Note from CM: This is an adaptation of a funeral sermon I gave this week. The theme was designed to represent both the character of the deceased and those who cared for her in her final season of life. I commended them as people who consistently displayed down-to-earth, practical, faithful, and genuine love.
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No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1John 4:18)
One of my great privileges as a hospice chaplain is to see God at work every day. I realize that sounds like an audacious claim, but let me explain.
How do we see God working in our lives? People try to answer that in many ways. Some focus on extraordinary spiritual experiences. Some talk about having dreams and visions and hearing God’s voice. Others suggest that they witness miracles or occurrences that cannot be explained in any other way than that God is present and working.
But I see God working in much more ordinary and down-to-earth ways. Listen to this verse from scripture: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” The Apostle John tells us here that a primary way of recognizing God’s presence and active involvement in our lives is to see him in the true and genuine love people share with one another.
Another apostle, Paul, describes what this love looks like:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:9-21)
This passage reminds us that genuine love is not some lofty ideal, concept, or disembodied virtue. It is as down to earth as the basin, water, and towel by which Jesus knelt down on his knees, took his disciples’ dirty feet in his hands, and washed them. It is something you can feel in a family member’s touch. It is something you can hear in words of reassurance from a friend. You can see it in the tireless and often thankless work of a caregiver. When someone brings a meal, or helps out with a financial need, or gives a worn out family member some respite, what you are seeing is love. When we exercise patience with those who irritate us, when we show kindness to those who wish us ill, when we show faithfulness over a long period of time to those who count on us, that is love.
No one has seen God at any time, but when you see things like that, you are seeing God at work.
Love is practical. Love is hands-on, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, human caring. It is being with someone and staying with them in such a way that they receive benefit and encouragement. It is not always easy. It may well mean taking on difficult, mundane, or distasteful tasks. It can make you cry sometimes. You may feel doubts, discouragements, frustrations, and encounter fears and anxieties. Sometimes emergencies come up in the middle of the night or at other inconvenient times, causing you to lose sleep and get tired and grumpy. You might find yourself exchanging angry words with those around you or even feeling bitter and put upon. Love involves patience, forbearance, saying “I’m sorry,” and extending forgiveness.
Love is as down-to-earth as it gets. It is completely ordinary, and yet, what could be more extra-ordinary than love like this? After all, according to the Apostle John, this is the best vision of God at work that we are ever going to see in this world — “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
This is the love I witness every day as a hospice chaplain, as caregivers show love to family members and friends at the end of life. I often see it in the patients themselves, as they graciously allow others to serve them and then respond to them with words and expressions of gratitude. I see it in my team members, who travel all around our city to visit people in homes, extended care facilities, and hospitals. I can only pray that people will see it in me as I seek to engage others in pastoral friendship.
As author Frederick Buechner once reminded us, this world is both a beautiful and a terrible place. We all try to navigate our way through it the best we can, hoping for as much of the “beautiful” and as little of the “terrible” as possible.
I was recently watching a travel show about the Alps and it showed a guide leading some folks up a mountain to a little inn that had been built at a high elevation with spectacular views. To get there, they had to walk on frighteningly narrow little paths. It looked to this observer like one wrong step could mean certain death. The one who built the path recognized how treacherous it would be, so he attached cables to the side of the mountain that hikers could grasp for support as they carefully ascended. As the guide took his guests up the mountain, he had them hang on to those cables as he led the way. In that beautiful yet terrifying setting, the path maker had provided something that made travelers feel safer, more secure, and hopeful about reaching the top without incident. And, there was someone to walk the dangerous path with them.
That is love. And this is what we all need on our journey. This kind of love enables us to see the beauty while minimizing the terror in this life. And this is the kind of love that enables us to lift our heads and see that a loving God is with us, walking beside us and working on our behalf.