By Beth Gardner
What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said? That question is the subtitle of a book… the book is a dialogue by two authors, Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo, who try to live by the commands of Jesus in literal, practical, and real-life ways. I have not read the book – but I have tried to live into that question.
Sunday morning, just how hard it is to live what I believe about Jesus became even more real to me and to my congregation, First United Methodist Church of Bunnell.
Leonard Lynn, who was murdered last week, and the person who has confessed to killing him, Erick Niemi, are known to me. Leonard has attended worship at our church for over a year. Both Leonard and Erick have come to Soul Cafe, our church and community dinner on Wednesday evenings.
I knew Leonard better than Erick. Leonard was in church the previous Sunday and at dinner on Wednesday, the very evening of his death. Leonard was a lot like a street corner preacher – he was passionate about his love for Jesus. He had a deep, booming voice. But his theology made me cringe sometimes. When he shared in worship I could see a few people roll their eyes and you knew they were thinking, “Oh no, here we go again… another sermon….” Even so, he endeared himself to us. He was a good friend to a group of people that met for bible study in each others’ homes. He shared money, time and resources whenever he could. In his own way, he too, tried to live as if Jesus meant what he said. We missed Leonard in worship this morning.
I know Erick only through our church and community dinner. He comes sporadically. I got to know him by name only a few months ago. He delighted in the fact that I remembered his name–his eyes brightened when I greeted him. The evening I asked his name I went and sat with him during dinner – neither one of us had much to say – we just enjoyed the food and the company. I will miss Erick on Wednesday.
You hear often enough, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” We reference the struggles of others – see those who are homeless, those who rely on day labor pools for work, those arrested for prostitution and shoplifting, those who struggle to feed their families and make their mortgage payments… “There but for the grace of God, go I” we tritely say.
I was preaching on grace Sunday morning as I was also reeling from the news I’d received ten minutes before the start of worship: that Leonard had been murdered and that Erick confessed to doing it!
…words fumbled out of my mouth while my brain screamed at me: Leonard! Erick!
One’s status and condition do not need to be altered in order to be invited into divine love… into this relationship with God. The nature of [God] is to be love, and the great conversion of faith is to let this love live in us.
We set up obstacles between God’s grace and other people finding that grace.
It is this beautiful offer of unconditional love.
Let’s not mess that up.
Then we sang a hymn: “A Charge to Keep I Have.”
The second verse says:
To serve the present age,
my calling to fulfill;
O may it all my powers engage
to do my Master’s will!
My calling to fulfill… this is taking all my strength and my power….
We prayed. And then I shared the awful news: Leonard! Erick! My voiced trembled. There was that horrible, collective, gasp. There were tears, and questions, and there was remembering.
What if Jesus really meant what he said?
Oh God, help me not to mess this up!
This is hard. People are already grumbling about our church and about our ministry. What will they say if they know Leonard and Erick were here? That Leonard and Erick were one of us? I can hear them now…
There it is again: What if Jesus really meant what he said?
My brain is still screaming at me – and my heart aches: What if Jesus really meant what he said?
Jesus said: “…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus said: “‘…Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’”
Sinners. Really? That’s me. That’s them. That’s all of us. Okay then… We will begin again from here:
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
The Word… Of course he meant what he said.
And us? We will continue to let God’s love live in and through us, and move into the neighborhood.
Rev. Beth Gardner is the pastor at Bunnell’s First United Methodist Church. Reach her by email here.