Sunday, May 4, 2014

Easter 3A -- May 4, 2014

It Never Crossed My Mind

Luke 24:13-35

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.

If you had asked me at age 16 what I hoped for my future, I would have answered quickly and clearly.  I hoped to be a great stage actress.  I had it all planned out – studying at Carnegie Mellon, moving to New York, getting an agent, auditioning, and winning a Tony award.  I had every reason to hope that my life might turn out that way – I was a pretty good actress.  At the ripe old age of 16, it never crossed my mind that I might end up with a future different than the one I envisioned, because I was so entirely focused on a career in the theatre.  I had hoped for one thing.  What actually happened never crossed my mind.

If you ask a parent holding their newborn baby for the first time what he or she hopes for their child’s future, they will answer quickly and clearly.  Happiness.  Health.  A good job and a loving family.  The new parent so easily imagine that tiny baby’s future rolling out before him – first day of school, first driver’s license, first date.  College.  Marriage.  Grandchildren.  It’s every parent’s reasonable hope for his or her newborn child, because everything seems possible.  In those first precious moments, it never crosses their mind that their son or daughter might become sick or disabled, or killed in a war, or drop out of school or become addicted to drugs.  The parent hopes for one thing.  What actually happens never crosses his or her mind.

If you had asked a group of people dedicating their brand new church building on January 17, 1895 what they hoped for their future, they would have answered quickly and clearly.  They wanted to continue growing, just as they had been experiencing since their days as a little Sabbath School in an old stone schoolhouse.  Their new church had started out with just a couple dozen people and a part time pastor at the old Fleming United Presbyterian Church, and now look at them!  A full time pastor!  A beautiful new building! So many people!  In 1895, it never crossed their minds that more than 100 years later, their church would have a couple dozen people in worship and a part time pastor.  A part time, FEMALE pastor.  They had hoped for one thing.  What actually happened never crossed their minds.

And when day came, Jesus called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. He came down with (the 12) and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” (Lk. 6:12-19) 

If you asked the disciples what they hoped that day, as they watched Jesus heal the diseases and unclean spirits of every person in that enormous crowd from all over, they would have given you a clear and quick answer.  They would say that they hoped Jesus would be the Messiah, the one who would overthrow Roman rule and establish a new authority to redeem Israel.  The disciples spent three years watching Jesus interact with the religious authorities, following Jesus to villages and towns, hearing him preach, seeing him heal and forgive and eat with sinners.  After three years of seeing Jesus in action, the disciples had every reason to believe that Jesus would fulfill their deep hopes of freedom for the Jewish people, and maybe a little bit of fame and fortune for themselves.  It never crossed their minds that Jesus would die a painful death, and even after it happened, it never crossed their minds that Jesus could be resurrected.    The disciples had hoped for one thing.  What actually happened never crossed their minds, despite all that Jesus had told them.

So today when we see these two disciples making the seven mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, we see them doing exactly what we do when things haven’t worked out quite the way we had hoped.  We look back over all the events that led us to this disastrous point, trying to figure out what we could have done differently.  Did somebody make a poor decision or mess up?  Did we pick the wrong leader?  Did we spend too much money on the wrong things or not enough money on the right things?  Were we lazy or less than energetic in the task we were assigned?  Why did we fall asleep?  Did we not pray enough?  Were we not faithful enough?  What could we have done differently?

The disciples are deep into their forensic analysis, so it probably takes them a while to realize that a stranger has sidled up next to them.  And this particular stranger is strangely clueless about the disaster that has just occurred in Jerusalem.  So to bring the guy up to speed, the disciples tell the stranger everything.  About the 3 years of ministry and what they hoped would be the glorious outcome of all their hard work.  Then they tell him about happened to Jesus and how his death crushed their dreams.  They tell him the women’s idle tale about empty tombs and visions of angels.  They even admit to feeling a bit like they were misled by Jesus.  But that’s neither here nor there.  It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this but, there you have it.  Boom, all gone.

But there’s one thought that has not yet crossed the disciples’ minds.  What hasn’t occurred to them is the possibility that -- it’s true!  The disciple’s hope in Jesus was not misplaced or empty.  That Jesus had, indeed, been the one who redeemed Israel.  It never crossed the disciple’s minds that the women’s tale was no idle story but was, in fact, gospel truth.   

Despite the disciples’ doubt and disgust, Jesus shows up to walk and talk with the disciples during their long trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  He takes the time to listen to their version of what had happened.  He reminds them of scripture they knew well.  Jesus knows that what they need is a way to wrap their minds around what could not possibly cross their minds, so he gives them words and stories and space to help them do just that.

But this conversation on the road was just a prelude.  The conversation was important, but it wasn’t the place where the disciples finally recognized Jesus.  Jesus gave them the time and the space and the words to help them process everything that had happened.  And I think that time prepared the disciples to see beyond their old hopes for what they wanted Jesus to be, and be able to finally see Jesus as he really is.  By the time they get to the breaking of the bread, they are astonished to find themselves face to face with resurrected Lord.  It never crossed their minds that the stranger with them was Jesus.

And, as we know, Jesus didn’t stop there at that dinner table.  Jesus keeps showing up in places of dashed hopes, deep disappointment, and horrible disillusionment.  He shows up in different ways – in ways that may never cross our minds – but in time, we may recognize him.  Sometimes we will recognize the work of Jesus in the moment itself, and sometimes only in retrospect.

When you are crawling through the pit of despair, Jesus may show up as the high school English teacher who helps you put together a last minute application to the college you never even considered.  And even after you’ve dropped out of college, Jesus may show up as the first boss who gives you opportunities to try and to fail, and Jesus may show up later still as the minister who encourages you to think about seminary even though you’re pushing 40 years old and are about to have a second baby.

Jesus keeps showing up.

He may show up as the social worker who miraculously finds the last available bed in the only rehab center in town for your adult child who has started using again after promising to stop and didn’t return your phone calls for weeks until one of his friends called you to tell you he is in the hospital after nearly dying from an overdose.  This will be his fourth time for rehab, but the social worker says with a confidence that you can’t even fake anymore, “I just know he’s gonna do it this time.”

Jesus keeps showing up.

When you are crumbling with grief, Jesus may show up as the man at the bank who slowly and patiently leads you through the awful red tape of wills, insurance claims, and safety deposit boxes. 

Jesus keeps showing up.

When you are anxious about the future of your church, Jesus may show up in the voice of a stranger who walks with you and talks with you, and reminds you why you are here, what you’ve overcome and before you know it, you’re part of a new model for ministry that never before crossed anyone’s mind in 149 years. 

Jesus keeps showing up.

Breaking the bread.  That was what did it for the disciples covered with dust from the Emmaus Road.  It wasn’t a sermon or a theology or a bible study that made them sit up and say, “Aha!”  All of that prepared the disciples to see the newness of Christ.  But it was in the breaking of the bread that they knew for sure that Jesus had shown up, just as he had promised them all along. 

Jesus keeps showing up.  Even when we feed stupid and blind and stumbling.  Even when we are doubtful and fearful and ready to just give it all up.  As she considers this story, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

“Jesus seems to prefer working with broken people, with broken dreams, in a broken world.  If someone hands him a whole loaf, he will take it, bless it, break it, and give it, and he will do the same thing with his own flesh and blood, because that is the way of life God has shown him to show the rest of us: to take what we have been given, whether we like it or not, and to (say thank you) for it, whether it is the sweet, satisfying bread of success or the tear soaked bread of sorrow…so that the broken loaf may bring all of us broken ones together into one body, where we may recognize the broken Lord in our midst.”[1]

Jesus does not give us false hope, but hope grounded in the reality of God’s vision for God’s people, all of us, in communities large and small, families formed and fractured, sinners and saints, blessed and broken, all of us doing our best to work out God’s purpose.  No matter what we do or do not do, we cannot lose Jesus.  No matter how disconnected or disillusioned we become, there is one place for sure we know we will see him.  At this table.  In the breaking of the bread.  In the pouring of the wine.  He promised to be here, and even if we end up crawling on hands and knees to make it here, it is worth the long hike. 

It may be when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.[2]
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995, 22-23.