We Had Hoped

Luke 24:13-35 

Some years back, my dad planned his own funeral. My dad was a musician, so of course selected hymns – eight of them! And he chose this passage, from the Gospel of Luke, the Road to Emmaus, as the sermon text.

Many of you know that I had two reasons I moved here to Ohio, 1: being your pastor, 2: to be near my parents in their final years. My parents, brother, and I had hoped that when I moved to Ohio that we would have a few good years together. But within weeks of my arrival, we were dealing with – a recurrence of my dad’s cancer. We had hoped that the radiation would buy Dad some time; that my parents would be able to attend outdoor concerts on the Worthington Green, go to their church of over 50 years, and enjoy the activities of their retirement community. But the treatments were so hard on my dad’s body that he never recovered. His decline necessitated a move to assisted living in January, and he died less than three weeks later.

And so as I encounter the text from Luke today, I connect with the phrase on the lips of the disciples,

We had hoped…

The setting of the story is the day of Jesus’ resurrection, and two disciples are headed home. It had been a crazy week of highs and lows. Jesus’ rockstar-entry into Jerusalem turned into a mob shouting for his execution in a matter of days. There was the testimony of the women, of angels at an empty tomb, and the message that Jesus had risen from the dead, but they did not believe or understand it. And so they turned from Jerusalem where it all happened to go back home.

A stranger drew up next to them as they walked the seven miles to Emmaus. “What are you talking about? He asked innocently.

Are you the only one who hasn’t heard what happened in Jerusalem?” And then they told him all about how Jesus was a prophet, mighty in word and deed, and that he was turned over to the chief priests and leaders and condemned to death. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they said. One brief sentence, packed with desolation, disappointment, and shattered hopes.

Their grief is understandable. Every idea about the Messiah was that his mission was to restore Israel-to be their own nation, not a subjugated people. The Romans and other imperial powers were supposed to be overthrown so God would be in charge. The lowly were to be lifted up and the poor have a fair shake. That’s what the prophets said. That’s what Jesus himself said at the beginning of his ministry, applying Isaiah’s words to himself: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and proclaim in the year of the Lord’s favor. But that’s not what happened.

I think we can all identify in some way with the disciples’ words, We had hoped… We are eager to put the pandemic behind us, but we have a collective grief that so many things that were will never come back. Chief among them are the million people who died in this country. We have returned to our frenetic activity, and times are uncertain. There is a collective anxiety that makes everyone a little less patient and less resilient. We had hoped to return to life before, but that isn’t happening.

In addition, we at Epiphany have our particular losses. The congregational survey conducted earlier this year identified grief around pastors and staff leaving; loss of pre-pandemic routines; declining church membership; declining health of members. The list represents a lot of change over the past three years as well as losses from a decade ago or more. We had hoped for Epiphany to pick up where it left off, before the pandemic, before the congregational divide, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. We wonder if we’ve lost our focus…where is Jesus?

In times of faltering hope, the Emmaus journey is a good story to hear. It shows us the way forward when we can’t see it ourselves. First of all, I notice that the stranger walking with the disciples is a good listener. When we are dealing with losses, it is important to name our griefs – to acknowledge them and give ourselves permission to feel them. It is also good to share them with someone who can listen and respond. We pastors are here for you, but so are council leaders and staff. Part of the healing process is the way we connect when a grief is shared. It is an opportunity to show compassion, and to walk with one another through the pain.

Another reason this story is helpful in times of loss is that as the stranger walked with the disciples, he not only listened, he also shared a different perspective. His take on the scriptures was that it was all happening according to God’s plan: the Son of Man, the Messiah, was to suffer and then usher in God’s kingdom. The stranger places the experience of the disciples into a broader context and gives them the possibility to see beyond their grief to a new beginning. We too can open ourselves to the possibility of seeing our experience in a new way.

But the most important thing is the disciples are not talking to a stranger – it’s Jesus! But they don’t realize it. And I think this detail is also instructive to us, because often grief blinds us. We can only focus on what was and is our pain. The disciples’ own preconceived notions of what the Messiah was supposed to be and their sadness that it did not come to pass prevented them from seeing Jesus risen in their midst.

The disciples finally recognize Jesus when he breaks the bread just like he did in his ministry with the disciples. In this meal where Jesus promised to be with them, the disciples see their risen Lord. They see that Jesus may not be with them as he once was, but that he will nonetheless walk with them, teach them the scriptures, empower them to tell others. It turns out they have more than what they hoped for, something that will last – they have the real presence of Christ, unbound by time and space. And that is the healing they need: Jesus with them in the death of their hopes and raising new hope and new life. It sends them running the seven miles back to Jerusalem to share the joy of this new beginning.

In my dad’s funeral planning document, he explained why he selected this text. As the hymns were a nod to my dad’s life as an amateur musician, this story of the Road to Emmaus grew out of his professional life as an educator. He wrote: “There is a good metaphor for learning in this story.  The disciples just don’t [understand Jesus’ resurrection].  But conversation with Jesus helps, and the visual image of breaking bread helps them to get it.  In my teaching, I always focus on stories and images as a way of catalyzing a different worldview.” 

That is what happens when we encounter the Risen Christ—a different worldview is catalyzed in us. Walking with Jesus opens us to a broader perspective. There is a whole new world out there! God is indeed doing something good in our midst, even when we fail to see it. We can entrust our griefs to Him and lovingly relinquish our old hopes. In Jesus, there is a new beginning. In Jesus, there is new hope. There is resurrection for our deepest longings and for the world.

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