Only the Lonely, I:
Stay with Us, For the Day Is Far-Spent
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. —Luke 24:31
Among the multiple and serious disruptions this virus has pressed down upon the human family, one of the sadder deprivations is that we cannot properly farewell our lost loves. We can’t even say goodbye.
Some of you have shared with me how painful it is to bury your dead from a distance, with no memorial service, or a virtual one, or a diminished one.
Psychiatrists, pastors, and therapists are talking about “unfinished grief.” Now, it’s probably true that no serious grief is ever finished, right? If you have ever lost someone you really, really loved, that ache may never entirely disappear. Time heals many wounds, maybe most wounds, but not all wounds.
But you see what they mean by “unfinished grief,” yes? We have to be able to say goodbye. We have to thank God properly for the huge, unique, unmerited gift of our lost love.
And we can’t do that just now. One Psychology Professor from the University of Memphis says, “You could not design a circumstance that more greatly complicates people’s grieving.”
And so that familiar, beloved story from Luke’s resurrection narrative is exactly the word from the Lord we need to hear this morning, because those two disciples on the Road to Emmaus were in exactly the same situation as we are. Their grief was ‘unfinished.’ Their goodbye had been too small, it was too quick, it was too haphazard. They could give their friend neither a proper burial nor a fitting farewell.
Jesus died at 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon. In Jerusalem that April evening, the Jewish Sabbath would commence at sunset, exactly 7:05 p.m., which gave his friends four hours to get him off the cross and in the ground before the beginning of that Holy Shabbat. No time to grieve, no time to comfort each other, no time to throw a lavish wake for their beloved friend.
And so on Sunday afternoon two of Jesus’ friends who’d been celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem all weekend decide just to go home to their small village of Emmaus, seven miles northwest of Jerusalem. What else you gonna do? Just get out of that big sad city where they’d suffered such trauma and loss.
They’re disconsolate, they’re empty, they’re afraid, they’re sharing memories of their friend, they’re comforting each other, and suddenly there’s this stranger who materializes out of nowhere like Captain Kirk in Star Trek and begins walking with them and bursting in on their intimate conversation. It was Jesus himself, but they won’t realize that till later.
Jesus comes to them right where they are, on the road, in their fear, in their brokenness, in their emptiness, and that’s God’s good word for us this morning because coronavirus is not the only epidemic that’s assaulting the human family just now. There is also an epidemic of loneliness.
Did you know that loneliness is just as dangerous to your health as smoking, excessive drinking, obesity, and lack of exercise? A pack of cigarettes a day, a fifth of vodka a day, 30 pounds overweight, being a couch potato, and chronic loneliness—they all shorten your life expectancy by an equivalent amount. Social isolation kills—literally.
And this virus is so cruel because it has just crushed the support systems of so many people and isolated us from each other.
Even before this virus, there was an epidemic of—not necessarily of loneliness but at least of aloneness—in America. Thirty-five million Americans live alone today, more than ever before; 28% of American households have just one person living in them.
Not all of them are lonely; some of them like being and living alone and don’t want a roommate or a partner; but it’s also true that many other people who are surrounded by crowds still feel lonely, and if you feel lonely, you are, and that’s dangerous. In one study, 60% of Americans reported that they were lonely.
Afia Ofori-Mensa runs the Presidential Scholars program at Princeton University. That program helps poor and middle-class undergraduates get into Ph.D. programs.
Afia is 39 years old and has lived alone for 16 years, most of her adult life. She can’t remember the last time she touched another human being and doesn’t know when that will happen again.
She says, “I don’t have a partner; I don’t have a pet; I don’t even have a plant. Sometimes I feel like I am disappearing.”
The doctors who are caring for Covid-19 patients are intimate with loneliness—their patients’ aloneness, and their own.
One night recently Marissa Nadeau, an emergency room physician at Columbia University Medical Center, helped three dying patients say goodbye to their families via Facetime. On her phone.
She says, “I went into this specialty to save lives, and all I’m doing is helping them die.”
You can recognize these brave people if you pass them on the street. They’re a little shell-shocked, a little weary. They’re the ones who have indentations and bruises and rough red raw marks on their cheekbones and on the bridge of their noses and around the mouth because they’ve been wearing abrasive surgical masks for a 12-hour shift day after day after day.
They spend a lot of time talking to each other, because no one outside the emergency room and the ICU can ever understand what’s going on in there.
An ER Doctor at New York-Presbyterian Hospital says they’re sort of like Vietnam Veterans coming home to an oblivious America, having no language to describe what they’ve been through.
We are overwhelmed just now with so much loss and so much grief and so much fear and so much death. But Scripture’s promise is that we are never alone. There is a Risen Christ afoot in the suburbs of Jerusalem, and if we pay attention on our daily round, we might just discover that some unexpected stranger has caught up with us out of nowhere, and is matching our stride step-for-step, and is trying to interrupt the fraught, anxious conversation we’re having with each other. He’s interrupting to tell us that there is resurrection, there is life, there is hope, it will be all right.
Cleopas and his traveling companion didn’t recognize the unexpected stranger, but he recognized them. They were his friends, and he knew they were seriously troubled, and he’d come looking for them. He’d zeroed in on them.
I think I could make the argument that Schindler’s List is the greatest film of all time, both for its artistic achievement and for the history lessons it will never let us forget.
But I won’t make that argument. I’ll just tell you that for me it was the most powerful cinematic experience of my life. I was so overcome I almost had to leave the theater.
It’s two hours and thirty-eight minutes long, almost entirely in black-and-white. Except for that little speck of red that appears four or five times in the film. It’s a little girl—what, five years old?—in a red coat. The camera follows her as she gets separated from her parents, wanders the streets of the city lost and alone, hides from the Nazi’s, ends up in the concentration camp.
It’s usually a longshot, from high up; the camera follows her from a rooftop or hillside vantage point. In the frame she’s so tiny you’d never notice her if Steven Spielberg hadn’t emblazoned her with that speck of scarlet.
Frederick Buechner says, “In this dark world where you and I see so little with our unrecognizing eyes, he, whose eye is on the sparrow, sees each one of us as the child in red. And I believe that because he sees us, not even in the darkness of death are we lost to him or to each other. I believe that whether we recognize him or not, whether we believe in him or not, or even know his name, again and again he comes and walks a little way with us along whatever road we’re following. And I believe that through something that happens to us, or something we see, or somebody we know—who can ever guess how or when or where?—he offers us, the way he did at Emmaus, the bread of life, a new hope, a vision of light that not even the dark world can overcome.... That is the saving and holy word that flickers among us like a red coat in a gray world.”
Cleopas and his traveling companion didn’t recognize the Risen Christ until it was almost too late, until he broke the bread at their humble cottage table in that old familiar way.
Who could blame them? He was the last person on earth they were expecting to meet. Who looks for the dead among the living?
But if they’d looked at his face for just a moment, they would have seen the indentations above his brow, the bruises, the abrasions, the rough red scars left by that crown of thorns.
They would have seen the stigmata of the Crucified Christ, and those stigmata would look a little like the marks on the faces of those brave doctors who wear an abrasive mask for a 12-hour shift caring for the hopeless.
And Cleopas and his friend would have known. They would have known, as we are coming to know, how far love will go to snatch life from death.
When he arrives home at the end of his seven-mile, two-hour walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Cleopas says to the companion he does not yet know is the Risen Christ, “Stay with us, for the day is far-spent.”
That’s actually not a bad table grace for us in these difficult days. “Jesus, stay with us, for the day is far-spent. The sun is setting. It’s getting dark. We’re a little lost. We’re a little alone. Won’t you stay? Please stay.”
Robert A. Neimeyer, quoted by Arelis Hernández and Mark Berman, “Grief amid Pandemic: Live-Streamed Funerals, Canceled Services, and Mourning Left ‘Unfinished’,” The Washington Post, March 23, 2020.
A report by Cigna, “Loneliness and the Workplace: 2020 U.S. Report.”
Julie Halpert, “Tools to Fight Loneliness, a Very Real Threat,” The New York Times, April 20, 2020.
Joseph Goldstein and Benjamin Weiser, “‘I Cried Multiple Times’: Now Doctors Are the Ones Saying Goodbye,” The New York Times, April 13, 2020.
Frederick Buechner, “The Secret in the Dark,” in The Longing for Home (Harper San Francisco, 1996), 148–149