sermon preached on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Celeste McQuarrie, July 19th, 2014.
While they were talking, Jesus himself came near and went with them… And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” … They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people… But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24: 15, 17a, 19, 21a
It’s palpable, in this moment; in this beautiful narrative from Luke’s Gospel: the grief, the despair of these two otherwise unknown disciples, walking away from Jerusalem. More than that, however, walking away from the life that they had known, that they had committed themselves to leading, that had held such hope and promise. We encounter these two – fresh to the narrative, so unknown that they may as well be us – these two disciples who had remained faithful to the end. They knew the prophecies. They had heard Jesus, and knew that it would be three days after the crucifixion before they would see him again… The three days which, according to custom, meant that a person wasn’t merely mostly dead, but all dead.
Well, these disciples had waited… and… nothing.
After three days, they had nothing to show for their discipleship, nothing to show for their willingness to give up their lives, to leave everything behind to follow the one who had called them. After three days, they are brokenhearted, unmoored from all they had known and trusted and believed. After three days, they are leaving everything behind once again; bereft and uncertain, trying to understand all that had brought them to that point, probably wondering, as they walked down the road, “What will the folks at home say?” What was facing these two, as the ideals and hopes that had carried them into discipleship dissolved before them?
This Emmaus road is consumed, in this moment, byd espair, by hopelessness, by death – by the apparent “no” that sends them off on their travels. And when a stranger arrives in the midst of this grief, the rawness of their pain is breathtaking. “But we had hoped…” Have you ever heard anything so heartbreaking?
Hope is such a terribly human emotion. We do not merely hope, in an abstract way, but we hope for something. In our hope, we maintain certain expectations, we desire certain outcomes. And when these do not come to pass; when what we’re looking for dominates our horizon, then often, we miss what’s been right beside us all along. We tend to put our faith in human understanding, and to refuse all that doesn’t conform to that which is hoped-for, that which is expected.
In part, this is an aspect of the human reliance on pattern; if we can carry certain expectations and internalize certain understandings, then we will not have to reinvent the wheel with everything we see or hear: with every stimulus that touches our senses. Pattern allows us to organize the world, and not be overcome by chaos.
Yet this is also a mark of our reliance on our sense of fairness, of our desire to see some return on any given investment. Would any of us expect less? After following, putting our time and our faith and our energy in following Jesus… the very least he could do is rise in a timely fashion!
Wouldn’t it be nice if God worked on our time, or according to our expectations?
These thoughts have probably crossed Celeste’s mind from time to time, over the years of discernment leading up to this day. For this is not the ordination – not the timing, not the place, not the church, not the denomination – originally envisioned, when she set out to follow her call. This is not the response to the work, the time, or the energy expended that she might have expected from the outset. And there may well have been moments, when in the deepest recesses of her heart, that little voice whispered, “Is this of God?” “But we had hoped…”
Which makes all those years of discernment and discipleship very good preparation for ministry, after all. For that little voice is present in the thought that crosses the preacher’s mind when a worship moment, a sermon, a prayer falls totally flat – and that happens to the best of us, long before the moment when we hear the dreaded, “nice sermon, pastor.”
And that little voice is present in the thoughts that cross a church’s mind, however the church is gathered, as the projects on which we pin so much hope do not come to hoped-for fruition; as we fall down, as humans inevitably do; as we fail each other by not living up to the expectations, the hopes that we put on one another and on ourselves. These are the thoughts that cross our minds when all that we put in – to our church, to our preaching, to our ministry – seems simply to vanish into the tomb, sealed and hopelessly, totally dead. When we wonder at what seems to be a constant “no”; when we wonder, in despair, where God is, if what we’re doing is of God at all.
Still we gather, the church at worship, in hope and in despair.
We gather to be led, as the Emmaus disciples were, to an understanding beyond the human, to an expectation beyond all imagining. We gather to hear the scriptures, ancient but still speaking to our hearts. We gather to hear the word of God proclaimed – whether it is from the pulpit or the pews, whether it is during or after allotted hour. We gather, for all that prepares us to know Christ in the breaking of the bread; in the physical presence of this sacrament of incorporation, this affirmation of Body of Christ present here and now; in the moment when we hear the reassurance that the “no” of our despair has not been from God, but from our own fears of human expectations unmet, human hopes dashed; our blindness to that which was unexpected yet always present. And we find, in that moment when our eyes are opened, that which has always been there.
God’s “yes”, sitting right beside our “no.”
God’s abundant promises, exceeding all that the human heart can hope, all that human thought can envision.
God’s kingdom, erupting for a moment, bursting with resurrection and new life… right before our very eyes.
For this story does not end with the opening of the disciples’ eyes, but with their rising up. Our English translation hides the power of the word; the Greek “anastantes”, “to rise”, the same word used earlier in this very chapter, when the Angel outside the empty tomb told the women that Christ has risen. So, too, the disciples rise, in that roadside inn, who experience in this moment not just the resurrection of the Christ, but their own new life, bursting with the abundance of God’s promised Kingdom.
That is the possibility, as we gather in worship.
That is our call, as pastors: not just celebration of this sacrament to which our ordination gives us the right; for which we prepare, not just those before us but ourselves, with scripture and proclamation… that in the busyness and details of ministry, our eyes as well might be opened; that in the details of preaching and praying, bread and juice, cup and plate, we might not get too caught in our own hopes, our own expectations – even of the breaking open, even of the resurrection moment.
We will all have those moments of darkness, when we turn to one another and confess “but we had hoped.” And not all of those will bring us light, or peace, or vision. For I am sure that the two on the road had said those very words several times already, by the time Jesus joined them, without any particular result. But when the church is gathered; when we stand together with ancient witness and new proclamation, when we take the blessed and broken bread within us and look into one another’s eyes, holding one another as the beloved body of Christ gathered: may we be open to the life that is offered, beyond all we could have hoped. May we begin to grasp, as the apostle Paul prayed in his letter to the Ephesians, the breadth and length and height and depth of all that has been promised us.
And may we rise, as the disciples did, proclaiming God and bearing witness to the Kingdom, which is within our very grasp.