close enough


    I just got home from a great weekend in Jackson, where I got to preach this morning at Calvary Baptist Church. Here is the sermon.

    You have to wonder how soon it started.

    I’m guessing, even in the early church, where two or three were gathered there were two or three differing opinions. Though we have grouped the epistles in the back half of our New Testaments, they were some of the earliest writings we have and they show that from almost the very beginning of the church people were struggling with what it meant to live out our faith together. Paul, John, and anyone else who wrote one of these letters spends some time basically saying the biblical equivalent of, “Don’t make me come over there” or “If I have to pull this car over there is going to be some serious trouble.” And they all spend a good deal of time entreating their charges to love one another; they also do what they can to draw a picture of what looks like. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s translation of the first part of our passage for this morning:

    This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.

    He could not have painted the picture any clearer: when we don’t care for one another, God’s love disappears. Disappears. And – not but, and — when we do respond and meet the need we incarnate the love of God as God created us to do. God’s love appears.

    Yesterday at the Writer’s Conference, Justin shared a story with us that led him to write the song he sang a few moments ago called “Driving by the Accident.” As he talked about how the song came together, he spoke of Jesus’ encounter with the woman who lived with a hemorrhage and knew she just needed to touch the hem of his garment to be healed. Justin said we have to understand “the healing touch of intentional proximity.”

    I love that phrase.

    By choosing to be church together, we are choosing intentional proximity: we mean to be close. We are also putting ourselves near enough to one another to create the opportunity to incarnate love to one another. Or – not. The truth is we are also close enough to do damage. When we decide to explode, we send chards and shrapnel into everyone around us. Not only must we choose to be in close proximity, we must also choose, day after day after day, to love one another as Christ loves us. We must choose the responsibility that comes with connectedness – knowing that choosing to be together in a world full of suffering and chaos is choosing to enter voluntarily into one another’s pain, even as we choose, perhaps first, to do no harm.

    In his book The Will to Power, philosopher Frederich Nietzsche challenged the Christian call to love all humanity, saying love was weakness that denied such values as pride, war, conquest, and anger. As harsh as it may sound to think of pride and anger as values, remember we live in a nation that lives out Vince Lombardi’s notion that, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Our culture says get what you can and leave everyone else to fight for themselves.

    Our faith tells us differently: we are one in the Spirit, as the song says, and we have a responsibility for and to one another.

    Since we’ve been a part of the writer’s conference this weekend, let’s play with words for a minute and break down the word responsibility. It’s made of two words: response and ability: the ability to respond. Being close to one another in Christ means we have the ability to respond to one another’s needs, incarnating God’s love in the most practical and meaningful ways.

    Gary Chapman has a book Ginger, my wife, uses in marriage counseling called The Five Love Languages, which he defines as the ways we best give and receive love. They are:

    • words of affirmation – saying words that encourage and support
    • acts of service – doing the “little things” that show we are paying attention
    • physical touch – hugs, and supportive touch
    • quality time – making time to care for one another
    • gifts – again, things that make a person feel known

    Though we are all able to speak more than one of these languages, each of us has a favorite we speak when we receive love and a favorite we speak when it comes to giving love. Sometimes they match up well: Ginger’s best receiving language is acts of service and mine is words of affirmation. So when I do something nice for her and she says thank you we both come out pretty well. Sometimes, in the context of community, we operate on the principle of speaking the language we wish would be spoken to us and we miss each other. Incarnating the love of Christ to one another means being multilingual, if you will. It also means being forthright about what we need and what we have to offer one another as we live in close proximity.

    One of the other songs Justin sang a few minutes ago was Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy.” I asked him to sing the song because the chorus articulates the kind of hands on love we’re talking about. The lyrics are

    If you break down, I’ll drive out and find you
    If you forget my love, I’ll try to remind you
    And stay by you when it don’t come easy

    Here’s what love looks like: if you break down, I’ll drive out and find you.

    There’s a couple in our church in Durham. He is a firefighter; she is a social worker. They were driving down a street in Miami, where they were visiting family, when he noticed smoke coming out of a house as a woman was running out the door. They stopped the car and got out. He ran into the house, turned off the gas, and did what he could to stay the fire; she called 911 and then sat and comforted the woman in the midst of the turmoil. Both of them did what they were trained to do in a moment where they happened to be close enough to help.

    When the brought the woman to Jesus who had been caught in the act of adultery, which is a euphemistic way of saying they pulled her out of bed and dragged her down the street naked, Jesus knelt down and wrote in the sand when they asked what they should do to her. In that moment, their attention shifted from the woman to trying to figure out what Jesus was doodling in the dirt. He was close enough to offer her grace and, as the scene played out, forgiveness.

    After Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus met him on the shore of the sea of Galilee with breakfast. He was close enough to offer food and, again, forgiveness.

    Then Peter, along with John, encountered the beggar at the gate and said, “We don’t have any money, but we will give you what we have. In Jesus’ name, get up and walk.” They were close enough to be healers.

    I have a friend who grew up in a family of abuse and violence. She says she remembers as a little girl being in a store with her mother and her mother was yelling and screaming at her. She said there was another woman at the counter who leaned down in the midst of the violence and said, “Remember this is not your fault. It’s going to be OK.”

    We are all wounded and hurting. We are all capable of being healers. And we are close enough to one another to make the love of God appear in our midst.

    If you break down, I’ll drive out and find you
    If you forget my love, I’m here to remind you
    And stay by you when it don’t come easy

    May we respond to one another in a way that makes God’s love appear at every turn. Amen.



    1. This is awesome, Milton. Thank you. I liked how you made HOW we help people concrete — so often, that is left quite vague. But when we tie it to our own gifts and proximity, it makes a lot more sense.

    2. Amen and preach it.

      What Heidi said, too — the HOW gets glossed over too often.

      I’m surrounded by kids at home and in coaching, and they bless me more than I teach them, every day.

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