THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: O God, your Son makes himself known to all his disciples in the breaking of bread. Open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in his redeeming work, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24:21.
“We had hoped.” Perhaps the saddest words imaginable. “We had hoped that this time the pregnancy might finally take.” “We had hoped that perhaps this treatment would be the one to push mom’s cancer into remission.” “We had hoped the counseling might save our marriage.” I suspect that everybody reading this post has lived long enough to see a hope or two dashed. After all, what is life if not a series of events that routinely shatter expectations? Would we want it to be otherwise? What would it be like to live in a world where everything went according to plan? What would be the point of athletic competitions if everyone knew the outcome in advance? Who would bother to watch a movie or read a book without plot twists, suspense and surprises? A world without an element of randomness, unpredictability and surprise would be boring. It would be a world without hope. God loves us too much to place us in such a dry, colorless existence.
The world in which God places us is one where hope can thrive. It is a place where imagination can lead us to new discoveries, life altering innovations in mechanics, medicine and the sciences. Hope enables a people to survive and maintain its dignity under centuries of slavery. Hope allows one to look with unclouded eyes at a world of cruelty, injustice and tyranny and still look forward with joyous expectation to a better world of mercy, justice and freedom. You may have heard it said that, “Where there is life, there is hope.” But the converse is just as true. “Where there is hope, there is life.”
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were close to death. To be sure, they were breathing and their hearts were still pumping blood. But there seemed to be no point to it all. The hope that had been driving them for the last three years had been dashed. Jesus, who these two disciples expected to liberate their oppressed nation from centuries of Roman brutality and oppression, was dead. Worse, he had been betrayed by the leaders of his own people into the hands of their oppressors and tortured to death in the most inhumane and humiliating way possible. The kingdom Jesus promised and on which the disciples had staked their lives never materialized.
I have seen hopelessness like this before. I saw it in the eyes of a teenage girl trapped in the body of a boy who could not make her friends, her parents or her church understand. I saw it the eyes of a mother whose son was sentenced to decades in prison. I have seen it on television, in newspapers and on the internet in the eyes of millions stranded at our southern border, cramped into overcrowded refugee camps and sitting alone in detention centers. I have seen it over the years in the eyes of institutionalized elderly folk nobody but the pastor ever visits. These are people whose hopes have been so thoroughly dashed so many times that they have lost the capacity to hope. They have become convinced that the way things are for them is the way they always will be. This is as good as it gets.
But then the disciples encounter a stranger on the road. We know this stranger was the resurrected Jesus. But the disciples fail to recognize him. They are not alone in this failure of recognition. Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for a gardener. John 20: 11-16. According to Matthew’s gospel, many of the disciples who encountered the resurrected Christ in Galilee still “doubted,” meaning, I suppose, that they were not sure the man they saw before them really was Jesus. Matthew 28:16-17. I do not know because I cannot get inside the heads of these disciples, but I suspect their lack of recognition stemmed from a lack of hope. Hope is the engine of expectation. Hope recognizes that there is in every transaction a “God factor” that sometimes brings about surprising and unexpected twists and turns. We might define the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as God’s element of surprise imbedded in the last place you would expect to find it.
A cemetery is not the place you look for a new beginning. But that is where the story of the people called church gets its start. Because our story begins with baptism into Christ’s death where we are “born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God,” we are quite at home in seemingly hopeless circumstances. I Peter 1:23. That is why you find churches like mine reaching out to befriend and affirm transgender teens in states where their very right to exist is denied by statute. It is why you find people of faith at work in refugee camps and on our southern border working to secure rights and sustenance for people who have no home, no country and no rights. It is also why we find ourselves visiting and befriending people institutionalized in long term care facilities, detention centers and prisons. God does God’s best work in the dark. It is there God plants the seed of hope which, once planted, bursts through the frozen earth, stone walls, iron bars, barbed wire and the grave.
It was in the breaking of the bread that the two disciples recognized Jesus. Yet it is obvious that the groundwork was already being laid as he was talking to them on the road and setting their hearts on fire by opening to them the scriptures. I would love to know more about what was discussed on that journey to Emmaus. I expect that Jesus was recounting for those two disciples God’s delight in opening barren wombs with the birth of great leaders, making pathways of escape for slaves trapped between the armies of the Egyptian empire and the sea, bringing streams of water from stone to quench the thirst of a people lost in the wilderness, making kings from shepherds and forming nations of landless, wandering aliens. What greater delight could this God have, what greater surprise could God spring on us than to break open the very grave? To be sure, the world is full of tragedy, but Easter reminds us that God is full of surprises.
This is all good news for a world careening toward global military conflict, threatened by catastrophic ecological disaster, overshadowed by the rise of hateful racist ideologies and plagued by gross economic inequality. The way out of these dilemmas appears to be narrowing and may soon be closed. But hope insists that God still has surprises in store for us. This is not the first time the people of God are finding themselves faced with what appears to be a dead end. The world needs to know that its Creator has not abandoned it. The world needs to know that the Spirit of God is working in, with and under teachers faithfully witnessing to tolerance, acceptance and diversity, NGO workers serving and advocating for refugees, attorneys fighting to protect reproductive rights for women, scientists striving to educate the public and call world leaders to take action on climate change and all persons striving to name and eradicate the idolatries of racism and nationalism. All these people of good will need to hear that their efforts are not futile because, whether they know it or not, their efforts are not theirs alone. Whether they recognize him or not, Jesus is working among and through them. As Saint Paul would remind us, what God begins, God will find a way to finish. Philippians 1:6.
Here is a poem by Sonia Sanchez that speaks of something like the hope born of an encounter with the resurrected Christ. As an African American poet, she knows something of hope struggling to vanquish despair.
This is Not a Small Voice
This is not a small voice
you hear this is a large
voice coming out of these cities.
This is the voice of LaTanya.
Kadesha. Shaniqua. This
is the voice of Antoine.
Running over waters
navigating the hallways
of our schools spilling out
on the corners of our cities and
no epitaphs spill out of their river
This is not a small love
you hear this is a large
love, a passion for kissing learning
on its face.
This is a love that crowns the feet
that nourishes, conceives, feels the
mends the children,
folds them inside our history
toast more than the flesh
where they suck the bones of the
and spit out closed vowels.
This is a love colored with iron
This is a love initialed Black
This is not a small voice
Source: Wounded in the House of a Friend (c. 1995 by Sonia Sanchez.; pub. by Beacon Press). Sonia Sanchez (born Wilsonia Benita Driver in 1934) is an American poet, writer and professor. She is a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement. Sanchez has written several books of poetry. She has also authored short stories, critical essays, plays and children’s books. She received Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 1993. In 2001 she was awarded the Robert Frost Medal for her contributions to American poetry. You can read more about Sonia Sanchez and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.