Destiny or Fate — Your Highway?

When I was sixteen, like many kids my age, I was more than excited to be going in to the DMV, prepped for the written exam and ready to get my learner’s permit.  After I had waited for what seemed an eternity for a window clerk to grade my test, I then went to the vision test.

That’s where things fell apart.  I could read the big capital “E” at the very top, but couldn’t understand why the rest of the chart was so blurry that I couldn’t discern anything else.

The examiner told me I needed glasses.  The way I was now, I’d be a menace on the highway.  I wouldn’t be able to see where I was going, and I’d be flat-out lucky to get there alive.

Needless to say, I left the DMV office pretty dejected.  Hopes dashed.  I was not going to be on the highway to any exciting teenage days, or to anywhere else — anytime soon.

So, I know a little of the dejection a couple of Jesus’ disciples may have felt as they walked a dusty road to an out-of-the-way, nowhere place.

We open Luke’s post-Easter account of a couple of down-at-the-mouth followers of Jesus on the road to a small village, Emmaus.  All their hopes dashed with their teacher having been executed by the state – a most ignominious death.  Most of the followers having fled, returned in mourning to their previous lives. That road to Emmaus is some seven miles – walking on foot, these men must have had quite some while to allow discouragement to set in as they plodded along.  The Risen Christ of Easter morn was already a distant memory.

Today, as our pews have now emptied out three weeks after Easter, many of our people have fled along their own Emmaus Roads with little or no direction as to where they might be headed. 

Lost in their misery, those original travelers hardly take notice when they are joined by a third, a stranger whom they do not recognize.

“And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’  They stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’  He asked them, ‘What things?’

The disciples recounted for the stranger the events of those last several days of how their teacher, the one they were sure was sent from God to redeem Israel – was put to death on a cross, and all their hopes dashed.  They mourned the fate of their friend Jesus, tortured and crucified by the powers in charge.  And though some women claimed to have seen him alive, these two hadn’t.  Probably just some old women’s tale.

“’Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’”

He then proceeds to recall from the prophets, beginning with Moses, all that had been said about himself.  But the travelers’ eyes were still not open to his identity.  That is because there is one more thing for them to learn.

When they near their destination, the stranger now has their rapt attention.  As he moves to proceed on his destination, they implore him to stay with them.  As they all sit down to table, he takes the bread and blesses it and breaks it.

Their eyes are now opened and they recognize him for who he truly is – as he vanishes from their sight.  “’Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’”

This is Luke’s answer to the question, how should we, those of us who have not seen the historical Jesus, receive him into our hearts:  by immersing ourselves in the story of our faith journey as reveled in scripture AND in table fellowship around the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup of the New Covenant.  These two experiences for believers will be sufficient.

They will fortify our journey on our Road to Emmaus as we experience the presence of the Risen Christ in fellowship around his table and remember our sacred history as a people and its promise.

Are we on a road that takes us wherever fate and chance might land us?  Or are we a people of destiny, called to live out a sacred vocation of all that we are called to be?

Having flunked my eye test, I felt I was on a road not going much of anywhere.  It wasn’t until I heard my name called as I listened to Dr. King addressing several thousand students in Lincoln, Nebraska, that I began to have a sense of purpose. 

I became aware of a new horizon beckoning – a calling worthy of my interests and abilities.  A destiny greater than myself.  That has made all the difference in the world – opening the windows to my soul, the windows to the world, the windows to a Power greater than myself.

Like those men who knew him not, what a surprise who discovered the sacred in their midst on that dusty road. 

After services at St. Francis, last Sunday and after a nap, Jai and I went to Temple Beth Israel for a program on the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah as it’s known in in Hebrew.

I had always known from family lore that we got the name, “Gross,” when several generations ago one of my maternal grandfather’s forebearers married a Jewish peddler who had come into town in Iowa.  That’s where my mom’s maiden name of Gross came from.  And, when asked by one of my sons if we had “that much” Jewish blood in the family, I responded, “It would have been enough for Hitler.”

As I sat through the evening’s talk by Professor Wendy Lower of Pomona College, as several family members of Holocaust survivors lit candles of remembrance, as we recited responsive readings and listened to a couple musical offerings composed by survivors, I suddenly found myself ambushed by an overwhelming emotional realization, “These are my people.”   Intellectually I had always known this.  Ethically, I could affirm our unity.  But that night came a much deeper realization.  Yes, it would have been enough for Hitler.

It is through this immersion in my faith tradition that has come the profound awareness that we are all one – not only an intellectual understanding, but one deep down in the gut, in the heart.  “Never again,” must also be my pledge.  As Dr. King would proclaim, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Our mutuality I affirm each time we gather around the Lord’s table and ground ourselves in the promise of our ancient writings.  They fortify.  They give perspective.  And they are indeed “Bread for the Journey.”

Had I never received the testimony of Dr. King, I have no idea where fate and chance might have landed me.  Rudderless and adrift.  Endlessly seeking an illusory rainbow’s end.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, I took that road with Christ and his company to Emmaus and “it has made all the difference.”  It has given me the strength and wisdom to say, “Never again. I will remember.”

We have a sign on our front lawn: “Black Lives Matter.”  After the nation watched in horror as the life was indifferently snuffed out of George Floyd, we have come to a new awareness of the terror that has always stalked America.  A violence “as American as Apple Pie.”  Now, no longer inflicted by men in funny sheets and pointy hats, but a terror perpetrated by the very same ones charged with ensuring public safety.  The litany is long:  Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Briana Taylor, Tamir Rice…the list exhausts the memory.  On and on it goes.

That yard sign is a political statement, an ethical statement.  Those whose lives are discounted and cut short by state violence do matter…MUST matter.

That sign in front of our yard is, for sure, a political and ethical statement.  It is now an existential statement in a way I would not have previously understood.  That is because our new daughter-in-law to be this October is African-American.  She’s a beautiful soul, precious in the eyes of God – and in the eyes of our family about to welcome her. 

I now understand the message of my sign with the same emotional impact as I do Dr. Lower’s talk this past evening in her remembrance of the Jewish families that perished at Babi Yar, that killing ravine outside of Kyiv in Ukraine, September 29-30, 1941. 

As a child I became sensitive to the racism in our society when our Black neighbors were flooded out of their home while on vacation.  Our church was a citadel of deafening silence.  This atrocity took place right under our noses and no one said anything.  Not a word from the pulpit…would have been unseemly to mention such in our nice, polite, respectable neighborhood – read white.

Injustice against one is an injustice against all.  Faced with such racial terror, we must answer, “Never again!”  We will remember.

It will possibly be our grandson, our granddaughter who is the future victim of police violence by some hotheaded cop with a chip on his shoulder.  Someone for whom Black lives matter not a wit.

It has been my life’s journey down this Emmaus Road, in the company of Christ and his followers that my soul has been opened to the suffering around, and also to the hope that we can do better.  Must do better.

On my journey I have encountered the Risen Christ in many guises.  And am so much the better for these blessed meetings.

It is the very same journey that has sensitized me to the journeys of those on the road of recovery.  Our nation is drowning under a tidal way of “deaths of despair.”  It has made me aware of the millions in our cities and in rural areas who have no idea where their next meal is coming from, or if they will even have a roof over their heads.

As the evening at Temple Beth Israel closed with a rendition of the music from Schindler’s list performed by a piano/cello duet, silent tears flowed down my cheeks.  It was an exquisite moment of remembering that we are all God’s children – all “tied together in the single garment of destiny.”

One of the unison readings of the evening, which resonated with King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” was a piece based on a text by Rabbi Bernard Rosenberg, “From Silence.”

“For there was a time when silence was a crime.  We think particularly of one night of silence, nearly eighty-four years ago.  Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, the 9th of November 1938.  Then, all the synagogues in Germany rose up in flame and smoke to the skies.  The churches next to them stood in darkness, and in silence.  The broken shop windows of the Jewish community littered the streets.  Neighbors walked upon the crunching splinters and were silent.  A few prayed.  Some courageously expressed their grief.  But a dark cloud of silence filled the world, a silence still present in too many places today even as images of new horrors confront us daily.”

“When will that silence end?  When will we speak out on behalf of suffering neighbors, populations, nations”

“Not until we affirm that we are all God’s children…”  When will we speak out?   Not until we affirm in word and deed that we truly are all God’s children.  That is our divine destiny.  That must be our Emmaus Road vow — Our Emmaus road of destiny to a land where we can all live together.   Amen.

April 23, 2023, Easter 3

“Destiny or Fate — Your Highway?”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17;
1 Peter 1:17-23; Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

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