April 23, 2023 - Third Sunday of Easter
Easter week, Nathan and I had the chance to get away. While we were at the beach, I read a novel called Still Life by Sarah Winman—some of you may know it. Set mostly in Italy just after World War II, it tells the story of unlikely encounters and how these encounters lead to adventures that change the lives of the characters. One such meeting happens between the central character Ulysses Temper, a soldier, and Arturo Bernadini, whom Ulysses meets initially, on a rooftop, where Arturo’s life is in immediate, grave danger.
Skillfully and with no small risk to himself, and—without the benefit of a common language, Ulysses gets Arturo off the roof and down to safety. Afterwards, the two men sit in the kitchen of Arturo’s home. There, they make simple conversation, despite sharing no common language.
They view a photograph of a work of art still hanging in a church in Florence today—a piece depicting the moment Christ’s body was taken from the cross. After viewing this art, and considering what has just transpired—the rescue of Arturo by Ulysses, the two men stay at the table.
Arturo removes some floor tiles covering a hidden pantry and pulls out a bottle of wine, a candle, and a bit of cheese. Ulysses pulls out a can of ham and puts it on the table. Arturo begins to cry. “It’s only ham,” Ulysses says. But of course, the tears were not about the ham.
For two hours, they pour wine, eat cheese, and talk. For those couple of hours, time is suspended. Winman tells us, “They listened with hearts instead of ears, and in the candlelit kitchen three floors up in an old palazzo, death was put on hold. For another night or day or week or year.”
Up in an old palazzo, death was put on hold for another night, or week or year. And, in its place, life. Life, and hope for the adventure that lay ahead.
Such was the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like Arturo and Ulysses, these friends had just experienced the trauma of crucifixion. And, then, the confusion of what happened in the night—a stone rolled back, a body missing, rumors he was alive, things they thought they had seen but could not make sense of.
Now, as they walk to get to a different place, where perhaps they can clear their minds and try to absorb recent events, they are joined by a person they do not recognize. He asks them questions about what has happened. They tell him everything. And then, in response, he tells them the story of their ancestors, their own story. As they listen, things begin to make more sense.
Not knowing, still, who he is, they nevertheless want him to remain. So, they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.
The way they implore Jesus to stay with them on the road to Emmaus reminds me of a song that comes back to me during moments I don't want to see end:
The clock on the wall says it's time to go
but I know my heart really wants you to stay a while
Hear the seconds ticking by but outside the world is still
So before you have to go
Stay a while with me.
–Music and Lyrics by Carol Maillard
To me, this song is an Emmaus road lullaby. It’s about staying in a moment. Usually, it’s a moment we don’t really understand yet don’t want to have end. In such moments, if someone truly communes with us, if they manage to stay present to us there, then death, sorrow, and fear— are, indeed put on hold. And, in their place—with things as simple as a jug of wine, a crust of bread, a bit of cheese, a flicker of candlelight, comes life. And possibility.
When his friends urge him, Jesus stays with them. And it is in the moments that follow, sitting at table, breaking bread, in those moments, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
In moments when we are disoriented, by loss, by tragedy, or perhaps by strange new life, in those moments, like Arturo in the novel, like Jesus’ friends in the gospel, we need time across the table with one who sees us, with one who loves us as we are, with one who tells us what we need to understand. Such disorienting moments can be the precursor to new life, to a new possibility, to new adventure.
So, look for the Emmaus road.
It is the road for those who are disoriented, those who are curious, those who long for new adventure beyond loss.
On the Emmaus road, you find that most adventures worth taking begin just beyond what you do not understand.
Any adventure worth embracing involves some degree of being disoriented.
It is when we have lost the compass that we find the Emmaus Road.
Times when we are confronted with mysteries that bring us sorrow and mysteries that bring us strange, unfamiliar hope. Our Emmaus Road times happen infrequently, but when they do, we best pay attention.
This morning, I have the distinct honor of confirming, receiving and reaffirming vows with those of you who have chosen this path today. As you receive the power of the Holy Spirit this morning, the person of the Trinity who ushered in the new adventure for Jesus’ disciples, remember the first questions, the first disorienting moments that led those disciples to discover their new adventure began on the Road to Emmaus. So, in your own lives, seek the Emmaus road. Seek it when you are unsure, when you are afraid, when you are puzzled or confused.
Remember, in those times, to listen with your heart. Remember to entertain strangers and to become curious. Remember to open yourselves. For it is in such times when you are open that possibility can take root. It is in such times that your adventures will begin.
To the youth who are being confirmed, listen. I pray your lives will be filled with joy—so much joy. And, I know, too, that your life will bring hard times—because, that’s the way it is in this world. The beauty and the pain are intertwined. What I want you to see today is this community—all around you. These people who greet you every week—who call you by name, who laugh with you and listen to you and inspire your questions, your hopes, and your dreams—these people are your people.
This community is here for you—today, and for the rest of your lives. And, in those times when you feel disoriented, when you’ve experienced loss and even death—you can turn to this community. You can call up a priest or a lay person—or a bishop for that matter—from wherever in this world you are—and say, “Stay with me. Talk with me, Listen with your heart to me.” You can ask us to stay with you, a little bit longer. Invite us to walk your Emmaus Road with you.
And to you who are further along in life’s journey, if you think you must go it alone with all the burdens of this world, you do not. If you wonder who else will share the mystery of hope in your times of expectant joy, look around you.
Many years after Ulysses saved Arturo’s life then broke bread with him in his kitchen, he received a letter. “If you are reading this letter,” it said, “I am dead.” “Nine years have passed since our brief acquaintance. and the image of you seated across the table has led me across them all. Did I change my life sufficiently to reflect kindness you showed me that strange afternoon in August,” Arturo wonders. “I don’t know. I hope so. In my small way, I think maybe I did.” And then, Arturo says, “No single act of generosity remains in isolation—The ripples are many.”
I have been here only a short while as your bishop. But, I’ve been here long enough to discover that here, in this beloved place we call Grace, there is real community. Community that reflects resurrected life—life, that is, beyond death and its grip on us. A new kind of life—of the sort Arturo and Ulysses discovered. Of the sort the disciples and Jesus discovered on the road to Emmaus. This new life is resurrection.
And resurrection entails discovering what you least expected—huge, immovable stones rolled away, death defied, people understanding each other with no common language, morsels of life hidden in pantries under floor tiles, curious encounters that turn out to be sightings of the divine. Here, we practice such resurrection.
Here, no single act of generosity remains in isolation—the ripples are many. Infinite, I might add.
And so, as I lay my hands on those saying "yes" to this strange and beautiful journey, remember, wherever you roam, always, the road to Emmaus is yours. Always, this community is at your side, ready to ready to stay a little bit longer with you when you need us, ready to lift the floor tile, find a jug of wine, a crust of bread, and a flicker of candlelight to offer you at table. Ready to put death on hold for another night, or week, or year. And ready to help you find, in its place, at the table of the risen Lord, life and hope for the adventure that lies ahead.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.