Once upon a time there was a queen. The queen was kind and good, and her subjects loved her. She was generous and everyone in the land lived in comfort and safety. The queen liked to take long walks around her kingdom, but she preferred not to be recognized so that she could enjoy the natural beauty of her kingdom alone. One day while she was out walking, disguised as a common person, it started to rain. The queen had not brought an umbrella so she sought shelter under the porch of a nearby house. She knocked on the door and asked if she might borrow an umbrella. She promised to return it the next day. The householder, sizing her up, said that he had two umbrellas but that one of them was new and it had been quite expensive. He really liked the new umbrella and didn’t want to risk loosing it. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I have an old umbrella. You can borrow that one.” So the queen graciously accepted the old umbrella. Several of the ribs were broken, and there was a hole near the top so that it leaked. But it was better than nothing. The queen made her way back to the palace, grateful for the little protection that she had. The next day the man who loaned the old umbrella to the queen had a visitor. A royal coach appeared and a royal page delivered a royal thank you letter from the very royal queen along with the old umbrella. The man was mortified. “Oh,” he cried, “If I’d only known who she was… If I’d realized it was Her Majesty I surely would have given her my best umbrella.”*
The thing is, we never really know who is in front of us, or in our midst.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us to show hospitality to everyone because some of them might be angels; but, it’s hard to tell:
David was both a great king and a murderer.
Solomon was a wise king, but in secret he worshiped his wives’ pagan gods.
Peter was the first to understand who Jesus was, and the first to betray him too.
People are so complicated that it really is hard to know them.
In today’s reading John practically yells at us, “There is one among you whom you do not know.”
The Pharisees have come to him and they want to know just what’s going on out there in the wilderness. Their questions were earnest: Who are you? Are you the one we’ve been waiting for? And John tells them that he is not the one. But he also tells them that they should look around, because there was one that they didn’t know. There was someone they didn’t recognize. But who could it be?
Well, there is a way to recognize Jesus, and it is probably not what the Pharisees were thinking:
“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3)
As I look around today, I wonder who I will see.
Will I recognize Jesus?
God, you are the one who really knows us, who listens to us, and cares for us despite all our foibles and failures. Give us eyes of compassion to see others as you see them. Help us to remember that we don’t know everything and we don’t know others the way you do. When we are quick to reject others, make our hearts bigger. When we see sorrow and grief, let us remember that you too knew sorrow. And, when we would rather hide our faces and look the other way, give us courage to see you there… in everyone. Amen.
*The story is not mine, it was told to me by Katherine Hoselton, in 1988. There are variations of the story on the internet but I was unable to locate the source of the story. You can read one of the on-line stories here
Photo: Homeless man, Fall, 2010, ShangHai/Linda McMillan
Linda McMillan (Lindy) lives in ShangHai, China