A Dead-End Road?

Rev. Ali Tranvik
Text: Luke 24:13-35

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road.” -Martin Luther

As this academic year comes to an end—and a very strange, anticlimactic, disappointing end at that—this prayer that Martin Luther wrote has been a comfort to me. It’s been a reminder that although we may be finishing papers and tests and qualifying exams (congrats Sarah!) and prelims (congrats Eric J!), although we may be marking the end of this semester, as people of faith, “this is not the end; it is the road…

In today’s Gospel reading, two of Jesus’ disciples find themselves in the midst of what feels like the “end.” You see, just three days earlier, Jesus, who they thought was the Savior, the Messiah, had just been killed, and with him, all their hopes for redemption, for salvation, for life itself. Jesus was supposed to have been the one! But now he was dead. There were rumors that he was alive again, but clearly that couldn’t be the case. Death is the end. They were walking the literal road to Emmaus, but the metaphorical road they were on was a dead-end road.Jesus was dead…What else was there to do? Where was there to go?

As they walked, one of the disciples says four simple words that strike me as some of the most profound words in the whole Bible: “But we had hoped.” “But we had hoped,” Cleopas said, “[that this Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified] was the one to redeem Israel.” In these words we hear their anguish and confusion and deep disappointment. The disciples’ whole world had suddenly changed, and they now found themselves headed in a direction they had not expected, into a future they could not imagine, down a road felt like a dead-end.

But we had hoped…These four words may resonate with us right now. Maybe you’ve thought them sometime within these past few weeks. Maybe you’ve said them out loud. Maybe you’ve cried them or prayed them or yelled them, as the coronavirus has upended all that we had hoped was going to happen this spring…

But we had hopedwe’d be in the York Room right now, together in person for our final Evening Prayer of the semester, singing the incense song in two parts instead of one (although Madison, you’re holding it down well for us!). But we had hoped…to walk across Duke’s football field in cap and gown. But we had hoped…to gather on the front porch of Grace House to share meals with our friends and neighbors, or grow vegetables to share at the new Pathways Community Garden. But we had hoped…to begin that internship we’d been so excited about, or apply for the job we thought would be there. But we had hoped…we’d have the opportunity to take that vacation that felt so needed after such a grind. But we had hoped…that the kids in our community would be in school still, where meals were regular and reliable. But we had hoped…that our immigrant and refugee neighbors could continue the process of being reunited with family members instead of that process be halted completely. But we had hoped…to say goodbye differently. But we had hoped…things would have just carried on according to “the plan.” 

As the two disciples were walking down the road and grieving Jesus’ death, none other than Jesus himself shows up and starts walking with them. “But their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” the text says. He’s literally right next to them but they don’t know it’s him! They call him a “stranger.” They don’t even get the hint when Jesus starts citing the scriptures and literally explaining to them the meaning of his own death. They continue walking down the road as if Jesus were still dead. They are walking with Jesus, as if Jesus were still dead…

The past couple of weeks we’ve heard various resurrection stories, right? We heard about the two women who discovered Jesus’ tomb was empty and ran to share the good news. We heard about Jesus appearing to the disciples in the Upper Room, and about how Thomas needed to touch Jesus’ wounds to believe he was really risen. And now we’re reading another resurrection story about Jesus appearing to his friends on the road to Emmaus. Like these two disciples, in other words, we too have heard that Jesus is risen. But in all the disappointment and disorientation that we are experiencing on this unexpected road right now, maybe we’re having trouble seeing him too. Maybe we’re also walking around like Jesus is still dead…

I had a friend who once told me about a spiritual practice he would do from time to time that he called an “Emmaus walk.” He’d walk around his neighborhood, or once in a while, he’d choose another neighborhood in town, and he’d try to explore it with new eyes. He would try to see Jesus in the wrinkled man smoking on his front stoop, in the USPS worker who would deliver a neighborly “hello” along with the mail at each home, in the small birds’ nest that was taking shape on his neighbor’s windowsill, in the old tree that demanded the sidewalk be rerouted around its roots, in the vibrant green plants that somehow grew out of the concrete. He would try to open his eyes—to open himself—to the ways that God was already present on the road.

Perhaps if we were all in Durham right now and COVID-19 weren’t a thing, Duke Lutherans would take an hour sometime this week and do an “Emmaus walk” in Durham together. But since we can’t, I want to challenge each of you, wherever you are, to take a half hour or hour to go on a walk and look for God (I’m not joking—do this! I will do it too, and if you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear what you saw)…

Jesus is already present on the road. He is already beside us, walking with us, even when we don’t see him. But what was it in tonight’s story that opened the disciples’ eyes? Let’s return to the text again…

The two disciples and the “stranger” continue walking the road—the literal road toward Emmaus, and the metaphorical dead-end road. Soon, it gets late, and this is where something quite remarkable happens. In the midst of their disappointment and disorientation, they invite this guy who they still think is a complete “stranger” into their home for dinner.This is a bold play. A risky move. I typically don’t (and by typically I mean never) invite people who randomly start talking to me on the street over for dinner. But for some reason they do. And when they sit down and break bread, then their eyes were opened. Right? It was there, at the table, where their vision shifted, where they finally saw that it was Jesus who had been with them on the road all along.

Duke’s semester is officially ending this next week. And whether you’ll soon be starting a summer internship, or returning to lab, or starting a job, or maybe you literally have no clue what’s next, all of us find ourselves walking down a road that, because of COVID-19, we probably didn’t expect to be walking. We, like the disciples, probably pictured all of this going differently. We, like the disciples, are headed into a future we can’t imagine, in a direction we didn’t foresee, down a road that may feel like a dead-end. 

And into the disappointment and disorientation that may accompany us on this road ahead, tonight’s Gospel story gives us some unorthodox advice: eat with strangers. 

This is bad advice, according to most standards, isn’t it!? In “normal” circumstances, inviting complete strangers into our homes is not prudent, let alone in the midst of increased instability and uncertainty. So many of the articles I’m seeing right now are about how we can “hunker down” and “manage” this unexpected road ourselves. The “experts” are telling us how to protect our savings account and preserve our retirement funds, how to shop smart and ration our food, how to stay safe as we walk this daunting road. 

And while we should heed some of these suggestions, today’s Gospel story shows us that life in the resurrection means taking risks. It means opening ourselves up—opening our hearts, opening our doors, opening our tables to strangers because then, it seems, will our eyes be opened to see that Jesus is the stranger. For it is in the breaking of bread with people we meet on the road that we recognize the God before us. It is at table that we see the Jesus who’s already been walking with us on the road.

What our Gospel story also shows us is that maybe dead-end roads are actually, paradoxically, the roads that lead to life. This world will say that the roads that lead to life are the ones that lead to wealth, status, a fancy job, a nice house. But the Gospel says the road that leads to life are the roads that lead to tables, to meals shared with strangers who seem to have nowhere else to go. This world will say that the roads that lead to life are smooth and well-marked, roads where the map is legible and the destination is clear. The Gospel says the roads that lead to life maybe are the roads that are a bit bumpier, the roads we didn’t think we’d be taking, the ones with twists and turns and dead-ends. 

In this sense, though, maybe dead-end roads aren’t actually dead ends. Jesus’ death, after all, was the ultimate dead end. But just as God made a way out of that no-way, just as there was life after that dead end, the dead-end roads of our lives are filled with life too. Indeed, if we take seriously this Gospel story, it seems like the dead-ends are where life—the risen Christ—resides. These so-called dead-end roads lead to a different kind of life, real life—a life where meals are not rush but shared, where strangers are not ignored but fed, where our eyes are not kept from seeing Jesus but opened to God’s presence all around us.

So as we embark on ventures ahead of which we cannot see the ending, as we continue down these paths as yet untrodden, and as we head into perils unknown (and yes, there will be perils), have good courage, Duke Lutherans. For Jesus will be walking this road us, and as it turns out, when we are so imprudent as let ourselves be open ourselves and our tables to the strangers in our midst, perhaps we’ll also find, that Jesus been walking with us all along. Amen!

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