-profit called the Saint Bernard Project heard of her dilemma, and our team from CUCC is one of several groups making needed repairs to her home this spring.
The journey that began for the residents of New Orleans in 2005 continues long after they imagined it would be finished. It was surprising that the stories we heard were always accompanied by words of gratitude and even humor. But there is no way to minimize the suffering endured by what is both a natural disaster due to the hurricane and a human-made disaster due to poor environmental stewardship of the Mississippi Delta. Through the suffering, the lives of individuals and families have been dramatically re-shaped. Like Cleopas and the other disciple on the Emmaus road, talking with strangers about their experiences and their hopes seems to be part of how they cope with a permanently altered reality.
You might have read this week in local papers or the New York Times about Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto. The highest judicial body of her denomination determined on Friday that her election as bishop last summer was illegal because she is a lesbian in a committed relationship with another woman. Although she remains a bishop for now, it is likely that she will be removed from her post after a further trial. Karen grew up in a suburban Methodist church on Long Island. She knew that she was called to ministry before she knew she was lesbian. She preached her first sermon at age sixteen. Her ministry call led her to seminary at the Pacific School of Religion in California, and her distinguished vocation has included teaching Methodist history and serving as pastor of one of the largest churches in her denomination. Along the way, she met and ultimately married Robin Ridenour, a Methodist deaconess. Karen seemed as surprised as anyone when she was elected bishop last summer. Those who were present for the election described an unmistakable and powerful movement of the Spirit in their midst. Karen moved to Denver to oversee 400 congregations in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. This fall, I was asked to represent the United Church of Christ at her installation service.
Within minutes of Karen’s election as bishop, Methodists in another region opposed the election and asked for a Judicial Council ruling which resulted this week in the decision that her election was contrary to church law. Not because she is professionally unqualified in any way, but simply because her denomination officially states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. At the public hearing last week, the prosecuting attorney stood before the council and produced a copy of her marriage license that was titled “exhibit A.” A sign of love and commitment was received as the primary proof that church law had been violated. That kind of religious criminalization of love is spiritual violence. After the decision was made public, Karen responded from her home in Centennial and encouraged people to act in love and gentleness and trust the Spirit as the journey toward justice and full inclusion continues. Last evening she wrote to her congregations, saying “We are not unlike those disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. Someone came and walked alongside them, but their eyes were closed to the reality that the person walking beside them was their beloved teacher. Who is it that your eyes and hearts are closed to? Stop a minute, right here, and picture them in your mind. Now, see the Christ within them. How does that change how you feel about them? Can you see them? Really see them in their precious human self?”
When Cleopas and his companion arrived at the end of their journey, they invited the stranger beside them to stay and have dinner with them. When the stranger took bread and broke it, they suddenly saw who he was and realized that Jesus had been with them the whole time. Someone they didn’t think could understand what had happened to them, was in fact the very one whom their story was about. Isn’t that the way it often is? Other people tell us what should be true; that persons like Karen Oliveto cannot possibly represent Jesus, but then we are surprised to see that we discover Jesus in a new way through their witness. How many times do we miss seeing people for who they really are and the beauty of who God has made them to be?
Henri Nouwen writes about the power of hospitality in his book Reaching Out. Cleopas and the other disciple invited a stranger to walk with them and share in their conversation. When they reached their destination, they extended the hospitality further by welcoming the stranger for a meal. Nouwen says that hospitality creates free space where strangers become friends and ultimately needed change can take place. Change doesn’t happen by trying to argue our position by others. Instead, when we remove the dividing walls that exist between persons, people are freed up to make new decisions and grow in ways that they discover for themselves. Imagine if everyone concerned about the issues dividing our nation would first extend hospitality to others regardless of opinion, rather than first arguing or pushing people away who disagree with us?
We all have our own walking to do. We never know who we will meet along the way. Those who challenge us the most can become the greatest source of personal growth. Those who seem like the strangest strangers can be the very ones we most need to learn from. And those whose appearance mystifies us may reveal the very presence of the living Jesus in our midst. Keep walking and watch for signs of grace and for good surprises along the way. Amen.