Sermon preached at Marsh Chapel, Boston University on Sunday, May 8, 2011 on the text of Luke 24: 13-35.
Allow me this morning to publicly express my gratitude to Dean Hill for giving me my very own preaching series. Yes, indeed, you have arrived at Marsh Chapel, whether in person, or by radio waves or by internet signals, for the first offering in Br. Larry’s 2011 secular holiday preaching series. We begin today, Mother’s Day, and will pick up again at the end of May with Memorial Day. The series concludes on July 4, Independence Day. I consider it the highest honor to have been invited to participate in the life of Marsh Chapel in this way, although I would encourage you to note that Dean Hill reserved for himself that pinnacle of secular holidays. Yes, the very one you are remembering just now from back in February, Groundhog Day. I can only pray that some day I will attain to such a stature in preaching as to aspire to be invited on so noble an occasion. Speaking of prayer.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
Holy and Gracious God, we gather this morning of Mother’s Day and we celebrate the mothers here with us and the mothers, for some of us, who dwell far away. Keep our hearts and minds, this day and all days, in the mothering presence of your most Holy Spirit, that the thoughts of minds and the meditations of our hearts might be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Surely you have had the experience of being a passenger in a car traversing the streets of Boston. You are riding along on your way to an afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts. You know where you are going. Your driver knows where she is going. You sit smiling as you gaze out the windows. Then, your driver takes a turn. “Hmmm…” you think, “this must be a shortcut. I should pay attention for the next time when I am the one driving.” Another turn. “Really. Interesting. I never would have thought to go this way,” your minds voice utters. A third turn. Now it is impossible for you to contain your words any longer. “Um, where are you going?” “Well,” your companion replies, “I am going to the MFA. Where did you think I was going?” “Yes, I thought we were going to the MFA, too, but the MFA is over there,” you reply, pointing back through the rear windshield. “Yes, dear,” says your companion, soothingly. “But this is Boston. Sometimes it is necessary to circumnavigate the entire city just to get next door.”
“Where are you going?” There are actually two questions bound up in this one verbal ejaculation, but let us begin by taking the question at face value. It is certainly a legitimate question to ask as we consider the journey of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. There is another question that we might wish to ask along with Cleopas of his companion, namely, who are you? That line of questioning, however, at least at this stage, is not terribly likely to arrive at positive results. On the other hand, it is not entirely clear that our “Where are you going?” question will lead to positive results, either given that there is no clear evidence of a village called Emmaus two stadia, which is about fifty miles, from Jerusalem. This is to say that we do not know precisely where Cleopas and his friend were going, but the question remains relevant for us.
“Where are you going?” This question may be a constant, and perhaps somewhat grating, refrain for many of our graduating students here at Boston University. Family, faculty, friends, chaplains: all want to know where our graduates will be going next. Bound up in the question are clearly many other questions. “Do you have a job?” “Are you going to graduate school in the fall?” “Are you staying in Boston or moving back home or somewhere else entirely?” There are broader implications of the question as well, not merely about the immediate future but about the long term. “Do you have a plan?” “Are you career minded?” “What are you going to be, now that you are grown up?” And the questions have implications beyond merely the trajectory of career and work. “Are you going to get married?” “Are you going to have children?” “Are you going to be able to put your life together in such a way that you will both be fulfilled and able to pay the rent?”
“Where are you going?” In a time of global economic and political uncertainty, it can be especially challenging to even acknowledge the question. “Do you have a job?” “No, but not for lack of trying.” “Are you going to graduate school?” “Well, yes, but only because I cannot find a job, and by the way, I have no idea how I am going to pay for it, either now, or in the long term.” “Are you going to stay in Boston or move home?” “Well, I would like to stay in Boston, but Boston is expensive, and although I really do not want to be the graduate who spends the next two to three years living in my parents basement, I really do not see that I have any better options at this point.” Sorry, dear friends, but here at Marsh Chapel we do not preach a prosperity gospel but a Gospel of responsible Christian liberalism, which is to say that we abide in a realistic spirit with great hope for the possibilities of the future. It is in the spirit of realism that we must confess that the prospects are not what we might have hoped when we began four years ago. And it is in hope that we journey on.
It is a funny thing, returning for a moment to our pair of companions seeking to find their way to the MFA, that the question posed by the passenger to the driver, “Where are you going?” is not really a question as to the destination, but as to the route. This is to say that passenger and driver are both clear on where it is they intend to go. They are both aiming toward the MFA. It is just that the real route of the driver does not quite align with the ideal route of the passenger. Indeed, the real question the passenger is asking when verbalizing, “Where are you going?” is, “How are you going to get there?” This too is a question we may wish to bring to Cleopas and his companion on the way to Emmaus. After all, it is a neat trick not only to arrive but merely to set out toward a village of which there is no evidence of existence. How do you get to somewhere that isn’t?
It is my great hope that there is a primacy of the “How are you going to get there?” question in the “Where are you going?” inquisition that our graduates are racked upon by family, friends, faculty, and yes, chaplains. Indeed, of the two, it is the more profound. “Where are you going?” is simply to inquire of a single point, and the final point in the series, at that. “How are you going to get there?” inquires as to all of the infinitesimal points in between here and wherever it is you may be going. Furthermore, it is not so much a quantitative question about the points themselves, but a qualitative and relational question directed more toward the person for whom those points will be constitutive of their life. This is to say that the “How are you going to get there?” question is really a question of “Who are you, and how will you be in the world?” It is not a question of doing but of being, not that the two are ever more than theoretically distinguishable. It is a question of what sort of person you are and what manner of being you will endeavor to live into.
“How are you going to get there?” The reason that I hope that this question is the primary question implied in the “Where are you going?” inquisition is that this is the question that a university education should prepare you to answer, even if it does not prepare you to answer the “Where are you going?” question on its face. If nothing else, I pray that our graduates have uncovered something about themselves in their experience at Boston University, whether in the classroom, in the dorms, on the athletic fields and courts, in the dining halls, while studying abroad, while participating in community service, or just walking up and down Bay State Road. This is to say what Howard Thurman said much more eloquently: “Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go and do that, because what the world needs is people who come alive.” In the final analysis it is a sense of concrete, embodied purpose, which only comes by moving through the spiritual process of self-discovery and actualization that empowers those who change the world. To transform others, be ye first transformed, and journey on.
Now that we have winched tight the inquisitor’s rack on Cleopas and his companion, perhaps we should stop for a moment and ponder the fact that the two questions that spring immediate to mind for us, “Where are you going?” and “How are you going to get there?” are actually not the question that Jesus poses. Jesus does not ask where these two disciples are going. It would have made sense if he had. After all, we hear throughout the Gospels of how the disciples are constantly misunderstanding what they are to do, where they are to go, and most importantly, why they are to do what they have been given to do. It would make sense that Jesus would be concerned that these disciples have once again wandered off, and as the good shepherd, that he would seek to bring them back to the fold.
Instead of asking, “Where are you going?” Jesus asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” Jesus is interested neither in the destination nor in the route but in the relationships built along the journey. If Jesus had been in the car making its way through the streets of Boston toward the MFA, or at least intending to be moving toward the MFA, the driver and passenger would not have been riding along silently such that the first audible sound is the inquisitor’s whip, “Where are you going?” Had Jesus been in the car, he would have wanted to know why the pair was going to the MFA. “Well, there is a new Art of the America’s wing that has just opened, and we have heard so much about it.” “Is American art important to you?” “Yes, we are particularly captivated by the expansive landscapes of the Hudson River School.” “What captivates you so?” “Well, I think it has to do with the way the artists work with light, so that parts of the painting are illuminated while others fall into shadow. In so many ways it is more real than the actual view of which the painting is purportedly a record could ever express.” “Is not this the point of art?” “Yes, seeing the world in an artistic lens tells us more about who we are than we could ever otherwise come to know.”
Of course, the conversation with the disciples fails to actualize the potential for such a conversation. After all, these are the same dumb disciples who have been misunderstanding Jesus and his purpose and ministry since the get go. They are entirely bound up in trying to reconcile themselves to the crucifixion, and now also to the reports that Jesus is resurrected. And so Jesus must turn to admonishment. “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Once again, Jesus is left trying to bring the disciples up to speed. It is clear that the disciples have a ways yet to go as they journey on.
Speaking of journeying on, it seems that this is just what Jesus is intent to do, and what Jesus would have done had the disciples not intervened to invite him to Emmaus with them for dinner. Now, it is important to remember that these two disciples did not yet recognize that this was Jesus. Is this not often our experience as well, that we fail to recognize Christ in our midst. Often as not, Christ comes to us in the figure of others, the very same family, friends, faculty, and the occasional chaplain who winch us tight on the inquisitor’s rack. St. Francis said, “You may be the only vision of Jesus Christ someone will ever see.” A dear friend of mine said it even more boldly: “You may be the only Jesus Christ the world will ever see.” It is indeed a great responsibility.
It is significant that, even though they did not recognize Jesus, the disciples invited him into their home for dinner. The saying goes that you should always extend hospitality to strangers because you never know when you might play host to angels. Well, apparently you may also end up playing host to Christ. Jesus becomes known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread. Of course, the disciples later recognize that they had in fact felt the presence of Jesus as they journeyed together along the road, in the familiar sense in which Jesus had always made their hearts burn. Perhaps, not realizing that the feeling signaled the presence of Jesus, they even took an antacid. That is what you do for heartburn, isn’t it? Anyway, they had not recognized him, which is to say, the familiar sense of hearts aflame had not risen to the level of conscious awareness, but now they were aware of the connection between what they felt on the road and what they had felt as they accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry.
This is to say that as you journey on, I would encourage you to extend and receive hospitality. In the end it is neither the goal nor even the path that is truly important. It does not really matter whether or not you ever make it to the MFA. What matters is the relationships you cultivate along the way. This is the good news of Jesus Christ for us today: resurrection and salvation by relationship. I leave you today with the prayer of my order, of the Lindisfarne Community: that we may be as Christ to those we meet, and that we might find Christ within them.
And in all things, make your mother proud. Amen.