April 19, 2020
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
My favorite theologians and spiritual guides are artists. I love to read theologians, James Cone, Karl Barth, Moltman, Liberationists and Womanist voices. I’m a Biblical Studies nerd, even this week participating in a virtual lecture from one of my undergraduate professors about Papyri preserved in Egypt that give us insight into Jewish self-understanding for communities living along the Nile. These words can make my soul catch fire with the encounter of the Holy in our midst, bringing the Word of God to us, an encounter of the Risen Christ through the Bible. But my favorite theologians and spiritual guides these days are from outside of these intellectual traditions. While I can find my heart burning within me through the writings of Barbara Brown Taylor and Nadia Bolz-Weber, I also have guides that are a little less Orthodox.
This year that I’ve been walking with, and running into Jesus alongside of, one of my favorite accidental saints; Dolly Parton. For me, there has always been something real about her, behind the jokes, beyond the makeup, beneath and through her music. You can’t write thousands of songs like she has without having a connection to something much larger than us all. So when a new Podcast came out, Dolly Parton’s America, I found myself transfixed.
Dolly grew up in a family of Pentecostals, but her connection to God, it was different from her family. They had an idea of who Jesus was, and who we were supposed to be, but it didn’t fit who Jesus was with her.
Cleopas & his fellow Disciple have an understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah, the redeemer of God’s people. The Messiah was, in the understanding passed down to them from their families and their culture, supposed to come and bring political liberation to the People of God. The Messiah was supposed to restore the people in Palestine, force out the occupying forces of Rome, and bring universal peace, not just to Jerusalem, not just re-establish the throne of David, but also bring an end to pain, suffering, and injustice, ushering in an age of universal peace. Their hopes for Jesus have been dashed by his arrest, crucifixion, and death. The Messiah, in their understanding, wasn’t supposed to experience any of this. When they meet this stranger along the road though, they hear of a new understanding of the Messiah; one who suffers with us. God taking on all of the powers that diminish human life, and instead of overcoming them through military or political might, brings liberation through vulnerability and solidarity. The Reign of God, in this new way, is more subversive, quieter, but more human, while also overflowing with God’s unquenchable life. Jesus, this Messiah comes to transform the world in an unexpected way. In the tension between how the world is, and how it should be, Jesus comes to set the world free from the fear that keeps folks from God’s embrace, for Jews and Gentiles alike.
These two Disciples, they find Jesus in the presence of a stranger, once they have left their expectations of who God and the Messiah are. Then, they are given a new experience of God that transforms, not only their world, but the tradition they have received from their ancestors.
And I think that’s what artists like Dolly Parton can help us to encounter. She, and so many others, can open up our tradition, our faith, our scriptures, with words and experiences from beyond it, that give us new eyes and hearts to encounter the Risen Jesus, who is so much larger than any religious tradition.
Beloved, while we might not be able to go into our little church in the woods for a long while, Jesus has a way of showing up with us along the road. In our apartments, our living rooms, through music and art, cinema and the life of the world. When we feel let down by our tradition, when the Jesus we’ve been told to be on the lookout for doesn’t seem to be showing up, that might be a time to go for a spiritual walk beyond the bounds we’ve created around our tradition. Because our Scripture reading from this morning, and my experience, reminds us that Jesus is in the business of finding us, through surprising strangers, who can open our scripture and ideas about God to new insight and understandings. We’re probably going to be surprised, and not recognize at first when Jesus comes to us, opens the scriptures, becomes known to us in the breaking of the bread. Not at first. So if you’re someone like Dolly, someone who can go back in your mind through the wall to your God place, blessings be upon you. Or if you’re finding that you’re bewildered and feeling overwhelmed on this path we are walking these days, know that it’s not because something is wrong with you. You might just need to journey on for a while, to meet the surprising strangers that can be the Risen Jesus, who defies our expectations.
Beloved, we are already saved. Jesus has done all that is needed for us. May we know that we are loved, we are safe, we are saved, and look forward to the presence of Jesus, maybe not a voice, but a feeling as real as a voice, through music or art, creation or community, that opens the surprising reality that Jesus is raised, that the cosmic Christ we follow, shows up in the very human, risen Jesus. May we walk this road, open to discovering that and we are at last, wherever we are, at home with God, especially when we feel lost.