Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sermon: "The Road Not Taken"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 4, 2014
Luke 24:13-35

“The Road Not Taken”

It had all been one huge, colossal mistake.

We were chasing after a dream, calling ourselves disciples, following yet another Messiah who turned out to not be what he had claimed to be.
Three years ago, Cleopas and I were walking this very road,
between Emmaus and Jerusalem, when we first laid eyes upon him.
A man named Jesus, a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
He was average height, and a little on the skinny side if you ask me –
and at first glance he didn’t command much of a presence, yet he was surrounded by a crowd of people…and they were hanging on his every word.

Cleopas and I stopped to listen – because we were curious as to what this man could possibly be saying to draw such an attentive crowd.
This was our first mistake.
We never should have stopped.
We should have kept right on walking.
Better yet, we should have chosen an entirely different road to take to Jerusalem that day.
The winding seven-mile road we chose was longer than the main road, but rather than dodge the crowds we decided to take the road less traveled by.

And it had been one huge, colossal mistake.

If we had never taken that road, we would have never run across Jesus.
We wouldn’t have stopped to listen, we wouldn’t have gotten caught up in the tantalizing promises he made of a world in which simple, bottom-of-the-food-chain folks like us would one day be redeemed,
a world where we would be free of oppression and pain, a world where the humble would come to power and the powerful would be humbled.
If we had never taken that road we would not have cast our bags down right then and there - leaving the tools of our trade behind, leaving our families behind - and pledged to follow this man from city to city and to every village in between, to be disciples, to carry forward his message of the coming Kingdom of God.

But we did take that road.
And now, three years later we find ourselves walking that same road, between Jerusalem and Emmaus.
This time with shock and grief etched on our faces.
The only weight we carry on our backs this time is the overwhelming pain of having lost our friend, our teacher, our Messiah…our only hope of obtaining freedom and redemption.

As we walk along and encounter people on the road, the flow of every conversation gravitates towards the events of the last three days.
Did you hear about the man who was executed by the Romans?
The one who claimed to be the King of the Jews?
Did you see how he was impaled up on that cross like a common criminal while they taunted him, daring him to call upon his God to come down and save him?
Did you see how much he suffered, how he cried out in pain, as if the Son of God, the true Messiah would ever meet such a fate.
And did you hear how his followers had run off – out of fear for their lives, and because they were too ashamed to show their faces in public.

Little did these travelers know that WE were two of Jesus’ followers, here walking among them - with our backs turned towards Jerusalem, and our heads hung low in despair…..and dreading the taunting that awaits us when we return home. For we have been proven as fools for giving up all we had, to follow a fallen Messiah.   
I don’t blame Jesus.
How could I? 
He was an amazing man, with a good heart, and I loved him so. 
I think he truly believed that he was the Messiah, just as we did.
But something had obviously gone seriously wrong.

But some among us will not let his soul rest in peace, they are determined to squeeze whatever hope they can out his death.
Just this morning, some women in our group went to Jesus’ tomb and discovered that the stone had been rolled away and the body was missing! The women claimed angels had told them that Jesus was alive!

This is just wishful thinking, of course.
Resurrection of the dead is not possible.
But some will not believe this. They want to believe that Jesus still lives.
Because they cannot face the fact that we all have been duped and deceived, whether intentionally or not, and we are now left standing on our own, without a leader to save us, without even hope to sustain us.

And oh how we had hoped… how can I even begin to convey to you how much we had hoped?
We had hoped that he, who lived out his faith openly without fear of persecution, would lead our people to a life of freedom.
We had hoped that he, who spoke of putting away the sword, would lead our people to a life of peace.
We had hoped that he, who healed every kind of disease and deformity, would lead our people to a life of wholeness.
But these hopes were nothing but foolish wishes.
Those in power had shown us what happens to those who dare to dream of freedom, peace and wholeness.

Why do we insist on keeping this fantasy alive with tales of empty tombs and resurrected messiahs? Why must we keep rehashing this story amongst ourselves and with every passerby?

Even now, a stranger has come along side us and has asked what it is that we have been discussing. As Cleopas yet again recounts the events of the last three days, I’m noticing that there is something oddly familiar about this man standing before us, yet I cannot place his face.

The stranger is quoting from scripture, telling us that is was necessary-- necessary--for the Messiah to suffer and die, for this is the only way that the glory of God will truly be revealed.
What does he mean by this?
He reminds us of the words of Isaiah who said the Messiah would be a suffering servant…and by his bruises we will be healed.  [Isaiah 53:4-5]
The man tells us how death holds no power over God, and that our savior still lives, just as the women had said.

As I listen to this stranger speak, my heart begins to heave and burn inside my chest, yet I cannot explain why.

When we reach Emmaus, the stranger turns to go on his way and without hesitation we invite him to eat with us in our family home. It’s getting dark, and this road is not safe for a solitary traveler at night.

As we gather around the table, the stranger picks up the freshly baked bread we’ve placed before him.
With the skill of rabbi he blesses it and breaks it…and suddenly it becomes strikingly clear why this man has seemed so familiar….and why just being in his presence has made our hearts burn with joy from within.
I look across the table, and I am staring into the face of Jesus.
And in an instant he is gone.

And I am suddenly aware how fortunate it is that I chose to be on this road to Emmaus today, and how fortunate it was that I chose to walk this same road three years before.
To have chosen a different road, at either time, would have been a huge, colossal mistake.


The story we just heard is of course an embellished version of the gospel account of Jesus appearing on the road to Emmaus. Whenever I hear this gospel story I can’t help but also hear the familiar words of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Often when we step off the beaten path to see where the road less traveled by leads we’re left wondering if we’ve made a wise decision.
All the familiar signposts and landmarks that we’ve come to rely on are no longer there.
With no way to tell if we’re headed in the right direction, or if we’re just walking in circles, it’s tempting to want to turn back,
to return to what is familiar and known.

In our Gospel story we find our disciples longing for the lives they once had.
The lives they had given up based on an assurance, a promise, that the world they were living in had the potential to be very different.

This is the same promise that each of us embraces through the act of our baptism, in the moment we become a member of the body of Christ.
As Christians we pledge to change our lives.
To leave our old ways behind.
To embody the love of God and the teachings of Jesus, and in doing so, to change the world…to help build the Kingdom of God.

Now to be honest, the desire to be a trail blazing, world changing, embodiment of God’s radically inclusive love is not what draws many of us to the Christian church.
We come for communal support, for fellowship, for an inspiring message.
We come for the music, for the religious education we want for our children.
We come seeking refuge, respite, and redemption from a world that often beats us up and knocks us down on a regular basis.

The church, the body of Christ, can and does offer all of these things….
but we have to know that when we claim the name of Christian we sign up for all that trail blazing, world changing, embodiment of God’s radically inclusive love stuff as well.
It’s kind of a package deal.

But we know being a trail blazing Christian is not an easy road to walk.
Which is why very few of us do.
Most of us prefer to be over on the main road, along with everyone else…because we like the company, and because it’s less likely that we’re going to get lost or run into the kind of trouble that trail blazers often do.
It’s also much easier to find our way when we have someone directly in front of us to follow.

Which is why the disciples felt so lost when Jesus was taken from them.
They were willing to give up all they had to become disciples, but how could they be disciples of Jesus if Jesus was no longer there to lead the way?

Cleopas and his unnamed friend do have quite a tale to tell, even without the embellishment.
In Luke’s Gospel they are the first to see Jesus after his Resurrection.
They are the first to look into Jesus’ eyes and to feel hope flood back into their parched souls.
Just five minutes before encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus they were awash in tremendous hopelessness and grief.
And as anyone who has experienced such grief or hopelessness knows,
once you fall into that pit it is easy to convince yourself that you will never find your way out.

The disciple’s feet were carrying them forward, but their minds and their bodies had shifted into autopilot.
They were going through the motions, returning home to get on with their lives, with the rawness of Jesus’ death, just three days before, still tearing them up from the inside out.
The community of believers they had hoped to build was disintegrating around them – everyone was leaving, giving up, returning back to their former lives.
The leader they had hoped would carry them to freedom and redemption turned out to not be the Messiah they believed he would be.
Messiah’s are not supposed to die,
especially not at the hands of mere human beings.

But as we know, Jesus didn’t die.
And he appeared to the disciples just long enough to prove it.
As a stranger he walked with them, he talked with them, and he broke bread with them.    But the moment they recognized him, he disappeared.

Perhaps because it was in that moment that they realized that Jesus would always be with them.  They did not need to have him physically present to continue to live as a community of believers.
They demonstrated this when they invited this stranger in to eat with them. Even in their grief, their concern was with the safety and comfort of others.
Their hope was dying, their community was dying, but their faith - their love of God, and their love for their neighbor - was as strong as ever.

I can almost imagine Jesus casting a knowing smile their way just before he vanished from their sight.
As if to say, you don’t need to see me, you don’t need to touch me, you don’t need to hear me tell you what to do. You already know what to do.

Cleopas and his unnamed friend left Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday as forlorn disciples, fringe followers of an executed Messiah, and by the time their evening meal had ended back in Emmaus they had been transformed into preachers, teachers, and evangelizers of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The Resurrection is meant to have the same effect on us.
It’s meant to lift us out of the fog of grief or fear, the longing we have for what could have been, or what once was. To spur us to dare to imagine another way of being the body of Christ in the world.

But sometimes we get stuck on Good Friday and never get to Easter.
The stone is rolled away, but we choose to stay in the tomb, searching for the body, hoping to breath life back into it. Not realizing that Jesus is out there, alive and well, walking on the road that we are too afraid to take.

I don’t know about you, but I want to meet Jesus walking along that road.
I want to feel my heart burning inside of me like those disciples did.
I want to be able to say that I am a believer in the Resurrection,
not because I have seen the living Christ with my own eyes,
but because I have seen the living Christ reflected in the eyes of others.

 My hope is that one day

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


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