Living in the Aftermath

This sermon was delivered on April 29, 2019 at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich, CT.

Luke 24: 13-35

I served as a chaplain resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, PA the summer after graduating from seminary. I walked the quiet hospital hallway in the wee hours of the morning when my pager vibrated. Immediately checking it, I made my way to the trauma bay.

When the patient arrived, I’ll call him Tom, he looked so small to me. A young, fresh face laying on the body board, his neck secured with a collar and his body restrained with straps across his chest and legs. Doctors and nurses quickly surrounded the bed and shouted orders for scans and tests. I stood silently at the side of the room and watched the medical team move with determined urgency to save his life.

Tom was a high school senior who was hanging out with friends on a typical Friday night. Speeding down the Pennsylvania turnpike without his seatbelt on when their car careened with another, he was thrown from the back seat through the windshield and landed 25 feet away on the cold highway asphalt. The diagnosis was swift and clear: Tom was paralyzed. The medical team had to first stabilize his body. He was wheeled to the ICU hooked up to a machine helping him breathe, and a medically induced coma so that his body could slowly regain its balance.

I went to the ICU in the morning and met Tom’s mother, tearful and still in shock at the foot of her son’s bed. Tacked to the small bulletin board in the room was the picture of a smiling boy in a football uniform.

She saw me admiring the photograph and said, “Tom’s played football since he was five years old. He’s always been an amazing player, gifted. He is going to be the first person in our family to go to college and he is planning on paying for it with a big football scholarship.”

Holding onto the foot of the bed to steady herself, she looked intently at me and said, “I just can’t believe it. How could this happen? Why did this happen to him?” Her gaze turned back to his now fragile body.

“Will you pray with me?” She asked.

Holding her hands, with the hum of medical machines marking each of Tom’s artificial breaths and the rhythmic beat of his heart, we prayed.

Tom had to undergo several surgeries in the following weeks to stabilize his spine. Though it was a medical impossibility for any of these procedures to return his ability to walk, his mother pleaded for a miracle. She filled the room with hopes for her son to run on the football field every single time he was wheeled to the operating room. But her prayers were never answered with the healing she longed for.

Tom woke up to realize that his senior year wouldn’t be spent in classrooms, at parties, going to dances, or playing in Saturday football games. Visits from his friends and girlfriend slowly tapered off, leaving only Tom and his mother sitting for hours in the hospital room together.

But slowly, very slowly, Tom began to respond to his therapy. He started to practice everyday activities that he once did without a thought: things like brushing his teeth or drinking through a straw. The days were never easy; he would always wake up to a body that didn’t feel the same to him anymore. Some moments he would be laughing and joking, others silent and withdrawn. Tom was struggling to find his way, working hard to carve a path that moved him forward. His long recovery took place in the shadow of the photograph of a young football player that hung on the wall; a moment in time full of hopes that would now have to be placed elsewhere.

There are times in life when the world seems split in half, broken and irreparable. Those times when what you had hoped the world would be (especially as a person of faith) and reality clash in such a huge way that it can no longer be denied.

Walking alongside Tom and his family was one of the hardest things I ever had to do as a chaplain that year. In the progressive deterioration of his once muscular physique to a thin frame, I was challenged to see the frailty human life. It forced me to see exactly how fast best laid plans can be dashed to impossible dreams. I sat with family members as they prayed for miracles that would not come in the ways that they hoped. I was turned away from the room when the teenage boy inside didn’t want anyone to talk to him, pray with him, or even sit in silence alongside him; moments when he just wanted to stare out into the distance. I talked to nurses and doctors as they balanced the medical possibilities with the hope-filled questions from the patient’s family.

“We had hoped,” the men said as they fled from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the darkness of night. 

There’s no doubt that on that third day these men on the road to Emmaus (a city seven miles from Jerusalem) were running from what might have been.  Surrounded by the one whom they called Messiah, they had filled themselves to the brim with hopes that their lives would finally be different.  And not just their own lives, but their children and their children’s children; moving from one generation to the next in which the Jewish people could once again be in power.  Both men had hopes for their future and Jesus, no doubt, embodied that hope.  Dragging their feet in the sand as they walked, the two men were heavy with the burden of readjusting to a world that dashed their hopes so quickly. 

We are a people of hope, aren’t we? 

Unfortunately, our hopes don’t always come to fruition.  Sometimes a teenage boy with a world full of possibilities ahead of him is paralyzed after one reckless night with friends.  An illness returns, a debt is never repaid, a relationship remains broken, our needs continue to be unmet, tasks pile up with no end in sight, our hard work doesn’t pay off, or we can’t seem to shake the emotions that keep us from enjoying the life that we have.  

Hopes are just that: hope but not reality.  And sometimes reality is unsettling.  Understanding this even as a part of the life of faith is an avenue to deepen our understanding about what we believe. 

No wonder we sometimes want to flee like the two men from the Jerusalems of our lives!  What happened there, the brutality that led to the execution of their beloved leader, is just like the reality of a world that has enough sting to kill our hopes for it. It’s enough to squash our personal hopes as well as the hopes that we have for those around us. 

But here’s the thing: this story is all about what Jesus was doing in the moments leading up to the realization that he was walking alongside them on the whole journey away from Jerusalem.  They didn’t notice it was him when he walked alongside them on the road, teaching them from beginning to end of the prophets who spoke of his coming.  They didn’t know it was Jesus even by what he looked like or the sound of his voice.  He was right there next to him for the whole journey until it was almost evening, and they didn’t know it was him!  No, they only recognized him through the breaking of bread.  Then he was gone again.   

But that whole experience helped them to realize that their hearts were burning as he walked alongside them on the road.  It’s enough to ignite a hope inside of them that is so bright that they turn around in darkness and return to the city that killed their Messiah and their dreams for the future, bearing a new testimony of hope for the days ahead. 

We all know what that feels like; the privilege of looking back to see where the pieces of the puzzle so easily fit together even though, in the moment, it felt like nothing was going as it should be. It draws us to be a bearer of hope again, looking for glimpses of God’s handiwork all around us.

As many have said, “Emmaus invites us to expect God to invite us.”  And not just that, but it opens our eyes to search for God’s hopes and when or how God chooses to be revealed to bring those hopes to the surface.  In the end, it’s about what God hopes for our lives, for our neighbors, the Church, and the whole world. 

Repentance is the great turn around, a naming of the exact things we are fleeing from, and returning back to the place where our deepest hopes and the realities of the world reside side by side so that we can do the work of our faith once again.  It’s not easy.  We all have hopes. 

I hope that our son and daughter will grow up in a world where difference is commonplace and lifted up as an asset instead of a liability. 

I hope that all people, near and far, can find a way to live together in peace instead of seeing one another’s uniqueness as so different that they become “others” in our eyes. 

Just days after the anniversary of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, I hope that we can build a nation where everyone has access to even the most basic needs for life: water, food, shelter, and relationship.

I hope that, as people of faith, we can put our own expectations aside to make room for what God intends for us as we are renewed by the hymns that we sing, the prayers that we say, and the music that envelopes us on this day in worship. 

I hope that we can hold onto the joy of the empty tomb from Easter morning, the initial fear that was transformed to an expression of love that would not be contained.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Tom as I was preparing this sermon. Twelve years have passed since we met at the hospital in the early morning hours that day. I wonder if he went to college and celebrated the first diploma ever earned in his whole family. I wonder about his first job and where he’s living. I mostly wonder about his hopes: how did he transform what once felt like a body that had deceived him into a home to share gifts that had found just the right moment to be cultivated. Is it possible that the small hopes to accomplish mundane tasks eventually let him to accomplishing dreams that he never thought possible when he woke up in that hospital room so long ago?

We all have hopes.  Hopes that we should hold onto to keep us moving forward.  They testify and witness to what we deeply believe to be true, for ourselves and those around us.

And broken hopes: the desires that did not come to fruition and left us with heavy hearts? Those are still places where Christ chooses to meet us, teach us, feed us, and encourage us to go back to the center of it all once again. 

Last week we celebrated the resurrection of Christ surrounded by all of the marks of a joy-filled Easter. But it can be hard to hold onto that hope and joy when life goes back to normal and the world gives us countless places to doubt and fear. And this year, we didn’t even get through Easter without seeing churches on the other side of the world turned to rubble, a moment of destruction rather than new life.

Resurrection isn’t a moment. It’s not the time when life returns to the way that we desire or our hopes and dreams are fulfilled. Resurrection is movement that inches us ever closer to the kingdom of God.

If we search it, then we just might discover the hopes of the world revealed right before our eyes. We’ll uncover moments that leave our hearts burning and send us right back to the place that we wanted to leave behind, urgently sharing the good news with others.

Because if a teenage boy can slowly face the transformation of his body, reclaim his hopes for the future, and embody them in a whole new way, then the story of resurrected life goes on.

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