May 4, 2014, Easter 3 – A World of Wants
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“I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication; because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.”
Hollywood loves a good pre-quel these days. Maybe it’s a lack of originality, but a lot of movies seem to be giving us back-stories – a look into the past of, say, Darth Vader, or Superman, or Hannibal Lector. And today’s gospel reading is like that – we go back a little in time, today. Two weeks ago it was Easter – and I don’t know about you, but it seems impossible that it was only two weeks ago – and we read about the very first Easter morning, when the women arrived at the empty tomb, and all the joyful chaos that followed their discovery. And then last week we found ourselves still on the evening of that first day, the faithless disciples huddled in a locked room in Jerusalem, wavering between confusion and terror, afraid of the retribution of the Temple authorities, completely unable to figure out what to make of the crazy claims of those women. And then, of course, Jesus was among them, and joy and peace followed, and then of course a week later Thomas caught up with it all.
But today we go back a bit, just before that moment in the upper room on the first Easter day. Luke brings us to the late afternoon of the first Easter Day, on the road to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles outside of Jerusalem, where two disciples, exhausted and grief-stricken from the events of the past three days, are heading home. And a man comes alongside them, a man who, amazingly, doesn’t know anything about the terrible things they have just experienced. But even though he doesn’t seem to be up on current events, he is a man of great learning and wisdom, and he is able to show them, from the Scriptures, beginning with the great prophet Moses, that everything that had happened had been foretold long ago. And in their desire to learn more from this new friend, and I think in kindness as well, they urged their new companion not to travel any further, but to share their hospitality for the night.
When he joined them at the table they invited him to give the blessing. And when he had blessed the bread and broken it, suddenly their eyes were opened and they saw that he was Jesus. And then Luke tells us that Jesus vanished from their sight, but they, even though they were weary and night had fallen – and if you’ve ever been in the country at night, you know how totally black the road is at night where there are no streetlights – even so, they ran all the 7 miles back to Jerusalem to tell the others that they had seen Jesus, alive! They found the eleven and the other disciples huddled together in an upper room hiding out from the Jews, and they began to pour out their news and to hear the rumors that had been going around Jerusalem as well, and suddenly while they were all babbling Jesus stood among them, and said, “Peace to you!” And that brings us right up to last week’s reading, except now we have an even better picture of that moment, because we have met two more of the disciples who were in that room on Easter night; we’ve seen a little bit into their minds and hearts.
But what I want to talk about is what Cleopas and his friend shared with the man they met along the road as they left Jerusalem that afternoon. Stranger though he was, they poured out their deepest grief to him, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel…” The death of Jesus Christ had meant the death of all that they had hoped and longed for, not only in the three years of Jesus’s ministry, but their whole lives, and the lives of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, for all the centuries since the God of Israel had promised a Messiah who would set Israel free from her many enemies and vindicate her in the sight of all the godless nations around them. They had hoped that in Christ, at last, the Anointed One that God had promised had come to fulfill all their hopes. But it had all come to nothing when Jesus breathed his last on the cross.
To be a living human being in this broken creation is to have deep hopes and desires. There is not one person you meet, as you go to Perry’s or to the Post Office or walk your dog down the street, there is not one person in this world whose heart is not filled with some desperate hope.
Last week I was invited to walk in the Gay pride parade in Potsdam, and I met some wonderful, kind and sweet young people. I only walked a mile or so with them, so I can’t claim to know any of them truly, but I can imagine that that parade symbolized hope for many of those kids – maybe the hope of being vindicated after experiencing the cruelty of playmates in school; maybe the hope of rising above the disappointment and embarrassment of their families; maybe the hope of outshouting the condemnation of some of the religious people they had encountered. Our hopes are not always noble or just, but they are always a real part of ourselves. And they are not always a carefully considered position like a political ideology; mostly our hopes come from our depths; because they are the cries of our wounded hearts.
In the past few weeks a woman I love and respect very much has been going through a painful time at her job. She’s worked there for years, and has always given over and above what is asked of her. Her work, and the people she serves in the course of her job, have been very important to her, and they have always been a source of real joy to her. But recently a political situation at her place of work has brought her unjust accusations and has threatened her job security. And talking and praying with her, I can see the terrible pain of her wounded hope, the perfectly reasonable hope of being appreciated for hard work and dedication and integrity.
I know and love a couple who are preparing for marriage. Both of them have had previous marriages that ended in divorce, with all the confusion and guilt and betrayal that so often mark the death of a relationship. Their hope together is intense and a little fearful – the hope of making a relationship work after having had their hearts broken and experiencing the pain of failure and vulnerability.
We have two more good friends whose hopes seem to be aimed in entirely opposite directions. One is a young woman who was raised in a very conservative Christian family and who sees everything in black and white and who hopes above all things to come face to face with Jesus at the end and be told she was right. And the other young woman, also raised in a very conservative Christian family, has been deeply wounded by ungrace and hopes above all things to prove that Christianity is all a delusion and a crutch, and that human beings are the greatest good and the only good after all.
And I have a friend whose life is honestly a constant mess, someone who looks from the outside pretty hopeless much of the time, but who keeps going in the desperate hope of getting control over the forces that seem always to be bent on destroying his family and his life, even and especially those forces that come from within – anger, addiction, physical weakness and illness.
And for myself, as I grow older I feel the pull of the desperate hope to be able to look back and see that I didn’t make a complete mess of my life – to be told that I was successful in raising my children, that I didn’t fail them, that I made the right choices, because the older we get the more we realize that we can’t move backward and that there’s no do-overs. I think maybe my hope is basically just boring old mid-life crisis rearing its ugly head, but it is no less real for knowing that.
Everyone has earthly hopes, and none of our hopes are meaningless or trivial; they are all as real and as painful as the longing of Cleopas and his friend to be delivered from Rome, who had torn away the freedom of the Jews in the land God had given them as an inheritance, whose legions had swept in to Israel with their mighty army and their false gods. “We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel” they said.
And just like those two men on the road to Emmaus, every human heart in this world is wounded by some very real injustice or cruelty or guilt or helplessness; and every human desire is a longing, however foolish or ill-conceived it might be sometimes, to set right what is broken by the sin in our lives. The problem is that we don’t know what our heart is crying out for; because most of the time, we don’t know our real need. We are like little children in WalMart, crying for this toy and that candy bar, sure that those are the very things that will make them happy, when what their heart is really crying out for, deep down, is to go home, to go home and snuggle up in the lap of their father or mother, to be held and loved.
The real hopes of our hearts are echoes of a deeper and more basic human need – because every person, created in the image of God, has a God-shaped hole in the center of our being. We try to fill it with every good and worthwhile and desirable thing that we think we need, but there is nothing that can fill it other than the presence and love of the Father. “We had hoped…” to be proven right, to be recognized, to be successful or powerful or maybe just not broken anymore. But the one and only thing that will fill the emptiness within is God himself.
If Jesus was alive and walking along the road to Emmaus at sunset on that first Easter evening – and I proclaim to you that he was – then all our deepest hopes will be satisfied, not according to our own understanding, but in glorious reality, because his purpose in coming to us was to bring us back home. The shame and failure and condemnation and fear that shadow our lives will be consumed in the blazing light of his life. And the deepest wounds and scars of our past will be bathed and healed in his love. “We had hoped he was the one…” the disciples said to Jesus in their grief and disappointment. And at the breaking of the bread, they saw that he was.