Yesterday marked the sixth anniversary of my friend Kris’ death. I’ve shared stories about Kris with some of you before. I keep thinking about how he would be making the most of this challenging time. Kris would have been the first to organize a Zoom happy hour. He’d be checking in on his students and his friends all the time to make sure we were OK. He would be enjoying the chance to wear a sweatshirt every day. That guy loved a good sweatshirt. One of our friends dubbed him the “sweatshirt sommelier.” But he also loved dressing up in a tux, so I’m pretty sure he would also have talked us into having a Zoom black tie party.
When Kris died back in 2014, there was a memorial service down in Charlottesville. Several of us from the tri-state area flew down together that Saturday, thanks to the incredible generosity of a friend. Some of the folks on the plane I already knew. Some I met for the first time that day. But by the time we returned home, we were all friends. That’s what Kris did best. He brought people together and helped us multiply our friendships.
Grief is never easy. We are intensely aware of that these days. It’s especially hard when someone like Kris dies far too young, with a vibrant, unlived future stretching out in front of him. What we all found comforting – what we still find comforting – is telling stories. We keep him with us by sharing pictures of times spent with him. We tell stories about what he did and said, the countless ways he made us laugh. That’s what we did on the day of his memorial, and that’s what we’ve done in all the years since. Tell stories.
That’s what I picture at the beginning of today’s gospel. These people who had seen Jesus crucified are walking down a long road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, filled with grief. They’ve experienced something traumatic together, something they cannot process without turning to each other and talking about it. There are many surprising things in this story, but I am never surprised to hear that these travelers are, as the gospel says, “talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” Of course they were. That’s how we begin to make sense of what is senseless.
This story takes place later in the day on that first Easter. We don’t know why Cleopas and his companion are on the road. Perhaps they are afraid like the disciples were last week, afraid of the violence and persecution that might break out now that Jesus is dead.
Cleopas and his friend are walking and talking, and then Jesus is there walking with them. They don’t realize that it’s him at this point. It’s unclear why. The text says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Were their eyes clouded by grief? Did Jesus somehow look different than before? We don’t know. But in this moment they do not know who Jesus is.
In a delicious bit of irony they tease this “stranger” about how clueless he is. They’re surprised that this person doesn’t know what has happened lately – doesn’t know who Jesus was and how he was crucified. Jesus plays along, pretending that he has no idea: What things? When, of course, no one knows what has happened better than he does.
Here’s the most painful moment in this story for me. Cleopas and his friend say about Jesus: “But we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free.” Had hoped. So much grief contained in those two words. Had hoped. All that they had wanted Jesus to do for them, all the ways that they saw Jesus turn the ways of the world upside down, all of the possibilities and dreams and freedom that he had offered were gone – or so they thought.
We know something these days about “had hoped.”
We had hoped to be with our friends and stage the musical and have a family reunion and play some baseball. We had hoped to hug grandma on her birthday. We had hoped to be there to say goodbye. We had hoped to gather the whole family together for the funeral. We had hoped to go to the hospital to meet the baby. We had hoped to take that spring break trip. We had hoped to have the wedding this spring. We had hoped…had hoped…had hoped.
What does Jesus do for these heartbroken friends walking down the road? First, he walks with them. Jesus meets them on the road. He meets them right where they are.
He lets them tell their story. He could have corrected them immediately, set them straight, but there’s something important about letting a grieving person tell us how they are grieving.
Preacher Anna Carter Florence reminds us about grief: “It’s the road we all have to walk, sooner or later. We walk it again and again. When we aren’t walking it ourselves, we fall into step with someone else who is taking their turn.”[i] So maybe we learn from Jesus to invite each other’s stories and to listen to each other as we share them.
Jesus also helps these friends see that their story is part of a much bigger story – God’s story, as told in scripture. He opens that story to them in a new way – a way they don’t fully realize until later.
We, too, are part of a much bigger story. A story that, in spite of all its surprises along the way, no matter how many joys or heartbreaks it contains, always ends with resurrection. There is always hope on the horizon, a hope that rests completely in God.
The last thing that Jesus does for these friends is join them for a meal, a simple meal around the table where they offer him some bread. It’s in that simple, everyday moment that they finally realize who he is. He breaks the bread, and their eyes are opened.
It makes me wonder where we might be on the lookout for Jesus among us now. Where is he showing up, and how might our eyes be opened to see him?
I have loved the stories of hospitals playing special songs over the loudspeaker whenever a COVID patient is discharged. Often those speakers are used to announce codes, summon a crisis team, or share other scary news. But in these happier moments the medical staff gather to cheer and applaud as the patient is wheeled out to be reunited with family. It’s a way to remind themselves to stop and celebrate hope in the midst of so much despair. Here’s one of the songs some hospitals have used.[ii] I think you’ll recognize it:
[Play opening of “Here Comes the Sun”]
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it’s all right
Those patients are leaving the hospital with a long journey ahead. But they have life. And they have hope.
Here comes the sun. And here comes the Son – the Son of God, showing up in all kinds of places we might not recognize at first, including our own tables.
How might we see Jesus in each other?
How might we be Jesus for each other?
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] From Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A [an electronic resource], entry for the Third Sunday of Easter