Grief, Remembering, and Help from God

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April 26, 2020

The Road to Emmaus…This is perhaps a familiar bible story. The gospel of Luke uniquely uses journey or going from place to place as a motif. Luke communicates narrative but uses journey as a literary device to emphasize theology, not history or geography.  

So, when we hear a journey as a part of the narrative, in Luke, it signals us to pay attention and to ask some questions about its deeper meaning. 

I appreciated what Bishop Benfield said about scripture Easter Day, he said that it is for then and there, but Scripture is also always for here and now – a message in our context, for us today.

In our reading, we have two people walking and Jesus joins them. They are some of the “rest” or “them” – followers of Jesus but not inner circle. They have likely been in Jerusalem for the Passover and quite aware of Jesus’ “hour” coming, though not understanding what it meant. 

So, they are going home. Like so many after the Passover. And they are shattered. Their hope is gone. Jesus is dead, some women have told a story about angels and an empty tomb but there is no body, no Jesus. 

They are grieving together. Talking as they walk, recounting what happened – as we often do with a tragedy. Today in our pandemic it would be something like, this is how the sickness started, this is when the ambulance came and no one could go with them to the hospital, this is when it all went south…remembering.

Remembering is a power thing. To remember is to re put together. It helps us. It helps us to picture it, to say it, to feel it, to know it. To make it real.

As they are remembering together, suddenly Jesus shows up and they do not recognize him. It could be a product of their grief on an emotional level. It could be as simple as being outside of their plausibility structure: Jesus is dead, so Jesus would not be here with us. Or could it be that for these two of the multitudes, Jesus was so draped and cloaked in their expectations of him that they really could not see him. 

Jesus walks up and hears them and says: what are you talking about? And Cleopas says, I imagine kind of rudely to…God: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place…?” Jesus answers: “What things?” In Greek, a single word: Poia

Levine & Witherington in their wonderful commentary on Luke, interweaving Jewish and Christian scholarship, describe this encounter, and I think articulate it as we see it, but they kind of also calls it out on the carpet. They say Jesus’ prompt response is a literary convention for the reader – now remember, Luke was written likely more than 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Folks reading this gospel from the get-go know the story of Jesus’ resurrection. The readers could answer Jesus’ question. 

In the narrative Poia halts the walk: “They stood still looking sad.” This encounter has stopped them in their tracks. They looked “sad.” Levine & Witherington further offer: “we readers know that underneath the sadness or anger of the two on the road is comedy; in both senses of the term: the scene becomes amusing to readers who know the questioner’s secret identity; and the scene has, as classical comedy does, a very happy ending.” What a surprising description…comedy.

In the narrative Cleopas takes 3 verses to go from talking about Jesus to talking about themselves. “We had hoped…,” we are “astounded.”

I think in our grief commonly held right now; we all have a propensity to do that. To make it about us. “We hoped, we wanted, we are inconvenienced, we are not getting our way in social distancing…” We see the anger of grief in protests in several states right now…and I do not mean that protests are bad…they are a current and historic expression of legitimate need and want. But they are an expression of not having…and isn’t that what grief is – not having…wanting…

But maybe we do not read this as a comedy, maybe we read this narrative and think how sad -  these two deeply grieving people - who do not know the full story…but we begin to realize as we pay attention to the interaction, that they are kind of ticked off and a little self-centered…sounds like pandemic culture a bit…like grief, like what happens to all of us.

Once we see this, we understand Jesus’ kind of rough response to them. They pour out their hearts and Jesus says: “Oh How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe…” Ouch. These two are sad, angry, grieving and Jesus does not coddle them. Calls them fools, slow of heart... 

Grief is hard and sometimes we are fools. One of the things about people who are fools is that they - or we - think more of ourselves that we ought. We think we know the whole story. 

But what is great in this narrative is Jesus goes on with them – this is a slow unfolding – they are walking 7 miles. There is no hurry to their grief. Jesus walks with them and opens the scriptures to them. 

Not only Jesus stayed with them, but they stayed with Jesus. Chances are others were on this road and walking…they could have huddled in with others. Taken the awkward pause and regrouped and gotten away from Jesus.

As they stay together Jesus informs their remembering, their re-putting back together in grief. 

We see today through the story of these two companions on their way to Emmaus, that Jesus meets us in our foolishness and helps us fill in details, to gain understanding as we remember. Thank God. 

And here, as they understand their hearts burn within them. 

We are in a corporate time of grief and we may make it about us, like it was about Cleopas and his companion, but it is not about us. It is about the people in ICU and the front-line workers, about the dead, the dying, the grieving.

We are hitting a tipping point in this crisis. Our decisions matter. Let us not be foolish or slow of heart concerning the gravity of the situation we are in. If we are foolish, maybe in 30 years there will be a story about us, and as a literary device it will be a comedy - where the readers know the punch line. 

Let us be humble enough, like Cleopas and his companion, in our grief to take in more information and fill in details.

Let us also be mindful of what this narrative illustrates to us in our social distancing. 

These two travelers are isolated. And before they return to community, they experience revelation of God. The story is familiar, and it may be easy to read that this happened through taking communion together. But be careful. Jesus broke the bread and poof - disappeared – there is no description of partaking together. As they return to community – in a bit of haste: “That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem” (another 7-mile walk) …they found their companions. They shared their story – they tell of the revelation of God that came not from sharing bread together, but in listening to scripture being opened to them on the road. They were walking with Jesus when it happened: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road.”

Take courage, though we cannot all share communion together. We can experience God in our various forms in social isolation -Jesus walks with us - and when we come together, we will tell our stories and break bread and share it together. 

Let us be careful with our grief, let us be patient, and let us anticipate things getting better – because they will.