Dayenu on the Way to Emmaus
Homily preached the Third Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2001 at the Church of the Good Shepherd
You may have noticed that the banners outside the front door of our church have a Hebrew word at the bottom. Probably a lot of you figured out that the Hebrew is a sort of subtitle to the word above it: “Alleluia.” If that’s what you think, you’re right. Alleluia is a Latin transliteration of the Hebrew hallelujah, which means “Praise the Lord.”
Like hallelujah, this season of Easter and Passover is also associated with another important Hebrew word that has a special significance for today’s Gospel reading.
That word is dayenu.
It’s the name of an ancient song of Passover, sung by our Jewish brothers and sisters for more than 1,000 years. Dayenu means “It would have been enough,” and it’s a way Jews express wonder and gratitude to God for everything he has done for them throughout history.
Each of the 15 stanzas of this traditional Passover song recounts some marvel of God that in and of itself would have been enough to ensure everlasting thanks on the part of the Jewish people. For example, the last five stanzas go like this:
If He had given us Shabbat, Dayenu, it would have been enough.
If He had led us to Mount Sinai, Dayenu, it would have been enough.
If He had given us the Torah, Dayenu, it would have been enough.
If He had brought us into the Land of Israel, Dayenu, it would have been enough.
If He built the Temple for us, Dayenu, it would have been enough.
Dayenu means that God’s loving-kindness is never exhausted, but continually flows over us in wave after wave of inexplicable, unconditional love. And just when we think it can’t get any more awesome, here comes another wave.
The Hebrew word for God’s loving-kindness is hesed. Hesed is that wanton, lavish, undeserved, incomprehensible generosity of God. Our Muslim cousins celebrate hesed each time they pray: “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.”
When we consider the wondrous gift of himself that God has given us in the life of Jesus, we celebrate the continuing and escalating wonders God has worked for love of us.
If he would have only been born among us, that would have been enough. If Jesus had only given us the Sermon on the Mount, that would have been enough. Had Jesus only taught us the parables, that would have been enough.
Any of these things would have sufficed to manifest the glory and love of God. But no, for God it was never enough. He is always giving, giving, giving until we are overwhelmed, confused, disoriented and maybe even sometimes a little shocked by his unending generosity.
On Mother’s Day, we celebrate a form of that love we have all experienced. The Prophet Isaiah speaks these words from the Lord:
“As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you.”
We wonder how we can ever thank God enough for everything he has given us. And we realize that we can’t. Our thanks, even if we offer it daily for the rest of our lives, will never be enough. It is not dayenu.
The two disciples today on the road to Emmaus recount the familiar escalating stages of what God has done for them and their people when they tell the supposed stranger:
There was a prophet mighty in deed and word. (That’s amazing!)
He was handed over to death. (Are you kidding?)
Some women from our group have a story. (What, there’s more?)
His tomb was empty. (That would have been enough.)
Angels proclaimed he was alive. (Dayenu.)
It’s the age-old story: God always has one more gift. And then one more. Oh, and wait, here’s another.
Because for God it was not enough that Jesus should be raised from the dead, but he also came to two people traveling along a road, taught them, inspired them and broke bread with them. And again, doing just one of these things would have been enough.
“Were not our hearts burning within us?”
Every time we think God’s wanton generosity has already filled us beyond measure, he brings something else even more marvelous than everything that’s come before. That’s what the resurrection is. God seemingly drains the well of awe dry in what must certainly be the last hurrah.
There are two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and God cannot resist. He must go and give them something more! Just as he does for each of us every single day.
Time after time, day after day, gift after gift, wave after wave, God continues to shower us with every good thing. Throughout history, in this community and in our own lives. God’s hesed, his loving-kindness, never ends.
But for us the question is: how do I respond to that? Our hearts are burning within us. We sputter, we stammer and we are overwhelmed. Psalm 116 is only one example of our bewildered response to this lavish outpouring of love:
“How can I repay the LORD for all the good done for me?”
For his creation. For his loving-kindness. For his calling of Abraham. For his fidelity to Israel. For his love of the poor. For his liberating power. For his incarnation. For his life and teaching. For his torture and death. For his resurrection. For all the good things he has done for me. For all the good things he will do for me in the future.
And here’s the thing about thanking God for all his lavish gifts: When we give thanks, God asks only one thing in return:
“Wait! Let me give you something more.”