This week’s sermon from Boonville Pres.
“We had hoped.”
Those were the stinging words that reverberated within the hearts and minds of the disciples in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion.
When John the Baptist first pointed to Jesus and said, “He’s the one we’ve been waiting for, the one whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie: the Lamb of God,” they had hoped.
When Jesus preached his first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth, he read those inspirational words from the book of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” they had hoped.
When he then started his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” they had hoped.
When they saw him make good on that promise, bringing sight to the blind, food to the hungry, and good news to those who had never heard anything other than bad news, they had hoped.
When Jesus told them to get ready, because the new reign of heaven-on-earth was at hand, they had hoped.
When he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem and kicked those corrupt money changers out of God’s house, the sacred temple, they had hoped.
But then, the pounding force of a Roman hammer driving twisted spikes of iron through flesh and wood put a sudden and bloody end to their hoping. They heard Jesus recite lines of ancient poetry about being forsaken by God. At the bitter end, he had pathetically muttered, “It is finished,” just before giving up his fight for life. And he was right: it was finished. It was over. Three years of their lives wasted on this cult leader who died in disgrace. Perhaps he would be remembered as the David Koresh or Jim Jones of his day. They would be lucky to escape with their lives and slink back to their families in shame. They had hoped. Look what it got them.
Such was the state of mind of the two disciples who shambled slowly down the road on that Sunday afternoon. They probably hadn’t eaten or slept much in the few days prior. What’s the point of eating when all food has lost its taste? One might as well be eating ashes. Getting out of bed probably felt like working out with lead weights strapped to your arms, legs, and head.
Emotionally, they probably oscillated between feeling nothing at all and that sickening sensation of a knot in the gut that makes its way up to your throat and finally threatens to burst out through your eyeballs. These folks were heartbroken.
Most of us will experience real heartbreak at some point in our lives. It might come with the loss of a relationship or a job. It might stem from the regret of a missed opportunity. It might come from a serious diagnosis with a poor prognosis, the death of a parent, spouse, or child, or with what Howie Cosell used to call “the agony of defeat.” Whenever and however it comes, real heartbreak is undeniable and unforgettable.
For these two disciples of the late Jesus, walking down a lonely road on a hot Sunday afternoon, heartbreak had come with the dashing of their highest aspirations against the concrete of imperial power and religious corruption. They were probably just beginning to formulate a plan of what to do next when, suddenly, they realized that they were not alone on the road.
A stranger met them as they walked along the road between Jerusalem and a town called Emmaus. In an attempt to join the conversation, the stranger politely asks about the topic. The question literally stops the disciples in their tracks. It’s like they can’t even bring themselves to answer the question directly. The subject is just too painful. Finally, one of them answers the original question with another question: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” I take that to be another way of saying, “Well, y’know…” in hopes that the stranger won’t ask them to finish the sentence.
Unfortunately for them, the stranger keeps pressing. He asks them, “What things?” Eventually, they open up to this stranger about the grief in their broken hearts. “We had hoped,” they tell him, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.” The stranger listens, talks back, and engages them in conversation as they walk along. They talk about Jesus, they talk about faith, and they talk about the Bible. It seems like this stranger became a real pastor to them in their moment of deepest heartbreak. He was there for them. They didn’t know him from Adam’s housecat, but they felt safe (or at least desperate) enough to allow him to take part in their pain and shame. Later on, those disciples would talk about how their hearts were “burning within [them]” as the stranger walked and talked with them.
Before they knew it, the group had arrived at Emmaus. The two disciples had reached the place where they were going, but the stranger kept walking. They looked at the sun going down in the distance. It would be dark and cold soon. Traveling at night could be dangerous. They saw an opportunity to give back to this stranger a little bit of what he had given to them: hospitality. Maybe they even thought about what Jesus had once taught them: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.” They called out to their new friend as he walked away, “Hey! It’s getting dark outside. Stay with us tonight. It’s the least we can do.” The stranger agrees.
Later that night, at dinner, this mysterious stranger “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” And just then, in that moment, something happened. They couldn’t explain it. Maybe one of them caught a glimpse of a scar on the stranger’s wrist as he reached for the loaf of bread. Maybe it was the sound of the stranger’s voice as he blessed and broke the bread, just like their dead friend had done only a few days prior. Maybe it was something deeper than that. Whatever it was, something happened. In that moment, the text of Luke’s gospel tells us that “their eyes were opened.” They squinted across the table at the stranger in the dim and flickering lamplight and then, just for a split second, they saw something that almost made their broken and burning hearts jump right out of their chests because, in that moment, they could have sworn (as impossible as it sounds) that they were looking into the eyes of Jesus! And then, just as quickly as it came, it was gone. The moment was over, but the experience had shaken them to their core.
This startling and disturbing encounter led them to go back to Jerusalem and their fellowship of broken-hearted disciples. Much to their surprise, others among the group reported having similar experiences. They didn’t know what to make of it all. They just shared their stories with one another. And then, in the while they were doing that, it happened again: that sense of peace and the experience of the presence of Christ in their midst. He wasn’t dead and gone. He was alive and with them. They had seen him in the eyes of a stranger who had walked with them on the road and broken bread with them at home. With eyes wide open and hearts on fire with passion, they realized that the brutality of the centurion’s hammer had not beaten the hope out of them permanently. They had hoped. They were still hoping. In some way that defies explanation, hope was alive in them: opening their tear-filled eyes and setting their broken hearts on fire.
I believe the power of Christ’s resurrection is available to each of us in this Easter season. In the midst of our heartbreak, whatever its cause, hope still has the power to open our eyes and set our hearts on fire. There are many ways in which this can happen. Taking a hint from today’s New Testament lesson, I want to focus on one way in particular that this might happen: Resurrected hope has the power to reach us through the presence of the stranger.
We meet all kinds of strangers in life: the random strangers we meet on the street or at the store, the strangers we think we know but don’t really (do any of us really understand our spouses, parents, or children?), then there are those strangers we don’t physically meet but whose lives are connected to ours in some way (think about the people who grow our food, make our clothes, or construct our cars), and then there are those strangers who aren’t even human: the plants and animals who share this planet with us.
There are two ways of recognizing the risen Christ in the many strangers who live around us. First, there are those strangers who help us in some large or small way. We saw this happening in today’s New Testament lesson as the stranger walks alongside the two disciples and gets them to open up about their broken hearts. He was there for them in a time when they were at the end of their rope, dangling over a deep, dark chasm of despair. He brought them back from the brink and set their broken hearts on fire with his words of hope. The text of Luke’s gospel tells us that this stranger was the risen Christ, coming to meet them on the road. How many times have you been blessed by a kind word, a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on? Have you ever been in a situation where a simple visit, a card, or a casserole, given as a symbol of love, meant the whole world to you? In such moments, the risen Christ is present with us, igniting a fire in our broken hearts and rekindling hope.
Second, we recognize the risen Christ in those strangers who we get to help. We saw this happening as well in today’s reading. As the stranger in the story prepares to wander into the night, the disciples seize their opportunity to offer Christ-like hospitality. Their eyes were later opened to the truth that it was actually Christ that they were welcoming into their home. This is eerily similar to what Jesus told them would happen:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
Today is the third Sunday in the season of Easter. We are celebrating today as Compassion Sunday. We give thanks for the particular ministry of a group in our church: the In His Name Women’s Mission Society. Among the many other ministries that they support locally and globally, In His Name sponsors a little girl named Gladys, who lives in Guatemala, through an organization called Compassion International. Compassion International is a faith-based group that provides food, water, medical care, and education to over 1.2 million kids in 26 countries. In His Name’s sponsorship of Gladys is part of the mission of this church. In a small but very important way, we get to demonstrate to her the compassion of Christ in our hearts. But, in an even bigger way, Gladys is Christ to us. Through Gladys and so many other children in need, Christ calls us to make a difference in this world. Whatever we do for them, we do for Christ.
Finally, today also happens to be Earth Day, where we give thanks for the abundance of creation and pledge ourselves to work for its healing. I believe we can celebrate the presence of the risen Christ in these our fellow creatures in the natural world. In this age of mass pollution and global warming, we can no longer afford to limit our religious and spiritual vision to the well-being of human beings alone. We are part of an interdependent web of life that connects us to all forms of life on this planet. We must respect this life and care for it. But we must also remember to celebrate and enjoy it. As this spring speeds quickly into summer, get yourself outdoors into God’s green earth. Let the presence of the risen Christ in nature ignite your heart and open your eyes again. Relearn what it says in the book of Isaiah: that “heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory.” Let this celebration of resurrected glory inspire us to care for our planet and its creatures. As the preacher Tony Campolo once said, “Every time a species goes extinct, a hymn of praise to God is silenced.” These strangers (the animals, plants, and the Earth itself) are also members of Christ’s family. Whatever we do for them, we do for Christ.
Christ is alive and comes to meet us in the guise of strangers: those we help and those who help us. All of these strangers are connected to us and I believe we have the capacity to see and serve the risen Christ living in each of them. They are Christ to us and we are Christ to each other. Whatever we do for each other, we do for Christ. This Easter, may the risen Christ rekindle hope in you by setting your broken heart on fire and opening your eyes once again.