22 Nov Church Reimagined: Recognizing Jesus
Church Reimagined: Recognizing Jesus
November 22, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
A man named Marty Doerschlag has a superpower that you won’t see in any of the Marvel movies: He can remember a face forever. You could call him The Recognizer! “If I spend about 30 seconds looking at somebody,” he recently told NPR, “I will remember their face for years and years and years.”
Doerschlag realized he had this gift after a series of strange encounters and sightings. One year, he sat behind a man at a Michigan vs. Ohio State football game. Three years later, he recognized the guy in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Did he remember the score of the game? No. But he recognized the man.
At company Christmas parties, he could always remember exactly which spouse belonged to which employee. At a Las Vegas restaurant, he asked the waiter if he had served customers at a particular restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, many years before. “The guy just froze,” said Julie Doerschlag, Marty’s wife., before saying, “Yeah, you’re right.” The Recognizer had struck again!
Such recognition of strangers is a rare superpower. Yes, it can be a little creepy, but it is still impressive.
Scientists have a name for people with an exceptional ability to recognize faces. They’re called “Super-recognizers.” If you never forget a face or can spot the same nameless extras across different television shows and ads, you might just be one.
But here’s the thing. While some humans are highly adept at recognizing faces, most of us fall into the category called “typical recognizers.” According to Neuroscience News, psychologists have discovered that our ability to recognize faces varies a great deal, kind of like the ability to sing. While a very small percentage of the population can sing like Adele, the vast majority of us muddles along. And when it comes to recognizing unfamiliar faces, most of us are pretty bad.
Scripture tells us that even someone as familiar as Jesus can be hard to recognize at times. On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, grieving the death of Jesus. When she arrived, she saw that “the stone had been removed from the tomb” (John 20:1). Mary’s immediate assumption was that grave robbers had been at work, so she ran to Peter and John and reported, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (v. 2). Peter and John ran to the burial site and found the linen that Jesus had been wrapped in, but no Jesus. Then they returned home.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Then she turned around and saw a man standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. She was not a super-recognizer, so she was unable to identify him. The man said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (vv. 14-15).
Who is this guy, she was probably wondering, and why is he talking to me? She figured that he must be the gardener, so she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (v. 15). Mary really wanted to give Jesus a decent burial.
Then Jesus broke through the confusion by calling her name: “Mary!” Suddenly, she recognized him and called out, “Teacher!” to which Jesus responded, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord” (vv. 16-18). In a flash, she became The Recognizer of the risen Lord.
What an amazing experience this was for Mary. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, something that none of the other followers of Jesus could claim. Her darkness turned to light. Her confusion turned to clarity. Her grief turned to joy. Mary’s life was changed by recognizing Jesus.
On this Christ the King Sunday, I want to pose the question, how can we become super-recognizers and identify Jesus in the world today? A few years ago the PC(USA) started something new called the Matthew 25 Initiative, which calls on Presbyterians to “actively engage in the world around us, so our faith comes alive.” All across the denomination, we are being challenged “to act boldly and compassionately to serve people who are hungry, oppressed, imprisoned or poor.” When we do these things, we are considered a Matthew 25 church.
This initiative is based on the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew, which tells the story of the final judgment. At that time, Jesus will look out over all the nations of the world and separate people into good sheep and bad goats. He will say to the sheep, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you … for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34-36).
Then the people who were good sheep will say to him, “Lord, when did we do this for you? We don’t remember ever serving you in these ways.” They are typical recognizers, and don’t have a recollection of seeing Jesus. And Jesus will say to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (v. 40).
This, then, is the key to the Matthew 25 initiative: to serve the neediest members of our community. When we do this collectively, we are a Matthew 25 church. And when any of us do this, collectively or individually, we are able to recognize Jesus.
So, how can we see Jesus today? He may not be clear at every moment, just as he was not clear to Mary outside the empty tomb. Certainly in the midst of a major surge of COVID-19, in the aftermath of a fraught election, with holidays on the horizon that will be anything but normal, we may well feel that we can’t see Jesus clearly. But he is present in the power of his resurrection life. He comes to us in people who are strangers, who are hungry and who are sick. When we serve vulnerable people, we become super-recognizers of Jesus in the world today.
To get down to the nitty-gritty, here are a few practical things you can do to recognize and serve Jesus today:
First, welcome a stranger. You don’t have to go far to find a stranger, since there are people unfamiliar to you right in your neighborhood. There are even people you don’t know all that well within our own church. Welcoming a stranger can be as simple and immediate as finding a person in the Calvary directory you don’t know and picking up the phone to give them a call. Ask how they’re doing. You won’t be asking them to volunteer or to make a contribution or to do anything at all. You’ll just find out how they are doing and get to know them a bit. When you greet a stranger, you are really greeting Jesus.
Second, feed the hungry. We’ve got three really easy ways to do this, two of them local and one international. You can drop off non-perishable goods into the Little Free Pantry that is on our corner. Or, you can make a donation to United Community. Or, you can help our Calvary kids feed people in developing nations by making a donation to the Pigs and Chicks drive. When you feed the hungry, you are really feeding Jesus.
Third, care for the sick. In this year of the coronavirus pandemic, opportunities to care for the sick and their caregivers have made headlines like never before. But diseases will always be with us, and those struggling with various illnesses appreciate help with shopping, hot meals, or rides to the doctor’s office. A card or a phone call to reassure someone of your care and your prayers is a tangible way to show your concern. Remember, when you care for the sick, you are really caring for Jesus.
Such efforts to be super-recognizers are nothing new. On the road to Emmaus, two disciples invited a stranger to stay with them and have dinner. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:28-31). It was Jesus!
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Benedict of Nursia developed a rule for monastic life that stressed hospitality to strangers, a practice grounded in Christ’s identification with the stranger in Matthew 25. Benedict called for the monk in charge of provisions for the community to be wise and mature, with special concern for children, guests, and the poor (Rule of Benedict 31:1, 9). All those centuries ago, Benedict was The Recognizer!
Likewise, when we serve children, guests, and the poor, we are really serving Jesus. When we welcome strangers, feed the hungry, and care for the sick, we are really helping Jesus. The good news for today is that vulnerable people give us a chance to identify Jesus, alive and well in the world today.
We can be super-recognizers, whenever we act boldly and compassionately to serve people in need.
Thanks be to God. Amen.