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by AJM in PA

based on Luke 24:13-35

I am a life-long member of the Presbyterian Church. Like many other mainline denominations our church has been going through an identity crisis. Over the past 30 years, we've lost members and although the tide of loss appears to have been stemmed, we continue to struggle with conflicting understandings of what it means to be the church. Our denomination has a memory of itself as a strong, rational, unified and influential member of the Holy Catholic Church. We remember younger, larger congregations, busier Sunday School and youth programs. We remember a sense of reasonableness about our worship and work. We took pride in our contributions to the community and the country. We remember that distinguishing between right and wrong was clear and unambiguous. We knew our tasks and we attended to them.

This is what many of us remember. It may not be quite what it was. Several years ago I visited the parsonage in which I spent most of the first eight years of my life. I remembered it as enormous, with a cavernous central hall on the second floor. Visiting it as an adult I was astounded by how much it had shrunk. Memories are deceptive. Nonetheless, however the church was in the post-WWII decades, it was different then than it is now. I suspect that the church's mood over the past 2-3 decades has had a lot in common with that of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. There is something to be learned from this story.

Luke's story is told in two books, Luke and Acts, the story of the Christ and the story of the church. And nowhere is this connection between Jesus' story and the church's story more evident than in this narrative. At the center of this passage are the events of worship: confession, proclamation and interpretation, response to the word in the form of an invitation to eat and spend the night, and finally, communion and revelation.

Two are "gathered together" on this journey. They are trying to make sense of recent events when a stranger approaches and asks about their discussion. It is an elegant bit of irony that they respond, "Are you the only stranger who does not know what has been happening in Jerusalem?" And they go on to tell him about the happening, about the One, "powerful in word and deed" who they had hoped "was about to redeem Israel." And now he's dead.

Yes, now look what has happened to our church. We were powerful in the Word proclaimed, in the deed of sacrament and in communion with the community. We too, had thought that in our words and deeds was the redemption of our community, our Israel. And now it is more than 30 years since distressing things have begun to happen to our church. The people have turned away, they have better things to do. The fact is that most of the people who filled our pews didn't leave our church; they evaporated. The children did not come back to the church as adults; instead they went -- nowhere. For the most part they have not joined other churches; they've simply quit coming altogether. They have ignored us and we have suffered the loss. To a church which has believed that being church only means being powerful, only means reflecting the victory of the resurrection, the loss and disruption over the past years has left us standing sad-faced and confused.

Now and then there are reports that something new is happening in the church. The disciples at Emmaus had been hearing strange reports too. Some women had astonished them with the story of an empty tomb, but they judged it an idle tale. You see this didn't fit in with what they expected. They knew what Messiahship meant and this wasn't it.

The stranger speaks: "O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe in all things which the prophets have said. Wasn't it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the prophets Jesus explained to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. Proclamation and interpretation. The stranger reinterpreted scripture for the disciples and in the process gave them both a new way of understanding both the meaning of the Christ and the meaning of scripture. Luke's consistent paralleling of the story of Jesus and the story of the church suggests that Jesus' passion, his suffering, rejection and death as well as his resurrection must somehow be repeated, be embodied in the Church's experience as well. Luke reminds us that the God who is the sovereign Lord of history will also need the Church's experience of suffering and rejection.

As we continue our journey to Emmaus in this journey that is the Church's story, there will be new interpretations of scripture that we need to hear. Our church is full of voices interpreting scripture in a variety of ways. Sometimes when we hear these voices interpreting the story, their telling resonates with in us and we feel strangely warmed. Sometimes when we hear the voices, especially the new voices, we get heartburn. The acid rises and we squirm and turn away. We must be careful NOT to claim discernment about good or bad interpretations of scripture based on gastrointestinal responses - our gut reaction may not be the most reliable. Remember that the disciples did not make sense of the burning hearts until afterwards when its meaning had become obvious.

I confess my conviction. I believe that something new is happening in the church and in the world. And I believe that there travels with us a stranger - The Stranger - whose voice is not found in any one of the interpretations of scripture which clamor for our attention. Through the clamor of many voices, of many people trying to make sense of the Word for this world there is a voice. In the midst of all these interpretations, those that give heartburn and those that strangely warm, will emerge the voice of stranger who understands what has been happening and who knows what we are to be. Within the strange reality of our differences and in all the struggles that diversity creates, a new and more complete understanding of God's purpose can appear. But first . . . but first we must do something.

One of the strangest elements of the Emmaus story is the blindness of the disciples. The text tells us that the disciples were prevented from recognizing the stranger. How peculiar. They are his followers. And yet God prevents them from recognizing this stranger, the Christ. This is our predicament, too. We don't know which voice - or voices - is that of the stranger who travels with us. All of these people struggling to make sense of who the Christ is and who we are as a result - somewhere in bedlam of these is a new word we need to hear. But here is the interesting part of the story. You see, before they are given a clue about the true identity of their fellow traveler, they invite him into dinner. It seems to be necessary that they invite a stranger to sit down with them. Perhaps, just perhaps, God intends that we don't figure out which voices in our church represent "The Voice." Perhaps, just perhaps, God is waiting until we have the opportunity to invite all these strange voices to our table so that we can sit down and share a supper together. Who knows what may happen then?