Here’s a story that may be perfect for Memorial Day and the sixth Sunday of Easter. It’s about an old man and his wife sitting in the parking lot of a supermarket. They’re having engine trouble, and the hood of their car is raised.
A younger man approaches, and the older man steps out of his vehicle, points to the open hood, and asks for help. But the younger man is in a hurry. He puts his bag of groceries in his car with hardly a word and quickly drives off. The older man mops his brow and goes back to his car, looks at the engine again, and appears to reassure his wife that things will be okay.
Another stranger approaches. “Looks like you’re having trouble,” he says. The old man smiles and quietly nods his head. The stranger looks under the hood, but he has no more expertise with engines than the old man. He tells the elderly gentleman he will return and heads to a nearby service station, where he explains the situation to a mechanic and says he will pay him if he would help the elderly couple with their car.
Returning with the mechanic, the stranger gets into a conversation with the older man. The stranger is wearing a ring indicating he had been a Marine. It turns out the old man had also been a Marine, and he confides that he had served in some of the harshest battles of World War II, including Guadalcanal and Okinawa. He retired from the Marine Corps after the war.
After the car was repaired and running, the older man handed a card to the stranger, and they shook hands and parted. A little while later the stranger happened to look at the card. The name of the older man was stamped on the card in gold leaf, and under his name was the line, “Congressional Medal of Honor Society.” It was only then that the former Marine realized he had come to the aid of one of America’s heroes.
How many people around us, often disguised by the ordinary, have helped make us who we are? How many have helped, often in unknown ways, create the life we enjoy? Do we really know the people around us, the histories they embody, the value they’ve given to those of us around them, the treasures they are for all of us? And how many of them do we pass by without noticing?
As hard as it is to recognize men and women like that Medal of Honor winner in the parking lot, it can be more difficult to recognize the risen Christ among us who continues to shape our lives. “Have I been with you all this time,” Jesus asked one of his close companions on his last evening with them, “and you still do not know me” (John 14:9)?
According to Matthew’s gospel, Christ is hard to recognize because Christ is so unlike anything we expect, more like the hungry, homeless, sick, and imprisoned people of the world (Matt. 25:31-46). “Despised and rejected by others,” is how Isaiah described him; “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces” (Isa. 53:3).
Could Christ be found in one of us? Could Christ be found in me? We profess it to be possible, but does anyone really believe it? What would lift the veil so we might see one another truly, as God sees us? “They who have my commandments and keep them,” Jesus said, “are those who love me, . . . and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (John 14:21).
That’s where Jesus starts to sound like my father: If you follow the rules I lay down for you, if you live the way I expect you to live and gain my approval, then I might be present and available to you. Does Jesus represent that kind of manipulative Christ?
But Jesus’ commands are simpler than that and much more authentically human. Love God with all you have and all you are, he says, and love others as you love yourself (Mark 12:28-31). John Wesley put it this way in the General Rules of the church, which still guide Methodists today: Do no harm; do all the good you can; do everything you can to stay in love with God.
It sounds simple, but I know it can be terribly difficult to love that way, so I know it can be terribly difficult to see Christ revealed, the Christ who stands next to me. Often the revelation finds me asleep and passes me by. I get caught in the same culture of judgment as the world around me. This person is not worth my time and attention; I feel more comfortable with others. That place is a desert that starves me; there are better places where I could be. This task or occupation is beneath me; I could be doing something better with my life.
But it’s a fearful thing to despise the one whom God has loved. It’s a fearful thing to flee, even in the imagination, the humblest of places where God is to be found. It’s a fearful thing to reject the meanest of tasks or occupations that with the application of great love could become the profoundest of ministries. How many times have I left Christ behind in a parking lot because I was too busy to pause for a moment to be with the God in us?