Text: Luke 24: 13-35
What happens when life doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would? Your spouse dies suddenly. Without warning your job is eliminated in one of the worst economic times of the last several decades. The addiction you have fought your whole life seems to be taking control of your life. What you thought brought meaning to you no longer feels fulfilling and you find yourself questioning who you are and the purpose of your life. If you have ever been in this place or felt these feelings, like those early disciples, you have traveled the Emmaus Road. I would venture to say that most of us have had an Emmaus Road experience—the crisis hits and everything you thought you knew, everything that you believed in, everything on which you had staked your life comes into question. Suddenly, you find that you are not sure to whom or what you should turn. The question of who you can trust and what you can believe in is hard to discern. But harder still is to find yourself on the Emmaus Road and feel that you are all alone and wondering if anyone really cares.
That is precisely where two of the disciples found themselves as they walked back home following Jesus’ death. They were feeling lost, alone, defeated, and disillusioned because things had not turned out the way they thought they would. They thought the Messiah would be a mighty political figure who would rescue them from their oppression by the Romans. They were looking for an earthly king with power and prestige—a king that would bring justice to those oppressed. Never in a million years did they expect a suffering servant. Never did they expect their Messiah to be arrested, beaten, condemned to death and crucified on a cross alongside criminals. But that is exactly what had happened. And now they find themselves walking home trying to deal with the reality that their world has just collapsed. Their hopes and dreams are dead and they feel utterly alone and defeated. As we read this story, we have the advantage of knowing that Jesus was the stranger walking alongside them, that he was there to comfort them, but at the time they had no way of knowing what we know. Isn’t it ironic that, even now, knowing how the story ends, we still have trouble seeing and recognizing the presence of Christ walking beside us.
For all the lessons that this story teaches us, possibly the one that holds the most power for us is its witness to the profound impact we have on one another when we are present to each other and accompany one another when life takes us down the Emmaus Road. It is interesting to me that Jesus really didn’t do anything in this story. Yes, eventually he did break bread with the disciples and serve them a meal. But other than that, he really didn’t do anything. He simply showed up and walked alongside the disciples as they shared their struggles. He offered his presence. He accompanied them in their pain and fear; he gave them friendship when they felt lost and alone.
I have noted before that Western theology has encouraged us to put our faith into practice through doing and giving. We have become experts at sizing up a situation and then responding with what we can give of our resources to address the need or problem. We have worked in shelters serving meals and handing out clothes. Individually and communally, we have struggled over our budgets, wrestling with how much we can afford to give to others. We have built houses for the working poor. Many of you, through refugee resettlement, have worked tirelessly to help others find homes and jobs. We have done what our faith asks us to do and we have done it with compassionate hearts, resting on the convictions of our beliefs. And we need to keep doing and responding with these tangible and meaningful acts of compassion. And we also need to follow the example of Jesus on the Emmaus Road—the example of simply being present and walking alongside those whose life isn’t turning out the way they thought it would. Some call this a ministry of presence. Others call it a ministry of accompaniment. It really doesn’t matter what we call it. What it is, is taking the time to befriend someone and sit or walk with them as they try to find their way in this world. Yes, you may discover that you have a skill or a resource that could be helpful to them. But that’s not the focus. The focus is your presence, your friendship, and your support.
In present day times, no one has better modeled what Jesus did on the Emmaus Road than Archbishop Oscar Romero, Archbishop to the people of El Salvador. Alan Neely first introduced me to Oscar Romero in a Liberation Theology class at Southeastern Seminary. I remember Alan reading to our class Archbishop Romero’s words to a group of missionaries who had arrived from the United States to work with the people of El Salvador. He begins:
We’re very grateful for your coming here—you’ve had many opportunities for education and the people will appreciate you. In the United States you have great churches and schools and pastoral programs and wonderful parish plants. But what the people of El Salvador really need is that you simply walk with them in their lives, that you accompany them on their faith journey, that you are there with them as they struggle to work out their own historical destiny. If you do that—if you simply walk with the people—I tell you, you will discover a wonderful faith, and your faith and your lives will be transformed. That’s what Jesus did—he didn’t cling to his divinity but emptied himself and became as we are; he made a choice to be with the people in their sickness, in their poverty, in their struggles…We say here [Romero said] that Jesus made a preferential, fundamental option for the poor and the marginalized and the little ones. He walked with them and they came to believe that their walk was important. That’s what the Salvadoran people need: [walk with] them, and I promise you, your own journey will be transformed.
The Hope Center at Pullen needs the people of Pullen to be willing to walk alongside those who are jobless and homeless. Michael and Kevin and Marc need you and me to walk alongside them as they struggle to work out their own historical destiny. For sure, they need whatever resources we have to offer. As lawyers and doctors; as social workers and teachers; as bankers and accountants; as writers and consultants—you fill in the blank—they need our skills and they need us to be generous with our resources. And, they, like every single one of us, need someone who is willing to walk their Emmaus Road with them. Michael, Kevin, and Marc, the truth is this: Pullen needs you to walk alongside us as we struggle to work out our historical destiny and identity. None of us need each other’s handout. But all of us need someone who, when life doesn’t turn out the way we thought it would, is willing to walk alongside of us as we struggle to work out our own salvation and identity.
I recently read the legend of the king who decided to set aside a special day to honor his greatest subject. When the big day arrived, there was a large gathering in the palace courtyard. Four finalists were brought forward, and from these four the king would select the winner. The first person presented was a wealthy philanthropist. The king was told that this man was highly deserving of the honor because of his humanitarian efforts. He had given much of his wealth to the poor. The second person was a celebrated physician. The king was told that this doctor was highly deserving of the honor because he had rendered faithful and dedicated service to the sick for many years. The third person was a distinguished judge. The king was told that the judge was worthy because he was noted for his wisdom, his fairness, and his brilliant decisions. The fourth person presented was an elderly woman. Everyone was quite surprised to see her there, because her manner was quite humble, as was her dress. She hardly looked the part of someone who would be honored as the greatest subject in the kingdom. What chance could she possibly have, when compared to the other three, who had accomplished so much? Even so, there was something about the look of love in her face, the understanding in her eyes, her quiet confidence. The king was intrigued, to say the least, and somewhat puzzled by her presence. He asked who she was. The answer came: “You see the philanthropist, the doctor, and the judge? Well, she was their teacher!”
The greatest gift we can give to one another is to be each other’s teachers—to risk sharing our experiences, our knowledge, our wisdom, and our very lives with one another. When we walk alongside one another, when we are willing to just be with each other in our struggles, we become teachers to one another. And when this happens, something warms within our hearts and we begin to recognize the Christ within each of us, and our lives are transformed. Our world needs philanthropists, doctors, judges, preachers, lawyers, bankers—you fill in the blank. But more than anything, our world needs people who are willing to walk alongside those who are hurting and struggling as they work out their own salvation.
The Hope Center at Pullen is inviting the people of Pullen to join them in walking alongside the homeless and the jobless of our community. We, the Hope Center and Pullen, must be partners and not just two entities sharing space if we want to make a difference in our community and in the lives of those whom Jesus chose to walk alongside. In Archbishop Romero’s words, I promise you, if we do so, our own journey will be transformed.