Jim was reluctant to publish his sermons, in part because he never thought he got them quite right. I mean to save as many as I can from his office, but here are a couple I persuaded him to send to me, which I could not publish before:
EASTER III — April 6, 2008
Grace Church, Utica
High on the list of life’s frustrations are those situations in which things have not turned out the way they were supposed to, and at the same time they’ve gone beyond the point that we can do anything about it. I’m thinking of those times when there isn’t another chance, when the damage done is beyond repair or when something has passed the point of no return. These can be painful experiences, that often have a note of finality about them. They compel us to admit that certain doors are closed.
These times serve as a dramatic reminder that as far as this life in concerned, there is little that lasts forever. It’s true about our physical lives, but it’s also true about opportunities, hopes, and dreams. None of them are immune from death. Just like any other death, when hopes and dreams die we grieve; and our grief involves a mixture of feelings— among them both regret and anger. I suspect that’s as good a description as any of the emotional state of the disciples as we meet them, in this morning’s Gospel lesson, on the road to Emmaus.
For some time now, they had been followers of Jesus. Their hearts had been warmed by his presence; they listened as he would preach and teach; they had learned a great deal from him; and they had seen him heal people— restoring them to wholeness and strength. They believed that all of God’s promises were about to be fulfilled.
But beginning with Palm Sunday, everything went wrong. Even before Good Friday came, it was obvious that Jesus was going to die— and not only would he die, but it would be the agonizing and humiliating death of crucifixion. In some ways one of the most haunting sentences in all of Scripture is that one we hear today: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
As with other deaths, when dreams die we mourn. We mourn our disappointments and our failures— we mourn our own sense of responsibility and feelings of guilt. In the Emmaus story it’s the disciple Cleopas who says, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” “We had hoped....” How often those words are spoken.
We had hoped that he would finish school.
We had hoped that the new job would work out.
We had hoped that the biopsy would be negative.
We had hoped that at least in the Church we would find
love and acceptance.
What do you do with a broken dream? The answer never comes easily. Sometimes we keep asking the question and the answer doesn’t seem to come at all— we feel as though we’re left to sink in disappointment.
But today we meet Jesus’ disciples on their road of broken dreams, and the miracle is that in the midst of it all God is preparing them for the greatest experience of their lives. They’re about to experience the Resurrection— they’re about to come into a fuller understanding of who God is and how God acts. Needless to say, they weren’t ready for it. They were too wrapped up in their own despair to even notice it at first. But God loved them enough to use the disappointment and bitterness that they felt to prepare them for that Resurrection experience.
Spiritual writers down through the centuries have described God’s way of hollowing out our souls that they can be filled— filled with God’s own life. And that’s exactly what happened with those disciples. Their grieving was a kind of hollowing-out so that they could be filled with the power and love of God.
They didn’t recognize Jesus at first, because they were so wrapped up in themselves— in their own despair and self-pity. Fortunately, they did have enough presence of mind to extend what in their culture was considered common courtesy to a stranger. They invited him to stop and eat and spend the night with them. And that’s when the reality of the situation could break through. Once they made the first gesture toward something and someone outside of themselves, the miracle could take place. Jesus broke bread with them, and they recognized him. Resurrection became real for them when they forgot about themselves for a moment and became concerned with someone else.
Life in this world is a curious blend of highs and lows. Sometimes we feel on top of it all because our hopes and dreams come true. And then there are those times when it just doesn’t work out the way we planned. We’re all entitled to mourn those broken dreams— but only for a brief time. Then life has to go on. When it does, there are always important choices to be made. It can be a life that is controlled by things that are broken and dead, or it can be one that finds its focus in the new opportunities that God provides. Resurrection is a gift that God offers— but as with any other gift, it’s one that we have to receive and accept before it can bring us any joy.
To believe all that— to believe in God’s power to bring life and hope out of the ashes of despair doesn’t mean going back over old ground to resuscitate the old dreams; it means letting them go so that we can embrace the new possibilities that God holds before us. The Emmaus story reminds us that God is in charge of things, and that death and destruction will never have the last word. But as usual, God is going to bring it about in a way that’s unique.
Resurrection is the Good News about life, but resurrection doesn’t come on our own terms. It comes when we’re open to the new things that God has in store for us— when we’re willing to listen and watch for them so that we can embrace them and make them our own
The joy of the Christian life is rooted in the truth that in all things God works for good with those who love him; the promise of the Christian life is that in the power of God’s Holy Spirit all things can and will be made new.
© James M. Jensen