Sisters and Brothers,
Truth be told, I’ve never really preached a sermon. Not properly. That is, if a sermon is the form critical expounding of a passage of scripture full of exegesis and scholarship. Instead, I tend to get carried away, ‘go off on one’, bringing in all sorts of dubious and untheological threads and fragments. But, since it’s Sunday, and following the pattern of last week, this – for what it’s worth – is what I would have tried to pass off as a sermon were we all meeting today. The passage in question is: Luke 24:13-35.
God bless you all,
You have reached your destination.
Without our noticing, we’ve fallen prey to a particular way of looking at the world. It’s a relatively recent innovation, but it’s pervasive. And as with anything pervasive, it’s invisible, the air we breathe.
I’m talking about something we’ve probably all felt: a sort of hiccough, a spasm, like indigestion. We’re never comfortable or easy until we’re there, until it’s done, recorded, ticked off the list. Even our meals begin with an ending: a photograph. And not with a prayer. We’re preoccupied always with achieving goals, hitting targets, getting grades. Achieve, hit, get. All those words have endings, completions built into their meaning. It’s crept too, this way of thinking, into our talk about religious faith. You’ll hear an emphasis these days on journey, talk of a ‘journey of faith’. The journey language is really a way of expressing how you arrived here and now. It’s a coming to faith. You have reached your destinaton.
The Road to Emmaus passage is about a journey. Well, is it? Despite its title, the disciples never reach Emmaus. They get near, but they don’t get there.
Heading away from the dangers and turbulence of Jerusalem, two of Jesus’ disciples make for Emmaus. A stranger joins them on the road who unaccountably appears to have no knowledge of recent events in Jerusalem, but who is able somehow to reach into their broken hearts. Later, as it’s getting dark, they stop to rest at an inn. There the stranger reveals his identity in the breaking of bread.
The story suggests we shouldn’t place so much importance on our own goals and aims. A bit of easy sermonising there. Tick. Next.
The truth is, the Emmaus story is saying something much more disturbing and unsettling than that. Faith is not a destination, or even a journey, but an interruption to that journey, a disruption, a diversion, even a series of errors. The disciples for most of this story are in error, erring like lost sheep even though they stick to the road, to the map, to the plan. You can be lost even when you know exactly where you are; perhaps that’s when we’re most lost.
But it is in their erring that Jesus comes to them. In order to be found, you first have to be lost.
There is a remarkable sequence in the middle of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker (1979), where the eponymous stalker, a sort of guide, tells a story to two men travelling with him. The stalker seems to be describing precisely their own situation: three men on a journey under difficult even frightening circumstances, a journey that ends in failure and a return to where they started. But gradually you realise, as you listen to him, that he’s reciting almost verbatim the Road to Emmaus story itself.
The stalker, however, chooses to cut his story short, before the punchline, the revelation. Instead, he looks down at his companions lying on the ground and asks: ‘Are you awake?’ It’s a question that refers perhaps to the inability of the disciples in the story to ‘wake up’ to the reality walking alongside them. But it’s a strange question to ask in the film because it comes immediately after a slow, back and forth tracking shot in which the characters open their eyes to look almost directly into the camera. They are obviously awake; or are they? Are any of us? We could even ask: is Tarkovsky, the director awake? Because right at the heart of this famous scene is an extraordinary, enormous ‘mistake.’
As the camera pans back and forth across the bodies of the two characters on the ground, it passes over a coat with shiny buttons. The camera reveals itself briefly – and presumably unintentionally – in the convex reflective surface of one of those shiny coat buttons.
Just as Jesus reveals himself to the two disciples in the Emmaus story, so the camera reveals itself to us on the screen. The mechanics of cinema are suddenly revealed in a mistake, in error. Just so, the mechanics of the cosmos, the creator Himself, the Word, is suddenly revealed through the disciples’ misunderstanding, in their erring. Throughout the Emmaus story, the disciples know all sorts of facts about the world. They know the route they’re taking, they know the latest news headlines from Jerusalem, they think they know the scriptures. And at the same time, they know nothing.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.1 Corinthians 3:19
In his Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395) describes the journey of Moses towards the perfection of God. For Gregory, this journey is represented in scripture by Moses’ climbing Mount Sinai.
He continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained.
Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 227
If this is a journey at all, it’s endless; even, in modern terms, pointless, a failure, foolishness. There’s no end, no target hit, no box ticked:
The true vision of God consists … in this, that the one who looks up to God never ceases in that desire. What Moses’ yearned for is satisfied by the very things which leave his desire unsatisfied.Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 233-235
Who wants to get to Emmaus? To achieve their goals, to hit a target. Not me.
You have not reached your destination. Thank God.
Eduard Artemyev’s score for Stalker is a visionary blend of analogue synthesized atmospherics – shimmering, droning, clattering – overlaid with ghostly, melancholy, folk-inflected melodies using traditional instruments: a duduk and an Azerbaijani tar. The link below takes you to an hour long loop of Artemyev’s Stalker score.
God of the journey
who meets us on the road,
support us when the way seems long,
guide us when the way twists and turns,
shine your light for our feet when the way is dark,
but never let us reach the end,
for there is no end of the Way
the Truth and the Life
that is your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.