Saturday, May 3, 2014

But We Had Hoped (Easter 3 4 May 2014)

RCL Easter 3A
4 May 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            Christ Church Denver was a popular venue for weddings.  We probably had between twenty and thirty a year during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  When I arrived as curate, one of the first things the rector, Dave Wilson, and the associate rector, Jerry Anderson, did was to take their two piles of wedding files and divide them into three, so that I would have my fair share of the weddings.

            Several months after one of these weddings, I received a telephone call from a parishioner, a member of the extended family of the couple at whose wedding I had officiated.  She asked if I would visit a young man, still in high school and a friend of the family, who had just been admitted to Saint Luke’s Hospital.  The reasons for the admission were still not clear and my parishioner thought that I could offer some pastoral support to his parents who had expressed appreciation for the way I had handled the wedding.

            The news was not good.  Danny was diagnosed with a form of abdominal cancer that strikes a very small number of young people during adolescence.  The cruel irony was that this form of cancer fed on the natural processes that propel a young person into adulthood; her or his own cells and hormones fuelled the growth of the cancerous cells.  Thirty years ago the survival rate was very, very low; I hope that medical science has made strides during these intervening three decades in fighting this form of childhood cancer.

            Danny’s journey from diagnosis to death was not a long one.  It was my first experience of walking ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’ with someone and I became a regular visitor to the hospital and to Danny’s home.  Part of me refused to believe that Danny, so young and talented was dying.

            One day, shortly before Danny died, I made some hopeful comments to a member of his family.  ‘Richard,’ he said, ‘you’re the only one who has not yet accepted what Danny and the rest of us have known for a long time.  Danny is going to die --- soon.’

            When he died, I experienced it as if he were a member of my own family, a nephew whose life had so much promise that would now not be fulfilled.  During the reception following his funeral, I uttered four words that came back to me as I was reflecting on the gospel reading for today, ‘But I had hoped . . . .’

            There are fewer words with such sadness than these.  In four words, four single syllables, the full weight of one’s grief and loss are expressed.  ‘But I had hoped’ or ‘But we had hoped’ speak of the end of a future in which we imagined all sorts of wonderful things.  They are words that are spoken not only about the physical death of a loved one; they are also spoken about other losses --- jobs that do not materialize, investments that do not grow, commitments made but not honoured --- the list goes on.

            Luke tells the story of two disciples travelling the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  During the past week they have experienced the exhilaration of Jesus’ entry into the city and his dramatic actions in the temple.  They have been primed for coming of God’s reign and the restoration of Israel to glory.  But they were not primed for what came --- arrest, trial, condemnation and crucifixion.  They were not primed for the news the women brought to the fearful small community of Jesus’ disciples.  But they had hoped . . . .

            What shall we do when our hopes are not realized, when disappointment is so real it weighs upon our hearts, not figuratively but literally?  What shall we do when the future that we had imagined, hoped for, worked for, becomes an impossibility?  Some of us may be tempted to fall into a deep despair, so deep that we find difficult if not impossible to engage the ordinary world our bodies still inhabit.  One of the prayers that I often use at funerals includes the petition that ‘we do not brood over [this death] so that it overwhelms us and isolates us from others.’ 

            Other people are tempted ‘to minimize [the] loss, or seek refuge from it in words alone’.  We are very uncomfortable with the reality of loss, especially when such loss means a person’s horizon seems to have grown more distant.  We join in variations on that cheerful anthem from Annie ---

The sun'll come out tomorrow
So you got to hang on till' tomorrow,
come what may!

Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you tomorrow

You're only a day away
Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you tomorrow

You're always a day away ...

But the sun will not re-emerge simply because we sing a cheerful song.  So what shall we do?

            1)  Continue the journey.  Throughout the gospels important events and teachings occur on the road not in settled places.  As I grow older, I become more convinced that my life has more in common with the people of Israel on their journey from bondage in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan.  That journey was accomplished in stages not in one continuous movement.  At various points in their journey, the people found oases at which they could stop and rest.  Some of the people were probably tempted to remain and, no doubt, some did; but these oases were not the destination God intended for them.  The future that we imagined before the loss we experienced is no longer an oasis for us.  We have to move on.

            2)  Study the map.  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were journeying and discussing what had happened in the days, weeks, months and years before the events of that Easter so long ago.  Saint Anselm described what they were doing as ‘faith seeking understanding’.  I can imagine them asking each other, ‘Did we misread the signs?’ and ‘Did we misunderstand the scriptures?’  Their searching was rewarded in a powerful way; Jesus himself joins them, chides them, teaches them.  He points out to them the sign-posts that they have missed, the turns that they did not take, the hills and valleys they did not expect.  They are now prepared to continue the journey with new knowledge and, I hope, with renewed commitment to seek out the signs of Christ on the road leading to the life God has promised all of us.

            3)  Journey with others.  Disappointment and disillusionment bring with them an almost over-powering desire to find a hole to crawl into and then pull a rock over the opening.  When we’ve been hurt, hurt so deeply that the wound seems like it will never heal, we often take steps to make sure that we are never hurt that way again.  I remember my father, after the death of the only dog we ever had as a family, saying firmly and immovably, ‘I will never have another dog.’  The pain of loss was so great that my father would never risk that experiencing that pain again.  The only way of surviving the death of hope is by journeying with others who, when we cannot hope, can hope for us.

            About a week after Danny’s death I was presiding at the Tuesday morning eucharist that preceded one of the Bible study groups.  I reached a point in the liturgy where I could not continue, the grief overpowering me.  My colleague, Jerry Anderson, came up and took my place.  Members of the congregation simply sat with me and we let the words of the liturgy flow over us all. 
            We continued the journey.  We studied the map.  We journeyed together.  And Christ was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.  Amen.

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