What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes wrote these words in 1951, just as Black people in America were becoming more and more restless and disquieted in the face of legalized oppression and violence perpetrated against them by their own government and fellow citizens. Hughes’ Dream Deferred, wonders aloud what might happen when hopes and dreams are deferred, put off, or made to wait:
Do they dry up like a raisin in the sun; do they become septic and infected and pus filled and die away? Do they stick like rotten meat, like the dead carcasses of animals left out and unattended? Do they sag as arms get tired from carrying a heavy load?
All of these initial suggestions center on decay or devolvement of being--they are passive. But then Hughes offers something more dynamic and active:
Or does it explode?
Or does it explode?
In the Gospel we find ourselves walking with two disciples, Cleopas and his friend. These disciples are making a 7 mile trip from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and along the way are rehashing the events of the last three days--the last supper, Jesus arrested, beat, crucified; Jesus laid in a tomb; chaos and fear run amok in their ranks. Their fellow disciples are locked away in an upstairs room in Jerusalem, too afraid to go out into the streets for fear of violence. We don’t know why these two disciples are walking to Emmaus--maybe they decided, “hey we aren’t going to be sitting ducks locked in this room with the rest of y’all, we’re getting the heck out of dodge.” Perhaps they are trying to create some distance between themselves and Jerusalem, themselves and the crowds, themselves and their grief.
Or maybe they have been sent to deliver a message to unnamed disciples who are already in Emmaus, “hey friends, still no word or sign of Jesus. It is the third day and he’s not here.”
Maybe they’re just taking a walk. We don’t know why they are on this road so close to evening but we do know that as they are walking they are discussing all that has taken place over the last three days, including the women among them finding the tomb empty and Jesus’s burial wrappings tossed onto the ground. Some of the women even report hearing from Jesus directly, “why do you look for the living among the dead?,” the women say he asked them. But this seems strange and like an idle tale so the male disciples choose to ignore it.
And so we find these two disciples, Cleopas and his pal, walking and talking, saddened by what they’ve lost, disheartened, distraught.
Suddenly Jesus falls into step with them and begins talking to them. They don’t recognize Jesus right away, perhaps because in their state of distress they find themselves too distracted to notice who they are talking to. Many of us can probably relate: how often have we been so busy, too anxious, so worried, so stressed, that it was only after things had settled, or a season in our life passed, that we looked back to say, “oh. God was in that. The Holy Spirit was at work in that whole situation. Jesus was there the whole time.”
The disciples are distracted by their grief and assume Jesus is a stranger who’s been living under a rock:
“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days.”
“What things do you speak of?,” he asks.
““The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But 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.”
We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.
We had hoped. We had hoped he was the one. We had hoped he would bring some real change. We had hoped...We had hoped he was who he said he was. We had hoped he was God’s son. We had hoped he had power. We had hoped he was right. We had hoped we were right. We had hoped he wouldn’t die. We had hoped to see him by now if he was really going to be raised from the dead.
We had hoped. And yet it is the third day and where is he?
What happens to a dream deferred? What happens to a hope--beaten, broken, crucified before our eyes. No longer here.
Wrapped in cloth, laid in a borrowed tomb. Tomb empty. Cloth unwrapped. No body in sight. No longer there.
Neither here nor there.
What happens when our hopes and dreams are neither burning so bright and promising in us, yet nor are they even tangible enough for us to have sight of their remains?
The disciples confide their sense of loss in this apparent stranger and then invite him to stop for dinner and lodging because it’s become too late to continue their journey.
When they sit down to eat Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks, and offers it to them. Immediately their eyes are opened and they know--Jesus is risen! Even though it is late and too dangerous to travel, they depart for Jerusalem--searching for their comrades to tell them the news--”Jesus is risen indeed! He was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.” They are glad to share the good news. They feel their hearts burn with renewed hope.
We know that after seeing Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit, the disciples split up and travel to their ends of their world, sharing the Good News with anyone who will received it. As they did so they changed the religious and spiritual landscape of several nations on many continents. The world was deeply changed because of the renewed hope they carried within them.
What happens to a dream deferred. Does it sag like a heavy load?
Or does it explode?
Explosions occur due to some kind of catalyst, some primary agent of change, sparking an initial reaction that forces energy outward, producing a blast that affects all that is around it. Explosions have a lasting impact, they change the landscape around us, they alter our reality.
For these disciples it is not only Jesus’ presence that relights the flame of hope in their hearts, but it is specifically his blessing and breaking of the bread.
As Episcopalians the table we come to each week isn’t merely a symbol or reminder of Jesus’ words and offering of the bread and the cup. Instead it a central part of our worship and life together--the table invites us to gather, it invites us into relationship with Jesus, and just as importantly, with one another. The table invites us to hope.
This table serves as a catalyst of change for us. Each week we are invited to share a meal at this table--a meal that asks us to allow ourselves to be renewed, transformed, for our hope to be restored.
Each week we share the bread and cup, a blessing is said over us, and then we are dismissed into the world to be catalysts of change for the people around us. To make lasting impact in life of our communities, our diocese, the world. To look for the spaces where hope appears to have withered like a raisin in the sun, and to see instead, new life and explosive energy, waiting to change the landscape of our communities.
You know, scholars on Langston Hughes tell us that the poet laureate was dead on the nose with A Dream Deferred. In a post war America Blacks were not simply restless and disquieted, they were angry, agitated, resentful of the freedoms they’d risked life and limb to preserve but could not partake of, and they were energized in their quest for true freedom and equality.
Soon a whole movement was underway and young people, students, parents, and the senior adults were working together in concentrated efforts to effect lasting change in their country. The energy from this movement sparked a variety of other civil rights and liberation movements from the women’s liberation movement to the gay rights movement, to reorganized worker and labor movements. By the mid 1970s the political and civic landscape of our nation looked way different from what it did in 1951. In 2017 it looks way different than it did in 1975. And with any luck, we will keep the fire of hope burning so that our country looks even more different in 2020, or 2089, or 2150.
May we always know Jesus in the breaking of the bread and may Christ’s table always serve to inspire, renew, and reignite the flame of hope in our hearts. May we have the courage to share that hope with other and change our world as we know it.
Youth Missioner and Director, da Vinci Lab for Creative Arts & Sciences