Church on The Road: Trail Magic

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Luke 24:13-35

Have you ever heard of trail magic? Trail Magic, is defined as an unexpected act of kindness, is a quintessential part of the Appalachian Trail experience for many long-distance hikers. The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, ranging from Maine to Georgia, 2,200 miles.

The road from Jerusalem to Emmaus is only 7 miles long- still a long hike, perhaps what you’d do in a day if your knees and ankles and hips were up for it. I just got back from Rocky Mountain National Park, a place I escape to as often as I can, because those mountains have serious magic- they recharge me. I was only there for a couple days, Tuesday through Friday, but I noticed how kind people were on the trails- saying hello, encouraging one another, “you are almost there,” someone said, as we were huffing to the summit. When I came back to my apartment building in CT I quickly remembered that its not part of our culture here to encourage each other on the way, we don’t really even talk to each other. So I put my head back down.

Along the way on the Appalachian trail, it is rumored that magical things happen for the long distance through hikers. Little things, like finding a tent-stake when you had lost yours, or someone who is day-hiking asking if you need anything from town, or finding a couple of cold beverages in a stream, or someone whose home is near the trail offering a bowl of fresh fruit or a bed for the night. Unexpected kindness.

After Jesus died, two of the disciples were walking on the road to Emmaus, and they were in it, heated. They were grieving, and arguing, the Greek word describing their conversation lead us to believe they were preaching at each other, with such intensity. Then Jesus showed up, as a stranger. Neither of them knew it, their eyes kept them from seeing, the scripture says. He asks a prompt question, a sacred questions, that gets to the heart of their grief. “What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?”

They snap back at him; “are you the only guy around here who hasn’t heard? Jesus Christ, they might exclaim, come on guy, get with the program. Don’t you know the things that have taken place here over the last three days?”

With a simple question, Jesus stays with their grief, he asks them, “what things?” He invites them to describe what they have experienced, to process their intensity. “What things?” So they describe the things that Jesus of Nazareth did, Jesus who was a mighty prophet in word and deed before God and all the people, they say, then our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned and crucified. Sadness drips from their language. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Jesus does not just show up and walk with the disciples and join them along the way. That would be too easy. No, Jesus drives into the heart of their grief, helps them speak their truth about the pain they are feeling, and helps them make sense of it.

The disciples can begin to move from hopelessness to seeing the truth, that the Lord is risen indeed. But Jesus notices that their hearts are slow—don’t you believe all the prophets have declared? He teaches them about the scriptures, and they begin to feel a stirring within them. Still not realizing this stranger is Jesus, they ask, “will you stay with us for dinner?”

When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to them.” Their jaws dropped, because their eyes were finally opened. Over this meal, during a moment of nourishment, a familiar act, at table with a stranger, they finally saw Jesus. “The Lord has risen indeed!” Jesus stayed with them through their hopelessness until they understood the resurrection. They remembered that their hearts were burning within them as they walked along the way. This was the best trail magic in the history of time.

We transform each others lives by walking together. It is part of this churches covenant to walk together, pulled right out of the language from 1668 covenant, “we will walk with this God and one with another according to the rules of ye Gospell,” and now in our new excellent proposed mission statement, which was revealed last Sunday, walking together is front and center; “We walk together in the path of Jesus to create more good in the world by experiencing and embodying God’s love, nourishing the divine spark in all people and offering a spiritual home within and beyond our walls.”

It is no accident that our church covenant, written 350 years ago says “we walk together.” We walk with each other through life, caring for one another, not always agreeing with one another on our pace of walking or which trails to take- but still, we walk together. We are bound to one another.

We walk together through life metaphorically, journeying together, accompanying each other. The accessible to all team would remind me that not all of us get around by walking- some of us move better with walkers or wheel chairs- and we actually don’t have great space for walkers or wheel chairs in this sanctuary. Walking together then, metaphorically means making those spaces, which we plan to do.

And I believe we walk with one another after death. I believe that the rules of the Gospel maintain that we walk together with all the Saints of all time, with anyone we have loved and lost. I believe our souls continue on in some way, and that sacred spaces like this, which transcend a lifetime, connect us to people of the past, and future. I believe we walk together, and God joins us, through life and after death.

When we walk together, we don’t always know each other, at first. It is one thing to walk with friends and family, people we are comfortable with. But it is also no accident that Jesus shows up here as a stranger on the road, and teaches the disciples not only about the scriptures, but how to invite a stranger for dinner. How to accompany a stranger through the world.

When I was living in New York my church (Judson Memorial Church) developed an immigration accompaniment program while I was a community minister. “Why are we choosing this as our ministry?” I asked. The minister responded, “Jesus accompanies strangers and asks us to accompany him when he is a stranger to us.” I didn’t totally get it, until I did it one day.

We met at a McDonalds across from 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattn, and walked in through the big doors, about 9 of us and a man who was a stranger to me—we handed out postcards to other people in line, in many languages, saying, “We will walk with you, we will accompany you during this scary time. Call this number.” So we, who were citizens, would accompany strangers, who turned into friends, who happened to be immigrants, to their ICE check-ins. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and these check-ins can be nerve wrecking, because some of our strangers-turned-friends had small criminal backgrounds, which made them more vulnerable for deportation, and they also had wives and children and jobs now- a life in New York.

As we were going up the elevator to the 9th floor, a woman got on and off the elevator pushing a cart full of sloppy files with hand written numbers on each folder. I realized each file number represented a human beings, held the fate of human lives, in a disorganized file cart. I was so transformed by this experience, even though I did nothing but stand around trying to keep my jaw from continuously dropping, I tried to provide presence and witness, but it was hard to be non-anxious. When our friend was called, the ICE officer saw that he had a slew of people watching, and the ICE officers looked twice, took it in, that this person had 9 people there with him, anxiously waiting for his fate to be determined. Our hearts burned within us. This was more than paper-work.

When we say we walk together, it means more than coming to church on Sunday. Although I would never want to diminish the importance of this hour, of this sacred gathering, I also want to claim that church happens on the road too- in the world, when we leave this sacred space. This is what it means in our vision that we want to “grow our idea of church.” What does it mean to be church, not only go to church? The vision team thought together about what it means to show up for people where they are, when they can’t come to church. Visiting home-bound people, but also heading over to the soccer field when someone has a game, and being church there. The time in this sanctuary is designed to nourish us, so that we can go out into the world and accompany strangers on the road. To create trail magic.

Howard Moody, a pastor in New York during the 70s, would say after each worship service on Sunday morning as the benediction, as the last good word, the blessing, “Go in Peace. Our real service now begins.” Our real service is the service we do in the world. On the road.

The road to Emmaus shows us that life continues beyond death, and that God meets us along the way. God journeys with us, but does more than that. God shows up with us as a stranger, meeting us exactly where we are, but never leaving us there.

Another one of my favorite benedictions goes like this, based on the words of Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881).”Life is short and we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the journey with us. So let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” And the blessing of God, who made us, who loves us, and who travels with us be with you now and forever. Amen.”

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