Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” put words and melody to what our nation experienced on 911. Through his gift of rhyme and Southern drawl, Jackson articulated the shock, pain, and confusion we all felt. Much in the same way, in our text today, Cleopas and his buddy felt similar intensive emotions as they walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It’s easy, and tempting, for us on this side of the resurrection of Christ to miss the depth of darkness that the disciples no doubt felt in the aftermath of the death of Jesus. We know the enormity of the gift of the empty tomb! They did not. Hearing the tomb was empty had only added confusion to their pain. Their world had been rocked, and, as far as they could see, not for the better. Their beloved teacher, mentor, and hope for the future had been brutally and mercilessly murdered. And he had done nothing to resist it. Reality had changed forever and they had no clue what was ahead. Fear. Uncertainty. Grief. No doubt, anger at the religious leaders who had railroaded Jesus. Anger at the Roman oppressors who had executed Jesus. Anger at Jesus for not being who they thought he was, for not accomplishing what they had wanted him to. What they had needed him to. What they had hoped… And just as we all did for days, weeks, even months after 911 when we huddled together in homes and churches and offices trying to make sense of it all, these two were talking to one another along the way, consoling one another, trying to make sense out of the senseless. There is a Hebrew way of discussion that involves the whole person, heart, body, and soul. These two would no doubt be engaged in this depth of conversation when they met up with Jesus, who was simply another stranger to them at this point. Honestly, it’s no wonder they couldn’t recognize him. They were much too completely wrapped up in their own misery to see anything or anyone beyond the pain. Their despair was so deep that they couldn’t recognize hope when it stood before them.
I think this is a perfect week, the third week of celebrating Easter, for us to read a message like this. Easter Sunday, resurrection day when all is restored and all is made good and hope is renewed. We celebrate with Christians all over the world that Christ is risen indeed and that the old life is dead and new, abundant, eternal life has come through Jesus the Christ. But for many of us three weeks after Easter….well, life still looks pretty much the same. There are the same challenges, same difficulties, same frustrations and limitations that we felt before Easter morning. For many, life feels more like walking on the road from Jerusalem than singing the Halleluiah chorus. This particular story is important for it reminds us that hope is here always, sometimes we just need our vision adjusted a little.
I love how Jesus doesn’t force recognition on the two disciples. He just engages them. Invites them into conversation through his question. Hey guys. What are you talking about? They react predictably as those who are interrupted in their grief. What! Are you the only fool who doesn’t know what’s happened? Maybe you can relate to this…I remember when my mother passed away; returning to social norms was hard. Almost impossible for a while. How could everyone be acting like everything was normal? Didn’t they know that the world had stopped? My world was different. Why wasn’t theirs? Sometimes it’s hard to envision hope in the ashes of what lies behind from what was before. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do next. Such were the hearts of the disciples, and it caused them to react instead of respond to the question Jesus asked.
But Jesus doesn’t get offended or defensive. He just invites more conversation through another question. And then. He. Listens. I love how Jesus is always taking the time to listen. With patience and presence. (That’s one of those lofty goals I continue to aspire to, and shamelessly fall short of). Jesus honors their pain by hearing their story. And then you can just almost hear them panting as they help each other recount everything that has happened over the last several days. Perhaps finishing each other’s sentences. All of their emotions spilling over with each word. And in their anguish they declared their disappointment openly. We had hoped…… Perhaps that is the real source of their pain. They had risked all their hope on the success of their expectations. And when those expectations weren’t met, their hope had nothing to stand on.
Now some may think that Jesus reacts to them in anger. But I think he was so fully present with them and so compassionate toward them that he was gathered up in their emotional energy. And he was passionate that they work through this together. Remember we are not talking about some robotic being. Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine and he would have had the same deep emotions as anyone else. Remember when he wept at Lazarus’ tomb. In fact it was his compassion that moved him to raise Lazarus. So, now, in his passion and compassion, I can almost see him shaking their shoulders as he says Wake UP! Don’t you remember everything that you’ve been taught? Remember the scriptures you learned? Remember what Jesus told you???? Hope is alive and well and it is a much bigger hope than you had hoped for!
And then, perhaps as he had done a millions times with the disciples, he takes them through it again. Retelling the story of the God of the Israelites, the promises, the liberation. Lining out for them the foundation of true hope. Not demanding any answers from them, letting it hit where it will. Not forcing himself on them, he prepares to go ahead.
Mid Eastern hospitality would dictate their invitation for him to stay, but there is much more going on here than courtesy. By this time, they may not “get it” yet, but they know they want more. They sensed there was something about his presence they need. And when they shared their evening meal and he took the bread, breaking and giving thanks… maybe they heard the unspoken… this is my body broken for you. We don’t know, maybe they had been nearby the night of the last meal he shared with the 12. Maybe it was that. Or maybe the sight of him extending his arms to them with nourishment reminded them of his feeding the thousands. Or maybe the love in his eyes as he gave thanks was the same love in the eyes that hung on the cross. Whatever it was, the Spirit of God was present and their eyes, more significantly their hearts, were open and they were able to see the hope standing right before them. And as it sunk in they realized it had been there all along in their burning hearts.
We had hoped….we all have those times in our lives when we feel like risking hope has failed us. You hear it all the time….a couple retires in hopes of spending the golden years traveling together only to have one die unexpectedly. A person works hard and invests wisely in hopes of a secure financial future only to have some unforeseen event bring everything crashing around them. Couples marry in hopes of living happily ever and yet we can look at statistics and see that so often these dreams fall short.
Yes, hope is a risk. But only if we limit hope to our own satisfied expectations. Just as Jesus led the disciples to a larger vision of hope through his presence, patience, and love, we too are led beyond our disappointments to a larger vision of hope. How many times in your life have you looked back over the disappointments of your history and seen a gift of new life, new insight, new growth that you would not have gained in any other way. Or you think of the hard times you have gone through when all hope seemed lost only to be surrounded by loved ones who carried you in hope until you were ready to once again carry your own. Hope is strongest when it is practiced in community.
You know what Jesus did with these two disciples? He took them to church in the truest sense of the word. He invited them into relationship and accepted them just as they were in their sorrow, anger, confusion, dashed hopes. He valued their stories and reminded them of the bigger story of a hope that conquers all disappointments. He prayed with them. He fed them in body and soul and left them transformed, repurposed, re-sighted, if you will, to not only recognize the hope before them but to take that hope to others…which is what they did when they went back to Jerusalem. He taught them what it was to practice hope. And that’s church, folks! There’s an important word in this story for the Church today. Too many churches are trying to figure out how to get back to the way things were before….before the congregation grew old or moved away. Before the neighborhood changed. Before denominational politics split the church. Before the pastor that came after the beloved pastor. Before the economy crashed. Before….things changed. Too many churches are existing in a dull fear, straining to survive instead of practicing the hope that has been, is now, and will continue to be abundantly available and present before them. The key to this hope is found in something quite simple. It’s found when we practice our faith together. It is the regular coming together, accepting one another just as we are…warts and all. It is in the sharing of our stories together when we are reminded of our commonality and our uniqueness. It is in the huddling up together around the larger story of God’s grace filled YES in Christ that has overcome all the nos of fear we could ever scream. It is in the breaking, blessing, sharing of the bread of life and the cup of community. In all these practices we do together our vision is adjusted and we are once again able to see Hope for the power and grace it holds. It doesn’t matter if this happens in a cathedral, shopping mall church, outdoors, or in someone’s home. A community of hope is church. And it is in practicing this hope together that we are able to carry that grace back out into a world that is sustained by Hope. It just doesn’t know it yet.
Something to chew on….