Sermon: Hope in Hindsight

“Hope in Hindsight”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 15, 2018

Hebrew Bible: Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

   God makes me lie down in green pastures;
God leads me beside still waters; 
   God restores my soul.
God leads me in paths of righteousness
for the sake of God’s name.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35 

Now on that same day[, the day of the resurrection,] 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.

Have you ever gone through something difficult in your life, wondering where or how God could be present, only to look back later and see God woven through all of it?

I have to admit I have often seen God that way – in hindsight. Whether that’s because I’m not always looking for God in the right places or in the right way (or not looking at all!), or whether because, like a kaleidoscope rotating, sometimes I just need time, distance, and perspective for God’s involvement to click into place, I’m not sure. But I love this morning’s Gospel passage because it reminds me that even if it seems that God is absent when I’m walking a rough road, it’s entirely likely that God is walking right next to me, and that it will all become clear in hindsight.

We’re continuing this week and throughout the Easter season with stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples after his resurrection. In this morning’s reading, it’s the afternoon of the day of the resurrection, and two of the disciples are walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a nearby village. The women who went to the tomb have told all the other disciples that Jesus is risen; but most of them don’t believe the good news.

I think we’re starting to see a theme here – resurrection can be hard to swallow!

And after all, why not? Their dreams have been shattered, their purpose thrown up in the air, and their friend – the one they had “hoped [would] redeem Israel” – has been brutally murdered. The one who saw straight into their hearts and loved them, the one who gave them hope, is no more. It is not so hard to imagine ourselves similarly crushed, similarly resigned to the possibility that we’ve been left utterly alone. Who among us would readily see something new and beautiful in such a devastating ending?

Many of us have walked such a hard road, a road marked by suffering, stress, waiting and frustration that make it hard to perceive God – or anything else. Perhaps we have longed to see God beside us; or perhaps we have been too exhausted – or fed up – to even look for God.

It says the two disciples were “kept from recognizing” that the man walking with them was Jesus, a phrase which has often been interpreted as some kind of divine parlor trick to help Jesus make a point or a grand entrance. (The Gospel writers do love a good dramatic turn of events.) But ever since a friend pointed out to me that nowhere does this scripture say who or what kept the disciples in the dark, I can’t help but think that maybe it was their own heavy grief, or perhaps their own expectations about what resurrection should look like, that kept them from seeing who was journeying alongside them. Where they had expected a triumphant, glorious ending, all they could see now was a story that had ended with the crucifixion, and they were devastated.

Katie Davis Majors, author and founder of Amazima Ministries, moved to Uganda after highschool planning to spend a summer teaching kindergarteners. But she stayed – and now, almost 11 years later, she calls the red Ugandan earth home. An evangelical Christian and mom to 13 adopted daughters, Katie writes about the humbling beauty of sharing life with kids healing from childhood trauma. She evokes with power and grace their family’s calling to create kinship and community with their neighbors in the midst of the chaos and devastation of poverty.  

As part of this calling, she and her girls have fostered several babies and children, always looking for ways they might reunite them with their relatives. But with Jane, as she writes in her recent book Daring to Hope, “[w]e did not expect [her] placement with us to be temporary. She had been abandoned in a large empty house when she was less than two years old and had lived with us ever since a neighbor found her and brought her to our home. There was no sign of any biological family members willing to care for her, so I began the paper chase to make her adoption final by law. In my heart, though, she was already a permanent member of our family. [For over two years I] called her mine, and I felt that [God] had too. I combed her hair and taught her the alphabet and tucked her into bed with a kiss as her mother. …She jumped on the bed and sat around the table with her sisters and lined her little shoes up with all the rest of ours as a member of our family.

And then, out of the blue, Lisa, Jane’s biological mother, showed up to reclaim her daughter. Although Katie believes deeply in family reunification, there were “many signs that [Lisa] might not be prepared for the responsibilities of motherhood.” Moreover, “sweet Jane was utterly confused by this somewhat stranger who appeared out of nowhere to upend her life[; w]e were the only family…she could remember. Outwardly, I did all I could to ensure her successful and healthy transition,” Katie writes, but inside, “I felt only anger and loss at this wildly unexpected and seemingly unfair turn of events.”   

“I remember that time like a slideshow of still-frame photographs: Jane’s chipped pink fingernail polish on fingers curled tightly around her backpack as she stepped into a car with a woman she did not [yet know]. Her sisters pleading with me to go get her, and my faltering words as I tried to explain with grace and understanding. Me later crumpled in the grass of the backyard in tears.

…[W]hat do you do when suddenly your four-year-old isn’t yours and there is a hole in your family and a deeper one right through your heart? How do you get up day after day to face a world of brokenness and hurt and failure? …How [c]ould I know God’s goodness, here, when all I wanted was not to be here?”

On the road they do not want to be on, the disciples have poured out their troubled hearts to this stranger. They reach their destination and encourage their companion to stay with them for dinner. And “in the breaking of the bread,” a gesture familiar to them from their last meal with Jesus, they finally recognize their beloved teacher – and then he disappears. They say to one another in amazement, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” Hindsight is, after all, 20/20.

It’s a funny thing, to have hope in hindsight – to remind ourselves that God is with us even knowing that we may not see how or where until after the fact. On the one hand, it can be a great source of comfort if we are able to believe that we’ll see God present when we look back on it all later. On the other hand, this can cause us to slip into retroactive faith – a faith that looks for God in the past but has a hard time experiencing God in the present.

Franciscan lay person Danielle Walsh writes about this very conundrum: at the end of a year of stress, busyness, and general upheaval, she took some time to reflect on the past 12 months. Looking back with the gift of perspective, she saw “God’s fingerprints all over” her life. It was reassuring, even beautiful, to know that God had been there all along; but she also wondered how different her year would have been if she had been able to perceive God’s activity while it was happening, in the chaos and the struggle. How much more connected to her Creator would she have felt – how much more peaceful and reassured – if she had been able to see God in the difficult times? “While 20/20 hindsight is nice,” she concludes, “I’m not sure [it’s]…sufficient to build a relationship with God.” 

What if we were able to bridge those two realities – God shining out clearly from our past and God warming our hearts in the present? Can we somehow overlay them, one on the other, until we start to see God present with us now, in the hard and the heavy and the disorienting and the dull as well as in the joyful, happy endings?

Katie Davis Majors could not deny that God had given her and her family the gift of Jesus – the gift of whole, full-hearted living in the love of a God who became human in order to share the pain and joy of mortal life with us. What other gifts had God given her family, she wondered? Could she begin to see them, even now, even in the midst of this terrible whirlpool of loss that threatened to drag her down – this long, hard walk from Jerusalem?

She contemplated this in the kitchen one day, washing dishes after yet another heart-wrenching, five-hour round trip to visit Lisa and Jane in their new home so that Jane would have some continuity and Lisa could build up her parenting skills. “I pulled out a sticky note with still-wrinkly hands and wrote…: Thank you, Lord, for the resilience of my children. Thank you for the light streaming through kitchen windows and the pile of dishes all clean. Thank you for sunflower seeds that will one day bloom beautiful. Water dropped and the ink smeared. I stuck the pink Post-it on the wall.” Over the coming days and weeks, “[s]ticky notes began to line the walls of the kitchen, testifying to” God’s presence and blessing even on this hard road: “Sticky lollipops and quick apologies. Laughter at midnight and a warm baby in the sling. A full house with every space used for loving. Sisters who help. The wind in my hair. …And when my head pounded with the question ‘Where is God in this mess?’ my heart started to know the inexplicable reality that [God] was right beside me.”

I want to give you a mental way to post sticky notes all over the walls of your soul.  It’s called the Examenand it’s a classic prayer practice that can help you reflect over a day, a week, or a longer period where you have felt aware of God’s presence and where you have felt disconnected from it.

Take a moment to center yourself: get comfortable in your seat; take a deep breath; close your eyes if you like.

Now think back over the past week, starting with Monday morning. Think about work, and leisure time, and errands and obligations and time with friends and family. Where did you feel connected to God? What moments felt sacred; filled you up; made you feel at peace? Maybe it was in a stranger’s smile or in a phone call to your sister or on a walk or at a funeral.

Take the time to think back over your week.

When you feel like you’ve had time to think over your week, go through your week once again – this time paying attention to where you felt disconnected from God. Where were you frustrated, when did you feel bitter or discontent or like the energy was being drained from you?

Think back over your week once again.

When you’ve gone back over your week again, hold it all in your two hands – the moments of connection to God and disconnection from the sacred – and thank God for it all, and for what you have noticed and learned.

The funny thing about the Examen is that even though you are looking backwards, looking with hindsight, the more often you reflect on your day or your week, the more you become aware of your connection to (or disconnection from) God while it’s happening. You start to notice that you feel distant from God when you are complaining or when your nose is buried in your phone. You start to see God present in a gorgeous sunrise or a simple meal or the laughter of a child – and in holding your loved one’s hand as she goes through chemo, or listening to a neighbor talk about the pain of his divorce. In other words, instead of limiting your awareness of God to the really spectacular moments – or to the moments when hard things are resolved just the way you imagined – you see God’s fingerprints all over your life, in real time. You become alive to God walking alongside you at every moment, and your heart burns within you.

This sticky-note practice, Katie Davis Majors writes, “brought me into communion with God. …I had always believed that beauty could be found in all things, [but] I thought this beauty was found in a ‘happy ending.’ I unknowingly believed that God…was evident only when things turned out well. And so I kept asking and waiting for the beauty to be revealed on my terms.”  But here, in this sticky-note noticing, “God completely redefined…beauty for me. This beauty came in [God’s] presence with me even before the happy ending was there, even if my vision of the happy ending never came true.” Looking for connections with God in the present moment “brought me into communion with God.”

Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me – your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a feast before me in the presence of all that would swallow me up. My cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Friends, the road to Emmaus reminds us that God is with us – whether we walk in devastation and sorrow or whether we run in elated joy back to Jerusalem to share the good news. That good news is, in fact, that even in the valley of the shadow of death – especially there – we never walk alone. The more we are able to recognize Jesus right next to us – the more we practice looking for him in the mundane and the magical, the hard and the happy – the more we’ll discover that peace and joy and hope and comfort don’t have to be limited to hindsight. They are ours for the recognizing, right here, right now. Thanks be to God.