Once upon a time king who decided to set aside a special day to honor his greatest subject. When the big day arrived, there was a large gathering in the palace courtyard. Four finalists were brought forward, and from these four, the king would select the winner.
The first person presented was a wealthy philanthropist. The king was told that this man was highly deserving of the honor because of his humanitarian efforts. He had given much of his wealth to the poor.
The second person was a celebrated physician. The king was told that this doctor was highly deserving of the honor because she had rendered faithful and dedicated service to the sick for many years.
The third person was a distinguished judge. The king was told that the judge was worthy because he was noted for his wisdom, his fairness, and his brilliant decisions.
The fourth person presented was an elderly woman. Everyone was quite surprised to see her there, because her manner was quite humble, as was her dress. She hardly looked the part of someone who would be honored as the greatest subject in the kingdom. What chance could she possibly have, when compared to the other three, who had accomplished so much? Even so, there was something about her the look of love in her face, the understanding in her eyes, her quiet confidence.
The king was intrigued, to say the least, and somewhat puzzled by her presence. He asked who she was. The answer came: "You see the philanthropist, the doctor, and the judge? Well, she was their teacher!"
What does it take to create a distinguished life – a life that stands out? A life that is filled to the fullest with grace, faith and beauty? A life that has achieved its best? A good life, not necessarily a doctor, a philanthropist, a judge or a teacher. A life that is simply lived well and reaching out to others. A life where our eyes are opened to God, and God’s calling to us. We rarely reach these goals by ourselves. We need the guidance of others; those teachers in our lives who point us in the right direction and help bring out the best in us.
To reach the best we are called to live, our life takes on many journeys. We move to be closer – or move away – from family. We move for career purposes. We travel for educational or leisure reasons. Journeys can be straight forward – or they can be dangerous, confusing and it’s easy to get lost. At some point in our lives we embark on a journey of comprehensive moral or spiritual development -- to understand what is right and wrong, what God wants for us, how to serve others with gifts we have. At its essence a life lived well encompasses the journey of the soul. It is not a journey we can make alone. Just like the experienced sherpas who guide the climbers to the summit of Mount Everest, and other high, hard-to-reach peaks, so every journey, especially a journey of faith, needs teachers and guides. Cleopas and his companion, in our reading today without realizing it, were being guided by Jesus on the most important journey of their life.
The journey to Emmaus that we heard today is one of countless faith journeys we read of in the Bible. It is a journey of seven miles – from Jerusalem to Emmaus, just northwest of the Jewish capital. A disciple named Cleopas – never heard from before—and an unnamed companion – some presume to be his wife, are making the trek to Emmaus. They are never mentioned again – and neither is the village of Emmaus. However the journey of getting to Emmaus is a high point in the Easter narrative. It has been reflected upon and treasured over and over again by countless seekers down through the ages who want to live a good life, and learn how to call upon Jesus as their guide.
So Cleopas and his wife begin their journey. It is the evening of the resurrection, and they are discussing the murder of Jesus, and the report from the women who went to the tomb and saw a vision of angels who proclaimed that Jesus was risen. As they are talking, Jesus comes alongside them, yet in their sorrow and confusion they do not recognize him. It is hard for us to see the Lord walking with us when we are filled with despair and agitation. Still, Jesus is there, and he encourages the conversation. What are you discussing? What things? Then how dull you are -- Was it not necessary that the messiah should suffer these things to enter into his glory?
Jesus listened to them recount the resurrection story, and they are stuck. What do they make of the women’s story? They are confused and don’t know what to make of it. At this point Jesus begins to discuss the scriptures –the stories of Moses on down through the prophets to the present. What a conversation that must have been – Jesus interpreting the scriptures over a several hour walk! Think of it – a 2-3 hour bible study, led by Jesus! Jesus does what every good teacher does. He lays out the story. He helps his disciples connect the dots. He touches their sad and dejected hearts. Jesus teaches by reframing the scriptures so they can understand the ministry and mission of Jesus, his suffering, death and resurrection in light of the bigger picture of faith, a bigger picture which they are now a part of – in which we are now a part of. Jesus inspires them so that even after this long walk and it is getting late, they strenuously implore Jesus to stay with them longer. They want more; they want to draw closer to him. They implore Jesus to come to their home for a meal.
In their home, using language that is reminiscent of the last supper and the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus becomes host of the table, break and blesses bread – then and only then are their eyes opened to their guest’s true identity. In that discovery of Jesus’ identity the Lord vanishes from their sight. Were not our hearts burning with us? They exclaimed in wonder. They could not contain with happened. They immediately got up, made that return two hour journey to Jerusalem to proclaim the good news to the disciples.
This is the essence of a true good life, is it not? To enter the story of Jesus Christ, -- to have Jesus enter our hearts and weave our life story into his- that our hearts burn within us and we got to stop what we are doing and go out of our way to share it? It is a journey that combines the knowledge of scripture with love, friendship and community building. Because inside of each of us, whether we know it or not, there is a hunger to know what the purpose is of our lives, to have our eyes opened to the divine within us and around us. We have the desire to acknowledge we are on a sacred journey every moment of our lives. We too are on the way to Emmaus. We too are called to learn the scriptures and experience the connection to Jesus Christ. And whether we recognize it or not – Jesus is there, alongside us on our Emmaus journey, teaching and helping us connect the dots of our lives to the bigger picture around us. We get to Emmaus, our hearts burning, our eyes opened. It’s the most important journey we can make- and we are called to do so – over and over again.
One journey that has always inspired me is of the teacher, Annie Sullivan. Born of Irish immigrants, Annie became blind through illness. She was orphaned and abandoned by age 8, sent to an almshouse where within three months, her only living kin, her younger brother Jimmie, died. She faced difficulty learning. Surgery restored partial sight, and she fought hard to be educated – eventually becoming the valedictorian of her class at the Perkins School for the Blind. Her speech to her fellow students would be revealing: “Fellow-graduates: duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it…,” You have probably guessed, this Annie Sullivan is no other than the teacher/companion to Helen Keller, blind and deaf but one of the 20th centuries most renowned social and spiritual activists who became a lecturer and author. She learned at age 7-- through her teacher’s efforts to communicate through sign language. Thus were two lives were intertwined for 49 years – because Annie Sullivan was faithful to her journey, the special place God had called her to, and worked hard for months to figure out the way to help Helen learn. In turn, Helen Keller became a teacher to millions of people around the world, writing at one point,” "I know that life is given us so that we may grow in love. And I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the color and fragrance of the flower, the Light in my darkness, the Voice in my silence."
The Emmaus journey is a reminder to us of how God leads us throughout our lives, through unknown teachers and guides, so we can learn to see life and our challenges through a spiritual lens. There is a saying, “When we are ready, the teacher appears.” So this happens every day – in the manifold ways Jesus would touch us: through the scriptures, opportunities, people, all the elements of creation, working in our hearts to bring about a shift, to help us realize the story is not done, a new chapter is starting, and God is still editing our lives – and our hearts warm over and over again, and our eyes are opened over and over again as Jesus leads us togrow in spiritual maturity
The names of Cleopas and his wife are unfamiliar to us. Their lives, connected to those early Christ followers, makes them a part of our story. Our story is found in theirs. Let us pause and see the connection: The questions and conversation, the transformation of sadness to joy. And go forth to join others on their journey. Cleopas and his wife are also models of faith for us as we set out for Emmaus. We try to make sense of who Jesus is, to understand the Bible and it’s connection to Jesus, and how we are called to grapple with it all until Jesus opens our eyes and hearts to his love, to his mission of salvation.
Wherever we are on the road to Emmaus, even in the midst of confusion and questions or doubt, know that the Teacher is there. Walk the journey and let the Teacher speak, the Teacher who has taught so many. Let your hearts burn within, for your story is being revised by the divine author and guide, and we will be sent forth to tell the story, to make a difference – to forge a journey so our life that will stand out – because of the love and our witness to all that is made known to us in the journey and in the breaking of the bread. Amen.