Text: Luke 24:13-35
Nora, my daughter, and I have this game that we sometimes play on Saturdays. Over the years, it has become somewhat of a ritual. And it goes something like this:
“Mom I’m bored. I don’t have anything to do and it’s Saturday.”
To which I say, “You can write my sermon.”
Nora replies, “How much will you pay me?”
My answer, “Depends on how good it is. Do you want the writing prompt?”
Nora, “I guess.”
And then, for the writing prompt, I give her the sermon title. Yesterday, the ritual played out once again:
“Mom I’m bored. I don’t have anything to do.”
“You can write my sermon.”
“How much will you pay me?”
“Depends on how good it is. Do you want the writing prompt?”
“I guess so.”
“When life disappoints us.”
And without missing a beat Nora said, “O God no mom, that’s too depressing.”
Life is full of disappointments. From little ones—Goodberry’s isn’t serving your favorite flavor of custard the day you stop by—to big ones—not getting that perfect job you had waited on for years. Little ones: the vacation didn’t go as planned. To big ones: your marriage of 20 years just fell apart. Little ones: your kid didn’t make all As. To big ones: the x-ray reveals cancer. Life is full of necessary losses and disappointments. People disappoint us. Friends let us down. Families disown us. We disappoint ourselves. We’re unfaithful in our commitments to ourselves and others. We respond out of anger and frustration when what we want most is to be compassionate and patient. Life doesn’t turn out to be the way we thought it would. We discover that our expectations were unrealistic. We feel disappointment. And yes, it can be depressing. We can become depressed. And when life hands us disappointment and we feel despair, how often do we utter those same words that Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple spoke as they walked, head hung down, the road to Emmaus, “But we had hoped…” We had hoped. I had hoped. You can hear the disappointment in their voices. In your mind’s eye, you can see it on their faces because you have seen it on your own face. “But we had hoped.” We recognize the words as true because we’ve said them.
“So much is said in those four words, as they speak of a future that is not to be, a dream that created energy and enthusiasm but did not materialize, a promise that created faith that proved to be false.” Those four words, “but we had hoped” “speak of a future that is closed off [no more, gone]…Once challenged to write a short-story in six words, Ernest Hemingway supposedly replied by penning on a napkin: ‘For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.’ It’s not just the tragedy of what happened that hurts, but the gaping hole of all that could have happened but won’t.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
“But we had hoped…” One writer reflected, “I love those heartbreaking words not because I enjoy wallowing in dark or sentimental emotions, but because they ring true to me. They are not the only truth, of course; there is much in this life that is beautiful, daring, confident, inspiring, and more, all of which deserves our gratitude. But there is also disappointment, heartbreak, and failure. And all too often we tend to gloss over this in church. Or if not gloss over it, at least feel the pressure to move by it too quickly toward some kind of resolution, fleeing the cross-like experiences of life for the promise of resurrection.”
There is indeed a temptation when reading this Emmaus road story. Other years when preaching on this text, I have given in to that temptation, and this year I have struggled with it once again. It is the lure, the pull to move all too quickly from the disappointment and heartbreak to the inspirational—to gloss over the broken heart to the heart that burns within. “But we had hoped” is not a place we want to linger. We would much rather be around that table where our eyes are opened and our hearts burn with excitement and joy and recognition. But just as there is resurrection there is cross, and before there are burning hearts there are broken ones. Being human is being broken, disappointed and sometimes depressed. And it is to these heartbroken, disappointed disciples that the Risen Christ comes, walking along with us on the road, opening our eyes, sharing his presence through bread and wine, and restoring broken hearts to burning hearts that send us back into the world.
Joseph Loconte, associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York, retells this Emmaus Road story through a modern-day lens in his book The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt. As he examines the force that seized the travelers on the road to Emmaus he describes the shock and utter disillusionment of the disciples that their leader, the one they thought would redeem Israel, had been crucified. They had lost all hope, yet, Loconte notes, something calls them out of their state of doubt and disappointment and to the stranger coming alongside them on the road. They did not recognize him as Jesus—yet—but their intuition drew them to him. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scripture to us?” they asked each other. Something provoked them. What was it?
According to Loconte, what attracted them to Jesus was the desire for “moral beauty.” As Jesus spoke, their hearts were ignited by God’s story of healing, courage and rescue. Amid their despair, they get a vision of a world they were meant to live in.
Loconte goes on to recount some of the stories that exemplified virtue and “moral beauty” in our time. In the 1800s, he notes, Florence Nightingale was known as the Lady with the Lamp for tending to wounded soldiers during the night. During the Civil War, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain believed in the cause of abolition so much that he told his men to hold their ground even when they ran out of ammunition. In the final years of the Second World War, villagers in LeChambon-sur-Lignon opened their home to rescue 3,500 Jews, all of whom survived the war. These stories represent the movement from broken hearts to burning hearts.
“But we had hoped…” When life disappoints us, when we are at mile-marker one instead of mile-marker seven on our Emmaus road, maybe the best thing we can do is simply let our hearts break. And maybe amid our disappointment and brokenness we begin to get a vision of a world that we are meant to live in. Maybe only then can our eyes be opened. Maybe only then can we recognize the suffering Jesus as the Risen Christ and the Risen Christ as the suffering Jesus. Maybe only then can our hearts begin to burn within us.
My original idea for this sermon was to redeem that phrase, “but we had hoped.” Nora’s words were compelling: “Mom, it’s too depressing.” I had developed a construct, a framework for how to acknowledge the disappointment the disciples felt and then move rather quickly to the end of the story where all is well. But wisdom spoke to me and she said, “The good news, the hopeful news of this story is in those very words, ‘But we had hoped.’” That is the invitation in this story—to stay with those words long enough to know and feel the reality that there is a cross before there is resurrection. There is doubt before there is affirmation. And there is a stranger who walks beside us long before we recognize him as the one who sets our hearts burning.