It's all that easy, and all that hard!
Early on in my ministry I worked as an associate pastor in a church in which many AA and 12 step meetings were held. One such meeting was a weekly Alateen group for teens whose lives have been affected by alcohol. One night a 14 year old girl was dropped off at the church for the Alateen meeting, only to discover that she was a day early for the meeting. I found her standing in the door of the church looking lost, looking confused, looking scared. I asked her if I could help her and she said she needed a ride home. This girl lived with her single mother on the other side of the city, a good 40 minute drive away, and her mother had dropped her at the church on her way to work. The girl had expected to get a ride home with another friend who attended the meeting, but since she had come on the wrong day she now had no way to get home. I was scheduled to lead a session meeting that evening, so I went into the meeting and asked if any of the elders might be willing to forego the meeting that evening in order to give the girl a ride home. Can you guess what they said?
The response was unanimous: “That girl could be a car-thief. That girl could be a con-artist. “That girl could be carrying a gun or a knife and just waiting for a chance to stab somebody.”
I was floored. They hadn’t even seen this 14 year old girl, but if they had, I knew it would not have helped her because as she had piercings and tattoos and she would have, for them, only confirmed their stereotypes and reinforced their fears. I gently suggested that this might be an opportunity to help this girl have a new understanding of what it might mean to be part of a Christian community. But I was greeted with the response, “God didn’t call us to be stupid.” I asked if anyone would then be willing to pay for a cab for her. No, they said, that would be putting the cab driver at risk, they couldn’t afford to pay the cab, what if it was a scam and she and/or the cab driver ran off with the money, or worse, spend it on alcohol.
I was surprised. I was also very tempted to throw some scripture at them. Wasn’t every parable and story about Jesus a story of loving to the point of risking his life until finally his very life was in fact taken away? And weren’t we then called on time and again by scripture to go and do like-wise? In fact, there is nothing in scripture, not one word, that supports playing it safe. Where people are in need, when people ask for our help, we are called on to risk everything to love them.
Maybe when you heard this story, you, too, felt the indignation which I felt on that day. Why wouldn’t these Christians, these elders in the church, help this young girl? But what if I were to change the story a little? What if, instead of a 14 year old girl, the person asking for help was a 14 year old boy? Or a 17 year old boy? What if, instead of a young person, it was a full grown adult male? What if that adult male, threateningly or differently dressed were disheveled? Dirty? Drunk? And yet, what Jesus calls us to do for a young, innocent looking girl, Jesus calls us to do for every person who comes to us in need. And while at that juncture, I felt indignant and angry, the truth is that not very many of us, with exceptions such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and a few saintly people among our own acquaintances, live up to this commandment. I don’t stop on the freeway when someone looks like they need help, because I am afraid. I don’t offer homeless people beds in my home. And it makes sense that I don’t. It makes sense that we don’t. For these activities are dangerous. What the elders at my church said was true. It is possible that they would have been putting their very lives at risk to care for this girl as when we care for anyone with the love of Christ. Not only is this hard for us to do, it is hard for us to support others doing this. I don’t want the people I love taking those chances or risks.
But when I look at scripture what I see is a path of love that lead Jesus to the cross. And Jesus told us to follow him in that path of loving, even to the cross – literally, not figuratively. Loving is not easy. While referring to his own love as that of a mother hen, Jesus refers to Herod as a fox. And as we know, the fox will get the chicken, foxes do get chickens that come in front of the, and Jesus was killed. If we too care about the world as a mother hen cares for her chicks, if we too would go out and meet the fox face to face to protect others, if we too would love to the point of putting ourselves in the path of a fox, we too risk death. Loving is not easy.
At another church where I served, the congregants were intimately involved with a program that served the homeless. Through our work and through our time with the homeless people in our community, we developed a very close relationship with one homeless man in particular. This man was very loving, very giving, very caring. He began attending our church and when he did so, he offered to run our sound system, he helped with the gardening, and he was always on hand to help us in any way. He was not unintelligent, but he was a severe alcoholic who could not seem to get through the disease to a place where he could give up drinking. He would give it up for a week or two and then something would happen and he would be drinking again. We saw him fight for his life against this disease and we saw him losing the battle. Because we cared for him, as well as the other people on our church campus, we set boundaries and he was not allowed to be on campus while drinking or intoxicated, a boundary he both understood and respected. Still, it did not help him in his fight against the disease. At one point in our relationship with George, his drinking led him to fall and to hit his head very seriously on the street. The police found him hours later and took him to the local hospital. His injuries, especially to his brain, were very serious and he was admitted. However, when the nurses and doctors at the hospital came to understand that he was a homeless, income-less, resource-less man, they gave up caring for him. He remained at the hospital for quite a while, because he was unable to walk a straight line, he could not speak clearly and had very little control over his movements. But in large part he was at the hospital for so long because they would not provide the care to get him to a place where they could discharge him. The only time that George really received any attention – the only time he would be brought his meals even – was when one of us was there to insist on it. This was a “Christian” hospital, and the doctors and nurses who were hired to work there were, we were told, people of faith. But they did not see the contradiction in their faith when they served their charges according to their resources, rather than according to their needs.
This is NOT how Jesus acted. And it is not what Jesus calls us to do. Despite the reaction of those around him, including his disciples, Jesus found time to be present with “the least of these” every time. He gave of his healing, of his energy, of his attention, even to those who didn’t somehow “rank” or “deserve” it.
This Sunday I’m inviting you to join me in a benediction and charge which was written by Bruce Reyes-Chow that ends with the phrase; “Care for one another and love one another. It is all that easy and it is all that hard.” Mostly, I think, loving one another as Christ loves us is hard. We are called to see one another as we really are. We are called to be good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed. We are called to be willing to lay down our lives for one another, even as Jesus laid down his life for us.
So where is the good news in this for us? Well first, we aren't called to fix the world, but only to do what God puts in front of us. I found this quote from the Talmud this week that I just love, "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justice, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." Amy Grant puts it this way, "As you daily recreate me, help me always keep in mind, that I only have to do what I can find." The burden of fixing the world is not on any one of us. We already have a savior. Our call is simply to do what needs to be done that is in front of us each moment.
Also, the good news is that loving is itself the greatest most fulfilling experience we can be given by God. It’s not easy, just as loving any real person with all their quirks and foibles and challenges is not always easy. But it is rewarding to care about others, to see them grow, to be part of changing and helping lives. Not only is the gift of loving its own reward. When we are able to love like this, I believe we are given the ability to see God. We see God’s face in those we love, we experience God’s grace through the act of loving. We experience God’s resurrection in seeing lives change and grow. We grow in our ability to love and we become more wholly ourselves and wholly God’s people.
It is not easy to be a Christian. We are required to love with our whole beings, with our total selves. But loving and the ability to love ever more fully and deeply is its own reward and promise. Amen.