Homily: Breaking Bread/Companions on the Road

   There is, without doubt, no more powerful Gospel resurrection story than the simple acts and events of this passage from Luke about the encounter on the road to Emmaus. Friends are making their way from one place – a place of hope-turned-into-despair, a place of perplexity, to another place: Emmaus. There are many ways we seek to find a place, an Emmaus, to run to when we have lost hope or don’t know what to do, the place of escape, of forgetting, of giving up, of deadening our senses and our minds and maybe our hearts, too. One writer, reflecting on this passage has suggested: “Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday.”

   Perhaps, among us today are some folks who have gone to Emmaus, even though they appear to be in church. What do you think drove, them here? The community of faith, of course: we are called to support the “opening of their eyes” – of all of our eyes, really, because we are ‘companions on the road’. Did you know that the word ‘companion’ is rooted in the words, ‘to eat bread with’. Surely, we are on this road, the journey of faith, together.

   In fact, these resurrection appearances are powerful stories of community, of believers, doubters, and strugglers gathering and breaking apart, sharing their memories of Jesus – his deeds and his words – and then, like people of faith today, shining the light of Scripture on that experience and coming to new understandings.

 But that’s not all. They sit down at table together and break bread, and often, more than intellectual understanding, they come to see with their hearts what was right before them. What are stories from your own life, when your eyes were opened when someone welcomed you, or because you opened your heart, your door, your life, to a stranger, someone you didn’t expect to be a blessing?

   If the world of the disciples had been turned upside down by this person Jesus, think of how that same world had been ‘rocked’ by his death. Even so, they haven’t had time to absorb that calamity when new stories have sprung up. Think of times when the news, or your own life, unfolded in ways that shook the foundations of what you believed in, perhaps too fast for you to process and integrate into your understanding. What did you do to find peace and balance, and to build new foundations?

   If the Bible is stories about hospitality, we might hear this story as one of hospitality and its deeper meanings. Hospitality isn’t a condescending or begrudging, dutiful sharing. It’s an openness to change and a welcoming of the new learning change brings, however uncomfortable and perhaps even painful that change may be. Hospitality and openness make transformation possible, especially when brought to us from the most unexpected places by the most unlikely people, perhaps even by strangers. If we know that we must see Jesus ‘in the least of these’, we have a clear mandate from Him to share our table and its abundance with all who are hungry, physically and/or spiritually.

   In the church, we sometimes neglect both spiritual and physical hunger as we go about our ‘church business’. Perhaps we have a thriving hunger ministry with our food pantry and our hospitality gatherings after Mass at times, while we unintentionally neglect additional ways to feed the spirit. Yes, the spirit is fed when we are fully engaged in the mission of serving those in need, but we also need times of quiet, of reflection and meditation, of deep prayer and meaningful worship, of spiritual growth and prayer. People want, no, need, to experience the divine, the sacred, the holy. They are dying for want of grace, wonder, mystery, and not for want committees, and sign-up lists. In what ways have you known hunger, both physical and spiritual? Who was the unexpected person who shared something with you, and in doing so, transformed your life?

Hospitality has the potential to transform our lives if it opens our eyes even more than we have opened our doors. It’s not simply a matter of being nice; hospitality is justice and generosity embodied, a spiritual practice that both requires and brings spiritual growth.

Similarly, there is that kind of hospitality that comes from simply listening to those whose belief in God is strikingly different from our Christian beliefs: those of Muslim or Hindu or Native American backgrounds. It takes an extra effort on my part to quiet my mind and listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even to find common ground with them: it demands a kind of intellectual hospitality that I practice more readily toward non-Christian sisters and brothers than I do toward Christians who disagree strongly with my perspectives. I wonder if I could sit down to dinner with them, and be at ease (or not), but in any case, to feel that I met them as my brothers and sisters, not as ‘others’. It seems to me that many folks become unexpected friends because they sat down to dinner and broke bread together.

   I wonder if we can open ourselves to entertain stories and histories that will change our understanding of who we are and how we have been in relation to other peoples, other nations. We need to fill in those tremendous gaps in our education. Reading can help us open our hearts and lives to others, and to see Jesus in everyone we meet. Perhaps, if we could see ourselves and those we consider ‘other’ in new ways, we might practice a new humility and graciousness in sharing the blessings of God more generously and more equitably. Intellectual Hospitality also, then, and hospitality of the heart: both can open our lives to the stories, suffering, gifts and hopes of others. But it takes a lot of practice; and a lot of patience.

   The experience of these two travelers (you know, one may have been a woman, like other New Testament pairs) was fleeting, as our glimpses of God, or brushes with God’s presence, are. I’m sure they looked back on their experiences and processed them, understanding them better in the ‘rear view mirror’ of reflection than they did even face-to-face.

How does God still speak to you today, through your own encounter with Jesus? We’re not just hearing and reading a story about something that happened to others, long ago and far away. It’s happening here, today, in our lives, too, if we open our eyes and see, and then maybe our hearts, too, will burn within us. When we struggle with questions of meaning and we just can’t understand what’s happening around us, the answer is often right before us.

   But we can’t just read, listen and reflect. So much in this Sunday’s readings, as in all of Scripture, calls for our response. The crowd in the reading from Acts, hearing Peter’s passionate sermon, asks what they should do, and he calls them to repent and be baptized. But he also makes a promise: they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is not just for them, but for us today, their descendants in faith, and for all who are far away, all whom the Lord our God calls to Himself. In this passage, Peter said the Gentiles were being called also. That was unthinkable for many in the early church.

   We may look around and wonder who the ‘unthinkable’ ones are today, those who are ‘far away’ – at least from us – but nevertheless called by God. The hospitality of a still-speaking God calls for a response from us that repents our failure to include and welcome and empower even the least likely and the most unexpected? What sort of transformation might that work in our lives and our parish if we did so today? We here at St. James live in the midst of a community that in many ways does not even know we exist. The hospitality of the disciples at Emmaus should still be our model and our example.

   The reading from the second reading, from First Peter may be addressed to those who are not only aliens metaphorically but concretely so, as well; those who feel “not at home” where they are, perhaps stripped of their rights to participate fully in the life of the community and to enjoy its protections and benefits. If our response to all of this good news, and to the call of a gracious, generous, hospitable, compassionate and still-speaking God, is to “love one another deeply from the heart,” how will our lives and our parish look and feel different than it does now?

   Oscar Wilde, in his usual outrageous manner, once said, “I can believe anything, provided it is incredible.” Henry David Thoreau added the insight: “Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.” And Mahatma Gandhi, completes our insights on companionship for today: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”     (Katheryn Matthews Huey)

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