Sermon: The Inconvenient Stranger

“The Inconvenient Stranger”
Sermon by Shannon Mayfield
John 21: 1-17
April 10, 2016 • 3rd Sunday of Easter

The Word in Song: “Alleluia”


You all remember the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, don’t you? I know that it is a Christmas movie and here we are after Easter, but oddly enough it helps illuminate the curious problem we see in the text of John that we just read,  of the risen Christ not being recognized, even by those who know and love him.  Maybe it can help us as we consider this resurrected Christ who has just defeated death itself and overwhelmed the deep selfishness of humanity with the profound selflessness of his love, but shows up, not as a triumphant conqueror, but as a needy stranger.
In the movie, the classic good guy, George Bailey time and again sets down what is most important to him and picks up the burdens of others. Instead of going travelling, he takes over the Building and Loan when his father dies. Instead of going to college, he works to send his brother. Instead of taking lucrative job offers, he helps others in his little town. And it looks to him like such a horrible series of mistakes. His brother gets famous. His best friend gets filthy rich. His inept uncle ruins the business George is propping up, and his greedy nemesis Potter sets him up to take a fall that will land him in jail. As everything falls apart, George decides his life has no meaning and no value. So, in a dark night of the soul, he gets ready to jump off a bridge and end it. Though his whole life has been focused on others, now he can only see himself–the missed opportunities, the failures, the ways he doesn’t measure up to his own expectations.

Just as he’s about to jump, someone cries out for help. A stranger who can’t swim has fallen in the raging water below. And, being George Bailey, he drops what he was trying to do, which is end his own life, and dives into the water to go save the life of the stranger.  The stranger, of course, turns out to be the bumbling angel Clarence who spends the rest of the movie showing George the ways his life, had in fact, been meaningful and wonderful. Without him, kids died, families lost homes and lost their way, evil prospered and good suffered.

When he turned away from himself and toward the stranger, it opened a strange door that revealed what George most needed to see. When he dove in the water, he was affirming the value of that other life, but was made to see the value of his own. The one who came as a stranger in need actually was the only one who could touch the deep need in George. And by turning away from himself  in order to save the stranger,  George put himself in a position where the divine stranger could in fact, save him.

Now, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a Hollywood creation and a Christmas confection. It’s sentimental and sappy and the notion of divine intercessors assuming anonymous human form to save us from ourselves sounds as made up as a flying reindeer or a talking snowman. So we pack it up with the ornaments and tinsel and shove it back in the attic, until next winter.

But this morning, just when the days have warmed and the flowers have bloomed, and summer is on the horizon, here it is again. Not in a feel good holiday movie but in our sacred text.  We have admired this Jesus of Nazareth who loved the loveless and liberated the oppressed. We have mourned the unjust execution of this messiah and we’ve wandered through the dark wood of Lent. And just as we are ready to proclaim the resurrection, witness the ascension, wave and salute and get on with the rest of our year, here we are this morning having to deal with the risen Christ as the inconvenient stranger. Verse 4: “Jesus stood on the beach but the disciples didn’t know it was Jesus”. Doesn’t it bother you that these people who knew Jesus so well didn’t recognize him? They had eaten together, worked together, walked together, slept together, prayed together, laughed and cried together. I’ll bet you money that they knew the sound of his snore, recognized his gait from a mile away, and knew the back of his head in a crowded room. It’s not just John 21. They don’t recognize him in Luke on the long walk to Emmaus. Mary thinks he’s the gardener earlier in John. In Mark he appeared in “a different form”.  Even when he is recognized, some don’t believe. The earliest manuscripts of Luke and Mark don’t even have the ascension accounts which were added later to tidy up the story and get Jesus on up to heaven where he belongs.

And let’s be honest, the idea of Jesus loose in the land is kind of terrifying. If we can keep him trapped between the musty pages of an ancient book, or shoved to the back of the attic of the world with all the other seasonal fairy tales, then we can go on about our business. We can go out fishing, as they did in John. We can head away to Emmaus, as they did in Luke. Neither a crucified Jesus in history, nor an ascended one in heaven asks very much of us right here. But the risen Christ who comes as a needy stranger is hard to ignore and harder to avoid. If that lonely widow next door, or that homeless man on your way to work could be the risen Christ, how can we live in this world? If the single mom who always needs your help or the hoodie wearing youth knocking on your front door, turns out to be the the eternal God breaking into this moment in history, what do we do with that? If the savior of the world is an illegal immigrant looking for work outside Home Depot, or an undocumented student looking for a college education in this state that tells her she can’t have it, how can we just go back to the office after lunch? It becomes mighty inconvenient if we have to stop looking at ourselves, measuring our wins and losses, and have to turn our attention to every stranger we happen upon. This world can’t really work that way. And maybe that’s the point.

Peter and the boys in our text just now, possibly sought by authorities, have every reason to blow off the stranger who appeared. Yet they don’t. They look past their own anxiety and look toward the stranger. And a strange thing happens. He asks for food from them. But then he provides food to them. He seeks acceptance into their group, giving them a tip on where to fish. But what he really does is to welcome back into his fold the Peter who had three times denied him. Peter reached out to a stranger, but it was the risen Christ who took his hand.

In Luke, a stranger seems to be looking for companionship and a bit of news on the lonely road to Emmaus. By every rule of safe travel we know, the two disciples should turn away from him, but they turn toward him. They welcome him to their walk, tell him about who Jesus was and what had happened to him, and ask the stranger to be their guest for supper. But then it is the revealed Christ who serves as their host, and provides them with understanding of just who Jesus had been.. They opened their hearts to a stranger on the road, but it was the risen Christ who walked into Emmaus with them.

In Matthew 25, the Jesus of Judgment day welcomes those who, through the whole long history of the world , had welcomed him when he turned up in their lives as  the inconvenient stranger. Those who had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, tended the sick, visited the imprisoned.

All of this suggests something deeply important and transformative about the act of turning away from ourselves and reaching out instead to the needy stranger. It’s part of the vast divine mystery that I can’t comprehend, much less explain, but it seems that when we shift our focus from ourselves, we make it possible for Jesus show us what we need to see. It’s not that we use the stranger to get to Jesus, but rather that Jesus uses the stranger to get to us, when we are truly open to the one, we are finally open to the other. And we have all felt this. We serve a man in a soup kitchen, but we are the ones who are nourished. We go visit an isolated woman, but it is our deepest loneliness that is soothed. We seek to offer a word, but are given one.

Last year I worked as one of the chaplains at a hospital. It was just awful. One morning as I got off the elevator, a particularly malicious nurse told me the patient in room 17 wanted to see me. That was a lie of truly epic proportion. As I pecked on the door and asked if I could come in, she snarled, “If you have to!” As I stepped into the room, with one eye, I saw the nurses laughing at having suckered me into dealing with a difficult patient, but with the other I got my first look at Natalie. Painfully skinny, pale as a ghost, she sat on the bed with her knees hugged to her chest tightly and her head down. She radiated misery. Until she looked up and saw me..then she radiated hatred. The lack of flowers or balloons in her room said she hadn’t had a visitor. Her clothes piled up on the only chair said she didn’t want any. Armed with a couple semesters of theology and a pastoral care class, I sat down on the floor beside her and got ready to bring some healing!

Her story tumbled out of her like broken glass. She’d been abused as a child, beaten as a girlfriend, discarded as an addict. Everyone in her life had broken something in her. What they’d missed, she broken in herself. The scars on her body told a history of violence and drug dependence. The garden hose sized veins in her little arms said that she needed dialysis for damage that was more than skin deep. In that moment, Job and Paul left me. Psalms and First John bailed out. I had no bible verse for her. I had no theology for her. I had no prayer for her. Empty, I reached out and took her hand as she cried. She spoke of her guilt as she hoped for a multi- organ transplant, because she felt undeserving of another chance to rebuild her life. She spoke of the pain and loneliness of a family who wouldn’t even be her emergency contact. She let it all out and sobbed.

Then she stopped. She took a deep breath and looked at me with clear, piercing eyes. She asked kind of slyly “Do you know what is wrong with Christianity?” I had a pretty good idea. “Do you?” she demanded. I nodded no. She looked all the way through me and pondered. “This!”, she yelled, raising up the hand I forgot I was holding. “Don’t tell me you’ll pray for me. Don’t quote the bible at me. Don’t you dare tell me how somebody wrote this is all part of God’s plan. Just hold my hand. Listen when I talk to you. Be the one person in the world who shows me the love you people talk about in church. Just hold my hand.”

And as we consider that this was said by someone whose body was broken, whose blood was poured out every day, maybe those of us with ears to hear, should hear in it the teachings of the inconvenient stranger. Sometimes he has come a long way to put himself in our path. All the way out to the Sea of Galilee, halfway up the road to Emmaus. All the way to a sidewalk or a soup kitchen in Athens, GA. To your neighborhood, your office, your school. He endures hunger and thirst, loneliness and oppression, violence and imprisonment, not to ambush us but to rescue us. He comes Not to settle the score for the times we denied him, but to provide one more chance to claim him. Not to condemn our fearfulness, but in the hope that this time we will dive into the river at the sounds of the flailing stranger, making it possible for the risen Christ to reach us and swim us to safety. It’s a love so big and improbable, you’d never put it in even the sappiest Christmas movie. Maybe that’s why they made Clarence a bumbling angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It’s hard to look that deep truth straight in the face and not change the way we live in the world.

In a couple of months, after we wave goodbye to Lisa and have a good cry, those doors back there will open and an inconvenient stranger will walk down that aisle and up into this pulpit. And like the disciples on the water in John or on the road in Luke, we have reason to be a little anxious about that. But, if we believe what we say we believe, we should welcome that stranger with arms and hearts stretched as wide as we can muster. Because, just maybe, that will make enough room for the risen Christ to walk in and tell us where we go next.