April 8, 2012 (Easter Sunday)

 

ON NOT SEEING SOMEONE YOU KNOW 

                                                      Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                            at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 8 April 2012
 
                                                            Reading for the Epistle: I Corinthians 15: 1-11
                                                            Reading from the Gospel:            John 20: 1-18

 

Let me tell you some stories, perhaps somewhat embarrassing stories.  Some thirty years ago I was riding up in the elevator, although we called it the lift, at the United Nations Building in Bangkok.  I had managed to virtually leap into the elevator as its doors were closing and so I did not take too much notice of who was already on board.  As the elevator rose floor by floor so the other passengers got out, until there was just me and one other, a face I vaguely recognized but could not place.  Eventually we reached the floor on which I was alighting, and my fellow passenger just nodded and gave me the faintest hint of a smile.  And just as the doors closed I remembered who he was.  I knew him.  Indeed I knew him very well, but I did not recognize him because he was not in a place where I had ever seen him before.  In truth we met a great deal under different circumstances.  He was the British Consul in Bangkok and I was the Priest at the Anglican Church, and together we had performed many funerals together of young and not so young British tourists who had come out to Thailand for a vacation in order to indulge in sampling a local product made out of poppies.  Many of them would overdose, and then it was his job to notify the next-of-kin and arrange the funeral and it was my job to conduct the funeral. These funerals took place in a local well-known Buddhist temple, where the abbot had set aside a furnace for the cremation of non-Buddhists.  My acquaintance and I had performed this duty several times, and indeed we had done so the very afternoon before our encounter at the United Nations Building.  Later that day I called him at his residence and apologized, and he just replied, with more than a hint of laughter in his voice, that he was simply waiting to see how long it would take for me to recognize him.  We remained good colleagues and I later conducted the funeral for his first wife, and, years later, by which time we had both been relocated to Nairobi, I conducted his wedding to his second wife. 

But that is not the most embarrassing such incident in my life.  Some forty years ago I had a very small bed-sitting room in the basement of a brownstone in the East Village on Manhattan Island in New York City.  One evening there was a knock on the door and I peeped through the squint hole to see who it might be.  Well, there stood one of the most beautiful black women I had ever seen.  She was dressed in the wonderful style of the early 1970s and had this really big Afro.  I had no idea who she might be.  I was a bit embarrassed to have such a beautiful woman standing at my door, as my fiancée was due at any moment as we were going out for the evening.  So I opened the door to enquire what this beauty could possibly want, in that tone of voice intended to discourage much further conversation.  And then she spoke and I felt utterly foolish, because this was no stranger.  This was Paula coifed in a way that I had never seen her coifed before.  I had known her for many years, and yet I failed to recognize her.

Now let me reverse the tables somewhat.  I cannot tell you how many times I have been in Walmart or Publix, right here in Port St Lucie, and have encountered a parishioner.  I admit that I have not been wearing my canonicals, black shirt, white dog collar and pectoral cross.  But how often have members of Holy Faith not recognized me at first, because I was not dressed in the manner with which they were familiar and I was not at Holy Faith, where they would usually see me. 

I tell these stories so that we might understand better why it was so many people failed to recognize Jesus on that first Easter Day.  Of course, they had better reasons than you and I for not recognizing someone that they knew well.  After all was said and done, Jesus was dead and buried, and at least one of them had attended his funeral, such as it was.  And when they met him again, he looked very different, at least at first, from the way in which they remembered of him.

There is a wonderful painting by an Italian artist of the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  It was painted at the height of the Italian Renaissance and it has Mary fashionably dressed in the style of the period.  Jesus is dressed as an artisan of the time with a big floppy hat and Italian peasant shirt and trousers.  We might smile about this depiction, but it serves as a useful reminder of what Mary actually saw.  She saw a gardener, a Palestinian artisan dressed in the clothes of a labourer of those days.  That should not be a surprise to us, because we know that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that he needed to get some clothes from somewhere as his had been shared among the soldiers who had formed his execution party.  What other clothing could the naked Jesus have grabbed but the work clothes that a labourer might have left behind in a shed while he was home celebrating Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread with his family?  And seeing a gardener, Mary thought that she heard a gardener speaking to her.  She did not recognize his voice at first because Jesus did not look like her rabbi.  It was only as he addressed her as Mary, in a way that was familiar to her and peculiar to him, that she recognized him. 

That evening, on the road to Emmaus, a man named Cleopas was walking home with his wife, having spent the day in Jerusalem and hearing all the latest news.  A stranger catches up with them and they invite him to walk along with them.  They had no idea who he was.  Indeed he left the impression on them that he was indeed a total stranger in the neighbourhood because he seemed not to know what had been going on the past few days.  This traveller appeared to be something of a scholar since he was able to quote chapter and verse from the Scriptures about the Messiah and the Suffering Servant and so on.  Yet somehow they did not recognize who he might be.  They reached the front door of their home, and although the traveller appeared to be heading further down the road, they invited him in.  With only the light of a candle or lamp there were deep shadows in the room where Cleopas sat with his guest while his wife scurried around in the kitchen for the bits and pieces for an evening snack before everybody would retire for the night.  It would have been normal for Cleopas to have said the grace before the breaking of the bread, but the stranger took the bread, said the grace, broke the bread and gave it to Cleopas and his wife, and it was in the moment of that action that they recognized who this traveller was, the same man who had taken bread, blessed it, broken it and given it to be shared by five thousand.  And then the stranger was gone, and Cleopas and his wife rushed out through the moonlit lanes back to Jerusalem to share the news of the man who had taken bread, blessed it, broken it and shared it.

One more story from the Gospels!  This time the setting is by the Sea of Galilee.  Some of Jesus’ disciples have spent the night fishing, but none too successfully.  They are heading back to shore and they see a stranger standing on the beach who asks them how the fishing had been, and they reply that it had been not very good, in fact they had caught nothing.  It had been a complete waste of time.  So he tells them that there are some fish to starboard, and indeed there were, so many that they could not even haul in their nets.  It was in that moment that one of the disciples realized who the stranger on the shore was.

Three different stories, involving three different groups of people, and in all three Jesus appeared in a different guise.  He took on the character that he needed to for that particular purpose at that particular time.  Paul in writing to the Romans said that that happened on many other occasions, and I believe it still does.  The problem is that we do not recognize Jesus when we see him.

Of course, some would argue that we have a better excuse than did those people in the New Testament.  After all, we do not live in New Testament times or in a New Testament environment – except that we do, even if it is two millennia later.  For Jesus has made it clear that there will always be those who are poor and in need, and that when we give aid and support to anyone who is poor and in need we are giving help and support to him.  In the world around us today – and I would say in our Holy Faith family – there are those to whom each of us can be Jesus, and equally there are those for whom we can be Jesus.  We are here to support one another, and when we lend such support we are lending it to Jesus, and when we receive such support we are receiving it from Jesus.

And then, sometimes, just sometimes, Jesus will pull a prank on you.  Let me explain.  Just as Jesus had suddenly been there on the road to Emmaus, and after Cleopas and his wife recognized him he was gone, so it can be with us from time-to-time, or so I can aver, because something like that has happened with me at least once.  It happened on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1962.  Looking back, I am sure that it was not just a coincidence that it was the Feast of the Epiphany.  I was in a part of London called Southwark, on my way to a party that the Bishop of Southwark laid on each Epiphany for the ordinands in his Diocese.  It was to be a sumptuous affair, and I was looking forward to meeting my fellow candidates for the ministry and some of the ecclesiastical bigwigs in the Diocese.  It was a Saturday afternoon, a quiet time in that industrial part of London, and the Borough High Street, the main road through downtown Southwark, was absolutely empty, not a vehicle to be seen.  I was crossing the street when a beggar accosted me, asking for a tanner, sixpence, maybe a nickel in US English, to buy a cup of hot coffee.  Well, I just brushed him off, even though I certainly had more than a tanner in my pocket.  And then I looked at the building beside the street that I was approaching.  Londoners would call it a caff, a place to stop and grab a hot drink and maybe a sticky bun.  And painted across the front window in big white letters was the announcement, “Hot Coffee, 6d a cup”.  And I realized exactly what I had not just done.  I looked up and down the street, and the only person there was Bill Smith.  And I knew that in spurning one whom I saw as a poor Cockney beggar I had spurned Jesus my Lord. 

Have you ever seen Jesus, my Lord?  He’s here in plain view.  Take a good look.  Open your eyes.  He’ll show it to you.  Jesus Christ is risen today – and he is sitting very close to you right now, and in a moment he will reach out a hand to you, and give you his peace.