“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” … When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
-Luke 24:21a, 30
(Preached on Sunday, April 30, 2017)
The pain and brokenness began long before that foggy autumn morning several years ago. She was standing in the kitchen with her foot on a chair, lacing up her shoes for her daily run, when her husband walked in. Looking worn and upset, he slumped against the counter. She touched his arm. “What’s wrong?” “It’s just not going to work,” he said. “Are you sure?” she asked, drawing back her hand. “As sure as I’m going to be.” After months of struggle and anguish, the end of their marriage had finally come, and with it began a journey of faith unlike any she had ever known.
The early mornings were worst – that time just before the gentle light of dawn eases through the darkness. Those precious moments when she had usually been most centered, most creative, most prayerful, now became the most painful. She woke trembling, alone in her terror, alone in a darkness that seemed to hold no hope of dawn, alone in the heavy weight of the unknown. At times waves of emotion rolled over her, sobs wracking her body and soul. At other times, she felt stone-cold and detached, as if death had lodged itself in her heart.
Dashed hopes: We all have our own stories of hopes, dreams, expectations that we held, that gave meaning and purpose to our lives, yet which eventually were broken on the rocky shores of life and reality. It is the losing team’s locker room at the end of the championship game. It was Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters early on November 9. It is the emergency room after an unsuccessful tracheotomy. It is a quiet office after a pink slip is found on the desk. It is a lonely bathroom where a plus sign just won’t appear on a pregnancy test.
This is where Cleopas and his companion find themselves. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” That sentence says it all. They had poured their whole lives and selves into following this man they knew was the savior. They gave up everything to follow him. Then he died – defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. The one who was supposed to deliver them all couldn’t even deliver himself from the cross. This isn’t how the story was supposed to end. Remember the waving palms? What about the victory and celebrating and God’s kingdom coming to earth? All of it gone.
Now they find themselves walking down a road to Emmaus. It’s likely not even an actual, physical place. Author Frederick Buechner quips that Emmaus is the place where “we throw up our hands and say ‘Let the whole damned thing go to hang. It makes no difference anyway.’” It’s the place of desolation. It’s the young mother holding her stillborn child in her arms, walking around the delivery room, with no idea where to go or what to do.
And then the miraculous: Jesus comes near! Unfortunately they did not recognize him. Why don’t they see him, the one they put their faith in and left everything for? Are tears clouding their vision? Are they simply unable to pick their heads up from watching the dust stirred by their sandals on the ground before them? Luke leaves those details to our imaginations. We only know that Jesus invites them to tell their story. And while they still don’t recognize him during their walk, as they share with Jesus and he shares with them, later, on looking back, they realized they did have a glimmering of something – “were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road?”
The truth of the gospel is that God is there. There is no such thing as a Christ-empty day. No such thing as a God-empty situation. The God of Jesus was there on the cross. There in the sealed tomb. There in the garden on the Sunday morning. There on each road that a person travels: from Jerusalem to Emmaus, from Miami to Orlando, from Oaxaca to Seattle, from Aleppo to Toronto. Jesus is always walking the road with us. He is there even if we are just too blinded by our pain and suffering, our grief and sorrow, our shock and disillusionment over our dashed hopes, to recognize his presence. Again, Frederick Buechner offers insight into how God very often appears in “The occasional, obscure glimmering through of grace. The muffled presence of the holy. The images, always broken, partial, ambiguous, of Christ. If a vision of Christ, then a vision such as those two stragglers had at Emmaus at suppertime: just the cracking of crust as the loaf came apart in his hands ragged and white before in those most poignant words of all scripture, ‘He vanished from their sight.’”
Is this not the way God so often enters our lives? Not in the miraculous, but in ordinary taking, blessing, breaking, and giving. In the hug of a friend we haven’t seen in a while; in the laughter of a child splashing in the water of a wading pool on the first warm day of spring; in giving to the food pantry; in blessing an evening meal: we recognize God. With our eyes opened in the midst of this everyday reality, we are reminded that all is not lost. We are not defeated or alone. Love has won; Easter is here to stay. We see, and we begin to understand – and in that instant, Emmaus is gone.
This is how we deal with dashed hopes: by practicing resurrection in our lives. Easter presents us with a decision: to follow the risen Jesus or not. It involves the will. To trust when there is no apparent flame in the heart, to love when it is difficult to love the unlikable, to pray when God seems to have hands over hears, to smile when we are only making tedious progress, to laugh when death wags a skinny finger at us, and to reach one’s hand into the darkness trusting that though we feel it not, the risen Jesus is with us all the way from here to eternity. This is the Easter way.
The way we practice resurrection is the same way Jesus did as he encountered the two on the road to Emmaus. By listening to them; by sharing what he knew; and by offering hospitality in breaking and sharing the bread. These are the actions which can truly transform our lives and our relationships and lead us to recognize the presence of the living Jesus in our midst.
It will take practice and courage to develop this discipline because it’s not easy to welcome all of God’s children along with the hopes, and dreams, and beliefs that animate their lives and may transform our own. For example: it is not easy for me to truly listen with an open and quiet mind to those brothers and sisters in the Christian faith who have a radically different perspective from my own. To truly listen to what they say and maybe even find common ground takes an extra effort on my part. It demands a kind of intellectual hospitality that I practice more readily toward non-Christian sisters and brothers than I do toward Christians who disagree strongly with my perspectives.
I sometimes wonder if I could sit down to dinner with these “other” Christians, and be at ease (or not), but in any case, to feel that I met them as brothers or sisters, not as “others.” It seems to me that many folks become unexpected friends because they sat down to dinner and broke bread together. (I think that is why table fellowship and breaking bread became such a central action for the early followers of Jesus and ultimately became a Sacrament.)
Perhaps you have seen the Heineken beer commercial that has been airing (at least on Facebook and YouTube)? It is rather lengthy and I admit ultimately what they want is to sell beer; nevertheless it is very illuminating and hopeful. It presents three pairings of people with radically different views: a conservative male with a female feminist; a climate change denier with a climate change advocate; a transgender woman with a man who questions the whole idea of transgender. The set-up brings these pairs of people together to work on a joint project assembling stools and then answer five questions to introduce themselves to each other. As they have begun to build a bond they are then interrupted and asked to view a brief video, which is of each of them bluntly stating their strong views which of course are diametrically opposite from each other. They are then invited to make a decision: leave, or stay and share a beer and discuss their views. The hopefulness of the experiment is that they each choose to stay and talk.
Perhaps if we could see ourselves and those we consider “other” in new ways, we might practice a new humility and graciousness in sharing the blessings of God more generously, more equitably. Intellectual hospitality, and hospitality of the heart, both open our lives to the stories, suffering, gifts and hopes of others. But it takes a lot of practice, and the change of heart and mind it requires often presents a difficult challenge to what have become our deeply entrenched comfort zones.
The experience of these two travelers was fleeting, just as our glimpses of God’s presence tend to be. We’re not just hearing a story about something that happened to other people, long ago and far away. The same amazing things, the wonderful works of God, are happening here, today, in our lives, too. When we struggle with dashed hope and with questions of meaning, practicing resurrection is the Jesus way to move forward: by listening to one another, sharing what we know, and most importantly of all, by practicing hospitality. As we do this for those on the journey with us, we will discover that Jesus is right there in our midst as well.