Sermon: The Easter Prayer
The Easter Prayer
Text: Luke 24:13-35
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church on 4-30-2017)
Emmaus is not as much a destination as it is a state of mind. Emmaus is “the place we go in order to escape,” writes Fred Buechner, “Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that people have had – ideas about love and freedom and justice – have always in time been twisted out of shape by people for selfish ends.”
For Luke, Emmaus is not just where the two despondent disciples are going; it is what they are doing. They are getting out of town, doing whatever they can to get Jesus off their minds, out of their hearts. They are on the way to wherever they can go to forget that whatever is lovely and sacred dies; they are headed to Emmaus – that place of forgetting, just when someone makes them remember.
Luke tells us that the unannounced stranger on the road is really the risen Jesus, but for the two disciples who are Emmaus bound, he is an ignorant stranger, the only person on earth who has not heard about the horrendous and horrifying execution of Jesus. The two disciples pour out their hearts to this utter stranger. They tell him how much they had hoped Jesus was the one to bring in God’s promised reign.
The stranger on the Emmaus road listens to their woes and then he speaks. What he says is surprisingly curt. He does not comfort them, saying, “I know you must be really hurting now. I can feel your pain.” He says nothing nearly so trite. In fact, he is downright rude. He calls them: “Idiots! Fools!” Then he asks them: “Have you never read your Bible?” By the time, he has explained the story of Abraham, Moses, David, the Exile, and the return to Jerusalem, they have reached the disciples’ home.
At the house, Jesus bids them farewell, but they say: “No. Stay with us for evening is coming.” Actually, by this point, they may well be ready for this biblical know-it-all to move along, but instead, they offer this stranger their hospitality and the stranger stays – at least, for a while.
Do you remember that story in Genesis when Abraham and Sarah in their great old age are visited by two strangers? Little do they know that these aliens are actually angels. Abraham and Sarah offer them their hospitality and the angels stay long enough to tell this old couple that the next pregnancy test will be positive. Years later, in The Letter to the Hebrews, the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah is described as “entertaining angels unawares.”
Inside the house of the two despondent disciples, the story begins to sound something like what you and I often hear inside this sanctuary, what we will hear with old friends returning home next Sunday. The sage, talkative stranger takes bread and blesses it and breaks it and gives it to the two disciples. At that precise moment, the fog lifts and they recognize that he is no stranger; he is the risen Jesus.
Then two things happen almost simultaneously. The risen Jesus vanishes from their sight and yet he does not vanish from their hearts. They experience a serious case of religious nostalgia as they revisit all he said to them while walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
That is not all they do. Within the hour, they leave Emmaus. If Emmaus is the place to go when hope has decayed and died, then they cannot stay there, because hope has been reborn in them. It is not just that they want to leave; they MUST leave. You cannot stay in Emmaus once you have seen the risen Lord.
I love this story. I love its powerful reserve. I love the way it challenges the typical pious Christian comment: “I’m on a sacred journey to find Jesus.” The Emmaus story is not about our search for God, but God’s search for us, even when we are deep in denial, lost in grief, on the run.
I am not an Episcopalian, but I do admire many Anglican and Episcopalian prayers. During those times when I have walked the Emmaus road, I have turned to the Book of Common Prayer for words of insight and inspiration. In Luke’s Emmaus story, two disciples invite Jesus to, “Stay with us, for it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” The Book of Common Prayer captures this ancient act of hospitality in a moving prayer: “Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love.”
“Stay with us” is the invitation by the two hospitable disciples. It is not just their prayer, but the prayer of the church, the Easter prayer, a most plural prayer. This prayer is born in hospitality and issued in gratitude, not from a desire to keep God captive here, but to celebrate God’s grace out there.
When we pray for Jesus to abide with us, we pray that you and I will be changed from despair into hope, from sorrow into joy. It is to pray that our eyes be opened to God’s risen presence in the most unlikely places, among the most unexpected strangers.
If we pray the Easter prayer, “stay with us,” we will no longer be able to drive by bombed out city neighborhoods as if they were not our problem or stare at a panhandling stranger as if she were an anonymous intrusive nuisance. To pray the Easter pray is to follow Jesus out of here to wherever God’s children cry out in misery, follow him to jail cells and hospice rooms and civic meetings. The tomb could not hold Jesus, neither can any church building – no matter how old, no matter how historic. He is risen! He is notonly here! He is out there!
To pray the Easter prayer, then, is to hear Jesus shouting for shalom over the separation wall dividing Israel from Palestine, to see Jesus walking the halls of Congress like a mad man who knows that peace is possible for those who desire it more than they desire the economic boom of war. To pray the Easter prayer is to watch Jesus holding a calculator and announcing that the real federal deficit is a deficit of compassion for the working poor, the disabled, the sick, and the aliens who pick our crops, clean our houses, and staff our stores. To pray the Easter prayer is to follow Jesus to wherever the gifts of clean air, water, and soil are being spoiled by greed or neglect. Pray the Easter prayer and we will most likely find the risen Jesus walking along Rte. 29, strolling the streets of Crozet and Charlottesville with our sisters and brothers struggling to find a safe and affordable place to live.
“Stay with us” may sound like a nice, sweet, innocuous church prayer. “Sweet hour of prayer.” “Sweet hour of prayer.” But the Easter prayer extends long beyond Sunday morning worship hour and intrudes long after into every part of our day and into every aspect of our lives. Just ask the two disciples walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They probably wondered: “What bother can this stranger possibly be?” “How much can it cost us to give this guy some bread and wine?” “Sure, stay with us tonight.”
How much did it cost them? It cost them their lives. They would never again walk that Emmaus road assuming that they were alone; never walk that familiar path resolved that life is one long extended disappointing replay. They would never again listen to scripture read or break bread and drink wine without remembering how the risen Christ came alive in their midst.
What about us? Are we ready to pray the Easter prayer? I wish I could jump up and down and say, “Yes, Lord, I am ready,” but I have walked too far along the Emmaus road, am too well acquainted with Emmaus, too often comfortable in Emmaus, too stubborn to let go of all my disappointment and despair and fear.
What two despondent disciples discovered in the comfort of their own Emmaus home was that it is not so much about whether we are ready or not, but that the risen Jesus is ready for us, ready to open our eyes to see his life giving presence even in our haunts of hiding, even in Emmaus. Luke tells this story to call the church to prayer, the Easter prayer, “stay with us.” It is the most powerful prayer that will ever come off any person’s or congregation’s lips. It is a prayer that will cost us our lives.
May God, then, give us the courage, to pray: “Lord Jesus, stay with us; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love.”
 On pages 85-86 of Frederick Buechner’s, The Magnificent Defeat.