The Very Rev. Randy Hollerith: Seeing and Recognizing Are Not the Same Thing
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, who traveled with the disciples on the road to Emmaus: Be with us on the way, that we may know you in the scriptures, in the breaking of the bread, and in the hearts of all we meet. Amen. (St. Augustine’s Prayer Book, p.83)
As we vested that morning for the funeral, I was wondering whether anyone would show up. I was serving in Richmond in those days, and I knew many on the church staff would come, but beyond that I didn’t know if anyone else would attend. After all, we were laying to rest someone many considered a nobody, a lost soul, a practically anonymous human being who had no family in the world. We were burying Charlotte, the homeless, paranoid schizophrenic who slept in the doorway of our church for at least ten years.
Charlotte had gone into the hospital a couple of weeks earlier, suffering from dehydration. When the hospital asked for the next of kin, for the emergency contact, she gave them St. James’s phone number. Dana and I were working together in those days, and we each went to visit her in the hospital. We thought she was getting better, but unexpectedly she died, one day after her 74th birthday.
We made plans to bury her in the memorial garden close to the doorway she called home for so many years. The funeral home helped us to defray the cost of her cremation and I prepared her funeral service. However, when the time arrived to give thanks for Charlotte’s life, I thought it might be a very lonely service. But in fact, it was a holy moment, one of the holiest in my 30+ years of ministry. That Thursday morning our garden was a thin place, a moment in time where everything that separates heaven and earth is thinned down to a slim membrane and the presence of the holy is powerfully palpable.
That morning Dana and I all gathered outside a little early. Slowly, quietly others began to arrive. Members of the staff emerged from their offices. Parishioners, many of whom had encountered Charlotte at one time or another, parked their cars and silently came through the gates. And there were numerous others as well. People I had never seen before. People – old and young, men and women, walking and in wheelchairs came through our gates and entered the garden. The policeman who patrolled that part of town at night was there in his blue pants and tee shirt having just gotten off duty. He regularly checked on Charlotte as she slept in our doorway, watched out for her as she walked the streets, protected her rights as she came and went day in and day out all over our neighborhood. In fact, he was the person who called the ambulance and got Charlotte to the hospital.
There was a large group of folks from the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart just as couple of blocks from St. James’s. Good people who had worked with Charlotte and helped her many times over the years. There were folks from St. John’s the UCC church who cared for Charlotte when she would camp out in the alley behind their buildings. And there were many others as well. Folks I did not recognize, folks I have never seen before but folks who had touched and been touched by Charlotte over the years.
It was a holy moment, all fifty of us gathered there praying together, reading psalms together, mourning, laughing, crying together. When we read the passage from Revelation about those who have come out of the great ordeal and washed their robes in the blood of the lamb, we knew these words were meant for Charlotte. When we read how God will wipe away all tears from their eyes, we knew that St. John was speaking about Charlotte. And when we read in John’s gospel about Jesus’ promise to prepare a place for us, that we will all have a mansion waiting for us in heaven, we were thankful that Charlotte finally had a place to lay her head she could call her own.
After the readings and in place of a homily, we just talked. Anyone who wanted could offer up his or her memory of Charlotte. We laughed as we remembered how Charlotte used to yell at us if we left the porch light on because it attracted bugs and kept her awake. We remembered her good days when she was so witty and bright and her bad days when the demons of paranoia would drive her away from people. One gentleman recounted how he had served roast beef to Charlotte at his church every Christmas for many years. With real loss in his voice, he told us – Charlotte was my Christmas. It was a Holy Ghost moment.
At the end of the service, we all lined up and as a final goodbye each of us took a little spade full of dirt and placed it on top of Charlotte’s ashes. As I stood there and watched that diverse group of people file by that little hole in our garden, I felt deeply thankful. I felt thankful for that moment, for those people and for Charlotte who had brought us all together. I realized that while we had all come because we had given something at one time or another to this homeless woman, we were leaving that morning with the deeper knowledge that in fact she had given much to us. Her poverty, her illness, her courage, her laughter, her need, her friendship – all of it had touched us, deepened us, made us better people for having known her. We realized that through her we had seen the resurrected Christ.
As the disciples in our gospel reading for this morning walked the road to Emmaus, they were grieving, processing, trying to make sense of what had just taken place. Their Lord and master, the man they knew to be the promised Messiah, had been killed, crucified, executed by the state. With Jesus’ death everything they had hoped for, worked for, dreamed about, died. Sure, there were rumors that the tomb was empty. Supposedly some in their group had seen angels who told them that Jesus was alive, but who could believe such a thing. When Rome wanted you dead, you stayed dead.
You really can’t blame them for not recognizing who walked with them along the road and broke bread with them that evening. Jesus was the last person they ever expected to meet and the road to Emmaus was the last place they ever expected to meet him. But isn’t that the way it is for all the resurrection appearances? Whether it was Mary talking with someone who looked like the gardener, the disciples meeting a stranger while they were hiding out in the upper room, or while they were roasting fish on the beach, or walking down the road, or breaking bread at a tavern – Jesus appeared amongst the ordinary everyday events of life, always surprising them because when they least expected him, he was there. As Richard Rohr says, “These moments from Scripture set a stage of expectation and desire that God’s Presence can be seen in the ordinary and the material, and we do not have to wait for supernatural apparitions. . . “The purest form of spirituality is to find God in what is right in front of you.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was standing there in that garden holding her ashes that I realized how often the resurrected Christ had been made known to me in Charlotte. But, as our Gospel for this morning shows us, seeing and recognizing are not the same thing. Day in and day out I saw Charlotte, she was literally at my doorstep, but it was only in hindsight that I recognized the Christ emanating from her.
In the hospital, right before she died, Charlotte wrote out a brief will and testament naming me as her beneficiary. She didn’t have much, just some donated clothing in a couple of plastic bags. But I held onto her Timex watch. It sits in my desk even now. It doesn’t run any more, but to me it is a holy relic, a symbol of how blessed I was to know her, a reminder of the many gifts she gave me, and a challenge to never forget that Christ lives among us and reveals himself to us in the everyday people and moments of life.
As Frederick Buechner once said, “I believe that whether we recognize him or not, or believe in him or not, or even know his name, again and again (Christ) comes and walks a little way with us along whatever road we’re following. And I believe that through something that happens to us, or something we see, or somebody we know – who can ever guess how or when or where? – he offers us, the way he did at Emmaus, the bread of life, offers us a new hope, a new vision of light that not even the dark world can overcome.”
My friends, the risen Christ walks among us. Whether we are on Capitol Hill or caring for refugees at the Southern border, he lives and he is right in front of us. May we have the faith to recognize him wherever we may go, and the courage to love him when we do. Amen.
 Richard Rohr, “The Sacramental Principle”, Sunday, April 24, 2022, https://cac.org/daily-meditations/the-sacramental-principle-2022-04-24/
 Frederick Buechner, “The Secret in the Dark,” The Longing for Home.