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Third Sunday of Easter — April 23, 2023

"Hope, like fire, like flowers, requires tending. It is not a static object to be acquired and admired, but a living characteristic that we can let die or let loose." — Carol Holbrook Prickett

Were not our hearts burning within us? 

By the third Sunday of Easter, the assortment of lilies, tulips and daffodils that proudly grace our chancel on Easter morning tend to look a little … dead.

We do our best to stretch out their beauty, carefully watering them in their little plastic pots. But by week three the leaves are drooping, the petals are browning and the effect is not so much glorious as grungy.

It’s not the worst backdrop for preaching the Emmaus road. These two disciples, Cleopas and his unnamed companion, seem to have wilted a bit themselves. The women have told them that Christ is risen — but their reaction is more “huh” than “hallelujah.” They are unsure. They are confused. They are disappointed. They had hoped that Jesus would redeem Israel, but, dead or alive, things are continuing much as they did before.

Their faith in Jesus, in all he stood for, has wilted; or, to use another metaphor, the fire of their faith is burning low.

“Burning” is an evocative image. Fires can be productive or destructive; out of control or quietly tended to in the middle of a house. And although fire is a chemical reaction, our English idioms still imbue it with a life cycle; embers die, flames roar to life. God-as-fire goes all the way back to Exodus 3, when Moses meets God in the burning bush. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, that bush is kaietai — burning. In Luke 24:32, it is the disciples’ own hearts that are kaiomene — burning. Luke will return to God-as-fire in Acts 2, when the disciples get their own flaming party hats at Pentecost. But in this brief vignette, the disciples discover God’s presence in their own hearts, burning. Their reaction is much the same as Moses’ was: awe.

Many of my congregants can point to a time when they felt “on fire for Jesus,” or perhaps, “on fire with Jesus.” Many of them also can point to a time – large swathes of time – when those fires burned very, very low. Our faith, like fire, has a life cycle, and it is inclined to burn out if nothing happens to stoke it up again.

Now there are many ways to stoke the fire in a human heart. Outrage is easiest. Fear does the trick nicely. Shame is subtler, with a smoldering slow burn. Jesus chooses hope.

Many of us who stand in pulpits feel a desperate need to stoke the faithful fires of our congregation. We may be tempted to dip into outrage, fear, shame; we may dream of some grand theatrical gesture that will really get folks shouting and stomping in the pews. But we would do well to follow the genius of Jesus, who brings faith back to life by simply telling the story, prodding the embers of the disciples’ memory until they remember who they are and who they follow.

That they invite this stranger into their home is proof, I think, that the lesson has held good. They may not know what the future holds, but they know the next right step.

Our other lectionary texts today also remind us of the importance of hope to stir the human heart. Peter, although he falls to the temptation to shame his listeners at first, concludes his speech with a call to hope: “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39). The author of 1 Peter, reminds us that “your faith and hope are set on God” (1 Peter 1:21).

Hope, like fire, like flowers, requires tending. It is not a static object to be acquired and admired, but a living characteristic that we can let die or let loose. After all, Jesus was not content to keep resurrection, that greatest expression of hope, to himself — he set out on a mission to resurrect his disciples’ hearts and then commissioned them to spread that resurrection to the rest of the world.

In The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist and champion of earth’s tender wildness, claims, “Hope is often misunderstood. People tend to think that it is simply passive wishful thinking: I hope something will happen but I’m not going to do anything about it. This is indeed the opposite of real hope, which requires action and engagement.”

In other words, hope thrives when it is lived out.

I fully expect I will preach my Emmaus sermon behind two neat rows of dying flowers. Then, after the service, I will take a few of them home where I will plant the bulbs in the thin strip of dirt next to my condo. There they will join a growing garden of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and lilies purloined from four years of Easter displays. And next spring, when the bulbs begin to grow, their fragile petals will tell me the story.

In the dirt, in the Word, in the mysterious presence of Christ: hope is alive.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Cleopas and his companion go through a variety of emotions in this Scripture — sadness, surprise, disappointment, confusion, compassion, wonder, excitement, hope. As you think about your congregation/community, individually or as a whole, what part of the emotional journey are they on?
  2. Looking back at your life, when has Christ been present, unrecognized?
  3. How do you transform your “feeling” of hope into hopeful “action and engagement?

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