I discovered hiking my senior year in college. A mentor and I went to Arethusa Falls near Crawford Notch up in the White Mountains. It was his idea, he had read about it in a Boston Globe article. One Saturday in the fall, we headed up to New Hampshire for the day, taking in the beauty of a glorious October day given to us by God. And I absolutely loved it. Both the nature part of it, hiking a moderate trail in the forest up to a 160 ft high waterfall, and the conversation part of it. I don’t remember exactly what we discussed that day, but I remember the connection of it, the gratefulness to share in that experience with someone who wanted only the best for me and my life.
There’s something about walking, of course. Ambulating gets the blood flowing. Henry David Thoreau was a noted walker, or, rather, “saunterer” as he preferred. He parsed that word down to its supposed use by French children who would exclaim they saw someone on pilgrimage to the “Sainte-Terre” —the Holy Land—and so they became known as Sainte-Terrers—Holy Landers. Thoreau felt any thing less than four hours of putting one foot in front of the other outdoors was utter madness, and he believed that there were holy lands to be uncovered in the landscape around Concord as he preserved both his health and his spirits.
Walking also allows one to think, to get thoughts moving, to explore the interior life. Many a writer describes the importance of stretching their legs on a ramble as part of their thought and writing process. And it was noted naturalist John Muir who wrote, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” We humans as bipeds were made for walking.
All of this is bubbling up for me, of course, because walking takes center stage this morning in our gospel lesson. Cleopas and his companion—likely his wife—are headed to Emmaus following the crushing blow of Jesus’ death. Clearly they had been followers of Jesus on the Way. But that weekend he had been killed by the authorities, and after spending the Sabbath with their friends, they don’t have anything left to do but walk back to their home some seven miles down. And like many a walker, they use the time to discuss everything that has happened, to try to make sense of something so senseless.
As they walk, a man comes up alongside them, falling into step with them. Luke tells his audience that it’s Jesus, but that the characters in the story don’t recognize him. They continue on the road together.
“What are you discussing?” he asks. They’re incredulous, since the execution of Jesus had seemed to them as being been pretty well known even in a big-city like Jerusalem. And with his question and all that it brings up for them, Luke notes, they are sad. So they tell him the horrid details, and that their hopes had been dashed by it all because they thought Jesus was the one who was to come. Finally, they mention how some of the women in their group had gone early to the tomb, but found it empty, and were met by angels telling them that Jesus had been raised, but they didn’t see him. And now because of everything, they were headed home.
Then Jesus tells them that they hadn’t interpreted things correctly at all and were a bit slow to catch on. So he begins to teach them about the way of the Messiah through the words of Moses and the Prophets in Scripture, that he would need to suffer before entering in to his glory.
We don’t know how long the conversation lasts, but it likely took up most of those seven miles, Jesus teaching them. And when they draw near to Emmaus, Cleopas and his wife begin to turn toward home, while Jesus looks as if he wants to keep walking. “Look,” they say, “evening is at hand, and the day is nearly over. Please join us for the night.” And he takes them up on the offer for hospitality.
When they get there, they begin to pull out things for a simple meal. As they sit down at the table, Jesus assumes the role of the host. He takes the bread and blesses it, and then he breaks it and gives it to them. Those four actions—taking, blessing, breaking, giving—they’ve seen them before. At the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000. They’re the same actions Jesus took just days before at his last supper. And with those actions, their memories are jarred awake from their stupor, and their eyes are opened. They see him for who he truly is just momentarily, and then Jesus vanishes from their sight.
Immediately they gather their things and make a bee-line for Jerusalem in order to tell the others. When they get there, Luke writes, “They told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
This past week hasn’t been good for my walking, at least according to my step-tracker. The rain and the chill put a damper on it. As have the pastoral needs that have crept in as we continue to weather a pandemic. If I hadn’t done a walk with our family yesterday on the St. Mark’s School cross country trail, my weekly step count would have been quite poor, never mind my physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. With the recommendations to stay home and avoid physical contact, it’s easy to avoid going out.
But Jesus was a walker. In his book The Sacred Journey, Charles Foster writes, “When Yahweh [the God of Israel] became a man, he was a homeless vagrant. He walked through Palestine proclaiming that a mysterious kingdom had arrived… He called people to follow him, and that meant walking.” The Early Church was known as the Way, or the Path. We speak of the journey of faith. Jesus asks us to follow him as he traveled all over the countryside teaching others. And in Luke, his first act after his resurrection—before Jesus appears to anyone else—his first inclination is to go for a seven mile walk.
As our family walked yesterday, we talked about this idea of Jesus walking. And not just Jesus, mind you, but Abraham who journeyed to a new land, and the children of Israel traveling in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. And the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt. Immediately someone mentioned the idea of faith as a journey. Another said that getting out allows you to engage with creation. And there were the benefits of just getting out of your own head—especially in a time of worry and stress—and breathing in fresh air. It helped bring a sense of calm.
The conversation wasn’t long as our attention turned to Buster who, while having his own hard year physically, was doggedly making it up the one steep hill. Once at the top the conversation shifted again to other things. And so it goes.
Faith is certainly a journey, and as we all know, there’s more to be made of what happens along the way than in the arrival at the destination. Frankly, this part of the journey is not one I’d pick for myself—too many people are hurting, too much pain and anxiety and fear is swirling around us. And yet I am reminded of the words of JRR Tolkien from the Lord of the Rings. In it the Hobbit Frodo is speaking to his mentor, the wizard Gandalf, about the journey to do away with the powerful ring and all that takes place because of wanting that ring. “‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”
I would rather not be here appearing on your screens at home this morning, preferring instead to be worshipping together as we always have. My choice would not be to have a pandemic and economic crash with all their horrific life-altering damage. In much the same way that Cleapas and his companion would have rather not had the crucifixion. Or the Israelites the journey through the desert. But such times allow us to see how God-made-flesh comes alongside us on the journey. For scripture to begin to be heard differently. For compassion and empathy to emerge more readily. For we are not alone. We have encountered a God who walks, and invites us to follow on the Way. It is a way that leads to life and resurrection, if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other. If we just hold fast to the journey. Let us not lose heart in the face of so much grief and pain. Rather let us travel with the One who will guide us home. Amen.