The Road to Emmaus Feels Longer This Year

Photo by Henry Ravenscroft on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

One of the cruelest aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is its power to deny people the opportunity to say final goodbyes to their loved ones.

For many victims, the last time they touch or look into the eyes of family members is the moment they enter the ambulance or are whisked away into the ER.

Isolated by strict “no visitors” policies, they die among strangers. Maybe they get one last phone call mediated by a helpful nurse first.

A terrifying recent article conveys the anguish of severed relatives and the escalating trauma for chaplains and medical professionals in their own words:

“It has been the biggest challenge of my life, knowing I couldn’t be there.”

“I’m sorry I can’t kiss you.”

“It was unnatural.”

“I have never seen as many patients cry when I am praying with them.”

“I felt blessed to be able to be there, but it absolutely ripped my heart out as well.”

Many of you know the experience better than articles and interviews can communicate it. Some of you have already lost parishioners, neighbors, friends, or family and felt helpless, alone, and cut off.

My father passed away without warning and all by himself 28 years ago, so I understand that not everyone gets to be accompanied up to their last breath. Survivors are never guaranteed opportunities to express their love or make their peace before it’s too late. Death has always made its own rules.

Community is one of the things that makes life worth living, one of the things that can help us come into the fullness of who we are, and one of the things that usually makes life’s hardest passages a little easier. The pandemic has taken it from us. Or, more accurately, our experience of community has been altered. Community still exists, but sensory deprivation is a price we pay. Community has become much more challenging to create and maintain. Some congregations ironically have become more walled-off from outsiders in their new digital-only habitat.

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I’ve long loved Luke’s account of Jesus divulging himself to Cleopas and his partner at a dinner table in Emmaus. Here’s a sneaky Messiah at his best. The story pulses with some of Luke’s most exciting themes, ripe for sermons: fulfilled promises, imperial subversion, and transformative hospitality. There’s a hilarity when sadness and discouragement give way to surprise and reorientation. Jesus has a secret too good to keep to himself. He gets to let these two disheartened friends in on it.

Watching them scurry out of Jerusalem with heads hung low, smelling the fear on their breath as they talk—all of it might make the horror of what had happened on Good Friday more real to Jesus. I’m sure it made the final reveal all the more delightful for him.

The communal and interpersonal aspects of the story make it powerful to me, and I suspect those details are important to you, too, working preachers. You know, if you’ve listened to your own soul and to the people around you that Easter faith is ludicrous. It is too difficult for many of us to confess on our own. It is impossible to explain or to justify to skeptical hearts. Thank God we preachers don’t face the burden of Easter preaching without the things that also bear witness: tables, hospitality, scripture, and the experiences of others. Thank God the risen Christ shows up not in cold doctrines and argumentative defenses but in communion.

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It feels like a cruel joke, then, that this story appears now—during Pandemic Easter. There’s not much hilarity in the air, especially among those who are already up to their chins in the rising waters of economic misery. Luke’s signature resurrection tale sounds like a distant fantasy, containing too many activities that we cannot enjoy right now, including travel and meeting and eating with strangers.

When I imagine this text set before a congregation on Sunday I foresee agony. Preachers will do our best to extol the nurturing power of community and the glory of encountering Christ through generosity and hospitality, while staring straight into the cold lone eye of a webcam. Listeners already isolated at home or hanging at the end of a rope in a dangerous household will wonder where the good news for them resides in a story like this. It all looks so … outdated.

The challenge, then, exceeds the fact that too many of us and our neighbors are growing increasingly tired, frustrated, scared, lonely, sad, and broke. The challenge resides in leading people to recognize the risen Christ at a time when one of our key settings for doing so—a common life—has been taken away for an extended season.

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Emerging out of the desolation of Holy Week, the confident Easter refrains of joy, triumph, defiance, belonging, and commission usually lead us to assume that resurrection means the end of disappointment. Everyone’s supposed to smile and shout, “He is risen indeed.” But Easter faith can be both a resurrection hope and a lamenting restlessness at the same time.

Most preachers I know have been beautifully creative and resilient over the last six-plus weeks. You’re working hard to sustain community and address needs. You’re speaking for grace and justice. Thank you. Don’t stop.

At the same time, I suspect many of you know that our current isolation, while good for saving lives, still feels fundamentally unnatural and worthy of lament. Some of you think it’s been the greatest challenge of your time in ministry. It’s OK to admit that to yourself, to your friends, to your congregation, and to God.

I’m so glad that Jesus doesn’t reveal himself to Cleopas and his companion right away but waits. Why does he wait? Jesus is neither testing, scolding, nor humiliating the shell-shocked couple. He is, literally, journeying with them. There he is, present, as they narrate their disappointment and confusion. He does not cut them off. He knows that explanations will not cure their foolishness and slowness to believe.

The time will come to redirect his friends, but first he lets them proceed one heavy step after another.

Lament takes time. And sometimes lament is the journey that leads us, preachers and congregations alike, to recognition and new life.

That new life walks alongside us, patiently, whether we know it or not.