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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

The Stranger
April 15, 2010

The Bible’s Easter stories are remarkably, even frustratingly brief. The gospels offer drawn-out accounts of Jesus’ dying hours, but only passing mention of the days after his resurrection. One of the striking features of the Easter stories, spare as they are, is that the risen Lord was often unrecognizable, even to those who knew him best.

It begins with the story of Mary seeing Jesus in the graveyard on Easter morning, thinking he is the gardener. Only when he speaks her name does she recognize him.

Later that day, Luke has him joining two of his disciples as they drag themselves home in the aftermath of their team suffering the most crushing defeat imaginable. They have no idea who he is as they walk together, and even his words are not enough to jog their recognition. Only at his table blessing do they see him for who he really is. Breaking of the bread unlocks insight that his appearance and his words cannot themselves accomplish.

This coming Sunday, those who follow the lectionary consider the story of the risen Jesus on the shore of Galilee, once again unrecognized by his disciples. He calls out to them on their boats, and invites them to change their fishing strategy. They have no idea who he is, but for some reason they do the unthinkable – seasoned fishermen give up their tried and true techniques of snagging fish in favor of a method being suggested by a total stranger. What could he possibly know about fishing this lake that they didn’t know better than anyone in the world? Only when they land the catch of their lives do they recognize the guy on the shore who dared tell them how to fish.

Other Easter stories have Jesus doing strange things, like showing up inside locked rooms. When that happens, his followers understandably jump to attention. But what is most revealing is not how they respond to Jesus when he materializes from thin air, but how they respond to him when he shows up as an ordinary stranger.

I have enjoyed an episode or two of a current “reality show” called “Undercover Boss,” which follows the CEO of a large company working incognito among its rank and file, to see how they handle themselves when they have no idea that they are being scrutinized by the big boss. Much is revealed about the company and its employees when the boss comes among them as a stranger.

That’s how it is with the disciples in the Easter stories. Jesus had taught them much about opening their hearts to strangers. No parable is more memorable than the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to care for a needy stranger when his rightful defenders abandoned him. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is marked by hearts and arms wide open to the stranger. We tend to polarize our world into “us” and “them,” but Jesus said that in his kingdom, “them” are treated as “us.”

And that is precisely what the two did on the road to Emmaus. They invited a complete stranger into their home, to eat at their table, to become “one of us” before they knew the truth of his identity. On the lakeshore, the disciples gave this stranger the ultimate welcome by receiving his instructions like the wisdom of an old fishing hand, rather than the comeuppance of a stranger.

What have we done with the stranger who comes to us? Hebrews 13:2 urges us to show hospitality to all persons, because in so doing some have unknowingly entertained angels. The Easter stories push it one step farther – in welcoming strangers, we may indeed be welcoming Jesus without knowing it. Perhaps one of the fundamental marks of Easter disciples is just this – they open their hearts and arms to strangers, no questions asked, in the name of our Lord.

In Easter embrace,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Presbytery

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