HINTS AND GUESSES
April 26, 2020
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
Walking and talking, my friend Jeanne and I used to circle Lake Harriet several times a week on summer mornings. We were intensely self-absorbed, unattuned to the ripples in the sparkling lake, the birdsong, the patterns of light through the trees because important matters must be discussed! The quirky personalities at the Blake School where we worked, people we admired and people we thought hysterically hopeless, our marriages, our kids, books and movies, whether we should go first to Marshalls or TJ Maxx on our afternoon shopping trip.
We walked, we talked, and then, feeling virtuous about the exercise, we would go to Perkins in Edina and reward ourselves with a poppy seed muffin. It was later we learned that these little babies were actually yellow cake, 400 calories of it! So much for virtue, but we were too busy talking to be paying much attention to anything else.
Walking and talking is the background for today’s Gospel. Cleopas and his unnamed friend are trudging the seven miles home to Emmaus from Jerusalem. They have been followers of Jesus and they are shattered. The saddest, most human words in the passage are these: “We had hoped…” For these two men, the fires of hope have gone cold.
They “had hoped” that Jesus was the one to “redeem Israel.” They “had hoped” that he was the promised Messiah. Most of all, they “had hoped” that things would change for the Jews, and for themselves. And then Good Friday happened. And now it’s Sunday. They’d heard about the women who said that there were angels at the tomb and that they had seen Jesus, but others went to check (men, probably) and did not see Jesus.
The writer Phillip Yancy addresses the argument that the death and resurrection of Jesus was some kind of conspiracy: “According to all four Gospels, women were the first witnesses of the resurrection, a fact that no conspirator in the first century would have invented. Jewish courts did not even accept the testimony of a female witness. A deliberate cover-up would have put Peter or John or Nicodemus in the spotlight, not women.”
Hope is a tricky thing to nurture when statistics, predictions, uncertainty and the need for totally new behaviors fill our heads. Easter happened three weeks ago, but now the resurrection may have receded, along with other things we used to count on.
From Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary: “Yes, the resurrection is our promise of life beyond this one. But that’s not the same as insisting that it’s an easy resolution to the death we experience every day — the death of a relationship. The death of what we thought was the perfect job. The death of choice…of science…of justice…of civility…the death of truth. These are all very real deaths. And the resurrection doesn’t take them away.”
If we try to define what we have lost at this moment in time, there may be too much to name…the touch of people we love; milestone events we had counted on our whole lives, cancelled; the freedom to go without masks and gloves and be constantly sanitizing everything.
The Church doesn’t have much to say about what we call Holy Saturday. Grief and despair seem to be confined to Good Friday and Saturday is marked by the absence of Christ and by preparations for Sunday. Today’s Gospel gives ample space to Saturday – to the tremendous disappointment experienced by Cleopas and friend. We need a faith that acknowledges the reality of all human emotions, not just the happy ones. Slogans to “think positive” only go so far before becoming clichés we just ignore.
Our investment in hope for the future can be immense, especially when that hope involves a person. I’ve built this sermon around three poems, and this is the first. It is a stunning descriptions of lost hope, part of a poem I posted earlier on Facebook, by W.H. Auden:
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.”
The things that we assumed would always be there, things that formed the structure and gave texture to our lives: The scheduled graduations, family reunions, birthday parties, church services, the State Fair, the predictable, reliable things we love that we could count on, are for the moment, not happening. We assumed they would be there forever but we were wrong. They will come back, we are told, life will change again, but now there is grief in the air, racing anxiety, and the specter of loss that darkens our days as the news comes on. “We had hoped…,” “We just assumed….” Resurrection has never been more relevant.
And then the Stranger joins the two men on their walk home to Emmaus. Engrossed in their conversation, they hardly notice him at first. Then they express disbelief that he had not heard about the recent events in Jerusalem. Hadn’t everyone? So, they tell him about Jesus and how much they had hoped that he was the Messiah, the one that would change everything.
And the Stranger asks them where they got the idea that the Messiah wouldn’t have to suffer? Maybe suffering is a prerequisite to “glory?” And this stranger is pretty knowledgeable; he puts everything in the context of the Jewish Scriptures, beginning with Moses and the prophets.
The two men insist this stranger stay with them at a house nearby overnight. And at the meal, at the table, they recognize Jesus as he blesses and breaks the bread. They see who it is and then just as quickly, he is gone.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” What are you so hungry for right now that only God can feed you? Safety? A timeline? Hope? And how might that be given to you?
Many years ago now, when I was diagnosed with a dreaded illness, I went to my friend, rector and spiritual advisor, Mariann Budde, now the bishop of Washington DC, and asked for her counsel. After telling me about her mother who had recovered from the same disease, she had only one piece of advice: “Pay really close attention.”
“I don’t get it,“ I said. To what? To who? To be honest, I was disappointed she didn’t have more for me.
It was only later I got it. Instead of constantly burying my head in a book when I was being treated, and repeatedly ruminating on internet statistics about my prognosis, I looked around and saw the angels in the chemotherapy room, the nurses with the gentle touch and encouraging words, the morning sunlight over the St. Paul skyline, the warmth of the blanket around me, the encouragement from my family and friends and many of you. I was grateful for the long couches in the Fireside Room where I rested during breaks from my job here; I paid attention to the goldening September landscape, and colors and apples and the antics of my tiny kitty Finley, my best therapist. Someone said that “Beauty is how God comforts his broken children.” I would add, if you pay attention.
If you pay attention, you need to be in the present. “When we yield to discouragement,” St. Therese of Lisieux writes in her journals, “it is usually because we give too much thought to the past and to the future. Only when we learn what the present is meant to teach us can we ever be ready to move on from there. “
After the meal, Cleopas and friend immediately turn around and go back to Jerusalem and tell others what they saw and they find that they weren’t alone in this, and that is what we do, too. Our own experiences of God, when shared, help nurture the faith of others. Our Scriptural stories, as Jesus taught the disciples on the road, are what help give shape to our lives. All of this is why we have church. To see Jesus is to encounter the Divine presence and glimpse God’s essence and plan so we will know how to live.
The second poem, by T.S. Eliot:
“For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”
In the past few weeks, I have detected the whiff of God in Jesus as I page through old pictures of several lifetimes and see the overarching patterns of my life; as I have been given physical strength and motivation to get up every day for six weeks (largely by myself) and pack up one house and unpack another; in the love and support offered me by this community — in the flowers you’ve sent and the meals you have cooked, in the doctors and nurses and inspired heroes of the pandemic, in Tim and Linnea who swept my garage and organized Goodwill donations into a work of art, in the movers I hired, and the cleaning people who came, and in the flowering trees that are just now starting to blossom, in the wagging tails and smiling faces of the dogs out for their fifth walk of the day – and I notice each one.
When our incessant demands for logical proof and reasoned evidence recede just a bit and loosen their hold on us, we may be in a place where resurrection can happen. As T.S. Elliot put it, “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”
Finally, from the oft-quoted and most accessible Mary Oliver, simple but poetic words:
to see Jesus,
maybe in the clouds
or on the shore,
On the hard days
I ask myself
if I ever will.
Also, there are times
my body whispers to me
that I have.”
Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher, April, 2017.
Phillip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 1995. (I adore this book!)
W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues,” The Year’s Poetry, 1938.
T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” in The Four Quartets.
Mary Oliver, “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Door: The Eucharist” in Thirst, 2007.