Sermon, May 1, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
It’s lovely to see all your faces after some time away! I spent several days Sarasota, Florida, where I made a point to lay on a beach every day, even if it was only for an hour. The beach is just marvelous in Sarasota - white sands and clear, calm water. Twice on the walk to the beach, we passed a beach wedding in progress with the turquoise sea as the backdrop.
While I was there, I stayed with a Pastor mentor of mine and his wife. Budd was the pastor of my home church for 10 years, during the time I was in Seminary and in the process of being ordained. His encouragement, support, and faith in my calling to ministry was a constant source of confidence for me; a well that the returned to again and again to draw from when I needed it. And, ironically, I think our mentor relationship provided him some comfort during his tenure in a church that was not quite as expansive as Budd’s faith was. While I was in Sarasota, we never ate a meal out - but rather spent a lot of time at his kitchen table, considering the days events and contemplating our world’s future - and rejuvenating our spirits through relationship.
While I was gone, it’s my understanding that some here at KCUCC attended last Sunday’s Iftar Dinner offered by a local Muslim group called the Dialogue Institute. I heard the experience was warm and wonderful, with delicious food, intercultural learning, and new relationships with strangers begun with dialogue. Those people at the Dialogue Institute know how to embrace the fail-safe recipe for fellowship; the generous hospitality of delicious food combined with conversation.
Yesterday, during the Listening Training hosted by MORE2, we were encouraged to take a ‘working lunch’ where we put our new 1:1 listening skills into practice by creating a new relationship over lunch. And in some of those conversations, there were great moments of insight, vulnerability, and broadening of understanding. While breaking bread together.
In my former life, I used to lead discussion groups in faith communities about how we eat, and I would ask people; when was the last time you had a holy meal? The first answers, unsurprisingly, would usually bring up communion. And I would nod, and pause… because then someone would inevitably say, ‘the last Easter dinner with whole family together was holy to me’… and someone else would bring up the act of cooking from scratch for loved ones…. and another would bring up unexpected hospitality at some far-flung part of the globe with exotic food and the beginnings of new friendships… and then someone’s mind would wander to, ‘my last meal with my mother before she died’…
The heart-filled generosity we offer in hospitality, and the fellowship we experience over a meal are not just the breaking of the bread, but the in-breaking of the divine.
In our scripture today we encounter two people on a journey. It may be confusing to hear this morning, because we are 2 weeks past our Easter morning when the women go to the tomb – but this appearance of the Risen Christ begins with, ‘Later on that same day,” and occurs on Easter Day. The people we meet today are not part of the 12. But they are obviously part of the Jesus movement. We know, from Palm Sunday, that there were crowds who were with and around Jesus. And, inside of the faceless crowds, eventually there will be 70 chosen and sent. And within those 70 are the 12.
And so, even though we know Cleopas and his companion are not one of the 12, they are connected enough to the Jesus movement (in an unconnected world without cell phones or text message alerts) to know what the women discovered that very morning – that Jesus was not in the tomb.
Why were they on this journey? Perhaps these two were good Jewish pilgrims.
My childhood youth group, in that church pastored by Budd for 10 years, was called PF, which stood for pilgrim fellowship. That wasn’t a very hip name for a youth group. Or a very descriptive one, really. There’s little indication from the name Pilgrim Fellowship that it was a youth group focused on providing a warm and accepting space for kids to be themselves and learn about God. But – it did require an explanation, and that explanation has always stuck with me.
In the United Church of Christ, and indeed in Congregational churches whose history stretches all the way back to the Puritans and the Pilgrims who landed on this continent in the mid-1600’s, we call ourselves Pilgrims. Pilgrims are defined as people on a journey to a sacred place for religious reasons, and a pilgrimage is a journey undertaken as a search for holy ground. In the UCC we consider ourselves people on a journey. It is a journey of faith, and one in which God is still speaking.
What kind of journey are you on? Where have you been? Are you getting close to your destination? What hope, joy, or grief, are you carrying with you? Some journeys are longer than others -- not because of the miles or even because of the landscape, but because of the burdens. Sometimes the real path we are walking is vastly longer and more difficult than it looks. Sometimes holiness isn’t found in the destination - but in the journey itself. Sometimes ordinary places along the way become holy ground because we meet God there. Rather than the destination, sometimes holiness happens during the journey, in the everyday process, in the breaking of the bread.
Like our Jewish pilgrims, who had traveled to Jerusalem for a holy meal. Remember, the occasion of Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem was the holiday of Passover, when the city swelled to 6 times its size with pilgrims. Perhaps these two Jesus followers were returning to home after their holiday in the holy city. Perhaps they were going back to work, back to their responsibilities, back to their routine after what they had hoped would be a transformational moment.
Or perhaps they were fleeing in terror, in full retreat, trying to make sense of defeat, wondering how their hopes had been dashed. How had the one they thought would redeem Israel been lost to the conspiracy, violence and overwhelming power of the establishment?
I suspect this was one of the more difficult, long journeys, with spirits sunk and shoulders hunched. It was a seven-mile walk, a walk up and down the rocky landscape of the holy land, a walk you would notice in your ankles and calves. But it was also the walk of hopes in shambles. It was the walk taken through the valley of disillusionment. It was a walk burdened with despair, disappointment and shame.
“We had hoped…” they said. That’s a deeply sad statement.
We had hoped that mom would get better…
She had hoped for that job opportunity…
They had hoped for children…
He had hoped that person wouldn’t disappoint him…
What kind of dashed hopes do you carry with you on your journey? What do we do in our disappointment and despair on our journeys? Sometimes, we find God. Last week, Anton talked about how fellowship can ease a tortured soul, how sharing this journey together is the service we can provide to each other. And sometimes holy ground, a holy interaction with God, is found in a crisis. Sometimes it is found in relationship. It is sometimes when we feel most defeated that we become most vulnerable to the in-breaking of God. It is in our brokenness that God finds a way to break into our journeys, into our lives through other pilgrims and the Holy Spirit. We might be looking for that revelatory moment – that epiphany of experience - but the road to Emmaus shows us that anywhere can be holy ground when we have fellowship with other pilgrims.
These two pilgrims find themselves at a crossroads on the journey, when it’s hard to hope. They are bewildered. Despondent. Processing the turn of events, when they meet a stranger with a strange energy, and a strange question. They could have ignored his question and kept to themselves because it was the safer thing to do. They could have politely found something else to discuss. But instead, they share their despair and listen to the stranger Jesus with his unpacking of scripture and prophesy. Yet, that is not when the two disciples recognized God.
Sometimes God shows up in a crisis. But sometimes, God shows up after we return to the mundane, to our routine, to our Emmaus. It wasn’t in the approaching, or the teaching, or the prophesying when the two sojourners recognize Jesus. It was only in the things that he had done with them every day - breaking bread, our every day activity – that they realized he is with them.
At the second crossroads, they could have gone their separate ways. Gave a cordial goodbye and dismissed the conversation out of hand; but at the second crossroad in their journey, they asked him to stay. They show some unexpected hospitality. Hospitality is the foundation and the building block of the Christian faith. Hospitality and openness make transformation possible, especially when brought to us from the most unexpected places by the most unlikely people. They were hungry for his peaceful company, his strange energy, his prophetic insight. Isn’t it true that in our darkest moments, we need people to stay. We cherish that invitation. Share a meal with us. Share our lives with us. Open up the the power of fellowship and transformation through relationship. And there, in that sharing, that was where they recognized something holy. In the blessing and breaking of the bread - the act of service, hospitality, friendship, and relationship, their eyes are opened. Their despair was getting in the way, but God met then at the table. They thought the relationship was over, but now they can see that it’s not.
It was in the mundane, not the sacred, where they recognized God. It is in our every day activities on the journey that may be our closest encounter with God; in our visits with neighbors, in the ride we provide to a friend, in the tilling, seeding, and weeding care for the earth; in the nurturing of our children and the caring for an elderly parent that God appears. And it is in making coffee or preparing a meal for our beloved chosen family that we offer the blessings of God to each other.
One of the things I get to learn from you all when I sit down and listen to your stories in my one to ones is about your pivot points in life, your crossroads. About the small decisions that turned into life decisions. About the times when you were processing your grief and discovered wisdom, discovered love, or discovered God. About the times you invited someone to share a meal with you, and it turned into sharing your lives with each other. You can watch and wait for an epiphany, a revelation, but sometimes God is in the action rather than the revelation. Sometimes God is closer to us in our small acts of kindness and the small decisions like entering into conversation or inviting someone to dinner. Sometimes those will be the ones that changes our lives. Our crossroads in our journeys tend to define our lives, and our shared meals nurture those pathways.
At the end of their revelation, when the pilgrim disciples recognize themselves in the company of the Risen Christ, they run. Once their eyes were open, they ran back to the 12 “right then”. Even though the day was almost over. Even though they had taken care to have stranger Jesus stay with them because it was getting late. Even though it was the middle of the night. Even though it was dangerous. They ran, because they had to tell about their experience. They had to tell about what happened to them on the road. They had to tell the full story of what happened, not just that the Risen Christ appeared to them. but about how it affected them. They told how they had been walking on Holy Ground without knowing it.
Sometimes our crossroads are complete 180-degree pivots, sometimes they are small decisions, but often it is in the telling about them that we recognize where God came close to us on our journey. Listening to someone talk about their journey can also bring God closer to us. Our pivots help define our lives, and talking about it helps us recognize holy ground. Dialogue in fellowship help us figure out where God has called us in our lives, and in our church. We are with each other on the journey. God continues to abide with us in our routine responsibilities. It is in our actions that we realize Jesus stays with us, that God’s spirit abides with us throughout our journey, because we are pilgrims in fellowship with each other and with God’s love. The UCC is the church where God is still speaking; meeting us on our journeys with a few words and a blessing that helps open our eyes - through our Pilgrim Fellowship. May God always bring more pilgrims into our lives, and keep us open to fellowship with the strangers we meet along the way. Amen.