A sermon preached on April 10, 2016, based on Luke 24: 13-35
Practicing resurrection is not easy. Even coming to agreement about what resurrection means seems impossible as historians and believers alike try to justify, deny, explain, prove, share the reality of the resurrection. In such moments of mystery, we can turn to poets to help us. Emily Dickinson comes close in her analysis of hope:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
It seems to me that resurrection is like Emily Dickinson’s hope –
it is a thing with feathers that perches on our souls and in the midst of the fiercest storm, the coldest land, the strangest seas, asks nothing of us, and gives us everything – an unstoppable song.
That sounds so beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to have that feeling every day.
But there are are three little words in this text that capture precisely why we need to practice hope and why practicing it is so very hard. Listen to the reading from Luke.
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, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
He asked them, “What things?”
They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
We had hoped.
These three little words say it all. When Jesus asked the disciples what they were discussing, why they seemed so sad, they explained, this is at the heart of their conversation.
We had hoped…that he was the one to redeem Israel
We had hoped…he would live out his natural life
We had hoped…the messiah would have at least managed to change a little bit of the status quo
We had hoped…
There’s so much confusion behind those three words, so much disappointment, so much despair, so much grief, too much pain.
For those two friends, the promise of resurrection – whether found in their scriptures or in the promises that had come from Jesus’ own mouth as he lived with his disciples BEFORE his death – the promise of resurrection seemed like pie in the sky by and by. It was a dream deferred, a thing with feathers that has flown off to perch somewhere else. And they were on their way to Emmaus – leaving Jerusalem – turning their back on the city where their leader had been crucified and where their hopes had been crushed. They were done.
Those disciples couldn’t find their way through grief and pain – so they were going to ignore it – to leave it behind. But as they told Jesus what had happened, they began to acknowledge the power it had in their lives – With those three words, they make a confession of sorts – and that confession bound them together with all those who were grieving and struggling – We. Had. Hoped.
It was the public sharing, not only of their hopes and dreams, but also of the pain they experienced, that helped them turn the corner from despair to hope. In the telling, they could say out loud that they believed their hopes and dreams were broken and share each other’s grief. In the telling, they came to see that they weren’t alone. They didn’t travel the road alone and in community, when the bread was broken and the meal shared, they found their hearts renewed and energized and their eyes opened to the presence of the risen Christ among them.
While we may not be living in a world that expects a messiah to come and turn empire on its head, while we may not be looking for a savior to overthrow Rome or to confront the temple powers, we can’t deny that something must change. It’s clear that the yearning for resurrection hope today is palpable.
I recently watched a couple of Oscar-nominated films – as is our family habit…
Two films have been on my mind and have been calling my attention to the need for us to practice resurrection hope.
In the first movie, Spotlight, the story is told of the investigative reporting that pulled back the veil from decades of sexual abuse and the church’s complicity in hiding it.
In the second movie, The Big Short, we hear the story of unfiltered greed and its impact on a worldwide population with a history of trust in the wisdom and value of financial institutions.
To use the words of those disciples on the road to Emmaus: We had hoped that the church would have kept its promise to care for the little ones – the boys and girls entrusted to the care of priests who spoke with God’s voice – who represented Jesus – and who destroyed those young lives with abuse
We had hoped that banks really meant what they said when they promised to take care of us, our homes and our money
These films tell real stories about real people whose lives have been damaged by the powers of a different kind of empire – a financial empire – an institutional empire. Speaking from experience as we lost our house in foreclosure in 2009, the grief is real. The suffering is real.
On Wednesday I returned from the PCUSA home office in Louisville – where I participated in a leadership training for our upcoming General Assembly. While there, I learned about two unique and important overtures the Assembly will be asked to consider which call for us to begin a much needed process of reconciliation by owning our part in discrimination and rejection.
One overture calls for the PCUSA to make an admission of and an apology for harm done to LGBTQ Members, friends and family members who were intentionally marginalized through the decisions and actions of our denomination.
Another overture calls us to offer an apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiian people for our history of connecting the need for assimilation to white European culture as a necessary step to receiving the good news.
Again, our friends on that Emmaus road show us the way to move through our grief: We had hoped the church would be a sanctuary for those who were ostracized, outcast, seen as unclean by the world around them instead of becoming a place where rejection, blame and condemnation was the norm.
We had hoped that the we would have been able to receive and treasure the gift of cultural diversity and the treasure of our indigenous people instead of seeking to eradicate what we failed to understand.
I learned that churches across the denomination are struggling with the same things we are – building that are too big, congregations that aren’t growing fast enough in the midst of communities that are changing so fast it’s nearly impossible to keep up.
I heard the hopes of both teaching and ruling elder colleagues who said:
We had hoped that new church staff and exciting new programming would reverse our membership decline.
We had hoped that renting out our space would lift our financial burden.
We had hoped that creating a new endowment program would energize congregational giving.
Here in our city, every day we see the need for resurrection hope as friends and neighbors cry out their pain and their yearning.
We had hoped our children would be able to grow up here, buy a house and raise our grandchildren nearby.
We had hoped that we might be able to find a job that would pay us enough to keep a roof over our heads.
We had hoped
We had hoped
The farther we get from the actual resurrection – the farther we get from the time the Jesus lived and moved through Galilee, the harder it is to imagine and live into resurrection hope that is bolstered by an actual view of the empty tomb. That doesn’t mean the experience of loss and grief have been magically erased. It doesn’t mean the NEED for hope has disappeared.
And now it’s up to us – as Christ bearers – as people who follow the resurrected One.
And we can’t simply pretend that the resurrection will easily and automatically overcome all disappointment, all pain, all suffering. The resurrection isn’t just another of our magical God’s magic tricks.
Those friends, on that long ago road are actually a paradigm for what followers of Jesus are meant to do and be: practitioners of resurrection hope.
They show us the importance of community, a community where hopes realized and hopes destroyed, can be celebrated and mourned together. We were made for community – drawn to this community in particular because here we know we will be welcomed and here we can give and receive hope together.
They show us that resurrection hope is meant to encourage and bring healing – not just to people who stay put in Jerusalem, but to people who are “on the road” – strangers, travelers, people who might never find their way to Jerusalem or who have left Jerusalem for good because they couldn’t find hope there.
They show us the importance of traveling together – though we are intended to take hope “on the road” we aren’t intended to “go it alone.” We are called to be partners – to care and support each other on our journeys.
They show us why we need to listen to and remember the stories of Jesus, not just for our own renewal, but so that we can practice telling and retelling the stories about God at work in our lives and share that good news with friends and neighbors who are in pain, who are struggling, who are suffering – offering hope to people for whom the hope for renewal, the hope for a resurrection seems impossible.
Practicing hope means every day we will learn to trust that resurrection hope is already present among us, when we feel that feathery fluttering in our hearts and when our eyes are opened to Christ in our midst.