Even when our hopes are dashed, Jesus comes along to feed us on the way.
Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane at the last worship service and deconsecration of St. Stephen the Martyr in Waterboro, Maine
May 3, 2014
We turn today to one of the most beloved stories in all of scripture: the encounter between Jesus and two of his followers on the road to Emmaus on the evening of the resurrection. It’s a story of awakening and hope, a story that has set the pattern for Christian worship through the ages, a story of the empowerment of Jesus’ disciples for mission. And it is all those things. But before it is any of them, it is a story of broken hearts…
The two on the road are disciples, not the twelve, but certainly part of the inner circle. One is a man named Cleopas, which may be a form of the name Clopas, a shortened form of Cleopatros, meaning “glory of the father.” The other is not named, suggesting to some scholars that the other is a woman, and that this is a married couple fleeing from the dangers of Jerusalem and the upper room. They are leaving it all behind. They are hurrying along the road, discussing in whispers all that is happened. Their dismay and their anxiety are palpable.
They meet a man on the road, a stranger, who seems to know nothing of what has happened, neither of the crucifixion nor the claims of resurrection. And when he asks about those events, the story just pours out of them: “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…”
It is these last words, “But we had hoped…” that have always grabbed me. “But we had hoped…” We had hoped he was the messiah. We had hoped he would overthrow the Roman oppressor. We had hoped that he would restore Israel to glory. We had hoped that Israel would no longer be the doormat at the crossroads of the ancient world.
But we had hoped… We had hoped our neighbor would recover. We had hoped that she would get that job. We had hoped that the cancer was beaten. We had hoped that he would come back to us. We had hoped that we could keep the house. We had hoped…
The words bespeak crushing disappointment, failure and grief. The loss of a dream, the death of a vision. And more that, these words speak of the loss of a future, a future dreamed about and prayed over for many years. What they had hoped for will not happen. What they had prayed for is lost.
Before it’s a story of resurrection, the story of the Emmaus road is a story of crucifixion. And it’s not a setup for Jesus’ triumph, not a cheap shot reminding us that resurrection requires a crucifixion. No! Whatever else Jesus is, he’s not what they expected. He’s not what they’d hoped for.
We need to sit with that for a bit. Can we be a church that honors disappointment? Can we be church that welcomes those who are crushed, whose dreams are broken? Can we be a church that embraces the reality of death in our lives – the jobs that aren’t found, the addictions that aren’t overcome, the broken relationships that aren’t healed, the hopes that aren’t realized? Can we hold to the faith that it is in the midst of real loss, genuine suffering, that Jesus comes near?
That’s our reality here today at St. Stephen’s. This service we offer today is one that no one wanted. It is not what we hoped for. It is the not the future we dreamed of. But it is the truth we have to face.
We would have liked it very much that Jesus had saved us from this, that Jesus’ resurrection meant that this church would not die, that we ourselves might never have to face suffering and death. A different outcome would have fit with our hopes, our dreams…
Yet today we say good-bye. We say good-bye, and we give thanks for the uncounted ways that St. Stephen’s has ministered both to its members and to the larger community. We give thanks for baptisms and marriages and burials. We give thanks for uncounted moments of insight, for strength and grace given and received, for myriad kindnesses offered, for unnumbered ministries of people now long forgotten. Our faith is that, though St. Stephen’s is passing from the scene, none of what has been done here is lost to God, that in the mystery of God’s economy, all that has been offered has been received and, more than that, has been used and is being used for the sake of God’s world.
The disciples recognized Jesus in the BREAKING of the bread. Bread, you know, doesn’t break cleanly. It shatters, it tears, it pulls apart. The breaking of bread is the very epitome of woundedness. But bread must be broken to be eaten, to be shared. You can’t eat an intact loaf. And it was in the moment of breaking the bread that the disciples saw him, saw Jesus, and knew there was more to come.
It was not what they’d hoped for, but there was life yet to come. There is a future, and God is in it. There is life, and Jesus is offering it. There is hope, and it will not be disappointed. But the breaking is real.
The story of the disciples on the Emmaus road reminds us that the Christian life is not about quick fixes and happy endings. It’s rather about a life of companionship with God, a journey we make together. On that journey we encounter real suffering and loss. Things do not turn out as we expect. But in the midst of all that God is present, and we meet him in our journey.
The Good News, the very Good News, for Cleopas and his companion, for you and for me, is that when the breaking is real, when our hopes are dashed and our dreams are lost, Jesus comes alongside and feeds us. God is encountered along the way, in the midst of very real grief and loss, and in the places and among people where we least expect to find God. Our task is to remain open, even in the midst of disappointment, and to learn from Jesus what new life God has in mind for us.