Managing Disappointment

Message for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (4/23/2023)

Luke 24:13-35


The Road to Emmaus is an account so rich with meaning that it’s always a challenge to focus the sermon. Thankfully, this story appears somewhere in the lectionary every Easter season, so we get the joy of exploring it over and over. And when we do, what do we discover?

Is the Road to Emmaus a story about God’s elusiveness; about how hard it is to perceive the sacred presence in any given moment; how spiritual insights are often sudden and fleeting, and the whole truth of our lived experience becomes clearer only in retrospect? Why, yes it is.

Is this a story about the power of hospitality; about how any shared meal with friends or strangers can become a holy communion, and so satisfy the deep and universal human need for belonging and for nourishment in both body and spirit? Why, yes it is.

Is this a story about how Holy Scripture is more than the dusty pages in an ancient book; about how the word of God is living and active, and how our study and discussion of the Bible can open the eyes of our hearts to what God has in store for the world God loves? Why, yes it is.

Is this a story about the value of companionship on our journey through life; about how God gives us into each other’s care, and how important it is to travel together instead of alone, to share our griefs and our hopes and our joys? Why, yes it is.

Like so many beloved stories, the Road to Emmaus is a seemingly inexhaustible resource, or to borrow a metaphor, “a rich mine to which one should return again and again.” And, since there’s so much to unearth down there, we’re wise to bring out “one cartload of ore at a time.”[1]

So, what treasure is in the cart today?

Upon reflection this week, it occurred to me that the Road to Emmaus is a story about managing disappointment. Luke doesn’t give a reason for the two disciples’ journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus on Easter evening, although one possibility is that, consistent with Jewish custom, they’re on their way home from a pilgrimage to the holy city for Passover. As it turns out, the high holiday was overshadowed by tragedy, as their rabbi was condemned in a sham trial and hastily put to death on account of the threat he posed to the Roman occupation. And, the temple authorities were all too willing to aid and abet that miscarriage of justice. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the travelers tell a stranger who joins them on the way. For Cleopas and his companion, the road home to Emmaus has become a boulevard of broken dreams.

Nevertheless, if it’s a return home, it’s a return to familiarity. We had hoped… they lament, but now that those hopes are dashed, we might as well go back to life as we knew it before. I don’t blame them. When things aren’t the way they were supposed to be, don’t we tend to revert to habit, to go about business as usual in order to avoid getting bogged down in disappointment? One interpreter calls this coping strategy the return to “merciful routine,”[2] to the daily rhythms that take your mind off the fact that under different circumstances your life might have turned out better.

As Frederick Buechner puts it, Emmaus is “the place we go in order to escape–a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, ‘Let the whole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.’”[3] That is to say, Emmaus is the place of disenchanted normalcy, wherever you’re apt to go or whatever you’re apt to do to take the edge off the pain of a broken heart.

So, what’s your Emmaus? What does your merciful routine look like? How do you distract yourself from the distress of unfavorable outcomes?

Maybe it’s cynicism or fault-finding. Maybe it’s self-medication or entertainment. Maybe it’s work or school. Maybe it’s going to church. Whatever your return to Emmaus – whatever your mechanism for mitigating disappointment – even as it insulates you against discomfort, it may also keep you from recognizing the stranger who can turn you around. Setting off on a one-way trip to Emmaus might guard against heartbreak, but it also might prevent you from letting your heart burn with hope again.

To be sure, we are familiar with the reality of the cross. We bear witness to it every day and in any number of ways, and it has a way of coloring our perception of the world. But, when the stones sealing the tombs of our hearts are rolled away, can we emerge?[4] Can we perceive the mystery of resurrection in our midst when resurrection seems so unlikely?

The Road to Emmaus is a reminder that Easter is not a day or even a season, but a moment.[5] Easter happens any time a blessed insight or encounter cracks open a possibility that you haven’t allowed yourself to consider, when your broken heart begins to heal and there appears to be a way where there wasn’t a way before. Regardless of your disappointments, friends, and no matter where you’re headed as a result, don’t be surprised when the Holy One shows up to accompany you along the way. And when he does, invite him in for dinner, and eat whatever he blesses and breaks and gives to you. Take it as a meal for the road. Then go wherever your burning heart leads you.

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, 481.

[2] Cynthia A. Jarvis, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, 419.

[3] The Magnificent Defeat, as cited by Culpepper, 482.

[4] Shannon Michael Pater, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, 422.

[5] Ibid. 418.

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