by Rev. Andie Raynor

Luke 24:13 – 35

Today’s Gospel lesson is- for me – one of the most comforting and yet mysterious passages in all of the New Testament. It is about being on this journey we call life, about the times we feel devastated, disappointed and afraid, and about how Christ journeys with us… sometimes silently, sometimes without our being aware, but always, always available to us- especially in times of trouble- if only we are willing ask.

If you’ve never been confused or lost or heartbroken, perhaps this is not the scripture or the sermon for you. But if you, like me, like so many of us, have struggled or are struggling right now with burdens that threaten to undo you, then welcome. Welcome.

In our Gospel lesson, two unknown, shell-shocked people were heading home after a devastating disappointment. Only one is known by name – Cleopas – and neither is ever mentioned in the scriptures again. They are walking what must have seemed a long and lonely road from Jerusalem back to their hometown of Emmaus. It was a seven-mile stretch that afforded them an opportunity to discuss the dramatic events that they had just witnessed. The two friends had probably traveled this same road to get to Jerusalem – only that journey had been filled with excitement and hope. The one many were calling the Messiah had arrived there, healing and teaching and proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And now? Now they were trying to come to terms with the violent end to that great dream… and the horrible image of their battered teacher hanging and dying on the cross.

As they walked along, they tried to figure out exactly what had happened. They earnestly tumbled the events back and forth, going over every detail, all the while knowing that this journey home would mean the end of their dreams, the end of their hope for a new and better life… And then, as if out of nowhere, a stranger joins them on the road.

One of the things I love about these two men is that they are not counted among the famous twelve disciples. They are not remembered for any particular acts of courage or loyalty or faith. They haven’t been healed of an affliction or recognized for a contribution to the cause; they are not part of the inner circle. They are just two people who followed Jesus. They, like you and I, are part of the every day rank and file of believers. And yet, and yet, Jesus appears to them, as if to say: you are just as important as Peter or Thomas or Mary or John. Your hopes and your dreams, your pain and your fears are known to me, and I am with you.

Have you ever been on a road like that – literally or figuratively? Have you ever gone in one direction, burning with hope and enthusiasm, just to find yourself turning around disappointed and defeated? Maybe this road has involved a relationship that started beautifully and full of promise but ended painfully. Maybe it’s a job or a career that didn’t turn out the way you thought it would. Maybe it’s a prayer for healing that didn’t seem to be answered. Whatever the case, these are the times (believe it or not) when Christ walks most closely with you – and with me. We just have to open our eyes and our hearts to see him, to recognize him, to feel him.

Theologian John Jewell suggests that “the point of deepest despair in our lives can also become the point of healing… When you lift up your broken heart and maybe even cry out, ‘Why …. O, God why?’ It is then that the presence of the Risen Christ is already beginning to emerge. It may be that he will remain hidden from your recognition for a time. But when we “hit the wall” and begin to reach out — even with our questions, we are facing the stranger on the road! This is a crucial recognition for the life of faith. Crying out to something beyond ourselves — even if it feels like there is nothing there — that very act of reaching out is a tap on the shoulder from God.”

Don’t you love that? Our cries are a tap on the shoulder from God. I think what Jewell is saying is that we have to know we’re in trouble in order to cry out. We have to recognize that something is very wrong with our lives, that we need help, that we can’t go it alone, before we can truly make a positive change. And so God taps us on the shoulder, God nudges us just enough to make us turn around and say, “Is anybody there? Can anybody hear me?” Crying out, we may discover that we have been joined by a stranger on the road.

Many years ago, a young soldier found himself far from home, hitchhiking alone on a snowy road late one Christmas Eve. A few months before, he had watched most of his platoon being shipped off to Korea, while he, by some strange bit of luck, had been pulled from line at the last minute. “We need a finance clerk at the base in Colorado,” the sergeant had growled matter-of-factly. “I see you have a background in finance. Step out of line, soldier.” That simple command had spared him from the battlefield, but it could not spare him from his own inner turmoil. Besides carrying the guilt of the lucky, he bore the burden of a conscience. And his conscience told him that his life was in trouble, that he was in trouble, and that somehow he was made for more than the drinking and carousing that dominated his time when away from the army base.

Though it was Christmas Eve, this night was not much different from any other night of furlough from the base. It entailed a ride into town where he was a regular at the bar, slugging down beers to numb the feeling of how pointless his life seemed, keeping at bay the bitter disappointment over how his dreams of being a professional baseball player had been interrupted by this war, most probably for good. He felt alone, more alone than he ever had since the death of his mother when he was a small boy. Perhaps that is why he never shied away from trouble; he never started it, but he wasn’t afraid either. A solid punch could never compare to the pain that he often tried to ignore in his heart.
And so, by the time he helped close the place down on this particular night, he was, as they say, feeling no pain. His buddies had left hours ago, leaving him to find his own ride back. Stumbling outside, the bitter winter air slapped his cheeks, making him regret missing that last ride home.

The snow was falling steadily and heavily when he began walking the long road toward the base. “No point in sticking out my thumb for a ride,” he thought. “No one’s gonna be out tonight… not in this weather, much less on Christmas Eve.” Maybe he was thinking of his mother, as he often did when he was alone; maybe he was just thinking of how many miles he had to go before he could warm his cold feet; but before long, he was engulfed in a halo of light. Car lights, to be exact. Jackpot. The car approached, slowly rolling and crunching it’s way through the snow, the beam of its headlights throwing a shadow from his back.

“Need a ride, son?” the old man said, rolling down his window.

“Sure. ‘preciate it,” the soldier replied, amazed at his unexpected good fortune, and grateful to get out of the cold.

“What are you doing out here all alone on Christmas Eve?” asked the driver.

The young man looked out the window at the starless sky, at the darkness and the endless, swirling snow. “Just another night, Mister,” he sighed. “Just another night.”

Years later, he would tell the story of how the stranger began to talk with him about God. How the man had spoken with such warmth and genuineness about his faith and how Christ had made a difference in his life. “You’re not alone, son,” the old man had said gently. “Christ is right here walking with you. You just have to let him in.” At first the soldier tried to maintain his cynicism, though he politely kept it to himself, because a ride with a lunatic beat a walk in the cold any day. Just a few more miles, he thought. Then we can go our separate ways.

When they finally reached the army base, the soldier met the man’s gaze for the first time. His eyes were the color of silver stars, emanating a light that seemed to go right through him. It startled him and snapped him to attention. It was the same feeling you get when the phone rings in the middle of the night, suddenly rousing you from sleep and causing your heart to pound. Who was this man, and why was he saying these things? Before the soldier could steady himself, the man smiled and said, “Do you mind if I say a prayer?”

“Sure. Whatever,” the young man replied. Part of him wanted to run from the car, but the other part yearned to stay. Something was holding him, like gravity, to the seat, while images of his life, of his disappointments and sorrows, were spinning in his mind.

The man shut his eyes and leaned his head on the steering wheel. And then he began to pray. The words are lost now, but the echo of them reverberates still. When the man finished his prayer, there came the sound of church bells ringing softly in the distance. “Midnight,” they signaled. “Merry Christmas, son,” said the man gently, kindly, a mysterious smile crossing his face. “God bless you.”

“Uh, and you, too,” the soldier stuttered awkwardly.

When he got out of the car, he wasn’t sure what had just happened, but he knew his life would never be the same. The journey home had changed his life.

This story is true, and it is precious to me because that soldier was my father. And my father has always been a spiritual guide and mentor for me. Sometimes when we talk about that night, he shuts his eyes, picturing the stranger, and wonders aloud if that man could have been some sort of angel- or perhaps was merely guided there by God. What was he doing out on that road at that hour? In a way, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that, through this man, this stranger, a flame was lit in my dad’s heart, a burning recognition of divinity, of holiness, of the presence of God-with-us.

Cleopas and his friend walked with Jesus for seven miles never recognizing who he was. And then, as Jesus began to move on ahead of them, they called out, urging him, imploring him, “Wait! Come in! Rest. Share a meal.” Even in their grief and despair, they suddenly knew that they had to invite this stranger in. They didn’t say, “Hey, see ya… nice talking to ya. Wish we could have you in but, you know, we’ve had a rough few days and all.” Instead, something stirred in them, something like recognition, like answered prayer. Perhaps it was precisely because their hearts were broken that Jesus appeared to them – these two nobodies, these two average Joe’s just making their way home. Such is the extraordinary tenderness of God.

If we make room for Christ in our lives, he will always respond. Always. When we are despairing, when we question our faith, when we feel abandoned by God, when we feel like giving up, that’s exactly the time that Christ walks most closely by our side. We may not always recognize him, but he is there. Every step, every mile. All that is required is that we simply make room in our hearts. Invite him in. Urge him to stay. Jesus doesn’t break into our lives like a robber, forcing change, taking what we are afraid to let go of (even if it means holding on to our pain) – he enters by invitation only. His healing energy needs only a crack to seep in; but we’ve got to open the door at least that much, at least a small crack.

On this journey, you don’t always have to know what you believe. You can be mad sometimes. You can be afraid, or so sad that you can’t imagine ever being happy again. That’s okay. But you don’t have to stay there. At every turn, in every moment, the love of God is coming to you, surrounding you. Maybe you don’t understand what it means to invite Christ in to the depths of you. That’s okay, too. Just call out. Just invite him, even if you don’t know what you’re doing, even if he feels like a stranger to you. It may not change the circumstances of your life, but God will give you the courage and the faith to change yourself. After all, Cleopas and his friend eventually had to return to their lives, to their homes and their families and their jobs – but they were not the same people.

Sometimes the Holy One comes in the darkest of nights, unexpectedly pulling up to offer us a ride. Sometimes Christ taps us on the shoulder, reminding us we are not alone. If you are open to the ways in which the Divine comes to you, is coming to you even now, I am certain that your life will change. Does this mean we won’t know heartache or that we will be spared adversity? No. But we will live with eyes that are open to the presence of God in our midst, with hearts that are burning with compassion and joy, and with minds that are open to inspiration and insight. And we will live with courage, and with hope, and with a peace that passes all understanding.