by Linda McMillan
“I need a photo opportunity.” Al
In the 1980’s Paul Simon had an album called Graceland, and the best tune on that album was, “You Can Call Me Al.” I’ll include a link to it in the notes because I know you’re going to want to tap your toes and sing along. You remember the words, don’t you? “I need a photo opportunity… I want a shot at redemption…. Don’t want to wind up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.” You’re singing it in your head, aren’t you? Yeah… You’re welcome.
But, really, we all want some kind of shot at redemption, don’t we? The characters in this morning’s readings were hoping for redemption too. They thought that Jesus might be the one to redeem Israel. Now that he was dead and in the tomb, though, they weren’t so sure. It was just hard to tell. There were so many unanswered questions.
The story is that Cleopas and another disciple were walking to Emmaus and they were deep in conversation. The text doesn’t say what they were talking about, but this omission invites us to imagine that they were talking about Jesus and the events surrounding his death and burial, trying to figure out if they still had a shot at redemption. Along the way a stranger joined them and asked what they were talking about. Astounded that there could be anybody who didn’t know about Jesus, Cleopas said something like, “Have you been living under a rock!? Let me tell you all about Jesus from Nazareth. He was a great prophet, everybody knew him. But something happened and our very own chief priests and leaders handed him over to be crucified by the Romans.” You can almost hear the unbelief, the despair in his voice. How could this have happened?
Then, after explaining all that had been going on in Jerusalem, Cleopas went on to say, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Hope. Fragile and slippery. Like Jesus, it can take shape in unexpected ways and then vanish into thin air just when you need it most.
These ancient words about hope ring true for us today. Who among us hasn’t thought, “I had hoped that if only…” I so desperately want things to look different, I need a photo opportunity. If only I were one of the worthy ones, I need a shot at redemption. I don’t want to just be a caricature of myself, I don’t want to wind up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard. If only… I had hoped that if only…
Cleopas and his companion had hoped Jesus would redeem Israel, but our hopes for redemption have grown more personal. We are individualized Americans, after all: Independent, singular, almost defiantly unconnected. The things we want redeemed are more personal. In fact, we might not even mention them to others but those memories, the little hopes that really should have come to pass, missed opportunities, poor choices, the drudgery of it all… Oh, we want a shot at some redemption. Reduced, without our consent, to categories of convenience for governments and churches too, we are either worthy or unworthy cartoon characters. But it’s all just cartoons. We need a shot at redemption.
Like Cleopas and the other disciple, we wonder if Jesus was the one. Is there redemption for us? Can these cartoon bones live again?
In the story we read this morning, as it was getting dark, Cleopas and the other disciple reached their home but Jesus didn’t stop. It looked as if he were going to continue on. Cleopas and his friend said, “Oh, no… stay with us,” and the text says that they were emphatic about it. It wasn’t just a throw off, “Well, you could have something to eat…” They were insistent that this stranger should not go off into the night alone and without food. They pressed him to stay with them. So, the stranger – whom we insiders know to be Jesus – stayed with them and they had a meal.
It was in this act of sharing and eating together that Cleopas and his friend recognized Jesus, they knew for sure that they had gotten their shot at redemption. A lot will be made in some quarters about the phrase, “breaking of the bread,” as if Jesus had whipped out his Book of Common Prayer, 1979 edition, maybe even used Eucharistic Prayer C… that rebel… and conducted a proper Eucharistic celebration. But, it wasn’t like that at all. They just ate. They shared what they had. They took care of one another. There are no cartoons, no caricatures, around a dinner table. Everybody needs to eat, everybody needs a mug of wine, and everybody is looking for redemption.
Most of us will gather around some kind of table today. Maybe you’re thinking of the Eucharistic table, that certainly does work. I am thinking of all the tables I’ve shared with other travelers; people I’d only just met. My Jewish friends recently sat around their Seder table. You may approach another kind of table: The kitchen table is a favorite, maybe a work bench, your desk… some place where you can share what you have, break out of the cartoon graveyard, and get your shot at redemption.
Redemption, after all, is about simply being who God has made us to be. In Cleopas’s time Israel wanted to live into the promise of its identity as God’s people, and most of us today just want to be who we were made to be too. Maybe you’re a preacher, or a teacher, a carpenter, or a forger of steel, a writer, a singer, a poet, a knitter, a painter, or just one of God’s characters! As you gather around the table – whatever table you have – how can you live into the promise of your own identity? Who has God called you to be, what will you do, and how will you share what you have? Or, to borrow from Mary Oliver, “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It has been redeemed, you know. You’ve got your shot! I know that the world tries to reduce us to manageable cardboard cut-outs of compliance, but the truth is that we have been made into kings and priests… and rebels. So, get out there and be redeemed, Jesus was the one! And when we see one another around the Kingdom, I’ll call you Betty, and you can call me Al.
Some Notes of Possible interest
It is hard to tell how many people there are in the Bible. Some of them share names, and some of them share similar names, and some of them have more than one name! It really is hard to keep up.
One of the differences in discerning whether Cleopas, Cleopas, and Altheus are one person, two, or three different people comes down to whether or not one uses Mishnic Hebrew or some kind of Greek system which arbitrarily replaces tets with kappas. Some articles, like this one, state that Clopas is not to be confused with Cleopas. Others state that they are the same person, like this definition at a Christian website. Some scholars treat it as a mere spelling error. But, the thing is, nobody knows.
It is difficult to nail down the exact location of Emmaus. This passage may help:
Where was Emmaus? Most manuscripts of Luke 24:13 say that it was 60 stadia from Jerusalem, about seven miles. Two of the traditional sites fit this distance. One is Aub Ghosh, the Kiriath-jearim of the Old Testament, on the main road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. The Crusaders may have chosen this village because it was on the highway they knew and the place nearest to a point 60 stadia from the city. The other, El-Qubeibeh, is north of here, on a less traveled, road. In the 12th century a church and castle were constructed here, perhaps to provide a place where pilgrims could rest on their way to the Holy City. The church, reconstructed in 1902, is attractive, but the site has been identified as Emmaus only since about 1500.
In ancient times there was a city named Emmaus near the coastal plain, which figured in the wars of Judas Maccabeaus (Macc.3:38-4:15). In the 3rd century A. D. it was renamed Nicopolis, but its modern Arabic name is Imwas. A tradition as early as Eusebius in the 4th century regarded this as the Emmaus of the gospel story, and the Christian scholar Julius Africanus lived there. A Byzantine church (perhaps 5th century) was located in the town; later the Crusaders built a smaller church, using the old apse.
The difficulty is that Emmaus-Nicopolis is much farther from Jerusalem than the other places. But there are a few ancient manuscripts of Luke 24:13 that read 160 stadia, and Eusebius and Jerome accept this reading, as to the Armenian and Palestinian Syriac translations.
The Cistercian Abbey of Latrun is nearby. The story is that two of the monks once decided to see if it was possible to walk from Jerusalem to Imwas and back again in the evening. They were successful.
Johnson, Sherman E., Jesus and His Towns, Good News Series, Vol. 29, Wilmington, Delaware, Michael Glazier, 1989 — This book is available in paperback for $189 US. (Click on the link if you don’t believe me.) I often reach for it. It’s useful. It is not worth $189, though.
The text doesn’t tell us anything about Cleopas’s companion. Some have speculated that it was his wife. But, really, nobody knows. It’s just a story. These people aren’t even real.
I think this is a very important point, and I hesitate to bury it in my notes, but please note that Cleopas and his friend were not believers. They may have been hopeful, but they were not at all sure about Jesus. Yet, the writer consistently calls them disciples. Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with certainty of belief, but if we are to believe this text, it is about being fully engaged in a conversation about who he was and is, and what it may mean for us today. It’s about bringing it all to bear on the questions and the journey.
Eucharistic Prayer C is sometimes called The Star Wars Prayer because it talks about this planet being our “island home” and the “vast expanse of interstellar space.” I think it’s important to remember that our planet is not the only one, but some people don’t like all the spacey stuff. The bit that puts some people off is:
God of all power, Ruler of the Universe
you are worthy of glory and praise.
Glory to you for ever and ever.
At your command all things came to be:
the vast expanse of interstellar space,
galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile earth, our island home.
By your will they were created and have their being.
(Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer, p. 370)
You can read the whole Episcopal Book of Common Prayer here. It is certainly a handy resource if you want to pray but don’t really know what words you want to use; you can borrow some of these prayers.
Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, ends with the lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
As promised: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IH8r91eiE0g
Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China where she is recovering from her annual Spring Cold.
Image: Bangkok, Thailand, Central World Mall, 2016 by Linda McMillan