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Sunday, April 26, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

Known in the Breaking

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church


Psalm 116:1–4, 12–19
Luke 24:13–35


The two disciples were on the road the same day as the rumors flew from the women about the empty tomb. They were on their way to Emmaus, a place that in Luke’s Gospel has not been mentioned until now. The two disciples, Cleopas and his buddy, were making their way from Jerusalem after a rough week. If Emmaus was home and not some Brigadoon-type destination, they must have dreaded the sameness, the familiarity of it all, all the cares that they once thought were so ultimate that now must have seemed surreal, unimportant, because what has just happened in Jerusalem clouds everything. Even the road they may know so well looks different, taking in the grief, loss, disappointment, deep disappointment, the dust, the stones, the heartache.

They are talking with each other, processing, as my kids would say to me, and we all know, at some level, what Cleopas and his companion are talking about as they walk along. They are trying to make sense of the catastrophe that hurled itself on their days. The dream they held is shattered, the freighted weight with all the routines interrupted, practices set aside, fear abounding, worry at every turn. And yes, we’ve all had conversations like the ones these two are having on that road.

But for them, that day, it is a death they are discussing. The death of Jesus, the one on whom they had pinned their hopes and dreams. We can imagine the series of “if onlys” that populate the discussion. “What if it had not happened . . . the arrest . . . the death,” they may have said. “We were so close, the stars seemed to align.” “Why were we so convinced it was the dawn of the new age, an age of peace and hope and possibility? It was only a breath away.” But rather than making their way down a path of promise and possibility, this is a road of broken dreams. Yes, they grieve the death of the preacher and healer, Jesus, but also they hold with tender emotion “we had hoped” he was the one to redeem Israel, a fragile fragment of shattered dreams. As they discuss the events, they hold their grief behind the floodgates, because if it starts to burst open, well, they don’t have much of a foothold.

So with shadows lengthening and evening coming, when the busy world is hushed, out of nowhere another person falls into step and asks what they are discussing. Maybe it was the question that kept them from recognizing him. Or maybe it was their eyes that were so clouded with fear, with worry, with deep and pressing disappointment, but they were kept from recognizing it was Jesus. They did not know. When he poses the question ‘‘What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?” there is a flare of impatience. They even seem incensed. Sometimes grief does that to you too! “What do you mean, what are we discussing? Man, you are so, like, out of touch.” But mostly the question penetrates the veil that covers their grief, their arresting disappointment, their absolute sorry state. And what it really does is stop them in their tracks. “They stood still, looking sad,” says the narrator.

Oh, how often these days do we find ourselves standing still, looking sad? When grief arises from the parched soil of our lives. When all we have banked our lives on, our routine, our accomplishments, the rewards of travel, or the kiss of our little grandchildren or aged moms and dads, the small stuff—yes, we find ourselves at a standstill, because the world is at a standstill, eerily quiet, human commerce arrested or brought to two dimensions by a computer screen, and we are so tired. Zoom fatigue has us in its grip.

But in this story, this Emmaus Road narrative, the standstill arises not only from a question, but it comes when the one who joins them wants to know, wants to hear what they have to say on their walk away from sorrow, toward home. Their hearts did not burn in this moment, but their plodding souls and wandering feet came to a stop. This is the intersection of what Presbyterian pastor Cynthia Jarvis calls the “horizontal conversation” these two travelers were having, crossing with the vertical perspective of God’s word (Cynthia Jarvis, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2, p. 421). It is that moment in the standstill when we realize something like eternity has invaded time. We see it when we hear this story, on this Third Sunday of Easter, of the two on the road, because right smack dab in the middle of their frantic momentum forward, the Living Word from God joins them, interrupting their talk and directing their gaze toward what really matters. They did not know who he was, but when the Living Christ interrupted their small talk and asked, “What things were you discussing?” they must have realized he was ready to listen, really listen. And Cleopas and his pal let the story spill.

“This one, Jesus, the prophet in word and deed, was handed over to death by the chief priests and scribes, crucified,” they say. They had bet their life on this one, this Jesus of Nazareth, to be the one to redeem Israel. They told the stranger it had been three days since it all took place. “Sure,” they said haltingly, “there were some women who told of going to the tomb, earlier that morning, not finding the body, the vision of angels who told them that this Jesus we followed was alive! Yes, astonishing as their message was and as amazing that two of our friends went to the tomb to check out the story and found it as the women had said—well, it just did not add up.”

Nobody there. Disappointment. Shattered dogma. And so they are on their way back home. Defeated. Tired. They walk on with the stranger.

Now, we must remember that this is a seven-mile journey. They are walking. There is plenty of time for telling and a lot of time for teaching. It is getting dark. It has been a very long day . . . a long week. So when the stranger (Jesus) shifts into his academic mode, when like any professor worth his or her salt cannot stand it when the learner, the journeyer, fumbles the lobs toward understanding, this stranger cuts through the scattered thinking with the words, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer these things and enter his glory?”

“Say what?” the two may have responded.

We can imagine their confusion when this man pulls out the Torah scrolls and prophetic texts and delivers what is very likely a very heady lecture. Wouldn’t Cleopas and his companion have wondered what gave as this man connects the tradition of the past with the hope that these two hold for it all to come to fruition? It might have aroused yearning to embrace with all their hearts and heads what he said. And for Christ’s sake, they listen as if their life depends on it—which it does.

But their hearts are not burning right then either. They may be hungry. Yes, it has been a long day. They are almost home, and what a strange journey they had experienced. “Maybe we can light the candle or burn oil in the lamp,” they may have thought. “Maybe home will remedy our weariness and our lost souls, our yearning spirits.” The stranger feigns going on as they round the bend. It is not clear where he is going. So, they open their hearts just a bit and invite him to stay with them. Holy hospitality! Yes, at least they knew how to do that! Even when the rest of their lives was feeling like wreckage, they knew they must invite him to join them for the night.

“Please linger with us. Break bread with us. Please!” They scrounge up a simple meal. And then it happens. He takes the bread; he blesses it; he breaks it and gives it to them. One moment he is the guest, and the next, he is host. In the blessing and the breaking their eyes are opened and they recognize him. They are given new eyes and new life! Right then and there he vanishes from their sight. Just as the masquerade is over, their sacred memory is rekindled.

They then share with each other what they might have hidden for the rest of their lives if it had not been awakened by the bread breaking—the burning heart, the deep knowing and being known. And I have a feeling that some scrap of all they wanted for their lives, all they kept at a safe distance, now was seen up close. Their hearts burned with flames of light for all they had seen. This is a sacred moment, a moment of dawn cracking open in the banality of a simple meal with a stranger turned Lord.

“The sacred moments of miracle,” says Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner,

are often the everyday moments, the moments which, if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only . . . the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our being and our imagination—if we live from the miracle of one instant of our precious lives to the miracle of the next—what we may see is Jesus himself, what we may hear is the first faint sound of a voice somewhere deep within us saying that there is a purpose in this life, in our lives, . . . and that purpose follows behind us through all our doubting and being afraid . . . to a moment when suddenly we know for sure that everything does make sense because everything is in the hands of God. (Frederick Buechner, Magnificent Defeat, p. 88)

We are Emmaus people—on the road, holding grief, standing still, trying to make sense of where we are at this very moment. We walk along that long darkening path, holding our tears and longing at bay because we just can’t handle them. But this is not the end of the story. No! The pandemic of disease and death; the fear and worry; the unattended longing to be close to another, to live and learn face-to-face—this is not the last word. When we are at the breaking point of our life right now; when our hearts yearn, if not burn, for a word of comfort, a word of hope, to put the disappointment, the fear, the longing at bay, we see Jesus. He comes to us in the breaking—yes, in the breaking of bread that mends our broken hearts, to this broken world that longs for healing grace. He quickens our weary souls, for the “seven mile nighttime run in the moonlight of Easter” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2, p. 422), to share with others in Jerusalem, in Chicago, wherever you happen to be this day, the good news. He is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Thanks be to God.

Amen.