Presence, absence, stillbirth, resurrection | 4 May 2014


Text: Luke 24:13-35

The most difficult part of preaching a sermon on the Road to Emmaus story isn’t finding something to say, but choosing what not to say. The passage has so many entry points and sub-themes that it can be a little overwhelming choosing which part to zoom in on and which to keep at the periphery. This is exactly as the gospel writer intends it to be. This story occurs in the final chapter of Luke and serves as something of a summary of Luke’s entire gospel message. It’s his way of bringing his message to a climax and conclusion, and it’s also the gospel itself in miniature: We are on a journey, confused and disoriented. Jesus comes and walks alongside us, only we don’t recognize him for who he truly is. The scriptures are opened and illuminated. Hospitality is extended around a meal, the bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given. We, the travelers, have our eyes opened to Christ, are transformed, and go and share it with others.

There it is, the gospel in one narrative sweep.

Today we are welcoming five people into membership in our congregation. It’s a day I’ve been looking forward to for a while and a time of gratitude and celebration for all of us. A chance for us to remember our own baptismal and gospel identity.

Of all the things that could be said about this passage as it relates to who we are as a church, I want to focus on what initially might feel like a bit of a downer.

Emmaus Road is a resurrection story, taking place on the same day that the women visited the tomb and found it empty. Easter Sunday. “Now on that same day,” the story begins. These two travelers who had been followers of Jesus are walking from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus, about a seven mile trip. Perhaps some of you commuted about that far to church this morning. So if you want to have a biblical experience today, you can try walking home. Walking away from Jerusalem means they are walking away from where all the action has happened over the last while, away from the other disciples, away from the women who came and told them that the tomb was empty.

­We might tend to think of Jesus’ resurrection simply as the coming back to life of a man who was killed. He was dead, and that was a bad thing, and now he’s alive, and that’s a good thing. But it seems that what is happening on the Road to Emmaus is a little more subtle and interesting than that. The story is just as much an experience of the absence of Jesus as it is the presence of Jesus. Jesus is absent both at the beginning of the journey, and at the end of story, after that delightful and somewhat baffling detail about him vanishing from their sight as soon as they recognized him when he shared the bread with them. The story is framed with this absence. That’s the downer part of this. But what these travelers comprehend in between, and what transforms them, is how to live with that absence in such a way that is overflowing with life.

When they are first joined by this third person, Luke tells us something that the pair does not yet recognize, that this is Jesus. And there’s this haunting line that these two disciples say to their travel companion after he asks them what they had been talking about on the road. After describing Jesus of Nazareth as a powerful prophet, and saying how we was handed over to be killed by the religious leaders, the disciples say, “but we had hoped…that he was the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. Because of this Jesus we had dared ourselves to hope.

Because of how Jesus related with people, he had opened people up to their deepest desires. They had discovered longings within themselves they perhaps didn’t even know were there, glimpses of how rich life could be. Hoping for the redemption of Israel was not an unusual hope for Jews of the day, but to actually go there in your heart and discover the depth and intensity of that longing is another thing.

The closest thing I have to compare to this in my life so far is the stillbirth of our daughter Belle. At the beginning of 2009 Abbie and I found out that we were expecting a third child. This was most unexpected. We hadn’t been thinking this was in our future. But the home pregnancy test came up positive each time. One of the things that made this especially tricky was that the two bedroom house we were living in was barely big enough for the four of us. We would need more space. And so we began looking for a bigger house. This served as a nice metaphor for the space that we began making in our hearts, in our thoughts, in our lives for this new family member. Abbie had the added task of making space in her body. It just so happened that a house three doors down had been newly rehabbed and was just up for sale, so we bought it and made what will almost certainly be the easiest move of our life. No moving truck, hardly any boxes. A crew from church showed up and literally took the clothes hanging in the closets of one house, and walked over and hung them up in the closets of the other house. We moved out and moved in at the same time.

We were all moved less than three months into the pregnancy, but there were starting to be signs that this might not be a normal pregnancy. Although the baby was developing normally, Abbie went into early labor at 22 weeks. Belle Ruthann Miller was stillborn May 21, 2009. Having been a part of two live births, with squirming screaming babies, the stillness and the silence of this birth was deafening. I hadn’t realized how much space we had created in our lives for this child until that space was filled not with a live presence, but with an absence. One of the connections we made with her first name, Belle, was a quote we had come upon by Annie Dillard. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she writes: “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted up and struck.” This child had struck our lives, and was resonating in that empty space that enables the bell to hold its sound.

One of the important pieces for me in working through the grief was realizing that this space that had been opened up was not going to go away. It was going to remain there, and remain open. And that this was the way it had to be. It was present as an absence, and that absence carried a quality and a power that wouldn’t have been a part of our life had Belle never been conceived. She wasn’t there either way, but if we hadn’t been anticipating the possibility of her existence, the space wouldn’t have opened up in the way that it did. Belle is present to us, but present as an absence. And her presence in that absence is a very alive space. It is a space that has deeply affected the way I relate to the world. It feels as if there is now more room for other’s suffering and more room for the brokenness of the world in me because of that space. And whoever enters that space is temporarily occupying the place of Belle and my affection for her. Because that’s her space.

This presence as absence may be kind of like those of you who have been around in this congregation for a long time and have had dear friends move away or die, or children graduate and move on. For me and other new people, we don’t experience that as an absence. We don’t even know that they’re not here. But you hold that absence within you and might even be conscious of it every time you come to church. So this community carries that greater kind of spaciousness for you, and part of that spaciousness is experienced as absence. And the longer us newbies stick around, the more we share in that.

This may or may not match your own experience of grief and loss. But it’s the closest thing I have experienced to the meaning and the power of resurrection. When the gospel writers describe these resurrection appearances, there is often this dynamic of them not recognizing the person as Jesus and then finally recognizing that this is indeed Jesus. Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener. The disciples don’t recognize the voice when someone on the shore tells them to cast their nets on the other side of their boat. What the Emmaus story seems to be saying is that the life and ministry and power of Jesus does indeed create this huge space in the world that was not there before. Jesus of Nazareth opened up and occupied a place where the deepest hopes and most pure aspirations of humanity dwell. He spoke of himself as the Son of Humanity, the Human Being, the one who teaches us how to be truly human, truly ourselves. Our forgiving, merciful, compassionate, unified-with-God self that has been so covered over with all of the other things we have made ourselves out to be. Jesus taught us to discover and welcome that space because he lived within that space for us.

And then he was gone – leaving that wide open, empty space that would not be there had it not been for his life. He is present to us as an absence. And these two disciples on the road to Emmaus feel that absence in the depth of their being. “But we had hoped…” They start with that absence at the beginning of their journey, and at the end of their journey, after they have arrived in Emmaus, invited Jesus to their table, watched him take, bless, and break, and give the bread, he is all of a sudden absent again. The absence persists. But that absence has now taken on an entirely different power and quality.

The place of Jesus, the space of the Christ, is not a dead absence, but utterly and eternally alive, pulsing with life. That’s the place out of which God redeems the world. Luke will end his gospel by saying that Jesus was taken up into heaven in front of their eyes, which is to say definitively that the flesh and blood person of Jesus is no longer with us, that specific form that God took no longer walks this earth; but we live as resurrection people. The believers, the people, the church, has this space of Christ, which gives us an entirely new way of relating to the world. Because whoever now walks into that space occupies the place of Christ. Jesus gave his listeners a heads up on this when he said in Matthew 25 that whenever you visit someone in prison, or share your food with the hungry, whatever you do to the least of these you are doing to Christ. As if Jesus is now morphing into a thousand different forms; whoever comes into that space that he opened up.

This might sound really neat and wonderful, but it’s actually quite painful and difficult. This is a loss that we’re talking about here. To accept a Christian identity is to carry with you a grief for a hope yet unfulfilled, a world not fully redeemed. It’s to walk around with this hole in your life and to accept that Christ is present to us as an absence of what we most dearly long for. I’ll try it again: Christ is present to us as an absence of what we most dearly long for. It’s to acknowledge that whenever two of us are walking on the road, there is this emptiness beside us, an incompleteness, and then anyone, friend or stranger, can come along and occupy that emptiness and assume the place of Jesus. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them,” Jesus taught.

Every congregation that is truly alive, and awake to resurrection, lives with this hole, this incompleteness.  This may not be how we like to think of ourselves, but I’m not sure there’s another way to be in this life. The church isn’t the place that fulfills all of our desires and makes us whole. If you haven’t found that out yet, just stick around a little while longer. Instead, the church is the place that holds and honors all of our unfulfilled longings, and names that space Christ. Being a welcoming community means that we are constantly aware that we are not yet complete. That we still await redemption. And that whoever walks into that empty space among us is walking into the place of Christ and brings a piece of our redemption with them.

So to our five new members this morning – Joanna, Paul, Sharon, Adam, and Martha: Maybe you didn’t know what you were getting yourselves into, but by entering this congregation and joining yourselves to us, you are occupying the place the Christ. You’ve heard of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but you are now a part of the Occupy Christ movement. You are the strangers who become Jesus for us. And in becoming a part of us, you are joining us in our grief, and our longing for redemption. And you are joining us in our joy when we see glimpses of this redemption at work. Each of you will have a brief chance to share what drew you here. After your affirmations and our blessing of you we will share in Communion together, and you will serve us the bread and cup, like Jesus did to his travel companions at Emmaus, and we will receive it from you as if from the very hands of Christ.