April 30, 2017 – Rev. Tammy Stampfli, DMin
About five years ago when it was released, I read Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild. The book was incredibly compelling, I could hardly put it down. It opens with her hiking boot going over the edge of a cliff. My heart sped up and my breathing grew more rapid as I imagined this woman continuing her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail without a boot! I haven’t been a back-packer, more of a day hiker, and I can tell you that good footwear is critical! I was more surprised when she threw her other hiking boot over the cliff to follow the first. This loss of hiking boots was stunning, but it was a blip compared to her other issues. She had way too much stuff in her back pack. She walked, per her own description in a “mostly upright position.” She had brought gasoline to fuel her propane stove. Many times on the journey she didn’t have enough water or food or even safety. She was a novice, completely unprepared for the difficulty of this trek.
Why would a woman in her 20’s with no real back-packing experience sell everything she had and buy a pack, tent and supplies and tackle the Pacific Crest Trail? She was devastated with grief over the recent death of her mother (who died at age 45 from cancer) and over her divorce from a man that she loved. We are often compelled forward on a journey when our lives are blown to bits.
The lives of the disciples had been blown to bits. They had been following Jesus who had been put to death by the powers. First the women had gone to the tomb and they came back exclaiming that Jesus was gone. The disciples didn’t believe the women, then Peter ran to the tomb himself and saw only the linen cloth lying there so he came back wondering what the heck had happened. So, a couple of disciples hit the road. They were travelling to Emmaus, Luke tells us, a walk that was slightly more than a 10K from Jerusalem. While they made this journey, they were joined by Jesus who walked with them. Jesus could see that they looked depressed and distressed and asked them what they had been talking about. They seemed surprised that Jesus had been in Jerusalem and hadn’t heard what had happened over the last several days. He did not seem to be up on the news! The disciples gave Jesus a blow by blow of what had happened and processed their sadness and huge sense of loss. It was as if their dreams had died, it was as if their hopes had been blown to bits. In verse 27 they say: We had hoped that he would be the one who would redeem Israel. We had hoped. This is a little ordinary verb in the imperfect tense in Greek, which suggests continuous action, perhaps because something took numerous attempts to complete or took a long time, or a lot of effort, but the hope didn’t materialize…we had hoped.
Perhaps Cheryl Strayed, the hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail and author of Wild, had hoped that her mother would beat cancer, or she had hoped that her mom would have lived longer than 49 days from the time she was diagnosed. Perhaps she had hoped that her marriage would not have imploded. Perhaps she had hoped that she would be better prepared for the journey on the trail. Think of all the times you use those little words: we had hoped that the chemotherapy would be successful, we had hoped that the election would have turned out differently, we had hoped that our child would turn in their assignment on time. We had hoped that the relationship with our friend would improve.
For the disciples, the events of the past days had brought an end to the habit of hoping. We do get to that place at times don’t we: the end of the habit of hoping?
Jesus doesn’t provide the listening ear, or the hug, or the sympathetic words. He doesn’t do grief counselling or say how sorry he is. Unbelievably, he says: “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets have talked about!” And then he goes on the interpret to these two disciples what had been written about him starting with Moses and the Pentateuch. He attempts to reach into the fog of their grief and point out the signposts of hope. And while he teaches, they continue walking on the journey until they reach their destination: Emmaus.
I want to back up for a minute here. We have two disciples: One named Cleopas and one who is unnamed. We never hear of Cleopas before this reading in Luke and we never hear of him again. We don’t even know who the second disciple is. We also have no idea where Emmaus is, nor where it was then. Of course, scholars have guessed and conjectured and wondered. From this lack of information we can conclude that the story isn’t really even about the disciples in the story and the story isn’t about the destination. This story is about the journey. This story is about what happens on the journey. This story is about transformation.
After this long day of walking without realizing in whose company they were, the secret of who Jesus was is finally revealed to his companions in a very beautiful and symbolic way. They beg him not to go, but to instead join them for dinner, and as Jesus breaks the bread and says the traditional blessing, the moment of their last supper with him is re-created – reality shifts, and it is suddenly as if they are once again in the Upper Room – before the betrayal, before the horror, and Jesus is with them, alive and well! Just as suddenly – their memory restored – the vision shimmers and goes out, but in that instance, they realize that the Resurrection has truly occurred. This meal, and with it the institution of Communion, becomes the center of their resurrection testimony. It was in that meal that they saw him, it was in the breaking of the bread.
I think the reason that Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild resonates with me so deeply is because it fits into the frame work of this transformational journey of the two disciples realizing that they were in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. While they are breaking bread together, incredible insight dawns upon them. As her time on the Pacific Coast Trail neared the end she began camping with friends that she had met on the journey. She was able to reflect on her marriage to Eddie. It was Eddie who had taught her how to make a fire, and who had taken her camping for the first time. She realized that without Eddie’s influence, she never would have ended up on the PCT. Although he had ultimately drifted from her, Eddie had loved her well when it mattered the most.
As she continued to journey with her companions her days were filled with laughter and good company, and it felt to Cheryl like a summer camp. But eventually, she parted ways with the rest, wanting to hike the rest of the journey alone. She reached Mount Hood, impressed by how different it looked up close than it did from afar. As she stared at the river, she thought of her mother on the other side of it and felt a huge release, as if she was finally letting her go. At last she reached the Bridge of Gods, which spanned the Columbia River, connecting Oregon and Washington. Strayed touched the bridge, awed and humbled that she had at last made it and that her trip was at its end.
She ordered ice cream by the bridge, spending the last of her money. She had only twenty cents left in the world, but she accepted this with contentment. A man her age approached her and began talking to her about her trip. Impressed, he gave her a business card and told her to get in touch with him when she reached Portland so they could talk more. The man ended up becoming her husband, and over a decade later they would return to that very ice cream place with their two children. The trail was the journey where she was transformed, with all its mysteries and hardship, it’s burning hearts and insights.
Christ is found in our companions, the ones we eat bread with, and the dinner table is the Lord’s everyday cathedral. It is in the saying of table blessings and the breaking of bread with one another that a meal with Jesus is celebrated, and his resurrected presence is experienced. It is the place where we are transformed.