Hope, in the past tense, is heartbreaking. You can almost see the slump of their shoulders, and feel the raspy catch in their throats when these folks admit to a stranger: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
This is Easter too, that same triumphant, holy day… A-a-a-lleluia. But it doesn’t feel like a celebration.
Their hope is so scraped raw that they spill out their confusion and pain to someone they don’t even recognize. We have all had times where our hurt was so close to the surface the slightest breeze could release it. This stranger explains the Scriptures to them (yet still they don’t recognize him). Still. But there can be emotional distance to teaching about God, that is not really an experience of God, in the flesh. Next, they invite him to stay with them. Then, things get real. They find out who their company is.
What could this mean?
- The story could be about how offering hospitality is key to meeting Jesus in the form of strangers, travelers, migrants, the person in need who knocks at your door.
- It could be about how much movement is going on in the story – and that the church or believers cannot stay stagnant, but hope is an active verb, so the way to have hope in the present or future (not just the past) is to start even small actions in the direction of the future you hope for.
- It could be about the meal, and how breaking bread together helps us to recognize Jesus.
But here’s what I’m going with, because I can witness to it firsthand, as the women who met Jesus at the tomb did. Cleopas and whoever was with him – maybe Mrs. Cleopas – had a revelation, a realization that they were talking to the risen Jesus in the flesh, because they allowed themselves to be vulnerable.
The last time I really felt like I belonged in a church, as part of the group, not the pastor, was at Christ on Capitol Hill. And it wasn’t because I helped with Godly Play, our montessori-like Sunday School, or because Pastor Joy’s youngest kid running amok made us so comfortable with our own kids’ liveliness in worship, or from chatting with people during coffee time. I can absolutely trace my sense of “belonging” in that congregation to our family’s crisis.
We all go thru stuff, you know. When we did, it was Sunday School teacher Rochelle I called for child care help, and then everyone knew, without me having to tell them all. I finally had to say to people, “Please stop being so caring, because it makes me dissolve into a puddle of tears every time you touch my arm gently or genuinely ask how I’m doing. And I cannot be a puddle all the time.” I, and we, belonged ever since. When it was my turn to be vulnerable, that’s when it became my church. I know it.
There are practices for showing our vulnerabilities. There’s the practice of “crappy dinners” where the rules are: once a month I’m inviting everyone I know to come and eat spaghetti from a box, sauce from a jar, and I will not be cleaning my house beforehand. Because I mean it when I say “come as you are,” messes and all. We need to combat isolation, to enjoy being together without the pressure or the expense.
I am about 50% full of ideas and 50% of doubts and questions. What happens if we are real about that? Isn’t the entire point of the incarnation – God showing up in human form – warts and all? Not so his followers could be experts, or show only their “Sunday best” to each other, but to bring our real wounds, fears, and heartbreak to Jesus together?
We are the “one” now, Body of Christ
Now listen here, there’s another word to emphasize in that line “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Judaism and Christianity were never meant to be faiths for individuals. They are about seeking God as a collective identity, a community. Hope is something we do together—we confess our heartbreak, and then we can realize Jesus is the one talking to us, in front of us all along, and that now we are the ones, together who need to instigate the change we hope for in the world. Uh oh.
We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. What if it is not “he” but “we” that are bringing God’s will alive in this world now? We have Jesus’ example, and the freedom from fear of dying, since he conquered death for us. It would be great if one really special child of God would come and redeem everything, set it all back right side up, but that’s not how it’s going to work. “O how foolish,” says Jesus. Don’t you understand that the Messiah was only ever going to be here temporarily? He was to suffer and then enter into God’s glory? But we’re still here.
We had hoped that going to school or “jogging while black” or – for heaven’s sake – knocking on the wrong neighbor’s door would not get one shot in this country, but those hopes are dashed. What are we going to do about it?
We had hoped that the natural disasters would not intensify with those few degrees we’ve warmed up this planet, but that hope is shattered. What are we going to do about it?
Whoa. This sermon just took a dangerous turn. Did I just mean to push some buttons and suggest that church is not just a community where we bring our personal vulnerabilities, but also what’s broken in our society? Yes, yes I did.
Let’s pause for a moment and become aware of what’s happening in our bodies. Did mentioning some polarizing flashpoints trigger some responses? Anyone have an elevated heartbeat? I do. Are your fists or shoulders or neck tense? I notice you, “fight or flight” responses. But I want to make a conscious choice about how to respond.
Someone might say to the preacher, “I come here to be uplifted, to feel better. I don’t want this.” But if not now, when? What other communities do you trust with these things? Where else should we talk about what loving our neighbor means now?
Someone might say to the guest pastor, “There are kids in the room.” A beloved creative writing professor who was also a pastor was in full support of fairy tales and stories with evil forces, because, he said, “Kids already know evil is real. What they learn if you won’t talk about it is that you are not a safe person to face it with.” Or a safe community to face it with. Who is better than the Good Friday to Easter faith community, to lay bare the heartbreak of the world we live in and face it together?
The Emmaus 2 were not just sad about their personal grief at the loss of Jesus, they were heartbroken because the world is not right and they had desperately hoped for change. Their people were suffering on a mass scale. So are “our” people, if we will admit that every person on this earth is our sibling, a child of God. The ones fleeing famine and gang violence, the ones being abused at home, the ones who are considering suicide because the message they get about who they are is that nobody wants to know they exist or will ever love them if they come out … God loves them too. They are our people too.
So we’re not going to act like we don’t know what’s happening these days to our siblings. Or that situations that break our hearts are off limits in church. We’re not going to give our brains to our preferred media outlet, instead of entrusting our thoughtful, faithful conversation on those events and issues to the Body of Christ. If we can trust each other with our personal struggles, then we can hold society’s struggles together too, and walk together, ruminate over it together with a meal, then figure out how we can do something about it together. We’ll know Jesus is with us, when the heartburn starts!
Preached at Community of Christ Lutheran Church on April 23, 2023