Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “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. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Last weekend, I saw my 16 year-old niece perform as Sarah Brown in her high school’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” She was just incredible in the role, and watching her took me back to my high school days. I also performed in all the high school plays and musicals back in the day. I loved being a theatre geek. In fact, if you had asked me at age 16 about my plans for the future, I would have said I hoped to be a great stage actress. I had it all planned out – studying at Carnegie Mellon, moving to New York, getting an agent, auditioning, and, of course, winning a Tony award. At the ripe old age of 16, it never crossed my mind that my future would be very different. I didn’t go to Carnegie Mellon. I did not win a Tony. When I was sixteen, I had hoped for one thing. What actually happened was not what I imagined.
If you ask a parent holding their newborn baby for the first time what he or she hopes for their child’s future, they will say they wish for happiness. Health. A good job and a loving family. A new parent can so vividly imagine that tiny baby’s future – first day of school, first driver’s license, first date. College. Marriage. Grandchildren. In those first glorious moments of a child’s life, everything seems possible. In those first precious moments, it never crosses a parent’s mind that their son or daughter might become disabled, or drop out of school or be shot by a police officer. The parent hopes for one thing. What actually happens is often quite different. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse.
We enter into life’s new things with great hope. A new job. A new relationship. The wedding day. A new home. Working on an election campaign. Joining in an effort to right a wrong. We move into these stages and times of our lives with great hope. Sometimes our hopes are fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams. Sometimes, not so much.
In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus calls his 12 disciples, the first thing they do as a group is go to a place where a huge crowd of people have come to hear Jesus. Luke tells us this vast multitude of Jesus fans had shown up to be healed of their diseases and boy, did Jesus come through. Luke says those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And everyone in the huge crowd were trying to touch Jesus, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” (Lk. 6:12-19). By any measure, it was an auspicious beginning to ministry.
If you asked the newly minted disciples what they thinking that day when they watched Jesus do all of these miraculous works, I imagine they would say they hoped Jesus was really the one they had been waiting for — the Messiah, God’s chosen — who would overthrow Roman rule and establish a new authority to redeem Israel.
As the days and months passed, the gospels tell us the disciples watched Jesus attract crowds wherever he went, heard him preach and teach, saw him perform miraculous healings, and regularly baffle political and religious officials.
After three years of seeing Jesus in action, doing all these incredible things, the disciples had every reason to believe that Jesus would fulfill their deep hopes of freedom for the Jewish people. Even when Jesus threw shade on their fantasies, telling them his death at the hands of the authorities was near, it was as if the disciples couldn’t hear a word Jesus said or see the storm clouds gathering.
The disciples had hoped for one thing — a happy conclusion to the Jesus story which had held so much promise at the beginning. What happened never crossed their minds.
So today when we see these two disciples making the seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, we see them doing exactly what you and I do when things haven’t worked out quite the way we had hoped.
When things fall apart. When dreams are smashed to bits. When the bottom falls out and we’re in a place we never imagined we’d be and we wonder what the hell went wrong…
The disciples on the Emmaus road are doing exactly what you and I do in such situations. We look back over the events to figure out what we could have done differently. We do a post mortem to see where we screwed up. Such analysis is almost always accompanied by a big dose of “if only’s.”
Did somebody make a poor decision? Did we pick the wrong leadership? Should we have fought back harder? Why did we fall asleep? Did we not pray enough? Were we not faithful enough? What could we have done differently to avoid this terrible disaster? If only we’d known then what we know now…maybe we could have avoided this mess. Maybe Jesus would still be here.
The disciples are so deep into their forensic analysis, they don’t even realize that a stranger has sidled up next to them. Until he asks them, “What’s up? What are you talking about?”
And this particular stranger is remarkably clueless about the disaster that has just occurred in Jerusalem. In fact, this stranger seems to be the only person in the tri-state area who hasn’t heard about Jesus’ execution.
So, the disciples tell the stranger everything. And the stranger listens intently as they walk together. They tell about the 3 years of ministry and what they hoped would be the glorious outcome of all their hard work. Then they tell him about what happened to Jesus and how their dreams died with him on the cross. They tell the stranger about the women’s crazy tale about empty tombs and visions of angels. And they admit to feeling a bit like they were misled by Jesus.
But that’s neither here nor there, they tell the stranger. None of this was supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this but, there you have it. We had hoped Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. But he didn’t. Boom, all gone. Jesus. The dream. Their hopes. All of it snuffed out.
But for all their careful analysis, there’s one thought that has not yet crossed the disciples’ minds.
What hasn’t occurred to them is the possibility that — it’s true!
It hasn’t occurred to the disciples that their hope in Jesus was not misplaced or empty.
It hasn’t occurred to the disciples Jesus had, indeed, been the one to redeem Israel.
It never crossed the disciple’s minds that the women’s story about resurrection was not an idle tale but was, in fact, the gospel truth.
It never crossed the disciples’ minds that the suffering and death of Jesus was to be understood not as the ultimate defeat of God’s purpose, but as a necessary pathway to new life.
These texts we read in the Easter season take us beyond the morning of resurrection, into the days following when Jesus shows up to those who loved him best, but seem to understand him least.
And this pattern continues in our own lives, as Jesus keeps showing up in places of dashed hopes, deep disappointment, and cynical disillusionment. Jesus shows up and is present with us in different ways – often in ways that never cross our minds. Sometimes we will recognize the work of Jesus in the moment itself, and sometimes only in retrospect.
Since 2013, I have been working with a tiny Presbyterian congregation in the Knoxville neighborhood who worshipped in a very large, old building they could no longer afford to take care of, so the congregation decided to put the building up for sale.
A few months later, the ruling elders of the church were approached by and decided to rent out the building to Kingdom Life Fellowship, a small non-denominational church who wanted to establish a new ministry in the area. Some of you here may know Kingdom Life’s Pastor Frederick White through his work in PIIN.
Although in good condition, the church building in Knoxville is surrounded by mostly dilapidated rental houses owned by mostly absentee landlords in a neighborhood plagued by gun violence. Just this past August, a 6-year old girl was shot while standing on a porch of a house very near the church building.
In other words, the church building was not particularly attractive to potential buyers.
Pastor White and Kingdom Life, however, saw the neighborhood as exactly the place God called them to do ministry. They started an afterschool program for neighborhood children and serve them a hot dinner every night. Once a week, the children’s families are invited to have dinner with their children and other families, and enjoy a time of fellowship. Police officers from the local precinct frequently come in to serve dinner and hang out with the kids and their families.
The transformation happening on the hilltop is only happening because the folks from the Knoxville United church said, “yes,” to leasing their building to a ministry led by people that don’t look like them or worship like them, who are serving a neighborhood they barely recognize anymore. And this past January, the session said yes again and sold the building for exactly $1.00 to Kingdom Life.
Let’s not fool ourselves. This is not the way the people of Knoxville United Presbyterian had hoped their story would go. The people of Knoxville United had hoped for something different. It never crossed their minds that the resurrection of their church would look like the Kingdom Life ministry now flourishing on Jucunda Street in Knoxville.
Jesus keeps showing up.
This morning during the Sunday school hour, we began a book study on “Waking Up White,” by Debby Irving. Over the next three weeks, we’ll continue to struggle with white privilege, and how it is that after the emancipation and the civil rights movement, and desegregation, and even the election of the nation’s first African American president, we are still – still! – poisoned as a nation by structural racism. And I believe Jesus will show up in our conversations, creating space for us to examine why well-meaning white people like you and I are still so blind to and so ignorant about and so complicit in a system that brutalizes our brothers and sisters of color. Like the disciples on their way to Emmaus, we need to look back, to see how we got to this place. We need to ask Jesus to stay with us as we move through the hard work of bringing justice and working for peace. We need Jesus to open our eyes and to the possibilities we cannot imagine without the Holy Spirit. We need to lean into the risen Christ when our conversations about race feel nearly hopeless, like we can’t make a difference, when our efforts feel wholly inadequate, particularly in this moment of history that feels smaller, meaner, less just and less loving than ever before.
Here’s the truth I have learned through these experiences and others: often it is only when we have run out of our own ideas that we finally make space for Jesus to show up. Jesus interrupts our idle conversations and frantic activity and forces us to admit that we’ve lost our way. We don’t know what we’re doing. We had hoped for something and it’s all come to nothing.
It is like what Jesus says in the Beatitudes – we are blessed when we’ve come to the end of our rope because we make space for the Holy Spirit.
Even when we feed stupid and blind and stumbling. Even when we are doubtful and fearful and ready to just give it all up. When we have run out of steam and run out of answers, Jesus falls in step with us. Not to mock us. Not to make us feel bad. Not to tell us we deserve the bad thing that happened. Jesus falls in step with us to listen to our stories. To hold our grief. To remind us of the faithfulness of God from the very beginning of history to our own fractured days.
As she considers this story of the Emmaus Road, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
“Jesus seems to prefer working with broken people, with broken dreams, in a broken world. If someone hands him a whole loaf, he will take it, bless it, break it, and give it away, and he will do the same thing with his own flesh and blood, because that is the way of life God has shown him to show the rest of us: to take what we have been given, whether we like it or not, and to (say thank you) for it, whether it is the sweet, satisfying bread of success or the tear soaked bread of sorrow…so that the broken loaf may bring all of us broken ones together into one body, where we may recognize the broken Lord in our midst.”
Jesus does not give us false hope, but hope grounded in the reality of God’s vision for God’s people, all of us, in communities large and small, families formed and fractured, sinners and saints, blessed and broken,all of us doing our best to work out God’s purpose for our life together in Christ.
No matter what we do or do not do, we cannot lose Jesus. If we ask him to stay with us through the long dark evenings of our lives, he’ll stick like glue.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995, 22-23.