The man is dead, and I’m glad he’s gone. I don’t need to mention his name, everybody has been talking about him all week. I’m glad he’s gone, and at the same I’m sorry that only death could stop his deadly plans. I long to live in the bright day when love triumphs over wrong, but these are foggy days, difficult days; perhaps the best we can do, is do what must be done, knowing that we must also continue to seek a path out of the endless cycles of violence and hate.
I want to honor this moment by recalling one of the thousands of life stories that were cut off brutally because of that man’s perverse piety and deathly imagination.
Beverly Eckert lost her husband, Sean Rooney, in the south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. She remembers her husband’s warm brown eyes, dark curly hair, and that he was “a good hugger.” The two met at a high school dance, when they were only 16 years old. When Sean died, they were 50.
On Sept. 11, Sean called his wife at 9:30 a.m. He told her he was on the 105th floor, and he’d been trying to get out. The stairwell was full of smoke. “I asked if it hurt for him to breathe,” Beverly recalled, “and he paused for a moment, and says, ‘No.’ He loved me enough to lie.” After a while, they stopped talking about escape routes and instead focused on the happiness they’d shared together. “I told him that I wanted to be there with him, but he said, no, no, he wanted me to live a full life,” she said.
As the smoke got thicker, Sean whispered, “ ‘I love you,’ over and over,” Beverly said. “I just wanted to crawl through the phone lines to him, to hold him, one last time.” Then she heard a sharp crack, followed by the sound of an avalanche. The building was beginning to collapse. Beverly called Sean’s name into the phone repeatedly, and then she just sat there, pressing the phone to her heart.
“I think about that last half-hour with Sean all the time. I remember how I didn’t want that day to end, terrible as it was, I didn’t want to go to sleep because as long as I was awake, it was still a day that I’d shared with Sean … I could still say that was just a little while ago, that was only this morning. And I just think of myself as living life for both of us now. And I like to think that Sean would be proud of me."
I heard this story on the radio, and it moved me deeply. I could see Beverly, exhausted by pain and tears, fighting sleep just so the day she had shared with Sean wouldn’t turn into yesterday. Where did she go when she woke up? We don’t know.
The story from Luke we heard invites us to see her as one of the companions on the road to Emmaus. Each of us walks that road when great love has been turned into grief, or when great hope has been drained. Emmaus is the place that we go to in order to escape. Emmaus is wherever we go to make ourselves forget what we cannot forget.
Seven miles is a good long walk. When your heart is broken and you don’t know where you are nor where to go, you go for a walk. Walking helps you sort through things. Sometimes you have to be alone – you take a walk by yourself, you want to be under tall, old trees; you look around, and when you know there’s no one else on the trail who could hear you, the words don’t just run through your head anymore, but spill out. You don’t really care who it is you’re talking to: yourself? God? The trees?
When your heart is broken and you don’t know where you are nor where to go, you go for a walk and you talk, sometimes by yourself, sometimes with a friend. You tell the story, again and again; the rhythm of your steps keeps your thoughts and memories from spiraling into chaos.
Seven miles, that’s a good long walk. Two of Jesus’ friends, Luke tells us, were on that road – Jerusalem behind them, Jerusalem and the events of the last few days. They were trying to unpack the flood of events that had just washed over them: the traumatic experience of Jesus’ arrest, the horror of his death, and this astounding story the women had to tell about a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive. It was all too much to take in, and so they walked. Their eyes were kept from recognizing Jesus who had come near and was going with them. “What are you talking about?” the stranger said to them, and they stood still. And then they told the story again, in rich, loving detail, how their hope had grown from a spark to a bright flame in the company of Jesus, and how death had snuffed the flame together with the life of their friend. Emmaus is where we go when we can speak of hope only in the past tense.
The stranger listened, and then he retold the story they had just finished, told it right back to them. He retold their story through the lens of God’s promises, from the perspective of God’s loving and saving intentions for all creation. Telling the story, he wove their deadly experiences of loss into the story of God’s faithfulness. Now they could hear the confusing rumors of resurrection as echoes of God’s promises to God’s people. Now they could begin to see that the suffering and death of the Messiah was not the end of their hope, but somehow a part of it. In the stranger’s words, the words of scripture opened up like blossoms, and the two companions opened up along with them.
“Stay with us,” they urged him when they reached the village and he was walking ahead as if he were going on. “Stay with us; it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. And there, at their kitchen table, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. That’s when the fog lifted and they recognized him. That’s when Easter finally dawned on them. The resurrection was no longer a rumor or an idle tale, but a new day, a new reality, God’s powerful rewrite of our story of sin.
Seven miles is the road from Friday to the new day. We walk those seven miles many times. We walk together, we talk, and we listen to our stories again as the living Christ weaves them into God’s story, and the fire returns to our hearts and we come to the table and he breaks the bread and suddenly the resurrection is no longer a tale we once heard but the new world we inhabit.
That same day, the two returned to Jerusalem and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together – and now everybody had a tale about the risen Lord! And while they were sharing resurrection stories, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” No one had let him in; he just showed up, again, startling them.
Now perhaps you think that since this was the third time that the resurrection disrupted their day, they should have been able to deal with the fact that Jesus was not dead but risen. But they were still startled and terrified, disbelieving and wondering, just like the rest of us.
Or perhaps you think it was time for them to get it and move on – but where to? What did it mean that Jesus was not dead but powerfully present? What does it mean?
In the gospel according to Luke that first day begins at early dawn, but it never ends. There’s not a single word indicating that eventually everybody got tired and went to bed. Jesus ate a little supper of broiled fish, and then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. How long do you think he taught them? Until the next morning?
He taught them until their imagination was unlocked and in sync with the new creation. He teaches us until our imagination begins to fathom the reality of this new day.
“You are witnesses,” he said to them, he says to us. The world knows terror and fear and violence, but you know life and love and hope in a way that the world doesn’t. You are witnesses.
In Luke’s telling of the gospel, the entire final chapter is dedicated to the first day when Jesus rose from the dead; and the sun doesn’t go down on that day, night doesn’t fall. The first day doesn’t end; it culminates in the disciples’ return to the city, and the way I see it, they are not alone. Returning with them in an unending procession of joy are the nations of the world who have heard the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
The story of this day is not written by our sin, but solely by God’s power to create and redeem, and this day does not turn into yesterday. “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus says to us. And we want to respond, “Who – us?” because the world has a way of robbing us of our hope, filling us with fear, closing our minds, and colonizing our imagination. But the Risen One continues to break into that reality saying, “Yes – you.”