When my sister-in-law, Dr. Jane Case-Smith died, her legacy as a giant in the field of Occupational Therapy was honored at Ohio State University, with the organization of an annual 5k Run, Walk and Roll to help fund a special scholarships in her name. Jane an avid runner and did five miles a day in addition to her demanding work load and family obligations. Somehow, she found time for it all. Key to her secret? Something like: Go to bed at 9 get up at 4. Sorry, that’s not happening! At least not right now.
Running, or walking, is more than a health practice. It is also a mental practice as well as a spiritual practice. Many great writers have extoled the importance of walking, not just for its health benefits but for its power to move the spirit and clear the mind.
Jesus’ ministry was a walking, itinerant ministry. Scholars estimated that Jesus on average, walked 15-25 miles a day. In our day and age when getting to and from the subway or driveway is the extent of most of our exercise, we forget that not too long ago, the average American walked 11 miles a day – to visit a neighbor, go to school or church or go shopping in the nearest town.
Walking takes us places we don't expect to go to, leads us to people we don't expect to meet, and we find ourselves in chance encounters we hadn’t planned on. Sometimes we walk quietly together. Sometimes we walk and talk, discussing the events of the day. Today we hear how Jesus initiates a conversation with two of his disciples, Cleopas, and most scholars assume his wife, walking to Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem.
There could be many reasons these disciples didn’t recognize Jesus: because they were looking through their own doubt, as they discussed their own interpretation of the scriptures. They doubted the message of the women who said that angels had told them that Jesus was alive. If these two had believed that message they would have gone to Galilee as the angel reminded them. They would have stayed with the other disciples to see what was going to happen next, but they didn’t. They were on their way home, disappointed that Jesus hadn’t been the Messiah, disillusioned that the kingdom he talked about hadn’t come and filled with doubt about him being alive.
What often keeps us from seeing Jesus at work in our lives and present in our world is our own sense of disappointment, doubt and defeat. When our own lives don’t turn out the way we hoped they would, our disappointment leads us to ask, where is Jesus in all this? When we see violence, injustice and persecution in the world we become disillusioned and wonder, is the power of Christ at work in the world? Jesus often seems like a stranger to us. Sadly, the church can make Jesus a stranger to others.
As they walk home this stranger accompanies them, listens to their hurt and disappointment. He is accessible and interested in connection. He listens more than he speaks, but when Jesus does speak, he repeats the very teaching and tradition that the two have found lacking. He speaks of the very religious reality they are walking away from. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus the stranger, interprets the scriptures, strangely warming their hearts as they listen.
But something interesting is happening here. Consider that word, stranger. The Greek word in the Bible is PAROIKOS. Elsewhere it the Bible the same word is also translated as immigrant, an exile, an alien or a resident alien. Imagine Jesus – the exile, an alien, the immigrant – the stranger in our midst, who opens our eyes to God’s word, God’s presence in the world.
PAROIKOS also gives us the word parish – a common word used among many Christian denominations for a congregation. Isn’t that what the church should be: a community, an intentional family, a motley gathering to include all peoples: from all backgrounds, differences, to include strangers, the outcasts, church exiles and “aliens” like Jesus the stranger, the Paroikos, who walks in our midst.
Back in our Emmaus story. Look at how that first parish emerges. The travelers urged Jesus strongly to stay with them. Time spent on the road, telling stories, turning stranger into friend.
So, Jesus went into their home, not as a stranger, but as an esteemed friend and guest. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Just as he had done so many times on so many roads at so many places. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him and Jesus vanished.
I believe the Emmaus story is a critical scripture for us. Because it calls us to see Jesus in the stranger in our midst. It invites us to walk with the unseen Jesus. It helps us turn strangers, exiles, the different, into friends through walking and talking about sacred stories, those concepts most sacred to us.
So I would like to challenge us to a spiritual 5K run, walk or roll. To begin a new journey together. To set aside significant time to explore the scriptures this year. To enter the unknown. To pray together for our community and our future. As we partake in this spiritual journey may the unseen Jesus led us to become an Emmaus Church – a place open to the stranger, to spiritual exiles, where the word is encountered, Jesus is found, bread is broken, hearts are warmed, and we can celebrate this ancient Irish saying
We saw a stranger yesterday.
We put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place.
And with the sacred name of the Triune God
We were blessed, and our house,
Our cattle and our dear ones.
As the lark says in her song:
Often, often, often goes the Christ
In the stranger’s guise.