I like it when my cousin Jeanne comes to visit. She is an awfully creative person to begin with, and New York brings it out gloriously. Just to wake up in New York gets the creative juices flowing, and it is awfully fun to watch her get excited about all the city has to offer. You can just see it all stirring inside her from morning to night, breathing it all in.
Not surprisingly, Jeanne loves New York, too. But she does not love the subway. She is from a small town. It is a small down where both she and I learned Southern manners, things like always standing and offering your seat to a lady. It was also a small town where just coming to New York at all is considered a dangerous enough thing to do without going down into the ground with God knows who to catch a train heading off into a tunnel. In fact, before we moved here, Jeanne avoided the subway altogether, opting instead for cabs and an occasional bus. Since coming to visit us, though, Jeanne has ventured, albeit somewhat reluctantly, into the subway. After all, her New York cousin knows the ropes.
I thought, though that Jeanne’s very first subway adventure with us was likely to be her last. Fortunately, God provided an unexpected messiah to save the day.
The platform was crowded and the subway car even more so. It was not a good way to introduce the subway I thought. We squeezed our way in. I could see Jeanne was a little nervous, her creative excitement squelched for the moment. It did not make it any easier that we were squeezed in next to a man sitting in the end seat who appeared to be the classic example of why you don’t ride subways. He looked homeless, and perhaps he was. It struck me that he might be mentally ill, and perhaps he was that, too. I halfway expected him to start some sort of rant as the doors closed. I assumed, though I have no evidence, that Jeanne was particularly uncomfortable. She’ll never ride the subway again I thought. I had so wanted her to love the city and all of its experiences, even the subway, as much as I do.
And then, just as the train was about to start, the man stood up. I watched him attentively and I watched Jeanne protectively. “Would you like to sit down?” he asked my startled small-town cousin. And she did. What looked like a set of circumstances that gives New York a bad name turned out to be an experience of what makes New York so wonderful. (I haven’t had the heart to tell Jeanne it wasn’t because she is a lady. It is because she is, shall we say, a senior. I know this because it often happens to me, too.)
I learned something, of course, about making assumptions about people and was reminded of what both Jeanne’s mother and mine would say about judging books by their covers, which is another part of manners. Being a bishop, I also saw the man as an unexpected messiah, salvifically rescuing the New York City subway experience for my cousin Jeanne.
I learned something about where to look for your messiahs. They aren’t necessarily where you would expect them to be. They might not look like you. They might not act like you. They might not live like you. They might not see things the way you do. They might not even believe as you do. They don’t even to be Christian or Jewish or anything else.
The prophet Isaiah promised the people of Israel, that their exile was coming to an end through an unexpected and difficult-to-imagine messiah, a Persian king named Cyrus. The deliverer was not to be a Jew. The fact that Cyrus does not know God at all is beside the point. God said to Cyrus, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.” (Isa. 45:4)
God, it turns out, makes unexpected messiahs. Messiahs are not about what they know about God. They are about how they fit in with God’s plans, plans for liberation and justice and health and peace, or in the case of Jeanne’s unexpected messiah, human kindness.
In fact, most messiahs, at least the most interesting ones, like the man on the subway and Cyrus, are probably unexpected. We will miss them altogether if we don’t know where to look. Looking among our own kind, whether racially, ethnically, and especially religiously, is pretty much the wrong place.