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The Haunting of Spencer House

Speaker: Jake Joseph

April 26, 2020

The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
April 26, 2020
First Church Guilford, Connecticut
A Haunting of Spencer House

Parsonage Life and living above the church offices in the Spencer House—a stately Second Empire manse on the Town Green—is fairly different from the little cookie cutter Craftsman home in a subdivision we owned back in Colorado! Did you know that the Spencer House was designed by the same Yale architect, Henry Austin[1], who designed many of the houses around Worcester Square, Hillhouse Avenue, and even the gate to the Grove Street Cemetery? Austin is himself buried there beyond his own gates.  How very thrillingly Victorian and macabre to have designed the gate to the place where you would be buried!

Beyond this fun trivia, the best part, other than not being responsible for maintenance and the yard, is having the shortest commute possible: the distance of a staircase. This has been a great blessing in ministry during this time of working from home for First Church. Even preaching here this morning counts as working from home. 

There are also some oddities with this “parsonage lifestyle” that take some getting used to! Perhaps the most fun and startling being our greeters. Whenever we come home, we must walk past the imposing portraits of my ancient predecessors in ministry—We call it homey! 

These phantomesque downstairs “neighbors” or “the boys” as my husband refers to our three fabulously facial haired (two out of three have perfect 19th Century mutton chops), one is fashionably bespectacled, all fiercely frown and glare as gargoyles. 

I think they protect the house. Gerhard finds them more amusing to entrain and spook any friends or family who visited before social distancing. “Welcome to our home… these are the ghosts: Snow, Smith, Taylor!” 

The three of them, despite their imposing frowning faces, have become a great source of comfort for me and even hope for ministering in these unsettled and unpredictable “Emmaus” times. From left to right, they are The Reverends Snow, Smith, and Taylor. Why, of all the ministers we have had, are these the three on the wall? 

Rev. Taylor served First Church through the complete chaos of the assassination of President Garfield and took the pulpit after the tragic drowning death of his dear friend Rev. Finch at Vineyard Point after less than a year of ministry, Rev. Smith served through the division in the church and the country of the Civil War and his own terrible and debilitating health issues, and Rev. Snow served through an economic collapse, the Spanish-American War, and the First World War! 

Yes, these seem to be three randomly selected ministers for the walls of our office, but I have sat on my staircase at night during this impossible time, making eye contact with these steely eyed portraits, contemplating their ministries. I ask them, “How do you lead people during a time like this?” During this time, like the perilous ones they lived in, when the future seems so uncertain, a destination unknown, and peace seems so hard to find on the horizon—how do we continue to be church?

Our Gospel story for today could easily be a fourth portrait for the Spencer House worthy of contemplation of times of chaos and fear. Known as the Road to Emmaus, we often forget that this story takes place immediately as part of the Easter Resurrection when chaos reigns, when the disciples have just personally witnessed their leader, their friend, and really their employer gruesomely, politically put to death by the state. Distrust, sadness, and grief reigned. Because, for us it has been two weeks since the first Easter Sunday, we miss the fact that this is a story of immediate aftermath and shock!  In the Gospel of Luke, the only Gospel with the Emmaus story, this happens on Easter Day itself!

Verses 12-16, “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves [Jesus is presumed both to be naked and missing]; then he went home, amazed at what happened. Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them [sneaky Jesus I imagine wearing a hat for disguise], but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” 

The two disciples out on the road (and it doesn’t say why they are making a trip to Emmaus…is it a one-way trip… an escape?) … are experiencing deep grief and panic at their new very precarious, changed reality. We forget that they have no way to know that a resurrection event has been discovered back in Jerusalem. We forget there was no texting, email or even a telegraph. This is all happening at the same time—and these two are still in shock. I wonder when the Scripture says that, “they were kept from recognizing Jesus,” if perhaps this lack of vision can be understood from a hermeneutic of bereavement and pastoral care as a symptom of grief and shock?

The first lesson for us to take from this passage is that the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus were in grief, in shock, and probably deep fear for their own lives. The leader of their movement was just executed. They saw it happen. Their world of stability and hope and life as they knew it only a few short days before has suddenly ended—never to be the same.

We often want to fault them (we giggle at them) for not recognizing Jesus. Silly, disciples…how do you not know? We look at this passage from two weeks later.  Or we assume that Jesus was physically unrecognizable, but what if they didn’t even look up from their feet as they took one agonizing step in front of other? Or more likely… they were in such shock that the world stopped looking familiar? They didn’t really look up until Jesus starts Communion.  

Two hospice nurses co-wrote a book I read when I was a hospice intern in Iowa about death and dying call, Final Gifts. In it they write, “Dealing with death [and loss] is hard work—physically and mentally—and it is very easy to slip into a frantic outlook that leaves you emotionally depleted, physically exhausted, and utterly overwhelmed.”[2] It is normal. It is okay. Nobody should be judging you.

Today, we all experienced a sudden loss, a death of normal, the vanishing of plans, a passing away of predictable somewhat like Snow, Smith and Taylor saw in their ministries and certainly like what the disciples experienced. Fear, grief, and shock are not just okay, but they are a Biblical response. Some of us have lost loved ones already, others have lost jobs, and all of us have lost our sense of direction, and it is okay. We know that, whether we recognize him right now, that Jesus walks with us.

The first of two lessons from Emmaus is that grief makes us loopy, unaware, forgetful, and less than our so called “best” selves. I imagine even those stoic faces in my hallway sometimes bore tears. Emmaus invites to deeper grace for ourselves and others. In a time of collective shock and grief, we especially need that. 

The second lesson is rooted in a fun fact—returning to trivia this morning! While many different scholars and archeologists have competing claims[3] for the existence and whereabouts of Emmaus, it is one of the few sites named in the New Testament/ Christian Scriptures that we cannot pinpoint historically or geographically. The Lost City of Emmaus, however, isn’t so much a theological problem for us as it is a gift.

Today, on yet another Sunday of Easter, we journey towards a destination we know little about, whose location is debatable. There is no GPS that can save us or text to alert us. Rather, we know only one thing for certain about this new and sudden journey of grief, of loss, and shock: We know that Jesus walks with us (he isn’t hiding or social distancing himself from us), our grief is acceptable and understandable, and at the end of the proverbial day, somewhere over the rainbow in a place called Emmaus [Guilford too] we will sit at table, we will break bread, and we will see clearly again the hope of tomorrow, the presence of resurrection among us, and the signs of community which wars, divisions, politics, assassinations, and depressions have never been able to dissolve. Resurrection has already happened—we just can’t see it yet.

Yes, Emmaus is not a known or a set destination.

Yes, we are in a phase of the journey where we are in shock and grief.

Yes, that means we are experiencing anger, sadness, loneliness which quote, “leaves you emotionally depleted, physically exhausted, and utterly overwhelmed.” 

Yet, when the time is right—we will find our way, we will break bread, and we will see that Jesus and hope and life were with us all along. 

Like the portraits in the hallways of the Spencer House, where brick meets neatly against brick as it has stood for some 150 years and may stand for 80 more, our story today is about a haunting. The disciples are haunted by grief, loss, fear, and an unknown destination. Yet, Jesus walks with them. And yet, the divine is close at hand. And yet, a thin space of the Holy is the truth of this encounter story and all of our lives in these days. Now, more than ever, be swift to love, have grace for yourself, and know that Jesus and hope and community (even in disguise) travel with you always. Yes, whatever walks there, … does not walk alone.[4] Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Austin_(architect)
[2] Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1992), 212.[3] https://www.thedailybeast.com/emmaus-have-archaeologists-discovered-the-town-jesus-appeared-in-after-his-resurrection
[4] A fun play on words referring to Shirly Jackson’s classic Haunting of Hill House

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