Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 21:15
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Recognizing Jesus Matthew 25:31-46 We all may have, at one time or another, felt that someone just had that face, that demeanor, that spirit that the Lord was with them. We could recognize Jesus in them. Often times we may say that about our mothers. I know my mom was a saint if ever there was one and Jesus was with her, in her and was illuminated by her. Just a quick story: one snowy day I rode with her to school in Ulster (back then we rarely had a snow day), and as we were going up the street by Farr’s Funeral Home she slipped and skidded a little around the corner. I said, “Jezz, Mom.” She immediately corrected me and said not to take the Lord’s name in vain. I hadn’t thought of it until then, that saying Jezz was an adulteration of Jesus, but she was right and I humbly accepted my admonition. She was a good Mom! Something else she taught me was that Jesus can be recognized in the faces of people in need. She was always helping others out as best she could, believing that helping them was pleasing in His sight. 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. But He is present in the power of His resurrection life. A man named Marty Doerschlag has a superpower that you won’t see in the movies: he can remember a face forever. You could call him The Recognizer! Maybe you can identify with him. I have always asked the question, “Why is it we can recognize and remember faces more easily than remember their names?” I know I surely can, not everyone, but I’ll remember a face before I’ll remember a name. Our memories of faces and names must be registered in different parts of the brain. Oh well… Back to Marty. He said, “If I spend about 30 seconds looking at somebody, I will remember their face for years and years and years.” Marty 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 2 Columbus, Ohio, many years before. “The guy just froze,” said Julie, Marty’s wife. The Recognizer had struck again! The waiter said, “Yeah, you’re right.” Such recognition of strangers is a rare anomaly of intelligence. Yes, it’s a little creepy, but still impressive. If you never forget a face, or can spot the same nameless extras across different television shows and ads, you might be pretty special. But here’s the thing. Just as some humans are highly skilled at recognizing faces, most of are just lucky to get through the day remembering what we wanted when we go into another room. According to psychologists, our ability to remember and especially to recognize faces varies a great deal, kind of like the ability to sing. While a very small proportion of the population can sing like Adele, the vast majority just muddle along. And when it comes to recognizing unfamiliar faces, let alone remember names, most of us are, well, we can put on a good show making the other believe we know them. 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 the disciples Peter and John and said to them, “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 tomb and found the linen that Jesus had been wrapped in, but no Jesus. Then they returned to their homes. 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 unable to identify Him. The man said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who 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!” Jesus said to her, “Go to My brothers and say (in so many words), “Catch you later.” Mary went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord, He’ll see you later” (vv. 16-18). In a flash, Mary became The Recognizer! 3 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. So how can we identify Jesus in the world today? The Presbyterian Church (USA) started an initiative called Matthew 25, which issues the challenge to “actively engage in the world around us, so our faith comes alive.” Across the denomination, Presbyterians are being challenged “to act boldly and compassionately to serve people who are hungry, oppressed, imprisoned or poor.” This initiative is based on our Scripture today, which tells the story of the final judgment. At that coming 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.” 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 people and don’t have a recollection of recognizing Jesus in or among them. 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.” This, then, is the key: when we serve the neediest members of the family of Jesus, 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. 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 can recognize Jesus in the world today. Here are a few practical things we can do to serve Jesus today: First, welcome a stranger. We don’t have to go far to find a stranger, since there are people unfamiliar to our church all through the community. Befriend one of them and invite them to join us. Or simply go to our church directory and find a person you don’t know. Give them a call, tell them you are a fellow church member, and ask how they are doing. You won’t be asking them to volunteer, or make 4 a contribution or 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. A number of years ago, the Little Free Library movement was in full swing, and people were building little containers for their neighborhoods and filling them with loaner books. Thanks to Deb Barrett, we started one at North Orwell. Today, however, many of these little libraries have fallen out of use, so they are being converted into Little Free Pantries. People are filling them with canned goods and other non-perishable foods for hungry neighbors to pick up. We are good at helping out in feeding the hungry of our area in many ways, but what about those hungry for company, the homebound and elderly or those who have lost friends and loved ones and feel alone. How might we better feed their souls and hearts; maybe we ought to have a game day with a light lunch and invite or bring them to church for the fellowship. When you feed the hungry, you are really feeding Jesus. Third, care for the sick. In this year of the pandemic, we’ve had opportunities to care for the sick and for their caregivers. 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. At the very least, a card or a phone call is a tangible way to show your concern. Remember, when you care for the sick, you are really caring for Jesus. Such efforts may seem innovative, but they are really 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 24:2831). It was Jesus! 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, too, can recognize Jesus whenever we reach out to people in need.