Carol Howard Merritt: Stranger

Dear All,

Today is the day of my father's funeral. He died last week. Here's a sermon that I preached last weekend in Colorado...

My father is dying. It would be difficult to stand before you this morning without mentioning that. It would be hard to write anything that didn't reflect the fact that my dad is living through his last days. And it would be hard to come to these stories of Easter, in this particular moment of my life, without struggling with the notions strangeness and recognition.

My dad has been slowly declining for a few months now, with neurological and heart problems. We're a very modern family, and having the latest technology was always important to my parents. My mom blogs and Twitters, and I keep up with her through text messaging. During this last four months of my father's downward spiral, I have been receiving texts from her every day, with updates. Things like:

"Your dad slept all day today."

"Your dad woke up to eat."

"Your dad is still laughing at my jokes."

"Your dad is very confused. He has forgotten how to eat. But he has not forgotten his grandchildren."

And then, a couple of days ago, she wrote, "your dad didn't recognize me."

I put the phone down when I read that one. I breathed deeply. We had spoken, as a family, about whether dad should keep taking the medicine that kept the dementia away. We wondered if the fact that the circuits in his brain weren't working the way that they ought to be was a gift to him. He spent his last days, sorting out some regrets, and "working out his salvation"-as the Scriptures say. And it has included a lot of painful weeping. My sister and I wondered if he would be more at peace if he wasn't taking the pills.

My mom disagreed. She wanted to keep him on the medication that was able to keep the dementia at bay. And this is why: She never wanted to walk into his room and scare him. She never wanted to be a stranger to him.

You know when you have been married to someone for a long time, you can almost communicate with your eyes. You know within a few moments what kind of mood your spouse is in, before he or she ever says a word. You know when you're talking too much at a dinner party and you encounter that sharp look. You know when you have been traveling, that you are finally home, when you see the warm welcoming creases around your loved one's eyes.

My mom wanted to be able to walk into that bedroom, and see that reaction. She longed to catch a glimpse of those eyes that could blaze with anger, plead with longing, or smile with love at the sight of her. She just couldn't give that up. And by the end of our conversation, I couldn't blame her. Dad kept taking the medicine so that he would recognize her.

But on Thursday, no amount of medicine could help. She walked into his room, where the hospital bed has been set up, and his eyes had no spark at all. They were flat. When she began to talk, his pupils wandered silently toward her. He sat, blankly, silently looking at her, almost looking beyond her.

My mom walked up to him, ran her fingers through his hair and said, "You don't recognize me, do you?"

He shook his bewildered head.

And my mom (this will tell you something about my parents' marriage) replied, "Well, you better start recognizing me, Mister. Because I have been your wife for the last fifty years! You have no excuse for not knowing who I am." And they both started laughing, he was still confused, and yet eager to take part in the joke.

He was confused, but it was clear. After they had three children, four grandchildren, and shared fifty years of marriage, she was a stranger standing before him.

It would be difficult for me to get up in this pulpit without telling you this story that has been on the forefront of my mind, as I have been speaking and traveling this week. Because as I come to this text, it stays with me. I cannot help but read these stories of Easter, and notice these scenes full of confusion. I cannot help but see the disorienting grief. Mary sees Jesus in the garden and she thinks that he is the gardener. She doesn't recognize him.

Close friends cannot believe the stories that they are whispering to each other as they hide in locked rooms. They cannot quite trust the women, who saw the empty tomb, and they demand proof. And here we have followers of Jesus, they hear his teaching, he explains everything to them. They walk right beside Jesus, until the sun sets in the horizon. They feel the warming in their hearts, and yet they do not recognize him. They think he's a stranger.

How did they not know was him? Was there something different about his body? He is, after all, appearing in such strange places. He shows up outside of his own grave, in locked rooms, on the beach, on the road, on the hillside. When he appears, the disciples seem to be disoriented and bewildered.They can't quite believe that this is their friend and teacher. They want to put their hand in his side for proof.

Until that moment of recognition.

That moment that looks so different in each case. For Mary, it was hearing her name on Jesus lips. When she heard it, she recognized him. For Thomas? The man who demanded that he would some tactile proof? Jesus showed off his scars to him, he invited Thomas to touch the gaping wounds. But there's no mention of Thomas actually touching the torn flesh. It seems that seeing was enough for him. For some of the disciples the recognition came when the stranger on the beach told them to put the net on the side the boat, and when they did, their nets were overflowing with fish. And for these disciples, the ones we read about this morning, on the way to Emmaus, Jesus was a stranger to them. All along the way, even when their hearts were warmed by his words. And then, they recognize him when he broke the bread.

And in all of these stories, we understand that these Easter moments were somehow more than recognition. It was revelation. In each case, they were confronted with the realization that the stranger standing in front of them was somehow divine.

The stranger standing in front of them was somehow divine.

That means different things to us, doesn't it?

As Christians, we take these Easter stories to heart, as we remind ourselves that the stranger in front of the disciples was divine. In the courtyard room of our church, we have a stone mantel above our fireplace and there is a verse on that mantel, and those words remind us to always show hospitality to strangers, because we just might be entertaining angels without knowing it. We keep that reminder in the heart of our gathering spaces. We keep that reminder because in the basement of our church and at the heart of our worship, is Miriam's Kitchen, where we feed over 200 homeless guests every weekday morning for breakfast and dinner. We strive serve them the freshest, fruits and vegetables. We bake the warmest pastries. We set out the fine flowers on each table, because we just never know, who we might be feeding. That stranger, who comes in dragging her backpack and her feet, looking for a place to relieve herself after a night of trying to stay warm under the Whitehurst Freeway Bridge, she just might be a divine messenger. And when we feed her, when we feed the least among us, we are feeding God.

The stranger standing in front of us is somehow divine.

Oh, that means something else to me, in my own disorienting grief. Because it reminds me, that just like the disciples, when we are in the depth of our sorrows, we may not even recognize that Jesus is standing right beside us, whispering in our ear, warming our hearts, trying to make sense of the confusion that surrounds. We may not even see God at all in those moments. Because the very fact that God is sometimes revealed in our lives hinges on the reality that God is often hidden.

And yet, if we keep walking, even when we feel that God has abandoned us, if we keep putting one foot in front of the next, if we keep gathering around tables, sharing meals with friends, we just might find that even in our disorientation, even when we do not recognize the strangers in front of us, we might find God in our midst.

Maybe my father is seeing God in the strangers who surround him right now.

Now, we gather here, and we all look lovely, dressed up, echoing these Easter stories. And yet, we bring all sorts of things with us into these pews. Each of us is burdened with concerns that touch our families, our loved ones, and our own lives. We have seen the devastation of those in Japan. We have seen how people are putting their lives back together after the tornadoes ripped through their neighborhoods. Even in these Easter days, we know that men, women and children still suffer. That fathers still die.

Yet, In that confusing grief, in our sorrows, our loss, our anxieties, our depressions, in our addiction, our recoveries, our worries and our concerns. In each place that we find ourselves this morning, we know that if we keep walking, if we keep gathering at the table, if we keep listening for God, if we keep putting one foot in front of the other, if we keep treating the strangers among us as messengers from God, if we stay open to those moments when we feel strangely warmed, then God just might reveal godself to us.

And that is my prayer for each of you this morning. To the glory of God, our Creator, God our Liberator, and God our Sustainer. Amen.

[Taken with permission from Carol's blog, Originally posted 5/13/11]