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The Road to Emmaus — Finding the Deeper Why

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:36 pm on Sunday, April 30, 2017

A sermon preached on April 30th, 2017 based upon Luke 24:13 – 35

Jeff and kids

The most heart wrenching line of the story we just heard is when the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus say to the stranger who came to walk beside them, “We had hoped…”  For many people, the sense of hopelessness expressed here often characterizes how they experience life these days.  The recent presidential election turned on the hopelessness felt by poor white folks who perceive little in the way of opportunities in the rust belt, which isn’t really much different from the hopelessness felt by poor blacks – especially poor black young men — in the inner city.

But you don’t have to live in the rust belt or the impoverished inner city to feel hopelessness.  Here in the relative comfort of suburban middle class community the stunning number of people dealing with life threatening opiate addictions can be seen as “the canary in the mine” alerting us to an epidemic of despair hidden beneath the surface.  I suspect most of us have, at times, known something of that same hopelessness.  Perhaps some of us feel it now.

A psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl wrote a book in the 1950s entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which he challenged the prevailing psychoanalytic theories of Freud and others who came before him that claimed our deepest drives as human beings are for pleasure or for power. No, Frankl argued, our deepest drive is for a sense of meaning to our life.   He quoted the philosopher Nietzsche, “The person who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how’.”  A why – a reason to live for, a purpose, a meaning.  Having a ‘why’ is directly related to having hope.  There is something I am living for that involves at least in part some hope for the future.

In the first half of our lives, the why of our life tends to revolve around ourselves.  Our purpose is to establish a place for ourselves in this world – to acquire an education, a vocation, a reputation, money, a home, a family, etc. — to acquire “happiness” in the usual sense of the word.   As time passes, we experience success or failure — or some combination of the two — in achieving our ‘why.’

It was Oscar Wilde who famously said, “There are only two tragedies in life:  one is to not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.” The point being, if we manage to get what we set out to achieve early on in life, we discover, strangely, that it isn’t enough.  Like the 1969 Peggy Lee song we ask: “Is that all there is?”  An emptiness arises — the “why” for which we had been living isn’t deep enough to hold up as time passes.

Part of this disillusionment involves our inherent vulnerability in life.  To be human is to be fragile, and stuff inevitably happens along the way that breaks our heart, or scares the living day lights out of us.  In the light of such occurrences, we ask, “What does it matter to have been a success in acquiring the things of this world if experiences like this can rock the very foundation of my very existence?”

We live in a culture that gives little support for the quest for a deeper “why” – the deeper meaning.   The why of life is assumed to be what is usually understood to be the “American dream” – to achieve a greater level of economic prosperity than that of our parents.  When the possibility or even the probability of that occurring seems to be reduced, what then?  A deeper “why” must be found.

So either way, in success or in failure, the quest for a deeper meaning to life arises as times passes, but for some it can occur very early on in life.

It is a bit of a clique to say, “Life is a journey,” but it is true.  In the course of our lives we move somewhere.  Life isn’t stationary, static.  But when we speak of life being a journey, what matters is not where we get to in a geographical sense, or in the end, how successful we are at that first stage of  fulfilling the first “why.”  The thing that matters is 1) What happens inside us along the way.  What kind of person do we become?  Do we become more capable of loving? And 2) the impact that our lives have on other people.  Do we make a positive difference?

So the story this morning lends itself to the “life is a journey” metaphor, because at the start of the story the two disciples are quite literally setting off on a journey.  They are beginning a seven mile hike to a little village known as Emmaus.  At the outset of their journey they find themselves in this place of deep despair and hopelessness.  They don’t seem to have been two of “the twelve”; one is named “Cleopas”, a name we haven’t heard before.  The other, curiously is never named.  It is almost as if Luke is inviting us to place ourselves in the story as Cleopas’ unnamed companion.

There hopelessness has to do with the fact that they thought they had found “the why” to which the rest of their lives would be devoted: to follow Jesus, who they had hoped would redeem Israel, throw off the Roman oppressors, and cast out the corrupt religious authorities.  But instead he got nailed to a cross.

So now they seem to be all about escaping.  We are experts in escapism in this country; an endless assortment of ways to distract our attention.  They want to go off on their own and get away from the place where their hearts were broken.

A stranger comes walking alongside them, and we know the stranger is actually Jesus, but they don’t recognize him.  At first he seems almost irritating:  how could he have been in Jerusalem these past few days and not know what has taken place there?  The stranger listens for a time as they pour out their disappointment to him – how they had thought Jesus was the messiah – the savior — but now it is obvious that he wasn’t. There’s some confusion too:  some of the women had come back from the tomb with a story about a vision of angels, but you know how carried away women can get with their imaginations.

At this point the stranger breaks in with a bit of a rebuke for their failure to pay attention to their Bibles, and he proceeds to teach them the scriptures they thought they knew — how it all pointed to a messiah who would suffer like this.

This part of the story always confused me, because apart from a passage in Isaiah speaking of a “suffering servant,” there isn’t much that explicitly refers to a savior who comes to suffer and die.  A great New Testament scholar named NT Wright helped me here, pointing to the freedom with which God created us.  He suggests Jesus said something like this to the two: “All through the Scriptures God allows God’s people to get into a real mess – slavery, defeat, despair, exile in Babylon in order to do new things.  Isn’t that what the prophets and the psalms were about as well?  Passage after passage in which Israel is promised that God will rescue them from slavery and sin, and sometimes even from death – but first they must go through it enough to get to the other side. Well, supposing that’s what had to happen to the messiah as well?”

Slowly over the course of their walk with this stranger the two begin to consider the possibility that there was a meaning to what has happened after all.  Later they will describe it as “their hearts began to burn within them,” which is to say that the “why” to their lives began to arise once more within them, albeit in a fragile form.    The dark cloud of hopelessness began to lift a bit.

They reach Emmaus and the house in which the two disciples intend to stay the night.  The sun is setting, but the stranger appears quite ready to just keep on heading down the road.  He will continue unless they choose to take some initiative.

Interesting:  they have been blessed by grace in the form of this grace-filled stranger who has come to walk beside them, who through his bible instruction has brought light into their darkness.  They did nothing to orchestrate this visitation of grace.   It just fell in their lap, so to speak.  A gift.  But now the question arises of what will they do in response to this gift?  There is a choice to be made, and to choose not to choose is to choose, which is to say, to let the stranger just head on down the road without considering the possibility that they could invite him in, is, in itself, a choice.

What would have happened if they hadn’t invited him to stay the night with them?  In all likelihood, the possibility arising within their hearts that there was a deeper “why” that made sense of what had happened would have gradually faded away.

Fortunately, they make the right choice – they invite him in, which is not only the right, “hospitable” thing to do but also an expression of gratitude for the grace they have received.

Then, as they sit down to the table to share supper, the guest suddenly takes over the role of host, taking bread which he blesses, breaks and offers them to eat – and the familiarity of this action suddenly opens their eyes, and they recognize Jesus, and then — he vanishes.  He’s gone!  But in that moment the possibility that had been arising within their hearts is permanently confirmed.

The why they now hold as their reason for living  is a very deep one indeed, because it is one that is undeterred by suffering — in fact, suffering is strangely connected to this “why” since the one who they now know to be alive is the very one who suffered in love for them.Recall the words quoted by Viktor Frankl.  “The one who has a why to live can endure any how.” Immediately the two do something that just a few moments earlier would have seemed a very difficult thing to do indeed.  They get up and run seven miles in the dark (where bandits often lay in wait) in order to share what they have experienced to their brothers and sisters back in Jerusalem.

In the “life is a journey” metaphor, the two have come full circle.  They end up where they started, and yet they are all together different inside, and they have made a real difference in the lives of the others to whom they have brought words of great encouragement.

Viktor Frankl’s psycho-analytic theory centered on the belief that a human’s deepest need is for meaning, and that psychotherapy that ignores this quest isn’t getting at the most important thing, would probably have gotten largely ignored, and his book never would have sold millions of copies, except for the story behind the theory.

In 1942 Frankl was a successful, respected young psychiatrist in Vienna, Austria.  He had succeeded in a very big way in the first “why of life.”   His specialty had involved working with people in despair and hopelessness – people who felt an inclination to take their own life — and it was out of this work that he developed his theory about the search for meaning as the centerpiece of psychotherapeutic healing.

And then the Nazis arrested him and his whole family – his parents, wife, and children — and took them to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.   Because he was a bright and physically strong young man he was useful to the Nazis in their brutal labor camp, but his family wasn’t.  So upon arrival at the camp Viktor was separated from his family.  He knew their fate — that they were to be taken to the gas chambers.

Frankl had managed to bring with him his thesis manuscript — the book that represented his life’s work, containing the psychotherapeutic theory he had worked to hard to develop – but now the book was taken from him and burned. — the defining work of his life destroyed.  Everything was taken from him, his family, the identity and profession he had worked so hard to build.  His head was shaved and he was given prison clothes to wear – clothes worn by a previous inmate, recently sent to the gas chamber.

He was at the point of utter despair; how could he go on?  He put his hand in the pocket of the jacket he had been given to wear, and there he found a scrap of paper.  Upon examination he saw that it was a page ripped from a Jewish prayer book, left there by the previous Jew to wear those clothes.  It contained the prayer that is at the very heart of Judaism: “Here O Israel:  The Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.”

The scrap of paper in his pocket was a kind of grace that pointed the way to God, the very source of all real meaning.  It was a gift that demanded a response from him — hat he would embrace his life in the concentration camp as an opportunity to live out the truths about which he had written.

At the core of his philosophy was this central affirmation about human freedom:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It is in embracing this freedom that meaning – the why of life – is found.  He marveled at those few prisoners who, in the harshest of conditions, chose to live a life of service – encouraging his fellow prisoners, sharing their last scrap of bread. They had found a deeper why to live for.  Others, however became all the more self-absorbed.  Frankl wrote, “In the concentration camps, in that living laboratory, we saw some of our comrades behaving like pigs and others behaving like saints. Both alternatives are hidden in a person; and which will be realized depends on decisions and not on conditions”.

He goes on to write, “Our generation is a realistic generation because we have learned what a human being really is. When all is said and done, man is that same creature who invented the gas-chambers of Auschwitz; but he is also that being who walked upright into those chambers with the prayer, “Here O Israel:  The Lord Our God The Lord Is One,” on his lips.

For Frankl, the mysterious discovery of the scrap of prayer left behind from the man who had gone to the gas chambers clinging in his heart to the to what the verse of scripture pointed to, was a gift of grace.  And he chose in his freedom, to respond to that grace.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus also were given such a grace – in the midst of the horror of what human beings are capable – the beloved Leader – nailed to the cross —  a stranger came alongside them, and in interpreting the Scriptures, gave them a new way of seeing their lives, a bit of hope.  And they said yes by inviting him into their homes, and then their hearts.

This is what I would leave you with.  Pay attention to the gifts of grace that fall unexpected in your lap.  They come in a myriad of forms, but however they come, they are a blessing.  And having taken note of this gifts of grace, consciously choose to say yes to this grace – to offer yourselves as an expression of God’s grace in this world to others.

We are about to sing the greatly popular hymn, “In the Garden.”  I have a love/hate relation to this hymn.  I love the tune – how easy it is to give yourself over to it in singing — and I enjoy the rich imagery.  But on the other hand, it has often struck me a little over the top in sentimentality.  I researched a little something about the author of the hymn.  His name is C. Austin Miles, and he was a druggist turned hymn writer from, of all places Pitman, New Jersey.  They hymn arose from a flight of imagination as he put himself back there at the garden of the tomb where Mary Magdalene came in her grief to be astonished by her risen Lord, calling her by name.  His granddaughter wrote that the song was written “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in Pitman, New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden.”

For me, it is the final verse that redeems this hymn from sentimentality. “But He bids me go; through the voice of woe, His voice to me is calling.” The song acknowledges the powerful voice of woe in this world – the pervasive sense of hopelessness – and yet asserts a voice calling through the woe – the voice of Jesus calling us to follow him, to find our meaning in serving him in every person we meet.

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