This is a hard time to be a Christian. I’m not referring at this moment to living in 2018, but rather to living in these first days and weeks after Easter. It’s hard to make sense of these post-Easter appearances of Jesus we’ve been hearing about, and if it’s hard for us who believe we know the whole story, imagine what it must have been like for those who lived through those moments first hand. Jesus was crucified, he died a brutal death on a cross. Not all of his disciples witnessed it, but some of them did, and they would have told the others. Jesus died. Their friend Joseph, with some help, laid Jesus’ body in a tomb. But two days later, on the morning after the sabbath, when the women went to properly anoint the body they discovered it was gone. That was only the beginning. People began seeing Jesus, except time and again, they didn’t initially recognize, or believe, that’s who it was. It reminds me of an experience I had with Zack almost seventeen years ago.
In the spring of 2001 I took Zack to a Bach Festival children’s concert. It won’t surprise you to hear that, because it was general admission seating only, compulsive Aunt Sharon had us walking through the door of the Hult Center half an hour early. Not sure how we were going to pass those thirty minutes I considered it a true gift from God that as we entered the building I spotted Tigger on the far side of the lobby. As it happened Zack was very much into Pooh at that time, and Tigger was far and away his favorite character. “Zachary, look, there’s Tigger!” Zack’s eyes got wide and his jaw dropped. He was awestruck. We walked on into the lobby as Tigger circulated through the already fairly sizable crowd with a basket of trinkets which children were allowed to sample. With some urging from me Zack took a little blue zipper bag from the basket, never taking his eyes off Tigger as he did so. After the tiger had moved some distance from us Zack turned to me and asked, “Is he real?” “I don’t know, Zack. What do you think?” After some careful reflection, “I think yes.” came the reply, “But how’d he get out of the television?”
Is he real? A four year old’s question as old as God. Is he real? A Bach festival moment that parallels perfectly the moment by the sea of Galilee we heard about in today’s Gospel. Zack saw someone who looked like Tigger. The disciples saw something that looked like Jesus but which they feared was a ghost. For Zack, appearance was definitely not enough to settle the question. After continuing to study the tiger for some time he asked again, “Is he real?” “I don’t know, Zack. Why don’t you ask him?” “No, you ask him.” “No, you ask him.” I spent the better part of a year trying to figure out what Zack was looking for that would have convinced him that that tiger was Tigger. I finally concluded that he was looking for actions, a style of behavior that would let him know. If you think about it, it was the same for Jesus’ followers. Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. It wasn’t until he spoke her name that she realized who he was. The travelers on the road to Emmaus walked for hours and then shared a meal with a man they regarded as simply woefully out of touch because he professed to be unaware of events in Jerusalem over the weekend. It wasn’t until he broke bread and blessed it, that they knew it was Jesus. The disciples by the sea in today’s Gospel knew for sure that it was Jesus only when he began to teach them, as he had done so many times in the past, and their minds were opened.
This is a hard time to be a Christian, and now I am referring to living in the world of 2018. Humanity is adrift, starving for compassion in an environment that has become increasingly caustic. Without being melodramatic, we Christians may be the world’s last best hope. But in order for us to be able to make a difference, we have to behave in ways that will convince people we have a message worth hearing. If the risen Christ himself was only recognized through his behavior, then we really have our work cut out for us. I can’t help thinking of the refrain to one of those peppy little tunes we used to sing at Cursillo which concludes, “Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” to which I must ask, will they?
There was a fascinating article in the January issue of National Geographic that focused on empathy. Current research indicates that based on brain structure, it appears people are born with differing capacities for empathy, from those who become the extremely altruistic people willing to put themselves in great personal danger in order to save a stranger, to those who become psychopaths who seem to have virtually no capacity at all to feel empathy for other living beings. However, the research also shows that, ignoring those extremes on the spectrum, children who aren’t born with the innate ability to sense how others are feeling and a corresponding desire to help, can learn to be compassionate if they’re raised in a loving environment. Even teenagers in juvenile detention who arrive displaying extremely aggressive and antisocial behavior, have been found to slowly but surely change if the staff members consistently treat them humanely. Though they are held to a strict standard of behavior, the emphasis is on rewarding good behavior as opposed to simply punishing the bad. That’s different from most correctional institutions. It’s also really hard work. As the inimitable Frank Burns famously declared in an episode of “Mash” decades ago, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice,” to which Margaret responds, “Really, Frank? It’s nice to be nice to the nice!!” But it is. Most of us start out at least, being pleasant to the people with whom we interact, not merely because it’s what we’re called to do, but also pragmatically, because it increases the odds that people will be polite to us in return, and give us what we want. The challenge arises when they don’t respond in kind. Forget about the staff members in correctional institutions, any parent or teacher can testify that when a young person is having a total meltdown, it can be a true test not merely of our faith but our basic humanity to behave in a compassionate, firm of course, but compassionate manner. As Bishop Browning, the father of five children himself points out in one of his meditations, time outs are not just for the kids, they’re for the adults as well, so that everyone can have a chance to cool down and then, hopefully, be able to interact reasonably.
Clearly, all of this does not only apply to children. We’re living in a world where the most basic rules of decorum, of civility, have all but disappeared. While I don’t believe there ever was a great flood that wiped out nearly all of humanity, I can easily understand how the ancient Biblical writers could have imagined God becoming so frustrated with humanity that the divine inclination could have been to just hit a reset button, so to speak, and start over. But our understanding of the new covenant is that rather than start over when things got really bad, or simply send us more rules to live by, God chose to become human and live among us, to become an example of how to live. Nowadays Jesus lives in us, so it’s up to us to be examples of how to live.
But how? Perhaps we could model our behavior on that of the risen Christ, the post-Easter Jesus. We could begin by calling people by name. It was, after all, when Jesus said, “Mary,” that Mary Magdalene realized she was not speaking with the gardener but her raboni, her teacher, her friend. Nameless titles, be they your majesty, your honor, sir or ma’am, are designed to maintain a distance, and hierarchy, between speaker and listener. Less formally, but no less coldly waiter, nurse, hey you similarly indicate an absence of caring or connection between individuals. Obviously there are situations where we need to get someone’s attention and we don’t their name, but if a person unknown to us is wearing a name tag, then we should take advantage of it: thank you, Jennifer. Craig, I could use some help here. Even with people we know well, we could probably stand to use their names more often than we do. Oh George, that’s wonderful. I had no idea, Ellen. Using each other’s names brings us closer in a world where impersonal anonymity is far too often the rule.
Just as Jesus went to where his followers were gathered - the upper room, by the sea, we can try, figuratively speaking, to meet people where they are. There is no doubt in my mind that political affiliation, religious perspective, skin color - the things that seem to divide us most often these days, were of no importance whatsoever to people caught in the midst of the natural disasters of the past year. Strangers showed up in rubber rafts and rowboats to pluck people off of roof tops after hurricane induced floods. Neighbors took in friends whose homes were destroyed by forest fires that spread into populated areas. I truly believe most people are compassionate, but nowadays that compassion too often seems to get buried under a truckload of manufactured hostilities. Our job is to find a way to set that compassion free using something less traumatic than a horrific natural disaster. If we can look past the myriad ways we disagree with someone for some point of commonality, some tiny spit of common ground jutting into a sea of raging disagreement, then maybe, just maybe, we can find a way forward together.
The followers of Jesus were terrified when he stood among them by the sea. They thought he was a ghost. Daring to live like a follower of Jesus Christ in today’s world can be similarly terrifying, but to do anything less is to make our baptismal covenant a list of empty promises. Our call is to live our lives in a way that makes it easier for others to believe in God. Our call is to show not with our words but with our actions, that Jesus Christ is real.
We’ve strayed a long way by now from the Hult Center and four year old Zachary.
Zack and I had been in the lobby for about fifteen minutes when the doors to the auditorium opened and the line began to move. I think possibly because he had noticed how much attention Zack and I had been paying to him, the tiger made a third and final pass by us. This time, in what was a courageous act for him, because Zack was shy around strangers and especially in crowds, he let go of my hand, stepped out of line and away from me, looked up at the tiger and asked, “Are you real?” And the tiger hugged him.