When I was a confirmation student, my class volunteered at a free community meal for the poor and homeless in Rochester. It was hosted at a downtown United Methodist Church on Saturdays and the meal was served family-style. That means that people sat around tables with friends and strangers, passing dishes of food. The volunteers were the wait staff. Our job was to make sure every table had enough food and drinks. As a young person who grew up in a privileged home, I had no real experience with people who wondered where their next meal would come from. While I assume there were students in my school who were homeless or living on the edge, it wasn’t talked about. So, to be perfectly honest, spending a Saturday volunteering at a meal for the homeless and poor was something that frightened me. I was sure I would hate it and only showed up because my pastor required it for the confirmation students. I didn’t want to be there and had a plan to hide away in the kitchen the entire time.
But as I said, the volunteers were the waitstaff. Our job was not in the kitchen, our job was out with the guests. Well, this is not what I was planning. I was frightened to interact with people who looked and talked and lived completely different than me. So, my hopes of hiding in the kitchen dashed, I made a new plan of simply going about my work of making sure the tables had what they needed without actually interacting with anyone. Or at least, interacting with them in the most minimal way.
But of course that wouldn’t do either. The guests were kind and eager to learn more about me and my fellow confirmands. They asked us questions and told us stories. So, while we were bringing out more dishes of mashed potatoes and pitchers of lemonade, we laughed at their jokes and felt more and more at ease. Even I began to spend more time in the dining room than tucked back in the kitchen. And, that alone would have been a success.
But, I’m not sure that day would stand out in my memory if it wasn’t for one man. I don’t remember his name, but I vividly remember what he looked like. He had dirty clothes and an unkempt appearance. He was missing most of his teeth, and along the wall behind his table were a couple of bags of what I can only assume were all his worldly possessions. Somehow, as I was wiping down his table after the rest of his companions had left, he and I got to talking. Looking back at it, it still surprises me to remember sitting down across from him. As someone as frightened and shy as I was, I can only assume his demeanor and kindness put me at ease.
As our conversation – wide ranging and fascinating, as I recall – came to a close, my new friend looked me in the eye and said something I will never forget: he said, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you, you can’t change the world.”
I rarely tell people that story. I didn’t even tell my pastor. I don’t tell that story very often but I tell it to you now – in a way that is going to live on the internet for all eternity even – because I can’t help but wonder – was that Christ I was talking to?
It seems a strange thing to wonder, I know. But the question has lingered in my mind since the day it happened. In a wholly unexpected way, with a wholly unexpected person –such an impression was left on me that I believe my life shifted in that moment. It has left such a profound impact on me that I can only conclude God was at work
But, I tell you this story for another reason. Because I believe that my experience was not unique. In fact, I believe, we have all had moments in our lives when, all of the sudden it was not a stranger in front of us – but rather it was Christ. God-in-flesh. Maybe you didn’t think of it that way before, and maybe you struggle to think of it that way now – but I am confident we have all had experiences with an unexpected person that have left a profound impact. Maybe even you, like me, can’t help but wonder if the path of your life shifted in that moment. Maybe even you, like me, can’t help but wonder if God was at work in you and in the world in a way that you didn’t imagine.
There are times when our eyes can be opened right away. Just like when the disciples recognized the stranger in their midst was in fact the risen Christ – there can be those extraordinary moments when the holy breaks through in such a dramatic way we can’t help but notice. But, for the most part, the impacts of those moments take a while for us to truly understand. Hours, weeks, days, even years later – when the memory hasn’t faded, and we find ourselves wondering…who was that? And what does it mean? I am confident in my assumption that you have all had an experience with someone that has left you wondering.
So, I have a very ‘pastor-y’ request for you. A request that will sound odd to many. I ask that you prayerfully and carefully consider: was that encounter not with a stranger but actually with the Risen Christ? Was that encounter a way for God to break through to you and for you to see that God is still very much at work in the world – that God cannot be silenced by any amount of fear, grief, cynicism, or by death itself? Was that encounter a moment when God broke through? My hunch: that is exactly what happened. Because God works in and through the most unexpected people and in the most unexpected ways.
And as you consider my request – to search your memories for those moments experiencing Christ – I have another for you. As you wonder, allow yourself to feel the blessing that moment was for you. Because it was a blessing. Every encounter with God is – even when those encounters take the form of a stranger.
Let us pray:
God – you show up in ways that we never expect. You speak to us through people we would rather avoid. You show up at meals we wish we didn’t have to be at. You break through whatever veils we have over our eyes in ways that so completely catch us off guard it can take a while for us to recognize what happened. But, God, you always show up. And for the blessing of your presence, we give great thanks.
And it is with this spirit of gratitude, God, that we turn over to you those worries and fears we are carrying with us. For ourselves, our communities, our world. All those burdens that weigh us down and overwhelm us. We, even if it is just for a moment, give them to you. Your steadfast presence eases our load and gives us the strength for the next step. You desire to always walk alongside us, and we ask that you help us to lean into you whenever we need.
God, on this day, we particularly pray for those who are sick or caring for people who are sick. For our neighbors and our strangers who are exhausted and frightened. Give them your peace, a peace that can only come from your presence. In all the ways that you can, expected and unexpected, break through to them and give them your blessing.
We pray all of this in the name of the Risen Christ, who shows up in unexpected ways. We pray, also, in the way that he taught us by saying together…Our Father…