Companion, Stranger, Sacrament: Christ is With Us!

road to Emmaus

(Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter A, 30 April 2017, based on Luke 24:13-35.)

Luke the Evangelist tells us
that the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus
is a distance of seven miles,
but you and I know better….
We know better,
because even though most of us have never been to Jerusalem,
at one time or another,
we’ve all walked that stretch of road to Emmaus,
though we probably know it by a different name–
A name like Death. Depression. Divorce.
Abuse. Addiction. Alzheimer’s.
….You can fill in the blank for yourself!…
Yet whatever name we give that road,
you and I know that the journey
cannot truly be measured in miles
that stretch before us;
In truth, the journey to Emmaus
can only be measured…in tears
and in sighs too deep for words….[1]

“Life is…hard,” said my friend, Ted.
as we sat together in the silent presence of God,
preparing to partake
of the sweet comfort of Holy Communion….
Ted is no longer able to attend worship,
so he asked me to bring him the sacrament,
and although it saddened me to see my friend in such pain,
I hung onto the hope
that his heart would be touched
by the healing power of Christ
who mysteriously comes
to meet us and to abide with us as our companion,
in, with, and through
bread broken and wine shared
in remembrance of God’s undying love for us….
It’s still early days,
but as my friend thanked me
for sharing the sacrament with him,
I could sense he was feeling
the first stirring of a glimmer of hope
in the midst of his deep personal darkness….

My friends, when your heart is broken
and your dreams have been shattered
and your vision is clouded by grief,
the road to Emmaus seems to stretch
endlessly ahead of you…
Through the dark veil of tears
it can be hard to see
even the very next step….
All you can do is pray your way forward
an inch at a time:
“Lord, help me!
I don’t know what to do or where I’m going.
I’m making this up as I go!…
Help me just to take the next step,
and then the next, and the next….”
And somehow—by some minor miracle—
you manage to put one foot forward…
and then the other,
painstakingly picking your way
through the shards of brokenness
that litter the landscape of your soul….

When you and I are walking that long, hard road to Emmaus,
it can help to have a companion, as Cleopas did.
Some of you probably know
that the root meaning of the word “companion”
is someone who shares bread with you:
“com” means with, and “pan” means bread,
so “com”-“pan”ion!…
To share bread—that is, to share a meal—
with someone is an intimate thing:
Gathered around the table,
we are nourished in both body and soul,
as we share not only our bread,
but also our very selves:
our sorrows and fears, our hopes and dreams….

So, we need companions for our journey,
and like Cleopas and his companion,
somewhere along the way
you and I also need…strangers!…
We need strangers who show up
to startle us and spring us
from the prison of our own despair….
And guess what?!
Often in the very moment
we find ourselves running on empty,
unable to take another step,
God sends Christ to us
in the form of a stranger–
a stranger who helps us find a new way forward….
For example, it may be a caring coworker
who understands your journey
and is able to connect you
with a much-needed resource….
Or it may be a new doctor
who lifts up the hope of an alternative treatment…
In my family’s journey along the road of Alzheimer’s,
it was a retired gerontologist—
a member of a congregation
I’d previously served—
who, with her compassionate listening
and her practical suggestions,
slowly, but surely
helped breathe resurrection life
into my dry bones….
Of course, it wasn’t until much later,
as I looked back on the Alzheimer’s road,
that I connected the dots
and realized God had sent me an angel—a messenger!
After all, that’s what the word “angel” means: “messenger….”
The angel Pat seemed to come out of nowhere
to meet me and walk with me
for a stretch along that long, dark road,
and as walked and talked together,
she brought me the gift of resurrection life
even though, as I’ve said,
I wasn’t fully aware of it in the moment!…
It didn’t change everything all at once,
but her compassionate presence and guidance
lifted the veil just enough
for me to be able to see a bit of light
for the path ahead…
At the time, it was enough,
and looking back I can see
that it was more than enough:
It was pure grace!…
I’m reminded of the apostle Paul,
who prayed fervently
that God would take away
what he called “the thorn in [his] flesh,”
and the answer he got was this:
“My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness….”[2]
THAT, my friends, is the gritty grace of God
that comes to meet us
in the most surprising ways
and in the most unexpected places:
right in the very midst of the muck
of our human existence….
Speaking of God’s grace
coming to us in surprising ways
and in unexpected places
reminds me of how profoundly
humbling and beautiful it can be
when God turns the tables on us….
About two years ago,
when I was preparing to leave
the congregation I was serving,
I went to do one last home communion visit
with a lovely woman named Thea—
a Greek name that is the feminine equivalent of “God….”
Sadly, Thea has early-onset Alzheimer’s;
in fact, I was astonished to learn
from her sister that she was only 65!…
Anyway, I went visit Thea in her foster home
and found her in her room,
surrounded by yarn in every color of the rainbow….
You see, Thea loved to knit hats
and give them to people as gifts….
In fact, when she was still able to attend worship,
she would come up to the communion rail
and try to measure my head,
so she could make me a hat!…
(I have one of her hats right here:
You can see it’s…um…a little big,
but that doesn’t matter!…
What does matter is that Thea,
a beloved child of God,
put a whole lot of love into creating this wonderful gift!)
So, back to my home visit with Thea:
After talking and looking at photos for a whle,
we prayed together and shared Holy Communion.Afterward Thea wanted to give something in return:
She eagerly handed me
three pairs of gently used socks “for the needy,”
five one-dollar bills for the offering plate,
and a half-empty a bag of M & Ms for me….
With a full heart, I said good-bye,
and she hugged me and said,
“Thank you so much.
This Holy Communion will do my heart and soul
and my demented mind much good….”
Deep inside, I was thinking,
“No…. Thank you, Thea!
You have done my heart and soul
and my narrow mind much good!…”
And as I walked out the door,
the tears began to flow….

My friends, THAT is how our God rolls!…
The Risen Christ comes to find us
wherever we are:
Whether it’s in the privacy of our own room,
out on the open road
or at the Lord’s table,
Christ comes to us again and again….
He comes to roll away the stone
that blocks our hearts.
He comes to set us free from the tomb
of our own despair
and to breathe new life into us….
And then he sends us forth to freely share
what we have freely received:
the hope of God’s undying love revealed to us
in the gift of God’s own Son, Jesus the Christ….

Thanks be to God for the gift of grace
that relentlessly pursues us, finds us, and never lets us go!

[1] Cf. Romans 8:26.
[2] 2 Corinthians 12:7-9.

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