Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dejection & Imagination: The Way Forward

Our Gospel story begins in dejection.
Clopas and his friend had seen sorrow all their days.
They lived in a poor country where life was short and hard.
They had once been a great empire,
but the empire feuded -- then split,
and in its weakened state, it had been conquered.
10 of Israel’s 12 tribes had been deported and scattered,
forever lost.

The remaining two had been overrun by Assyrians,
then Babylonians, then Persians,
then Greeks, and finally Rome.
They were a defeated and oppressed people,
living under foreign rule which respected
neither their culture nor their God.

Then Jesus gave them hope.
They had hoped Jesus would drive out Rome,
restore the kingdom as in the days of David,
that he would feed the hungry, heal the sick, establish justice.
Hope ran high.
Then came Good Friday.
The bloody humiliation of their hero
showed how wrong they had been,
how foolish they had been to have hoped
that things could be different.

The world is as it is.
They were as they were.
Hopes dashed and discarded.
Greif gave way to dejection-- dejection to despair.

Some of us know how they felt.
We may or may not live in a conquered nation.
That depends on the perspective of our family heritage.
But we know that life is not what it ought to be.
We have experienced what Coleridge called
“the tears in the nature of things.”

So many of us have at one time or another
found some form of deliverance.
It may have been a relationship with another person
who we thought could make everything ok
like in the love songs.
Or it may have been that we became parents
and thought we could make it ok for our children
even if it hadn’t been so great for us,
and they would become the people we should have been.

We may have found our hope in a new psychology
or diet or exercise plan.
There are as many paths to redemption
as there are slot machines in the Las Vegas Valley.
But, compared to the paths of redemption, the slots are more reliable.
We may even have tried the Christian faith,
but if we tried to practice Christianity on our own,
we found out pretty quickly, it doesn’t work.
Christianity is a team sport. It is a family meal.
So to place our faith in Jesus, we had to place our faith in a church.
And maybe we found one
where the worship felt holy, the sermon was uplifting,
and the people were friendly.
We thought, “I am home now. This, at last, is a safe place.”

But before long,
we discovered that even the best of churches,
especially the best of churches,
have the same problem.
They are infested with people,
and human frailty does not disappear
at the narthex door.

Our church may have done something
unjust, insensitive, or morally wrong.
Maybe the priest said something or did something
that a priest should never say or do.
The people may have resorted to power politics
or character assassination.
The church we thought was the Body of Christ,
the demonstration model for the Kingdom of God,
turned out to human, all too human.

Each of us has our own version of this story.
Each of us has found our path to redemption
and has seen it come to an apparent dead end.
So we know what dejection is like.

That is how it was for Clopas and his friend,
as they walked home to Emmaus.
It was on that road they met Jesus,
but they didn’t recognize him.
He did not appear in the form they remembered.
He wasn’t the same old Jesus as before.
But really it was that they no longer looked
at him through the eyes of hope.
They looked at Jesus through a cataract of despair.
So they didn’t know him.

When we have been so deeply disappointed
it’s hard, it’s very hard, to open our hearts again.
That’s part of why it took them all day
and into the night to recognize their Savior.

But let’s give them due credit.
Even in their despondent mood,
they were willing to walk the road with a stranger.
Despite their disappointment,
they were still willing to open their minds
and to study the Scripture.

Many of us are so sure we already know what the Bible says
about this or that –
so sure we know the Bible’s basic themes.
But the more I study the Holy Scriptures, the deeper I go,
the more wild and wonderful and surprising that book becomes.
If we assume we know what the Bible says,
if we stop with a simple literal reading,
it will close our minds.

The simple literal meaning of the texts
Jesus was teaching Clopas and his friend that day
did not point to a crucified messiah.
It took a bold new way of reading the Bible
to open these men’s hearts.
That’s what Jesus gave them,
and to their credit, they listened.

And to their credit,
they welcomed the stranger into their home.
How often we come to a church or any path of redemption,
wanting to be healed and consoled ourselves.
But the healing and consolation don’t happen
until we drop that agenda for self,
and serve or welcome someone else.

They broke bread together.
It was the first Eucharist.
They hadn’t expected it to be a Eucharist.
But there it was.
The blessing, the breaking, the giving of bread
after hearing the good news from Scripture –
they joined in this simply – with no expectation –
just open minds.
In that moment, they recognized the Lord.

Then Clopas and his friend got it right again.
Even though it was night, they hurried back to Jerusalem
to share the good news with the other disciples.
But Jesus had been meeting with them too.

Stop. How did that happen?
Jesus was now appearing to people in different places
at the same time.
Wonders just keep multiplying
when we share good news with each other.

So what can we learn from our story?
Maybe a lot of things.
The first lesson may be about dejection.
It happens.
It is a common part of the spiritual life.
It may even be a necessary part of the spiritual life.
Spiritual masters like St. Ignatius Loyola
and St. John of the Cross thought so.

And we may also learn a virtue from this story.
The virtue is that, when we are feeling dejected,
keeping our hearts and minds open to grace
can lead to a deeper redemption
than we had hoped for to begin with.

That’s especially true if we can open our hearts and minds
to grace in a new and unfamiliar form,
grace from the lips of a stranger,
grace showing us the Bible means something
quite different from what we had thought.

The word “open” did not first appear in the Church
a few decades ago.
It is one of the most frequently used verbs
in the Gospels for what Jesus does.
He opens eyes, opens ears, opens graves.

May Jesus open our spirits to each other this day
and to his own gracious person from this time forth
that we may know more fully his saving grace.