When I was a Stranger…

Love thy neighbor

When I was a Stranger…

They drove up to Adams and found him lying in a pile of trash in his trailer. He was alive, but too weak to move much. They’d been friends for years. I get the sense that Harold didn’t have a lot of friends, and that the ones he did have, he cherished. Mike and Jean couldn’t leave him like that. The cancer in his lungs was going to take him, but this was no way to go. So, they packed him up, locked up the old trailer, and took him home to their house so that he could die with some dignity among friends.

Harold has nothing of earthly value. In fact, he owes. There’s no estate. There’s just a mess of bills and papers to sort through and figure out, and a ravenous dysfunctional couple of cousins circling Harold like vultures. And Harold is rough. He’s an ex-biker with a lot of really broken stuff in his rearview mirror. There was no upside in the decision to take him in. There was only knowing that doing what’s right is the only blessing in this life. They did it because that is who they are. They could not NOT do this. They aren’t “walk away” people. They don’t worry about what will happen if they take him in. That just doesn’t cross their minds. They worry deeply about what will happen if they DON’T take him in.

I’ve gotten to know Jean and Mike first as volunteers at the food pantry. They came with a group of bikers who chose to volunteer, and they have been coming back ever since. Since then I have gotten to know them as a part of our faith community, and now through motorcycles. Our words between each other have not been many, but those words have been encouragement for each other. In many circumstances I would say that I did not really know them because we haven’t spent long hours talking together. But I do know them. I know them by the love they have shown over and over and over again to people who can give them nothing in return. They shun credit. They deflect it to others. They have given themselves away to feeding the hungry, and to giving warm clothing and hot coffee to people who would otherwise freeze to death living on the street. And now they have taken in a man no one else even really knew existed so that he could die with dignity and grace, after giving him years of their friendship when no one else did.

A long time ago, a man that we now know as Matthew felt compelled to write about his experience of faith and that of his community. His writing can be found in a part of the Bible called the New Testament. He relates a vision of Jesus foretelling the last judgment that he presents as taking place when we all stand before the Lord one day. In that passage, we find Matthew portraying Jesus saying these words:

‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you took Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

When we dropped Harold off at hospice today, he knew and we knew that that would be his last car ride in this life. He didn’t say much on the way. He just looked at the green that was finally emerging after a long winter. And he was looking beyond it, too, at something that he was beginning to see that none of us still living can yet see. I thought to myself, “Take it all in, Harold. Drink it deep.” We got him in and settled into what will most likely be his death bed in a few days.

After a long period of silence…not uncomfortable silence, but appropriate and almost holy silence, Harold spoke. He said, “I’m working through the fear.” Nothing profound. Just his truth. It struck me that at our end, truth is enough. After another period of silence, Harold said, “It’s okay. You can go.” I said, “I’ll come back tomorrow. If you’ve already left, I’ll see you on the other side. Save me place. I’ll be along.” He smiled as though he understood.

As I walked down the long hall with bright sunlight pouring in windows from one side of the building and cutting colored slashes across the floor ahead of me, I thought, “Today, I know what church is.” See, none of these people that I’ve mentioned here have a fish on their car. None of them hold membership in an institutional church that counts members to report them to their denominational higher-ups. They’re bikers and sinners, just everyday people. They don’t know the Creeds, and they don’t have the Jesus T-shirts. But they are living both ends of what Matthew was talking about, neither one realizing which end of it they are on. Where a hungry person is given something to eat, Jesus is alive there. He is actually there. And where a stranger like Harold is taken in and given shelter by people like Jean and Mike, Jesus is alive there. Where two or three people are gathered together in the way that Jesus would have gathered together, he is among them. And where people are gathered and Jesus actually is, that is church. I was in church today…the real church. And I walked away strangely healed.

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