I had the awesome opportunity to preach at First Presbyterian Church in Arkadelphia, Arkansas this morning. The text was Luke 24:13-35, otherwise known as the Road to Emmaus.
When I drive away from my home for the year, Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center, I immediately encounter a six-mile long road. This road actually bears a closer resemblance to a tunnel. The trees, dense with bright green leaves, reach toward the sky and arch overhead. Twisting down the road at forty-five miles an hour, you are enclosed in an impenetrable green wall. It was this vision of green that greeted the other Young Adult Volunteers and I on our arrival back in early September. Then fall came, and this green wall became a tunnel of every imaginable hue of red, orange, and yellow. When a particularly heavy rainfall left the trees totally bare, everything was grey and dead. I disliked the gloominess of early winter. But there was a gift in the dreariness I hadn’t anticipated. Without the leaves creating a wall, suddenly the woods were transparent. I could see hundreds of yards away into the woods. I noticed the terrain extend out and then slope up to form hills I hadn’t even known where there. There was even a barn I had never noticed before. Where there was once an opaque green wall, for the first time my surroundings had become visible. But after four months, the seasons continued. Spring came. Buds appeared on the trees. After four months of grey everything was rushing into bloom, the colors unexpectedly and alarmingly vibrant. I had forgotten trees could be pink and purple. Beautiful though it was, awareness crept in that I soon wouldn’t be able to see how the forest stretched away on every side of me. Soon the barn would be hidden from sight. I found myself longing for the bare trees again, to see the barn on the hill and the expanse of the woods. I found myself reluctant to enter into spring. I wanted to understand my surroundings, to see the gifts of the bare and withered trees, see the faded earth stretch and curve upward into hills. Instead, I felt like new life had obscured my vision.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus also experienced obstructed vision. Like the leafy-green, twisting tunnel on the road from Ferncliff, new life surrounds them and they can’t accurately see their surroundings. But perhaps it wasn’t life that was hindering their sight, but their reluctance to enter into a new season. Where I was reluctant to enter into spring, they were reluctant to move from Good Friday into the joy of Easter. There’s a real hesitation in trusting the possibility of new life. The resurrected Jesus, the very manifestation of new life, accompanies them on the road and they don’t recognize him. A few days ago, I read this passage in a Bible study with people experiencing homelessness. We all concluded that the reason the disciples didn’t recognize him had to be because Jesus was in a dress and wearing Groucho Marx glasses. I’d be impressed if this was all it took for the risen Christ to walk around unrecognized. I’m not saying their hypothesis is wrong, but perhaps another possibility for why they don’t recognize him is connected to their inner turmoil surrounding Jesus’ death.
The disciples are grieving. They’ve lost their way. A man they had followed, had trusted, and had regarded as a prophet had let them down. They’ve begun their journey home to Emmaus, leaving behind Jerusalem and any remaining fragment of hope. Here they were, still living under Roman occupation. Here they were, not liberated as they had hoped. They were discussing the story of what had happened; according to the Greek a more accurate translation might be that they were “examining the evidence together.” I can imagine their conversation is drawing them more deeply into despair.
Jesus approaches them and sits with them in their pain. Even when the disciples are rude and snarky, putting him down for not keeping up with current events in Jerusalem, Jesus patiently invites them to share their story. He walks with them on the road, unrecognized; he joins them in their sadness and despair. Having been in the tomb for three days, he understands what it means to be there. He listens to their story of confusion, disorientation, deep grief and loss of direction, human failure, and inner darkness. Finally the disciples name their hurt: “we had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. These three words are the crux of their pain. They’re grappling with not just the tragedy of what happened, but also the gaping hole of all that could have happened but won’t. They’re grieving a dream that will never be realized.
After they name their hurt, they launch into a story about how the women from their group said Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb. Now it’s Jesus’ turn to be snarky; he responds, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all the things that the prophets talked about.” Earlier the disciples were angry with Jesus for not keeping up with the current events, but then Jesus responds with frustration that they aren’t linking the current events with the larger picture, connecting it back to Moses and the prophets. Jesus asks, “Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” As the theologian Henri Nouwan writes, “These words…radically change our view of suffering. Pain and suffering are no longer obstacles to the glory of eternal life, they have become the inevitable way to it.” Jesus is teaching them about resurrection. Somehow, inexplicably, suffering and death lead to new life. Through pain, we encounter grace. Seeing life through the lens of Easter gives us the courage to move from mourning to hope, from despair to gratitude, and from holding on to letting go.
Despite all of the snarkiness in their exchange, the disciples invite Jesus into their home when they reach Emmaus. They extend radical hospitality to this complete stranger who spoke hope to them on the road. In this moment, the disciples move from talking to relationship. When they invite him into their home to break bread together, they embody one of Jesus’ central messages-radical hospitality-and only then do they recognize him. Christ is revealed when we embody his ministry, when we stop talking about it and begin doing the work of Jesus.
At the beginning of my YAV year, a man confronted me with a question I’ve grappled with ever since. First he asked me about my work at Ferncliff and I excitedly told him I was working in a garden. This man, a retired pastor who had just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, narrowed his eyes and furrowed his eyebrows. Several silent seconds passed. He abruptly let out a loud laugh and asked “what does working in a garden do for Jesus?” I felt myself freeze. Until this moment, I had only been met with encouragement, excitement, and kindness when asked about my work as a Young Adult Volunteer. I don’t react well in confrontations, so I just mumbled something about creation care and being called to be stewards of the environment. He once again narrowed his eyes incredulously, then laughed and shook his head as he repeated, “‘stewards of the environment.’ This obsession with green stuff is ridiculous.”
Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about how I would answer that question were he to ask me again. “What does working in a garden do for Jesus?” I would still say that we protect what we love and if we don’t encounter creation we won’t understand or come to love it. I would say that we need to take our roles as stewards of the environment seriously. I would say that our tradition tells us that God’s original plan for humans was to live in and cultivate a garden; our tradition tells us our humanity is, in its purest form, inextricably connected with the earth. Our tradition also tells us that the human (adam) comes from the earth (adamah), and that our mandate is “to serve and to guard the land.” God took soil and breathed life into us. Our lives are intimately connected with creation. Even beyond this, I’ve discovered as the Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written, “Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being.” Christian theology reflects the cycles of creation. Nature provides tangible evidence of resurrection. Food scraps from the kitchen and what remained of the plants we harvested in the fall were thrown into a compost pile, decomposed during the winter, transformed into soil, were added to our raised beds in the early spring, and now nurtures the roots of sprouts beginning their new life. Compost is resurrection. I get to witness resurrection every day in the garden. And not just in the life and death and rebirth of plants, but also in the context of Ferncliff. We find discarded materials to use for garden beds and trellises (structures that support upward-growing plants). We have bathtubs as garden beds, old tires for our potato beds, old fences, bamboo, and broken bike tires for trellises. Materials that would otherwise have been cast aside and thrown away now hold and support life. It’s a sacred thing to participate in the cycles of life and death and to bear witness to tangible resurrection.
There’s also an enormous amount of trust involved in gardening. This YAV year has been my first real encounter in a garden and I entered the year doubting whether I was actually capable of making anything grow. Especially in the beginning of the year, I would plant seeds and seriously doubt that any life would actually emerge. Working in a garden teaches me to relinquish control; I plant a seed in the soil, ensure it’s properly watered and has compost for nourishment, but I can’t make it grow. As the poet Wendell Berry says, “the seed doesn’t swell in its husk by reason, but loves itself…love articulates the choice of life in fact; life chooses life because it is alive.” I get to bear witness to this mystery of a seed growing and emerging from darkness. I have to trust that the seed will move into new life.
Life is full of little Easters: moments when we see and live into Jesus, the resurrection and the life. But that doesn’t erase the pain of Good Friday. God doesn’t erase the suffering Jesus experienced, even though that pain no longer defines, overwhelms, or threatens to destroy him. The same is true for us. It’s easy to fall into one of two temptations: to skip Good Friday and rush into Easter or to wallow in Good Friday and claim that’s the end of the story. When you plant a seed, you fully submerge it in the soil so it’s surrounded by complete darkness. New life begins in the dark, whether it is a seed in the ground or Jesus in the tomb. However, it can also be tempting to remain in the dark and allow our faults, mistakes, or the worst things that have happened to us to define us. We need to have space to confront our pain, our brokenness, and our grief head-on without dwelling in it. We create that space when we look for signs of resurrection glimpses everywhere. Each storm nourishes you, sustains you, and invites us to sink more deeply into being a beloved child of God.
As I drove through the opaque green tunnel on my way to church this morning, I realized I still miss how the earth curves upward into hills on either side of me. But maybe it’s enough to know that the barn is there. I’ll carry the lessons I learned in the winter into the spring, from one season of my life into the next. I’ll leave you with a quote from the poet Mary Oliver: “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” Amen.