On the Road
Lk. 24: 13-35
Our story starts with one of the most enduring images in human history, being on the road. It brings to mind the Paul McCartney and John Lennon singing that quintessentially 60’s song, “The Two of Us”.
Two of us riding nowhere
Hard earned pay
You and me Sunday driving
On our way back home
We’re on our way home
We’re on our way home
We’re going home
For all of us gathered here, this has been a theme in literature our whole lives, the genre of two friends on the Road trying to figure it out. They are kind of clueless like the guys in Jack Kerouac’s book, ‘On the Road’, only without the skewed distortion of hallucinogenic drugs that Kerouac made Kerouac’s work so Kerouac in the early 60’s.
In the 70’s, it was the very beguiling images of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hooper in ‘Easy Rider’ trying to figure out what the 60’s meant with the ‘who me’ Jack Nicholson on the back of their chopper in his football helmet.
That was followed by ‘Thelma and Louise’ in the 80’s, two middle aged women, trying to figure out how to be women in a world of chauvinists small and smaller, careening from one catastrophe to another on a mission to find out if they could love themselves and find meaningful romance at the same time.
That was followed by “The Motorcycle Diaries” in the 90’s, where the college aged Che Gueverra and his buddy take a road trip in a very beat up motorcycle across South America and meet all manner of peasant poverty and social ills that brought the educated and wealthy Che into a new consciousness and a new political approach that he became so famous for.
That was followed by- and here we are squarely in our generation- the movie ‘Sideways’, where two middle aged boys who refuse to grow up, steal money from their mothers and sample wine up and down Napa valley, all in an attempt to get laid the week before one of them gets married- at the tender age of 40. They still sort of raise the great questions of the meaning of life- just dumbed down, fluffed out, and the butt of jokes on themselves.
Gone is that concern about the great existential questions of human existence that wracked Woody Allen just two decades ago. Now we are content with an argument over the sumptuousness of Pinot Noir versus Merlot and getting to the wedding on time. Such is our generation.
But the great quests in literature have usually been about the great questions. I read the novel “Molloy” by Samuel Beckett in college. Beckett has this character Molloy that starts out on a journey on his bicycle and much of the trip he suffers from a handicap and can only pedal the bike with one leg. Very odd. It is a meandering tale and Molloy runs into this person and that.
He is looking for someone but he can’t exactly remember who it is. Along the way he keeps seeing a handkerchief here or a country lane there that jogs his memory. It looks vaguely familiar and it keeps him going. Along the way, people offer him bits of information that are helpful.
Towards the end of the novel, Molloy starts to lose his health, and becomes tired and somewhat desperate to quit this journey and find his way home, only he doesn’t really remember how to get back. He is just getting weaker and weaker, each new day filled with some ambiguous fog that partially helps him on his way but never enough to see clearly. He just keeps stumbling forward.
And just when he is about as inwardly discombobulated as the ever-changing landscape around him, he turns up a very pleasant drive, walks up to the house at the end of the drive and is filled with a sense of positive vibrations, like little fizzy bubbles from champagne floating to his consciousness. And walking around he has this overwhelming sense of harmony and resonance like he could close his eyes and still reach his hand behind him and find the latch a side door. The place seems so familiar.
He has, unwittingly, found his own home. And without knowing it- all along- he has been looking for himself.
Beckett’s novel was admittedly very strange but I thought his description of mid-life aptly describes most of us. Whatever expertise we may have in our professions, mostly we feel that the interior search to discover authentically who we are- who we really are- is pretty much like the character Molloy. We are on some vague quest, we are in poor health. We have forgotten just slightly more than we remember. We know who we are looking for but not really- not nearly as well as we ought to know them. We have this sense that we are just stumbling forward in a fog, hoping against hope that we are headed in the right direction home.
And he wrote this piece at the end of World War 2 with all of the questions that were posed to us Westerner’s by the Holocaust, by two World-Wars that nearly cut us in half, and were only brought to a peace by the invention of a nuclear bomb. Symbolically, the question of the meaning for us at the end of the war was posed by those gaunt faces at Auschwitz staring blankly through the barbed wired.
And it prompted this deep, soul-searching question in Europe and the U.S.? What is the meaning of Western humanity? What was the point of Western Civilization now that we have come to this impasse? The flowering of humanism in the Renaissance… the spread of human rights for all people… the dignity and sanctity of the individual… the freedom to create… the role of conscience… self-development and the faith in new economic initiatives.
All of these ideas, all of these values shaped over centuries of faith, reason, art, erudition. And in the most advanced part of Europe, in the most urbane and sophisticated heart of Europe–…….. and we have the blank stare of the victims at Concentration camps, silently posing this question for us… Who are we really? What have we been about?
Particularly for those European intellectuals that felt that they were born into a ‘world come of age’, they lived on the other side of the Enlightenment from the Age of Faith. They believed in the humane values of the individual, of conscience, of human dignity and values of Christianity but those values were no longer rooted in the institution of the Church which they had left behind. We had become so sophisticated, so secular, so mature…. So why do we have these haunting, gaunt eyes staring at us from these death camps?
Collectively, all of us in the West had to set off again in search of an explanation, a collective soul-searching…. And without really knowing what it was exactly that we were looking for, we came to realize that we were looking for ourselves.
Do you ever wonder about that in your own life? Do you ever wonder that right in the middle of living your life, you might actually be missing the point altogether?
This is one of the main reasons men love Tony Soprano. Tony has so many contradictions in his life, so many compromises that he has made to patch his career and his family together, that at 45 he has these panic attacks which cause him to faint. The mobster in therapy- and he gets that his life is killing him, but he still doesn’t really get it. He knows something is wrong- wrong enough to go to therapy. But if the therapists suggest to Tony that his life of extortion, lying, and murder might be the root cause of his anxiety, he just shrugs like, ‘what do you want me to do? It’s my job.”
Do you ever wonder if you are like these two guys in our story, walking with Jesus but not actually seeing who Jesus really is- you are going through your life and you are getting it done but you have this feeling that you the meaning of your life is eluding you, even you?
It is like Rollin Burhans, who tells of the day he went to pick up his son at Harvard. Graduation ceremonies were scheduled and they went to see what was going on. The German chancellor Konrad Adenauer was to be there, and they stood outside the graduation hall to watch the cars and limousines drop people off at the entrance, hoping to spy him. They looked and looked, but they never saw him. They did see one car drive up and two elderly women get out and walk in together. They go home disappointed.
When they got back home, his wife said, “Did you see them?!” “See who?” Rollin answered. “Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller!” she excitedly said and showed them the news photo of them: Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller as they walked into the Harvard graduation, the two older women they had seen. They had seen them and missed them all at the same time.
Do you ever wonder if you aren’t watching your life, but without the newscasters at CNN and Fox to tell you what is significant about the tape of your life right in front of you- that maybe you are seeing it and actually missing it completely at the same time?
Dante has that haunting opening line in the Inferno “Midway through the journey of our life I found myself in a dark woods, and straight away I was lost. Ah, and how hard it was to actually tell even what kind of wood it was… the thought of it is as scary as death itself… I cannot say how I entered it, it [was like] I was a sleep.”
If you haven’t felt this way yet? Great. But you will. Everyone, each in their own way, loses their way.
That is why the message of the New Testament is about starting over. It is about redemption of what is lost. No one gets it right out of the starting gate. At some point, we all lose our way and the point of our lives becomes about putting it back together, about picking up these broken pieces and figuring out a way to go on. It is about reconciliation with others, with God, with ourselves. We worship the God of the Second Chance. The spiritual point of our lives is not about obtaining perfection. It is about recovering from our brokenness. It is about healing what is quite obviously sick in our families, in our communities, in our selves.
How do you do that? Our story this morning contains a simple suggestion. Don’t overlook the obvious.
The enigmatic figure of the hidden Christ does two things. First, he opens the scriptures. We have a tradition and perhaps the main value of that tradition is that, over the past 2-3 thousand years, this long procession of millions of people that have been in this tradition, have posed almost all of the main spiritual questions. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel.
By the way, you probably aren’t going to be very good at it either. I think of the satirical film, The Darjeleeng Limited, a story about 3 brothers that go to India to find their mother and sort out their odd New York upbringing. Not having any religious tradition, but sensing that healing their family was fundamentally a spiritual quest, they keep coming up with a series quasi-religious things to do, harnessing the energy of the universe like some Indian swami would, as though somehow Indian rituals are more spiritual- I guess because they are more exotic. Of course, they look absolutely ridiculous and Quixotic. And the movie is pretty funny. But, I never would have believe how many otherwise sophisticated, educated New Yorkers will look anywhere and everywhere for some loopy spiritual guide like Shirley MacClaine rather than consult anything at all in the religious tradition that has sustained 400 generations of their ancestors.
Of course, when you are sick, you could just seek out healing remedies wherever you could find them, but I wouldn’t advise ignoring intentionally anyone that has gone to medical school or who is acquainted with our 2000 years of medical education.
The tradition may not have all the answers, and surely it has created some stumbling blocks along this arduous tenure, but it is probably wise to stay in conversation with the tradition. You aren’t the first generation to get lost on the way.
And the second one is also simple, but probably profound. When do these two lost travelers recognize Jesus for who he is? In the breaking of the bread… Even today, we recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
For Jesus, as a Jew, he was undoubtedly saying the blessing that Jews say the world over even today. “Baruch Hatah Adonai Elohenu Melek Ha Olam Ha Motsi Lechem Min Ha Eretz” “Blessed are You, O God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” It is the very simple, but profound blessing and eating together that brings us into community.
So also with the Eucharist. We break bread together and we share in our communion together. I had a patient years ago that was afflicted with Schizophrenia of a manic variety. He was always talking to himself in this garble… agitated, his poor mind flooded with more thoughts than he could focus on. The doctors and staff were amazed at the fact that the young Chaplain was the only person that could actually get him quiet and calm. It was during the Eucharist. After the elements were blessed, I would stop over him and say, “Spencer, the body of Christ” and he would finish “which is broken for me” and taking the wafer he would become completely calm. He stopped talking. He stopped his nervous habits. For about 20 seconds, he was himself again. It was sort of miraculous.
If someone were to ask me why I take communion week in and week out, I think that is what I would say. I want to remember whose I am so for a minute I can be myself again. Week in and week out, we bring so many different burdens and concerns around that table, sometimes full of grief over the recent death of a loved one, sometimes just psyched about a new job, sometimes just looking for something to help us endure the coming week with an intractable problem that will not be resolved. We stand shoulder to shoulder.
Because one way or other, the end of this story is probably significant. After these two recognize Jesus. After they wake up and get it, what do they do? They stopped wandering aimlessly confused by themselves, and they return to their people. They head back to their peeps.
For better and worse, that is exactly where the matrix of our salvation lies. We are no better and no worse, no more able to find ecstatic rapture than with our people. The experts and the patients are sitting on either side of you. No matter how far and wide your journey may take you- and it just might be pretty far and wide- eventually the long and winding road leads you back here to start the healing. Welcome home! Amen.