“Unexpected Journey”

Luke 24: 13 – 21; 25 – 31 – Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN   When Redlands United Church of Christ was only three years old (1978), the members of this congregation bought over three acres of an orange grove with a heritage house on it. The members remodeled the heritage house into a church house with church offices.  As a member of this church in those early years, I attended Sunday School and youth group in the church house. I experienced unconditional love and acceptance like I had never experienced anywhere else. And it was in that church house, that Rev. Richard Blakely would meet with me on a weekly basis – we would discuss discussing my faith journey, the historical Jesus, my call to ministry which I had heard at the age of 15, my personal teenage struggles and challenges.  Those hours with Richard were life-shaping and life-changing! The church house was really a sanctuary for me and for others.

On August 10, 1998, the church house burned down. All that remained were the foundation stones of the Heritage House. Desiring to create resurrection in the midst of tragedy, a church named Bonnie Parmenter suggested building a labyrinth from the foundation stones of the old house. The idea spread quickly.  It was a huge project though. The foundation rocks weighed between 5 and 95 pounds each. Each rock had to be properly placed. As you can image, this required hours, days, weeks, month and year of backbreaking labor.

The founders and builders of the labyrinth included: Richard and Kathie Blakey, Eric and Valerie Naftzger, Helen and Steve Arth, Ken and Jane Hurley, Dorothy Johnson, Dianne and Dorothy Landeros, Richard Hodson, Craig Wesson, Galilee Glanville, Lora Hall, Bonnie Parmenter, President betty Wheeler and Pastor Jim Vucolo. Students from Grove High School also helped to fulfill their community service requirements. I give thanks for the vision, the passion, and the incredible labor in creating such a beautiful, meaningful labyrinth. A physical representation of the spiritual journey. The original labyrinth was built and dedicated in 1999 and has been used by church and community members for many years.

Though the years with the erosion of soil, it became harder to walk the rocky labyrinth. Cherie and Glen Rouse suggested that we revitalize the labyrinth to make it more user friendly. They offered to direct and fund the project. Cherie hired a master stone mason, Kevon Jones, to help design the renewed the labyrinth. The labyrinth crew included Kevon, Sam Samra and Gabriel Guttierez.  In this picture, we see the new labyrinth, Cretan in design, with a Celtic cross layout and a decomposed granite path. The foundation rocks were incorporated into the project, outlining garden paths leading to the labyrinth and for stone benches for people to sit and rest.

Many are familiar with labyrinths, but for those who are not, what exactly is a labyrinth? A labyrinth looks like a maze, but it is not a maze. A maze has dead ends, wrong turns and cul-de-sacs. A maze is designed to confuse you, to make you lose your way. A labyrinth is designed to help you find your way. A labyrinth has no dead ends and no wrong turns. There is one path that leads you to the center and the same path that leads you back out. The labyrinth is based on the circle, the universal symbol of wholeness and unity.

The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool. The labyrinth is over 4000 years old. Many cultures utilized the labyrinth to create sacred space: the Greeks, Jews, Muslims and Hopi to name a few. In the great cathedrals of France, astonishing labyrinths are embedded in the floors of the church. In medieval times, pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles to the Cathedrals. Many believed that the cathedrals, because they are so high, were the closest places to God believing that God resided high in the heavens. When they would arrive to the cathedral, they would often crawl the last part of the pilgrimage, they would crawl the labyrinth. And then sleep in its center hoping that their dreams would reveal the mystery of God. The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual mediation and prayer tool being rediscovered. The labyrinth is a metaphor for our own life’s journey with its unexpected twists and turns.

How does one walk a labyrinth? First, I want to encourage you to pause and wait at the entrance. Be intentional with that very first step onto the labyrinth. After all, this is a metaphor for your life (and likewise, I encourage you to be very intentional about your last step off the labyrinth). After you take that first step onto the journey, you can use different methods as you follow the path to the center, where the eternal Beloved waits to be encountered. The classical threefold journey includes purgation, illumination and union. Or release, receive, and return. During the path from the entrance to the center, we release whatever is that weighing upon us. Gently offering our concerns to the Beloved. As we enter the center, we sometimes receive clarity, insight and wisdom. As we return on the path from the center, with a sense of harmony and peace, we are in union, in oneness with the Creator.

That is the traditional way of walking the labyrinth. Other approaches may include an intentional walk, where you address a specific intention, issue or concern as you walk. An intercessory walk, offering prayer for people or for ourselves. Maybe we are struggling with grief, illness, or anger. The labyrinth can be a tool for healing and wholeness. We can take a meditative walk, meditating on a specific word or passage or prayer. A conversational walk, conversing with God. A relaxed walk, temporarily releasing concerns while being open and peaceful. You can walk a dream or a memory or connect with loved ones who have passed from life to Life.  It is a labyrinth of grace and there are many ways to walk a labyrinth.

As you walk, find your natural pace. Some walk slowly. Some walk faster. Children like to run. Personally, I have skipped on the labyrinth journey, danced he labyrinth, and crawled the labyrinth. At times the journey is somber. At times the journey is joyous. Sometimes it is thoughtful and prayerful. I have walked labyrinths by myself at midnight and I have led worship services on labyrinths with large groups of people. There is no wrong way to walk a labyrinth. It is a labyrinth of grace.  Sense the earth. Feel her pulse. Kiss the ground with your feet.

This morning in our scripture passage, we meet two who find themselves on a journey.  Cleopas and his companion, most likely his wife, are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus, they were going home:  they are grief-stricken and heartbroken.  Their feet shuffle, their heads hang, their shoulders droop. The 7 miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus must feel like seventy.  Their Jesus is dead.  The one whom they deeply love, the one whom they followed with wild abandon, the one whom they trusted above anyone else, this one, Jesus, is dead.  And Cleopas and his companion are devastated. And so they go home to Emmaus where they can shut the door and give up on life.

No one knows for sure where Emmaus is located.  Several possibilities have surfaced, but perhaps vagueness is a virtue.  In not locating Emmaus, we are open to the possibility that Emmaus is anywhere and Emmaus is everywhere.  We’ve all been on the road to Emmaus. We’ve all wanted to shut the door and give up on life.  We’ve all wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.  Yes, the road to Emmaus is the long road back from a broken relationship, from financial ruin, from the loss of a job, from a life-threatening illness, from the death of a loved one, from the wake of a tornado or hurricane or earthquake. The spiritual landscape of many lives is desolation and devastation.  We have all been on the road to Emmaus. 

As Cleopas and his companion walk, a stranger comes up behind them.  It is Jesus, but they don’t recognize him.  Disappointment will do that to you.  It will blind us to the very presence of the Holy. Jesus walks with these two.  He sees downcast faces, rejection and dejection, and defeat. 

But as Jesus breaks bread with them, the eyes of their hearts are open!  “I know who that is,” proclaim Cleopas and his companion, “that’s Jesus”.  The Risen Christ was in their midst.  They asked, “Were our hearts not burning within us?” Not burning with heart ache, with pain, but with twinges of hope, twitters of joy. They came to Emmaus shuffling their feet, but they return to Jerusalem dancing.  They came with heads hung low, but now their heads are held high.  They came with heavy shoulders, but now they are light all over. Why?  Because the Risen Christ was in their midst.

As you walk the labyrinth, may you, too, feel your heart burn. May the eyes of your heart be opened. May you, too, know that you walk not alone but with the eternal Beloved waiting to be embraced in our midst.

Life is an unexpected journey. The twists and turns of the labyrinth reflect the unexpected journey of our lives. I certainly have had my unexpected twists and turns in life – from whom I married, to becoming a mother at the age of 45, to returning as pastor to the church that nurtured my faith. I know each one of you has had an unexpected twist or turn, or two or three or more in this life. Twists and turns that you never anticipated. But through it all, may you know that each twist and turn of your journey leads you straight into the arms of the Beloved. In the words of Rumi, “If God said, ‘Rumi pay homage to everything that has helped you enter my arms,’ there would not be one experience of my life, not one thought, not one feeling, nor any act, I would not bow to.” Indeed, we walk a labyrinth of grace, possibility, hope and new life. May we walk with eyes wide open and hearts burning. Amen.