I was standing in a hospital room many years ago now. It was during one of a dozen such stays after my dad’s first heart surgery. A group of friends from his church had come to see him. As I remember it, they stood awkwardly around his hospital bed, fumbling for words to say. Pretty soon, one of them offered to pray and once he was done, they did not take long to head for home.
This was a kind group of people. They had traveled out of their way to make this visit and they had to coordinate their schedules to do so. Still, they stumbled as they spoke, clearly uncomfortable seeing my normally gregarious dad hooked up to all kinds of tubes and wires and looking so very discouraged. They were not terribly good at it, I have to say, but I quickly learned that it didn’t much matter. For no sooner had they left his room than my dad turned to me and speaking with great conviction he said, “Anyone who doesn’t have a church home is stupid.”
To be sure, usually he was a little more eloquent than that. And as you can well imagine, I would hesitate to use his verbiage as a tag line in my congregation’s outreach effort, for I can’t imagine it would attract many who are not already here. Still, he was at the point in his life when he wasn’t mincing words. And he meant what he said. For he had experienced over and over again what love looks like in the company of God’s people. The kind of love that shares time, resources, hopes, and prayers. Love lived out through the sort of folks who, though far from perfect, often did what they could to build up, to support, to simply walk alongside. People who try to live the kind of love that Jesus points to in our Gospel lesson for today. My dad had given and received this over and over again and he could not understand why everyone wouldn’t go and find that, too, given half a chance.
Oh, I realize, of course, that my dad may have been more fortunate than many. I know that there are times when you and I as God’s people do not live up to that expectation to love one another which Jesus so clearly lays out for us today. Although, I would venture to guess that as often as not it is not because we do not care. And it may not be because we do not want to. Rather, I think we often hesitate to share that love because we are afraid we won’t do it right. Or it won’t be enough. Or that we will intrude where we might not be welcome.
We have not all experienced loving one another as Jesus would have us, of course, but I am grateful to have known the gift my dad’s words point to my whole life long. I would offer you now a couple of examples lived out by one congregation when I needed it most.
The first followed my journey home from the hospital on a January morning. My dad had died late the night before, you see, and I had to head home on a Sunday morning to get funeral clothes before going back up to my hometown in time to meet at the funeral home later that day. I tried to time it right, for I was exhausted — we had kept the vigil for three weeks by then — I tried to time it right for I really didn’t want to see anyone from my congregation there — I only just wanted to sneak in and out again. My home was right across the street from the church though and sure enough, although most everyone had headed home with the hour approaching noon, one had not. As I stepped out of my car another car pulled up behind me and Marie got out, walked over to me, and hugged me. I don’t remember if she said a single word, but I’ve never forgotten it, her kind gesture of love.
The word came to me in the days that followed that the neighboring pastor who had stepped in for me that Sunday morning had gotten the call at 6 a.m. saying our vigil had ended. Sometime between then and our 9 a.m. service he rewrote his sermon to offer words of wisdom on how to care for a pastor who is grieving. Truth be told, he was not known as a polished preacher, but I will tell the story of how he showed love for me and for my congregation my whole life long.
By the next Sunday I was back in the pulpit. I could have used a little more time, but I had unexpectedly been gone three weeks already and knew I needed to get back at it. Still, I have never forgotten the kindness of the people there in those first weeks back with them — and have often shared how they never questioned the time I took to be where I knew I had to be. They only just loved me through it all.
As I said, I am so very grateful to have experienced the love of God’s people — particularly in a time when I needed to receive it most of all. It is worth wondering now, it seems to me, how we can be more and more that way so that, in fact, more and more the world “would know that we are disciples of Jesus, as we have love for one another.”
I know I am not speaking here to those myriad congregations which are torn apart by something that bears no resemblance to love at all. Still, I wonder if we all just took that first step and in love walked into a hospital room which holds a friend, stopped our car to hug someone who is grieving, changed our words to meet the needs of our listeners, and saw one another in all our humanness and only wanted good for them — even if there was some cost to us ourselves….Wouldn’t that begin to change even those places which have become marked by avoidance, by anger, by fear, and yes, even by hurtful violence of words and sometimes actions? Oh, I have to believe that even our stumbling, fumbling, hesitant reaching out in love to one another can begin to change everything for somehow God takes it then and makes it something more… Indeed, wouldn’t it be something if one day along with my dad all the world could not imagine a life without God’s people to care for us? Wouldn’t that be something?
- When and where have you experienced the love of God’s people as testimony to our shared faith in Jesus?
- When and where in have you seen a faith community living this love as witness to the One whom they are called to follow? What is their story?
- In those places where it is not so, what needs to change to make it so? Where might that change begin?