Dashed Hopes to Burning Hearts

SERMON: April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-49 (RSV)

13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cle′opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning 23 and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, 29 but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us[b]while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, 34 who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Three of the saddest words ever spoken are “We had hoped…” We had hoped the cancer was in remission. We had hoped our marriage could be saved. We had hoped our church would have grow by now.

“We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel.”

Few things are more painful than dashed hopes. On the very day of Christ’s resurrection Luke tells of two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are going over the mad, rollercoaster ride of the last few days and weeks. Jesus – the one who was to redeem Israel, was instead brutally murdered. Women went to his tomb and found it empty…except for Christ’s grave clothes, now transformed into angels.

Perhaps the full meaning of an empty tomb is blunted by hurt and disappointment. It’s not just the tragedy of the last few days, it is also the enormous hole left behind of all the things that might have been. A great wound where there was once so many possibilities.

Where there is hope, there are also certain expectations. The disciples expected God would work in a certain way to save the world. They expected a warrior God, a mighty liberator king, but instead they got a suffering servant. In our current context it’s hard for us not to say, “I told you so.” Or rather, “Jesus told you so.”

How many times did Jesus tell his disciples about his ultimate fate? He taught from the prophets and the scriptures, yet they couldn’t connect the dots about Jesus’ resurrection. Well, I guess it often takes hindsight to understand that we were headed a certain way all along.

But most people prefer the future tense. It’s much more comfortable to believe everything will be okay, or that all will go back to normal – and sooner rather than later, if you please. We like the future tense so much we sometimes short-circuit the process of dealing with the past. We shut a person down who wants to talk about their dashed hopes. Or perhaps it is ourselves we shut down and close off.

It was not until I prepared this sermon that I fully grasped the setting of this scene from scripture. Luke begins the passage with “That very day…” The very day the women discover Jesus is not in his tomb, the morning Jesus appears to Mary, who runs to tell the other disciples. “Just before dawn, while it was still dark,” Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved run to the tomb and see for themselves. In other words, it is still Easter.

Yet for some reason, two disciples set out walking to Emmaus on what we think of as Easter afternoon. Well, no wonder they are discussing what happened earlier! Events still so fresh in their minds that they had yet to make any sense of them. But I wonder, after all that transpired, why these two disciples just pick up and leave Jerusalem?

Perhaps they are frightened. As we learn in later passages, most of Jesus’ other followers, terrified of what would happen next, hide out in a dark upper room. Would the authorities come for them next? After all, they are known associates of the crucified Jesus. “You are not also one of his disciples, are you Peter?” “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”

We can easily imagine how difficult it is for them to know what to do next. After all, there are very few Plan B’s for messianic revolutions.

So, in the absence of any real plan, two disciples default to what they know and understand. They go home; go back to work. Could these two disciples be heading to Emmaus so they can pick up where they left off before their journey with Jesus began?

A seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Time and space to transition from one version of life to another. It reminds me of that suspended moment just after my husband’s death when I packed up his belongings in the hospital room, drove home, and made food, because it was dinnertime and the children had to eat. We revert to the muscle memory of our old life.

When faced with the rubble of dashed hopes, some people – and I admit I am one of them, have an almost overwhelming urge to flee. Just get out of there. Leave the mess behind. Get on with it by getting away from it. Pretend it never happened at all.

Except, it did happen. Then, Jesus comes alongside and asks, “What are you talking about so earnestly while you’re walking along?” This stops the disciple’s conversation for a moment. They stand still, looking sad. Finally, Cleopas says, “Are you the only one around here who hasn’t heard of these things?” And Jesus asks him, “What things?”

“What things happened to you?”

Jesus and the disciples stop on the road, and before they try to journey on, Jesus stands with them and asks them to name their loss. He does the thing most essential to moving beyond grief: before he talks, before he explains, before he invites, Jesus comes alongside and listens.

So if we want to follow the pattern set by Jesus, we will do likewise. For others, for ourselves, even for our church. Naming pain, grief, or loss helps us to transcend our dashed hopes so that they are no longer what defines us. After my husband died, my really best friends (not just the people I thought were friends) were the folks who patiently let me tell the story of his death over and over again, mostly without comment. These were the friends who allowed me to get to the place where I no longer mowed the lawn Tom’s way, I mowed it my way.

This is not the same thing as erasing our memories, or even leaving them fully behind. It is an assurance of grace, and love, and promises. It is taking another crack at hope. Naming our dashed hopes helps us to create enough space to realize pain and fear are not the only reality. Faith teaches us it’s okay to grieve the future that will never be, so we can embrace the future God has in mind. As someone once said, “When we have faith we are in a labyrinth not a maze.”

It is also not about a means to an end. We can’t decide, “Well here you go: we’ve acknowledged the pain of the cross, so let’s hurry up and go on to resurrection.” None of us can do that because to be human is to be broken. Yet two flawed, brokenhearted disciples find the Risen Christ walking along with them even though they don’t recognize him.

Really, truly accepting that Jesus is in our midst is disconcerting. When we gather together for Sunday school, or worship, for a committee meeting, or fellowship meal; any time we come together to talk about Jesus or debate the future of our church, Jesus always comes and stands in the midst of us. We can never have a conversation about God, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit without knowing we are speaking in their presence. The good news is that the God who has such intimate and comprehensive knowledge about us is also the loving God who never uses what we say against us.

We are free to name all “the things” standing between us and hope. We can acknowledge the reality of hurt and disappointment. There is no reason to keep the pain of grief to ourselves, nor run away from it.

As followers of Jesus, we must also offer others the grace of an unhurried ear. Before we talk, before we explain – certainly before we give advice, we invite hurting people to name their loss. This is what happens in a community of faith; we are a church family, after all.

Yet sometimes I wonder if we do enough talking and listening to each other about Watauga Avenue Presbyterian Church. In God’s presence, speaking the truth in love, are we saying the things we need to say? Are there dashed hopes that must be spoken aloud before we continue along the road God made for us?

I have been looking at many photos of WAPC’s past. I’m trying very hard to find suitable pictures for the new church website (and I hope you will help me). I found myself looking at photos of a busy youth group, crowded pews, and many church activities that no longer happen. We know God has great plans for us, but sometimes we might need to talk about what we miss. It’s hard to be truly excited about our future if we’re still a little afraid in the present. “We had hoped…”

Yet when we name our grief, disappointment or fear in the safety of this community of faith and with the assurance of grace, we find these things have less of a hold on us than we thought, leaving us open to the surprise of God’s decision to show up just where we least expect God to be. Jesus walks this road with us, whether we notice him at first, or not. There is only one person who truly knows what will happen in the future: the God who turns everything to his purpose; and God’s purpose promises new life, second chances, forgiveness and grace for all – even when we are not paying attention. Amen.