SJF • Proper 10 Year C • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away… No, the word is very near to you…+
It was a hot summer day, so hot that the air conditioning didn’t make much difference. The hospital had that “hospital” smell; you know what it’s like: that mix of antiseptic and floor polish, covering but not concealing the evident aroma of sick and ailing humanity. It was mid-afternoon, a sleepy time of day, and I’d just as soon have been taking a nap! I’d been making my chaplain’s rounds most of the day, checking in on patients I’d seen before, and visiting new arrivals.
Then I noticed, in the posting at the nurses’ station, that one of the patients I’d been seeing quite a bit of was going to be discharged that afternoon. I headed to her room, wanting to say goodbye and wish her well. As I got to the doorway, I saw that she was on the phone, so I motioned that I’d wait in the hall. I just stood outside her door, leaning with my back against the wall, my suit jacket feeling a bit uncomfortable, that little trickle of sweat going down my back in the still air and humid warmth.
Just then, a man stuck his head out of the next room down, out of the doorway, stared at me intently for a moment, then turned his head back into the room and said, “Here he is!” I hadn’t gotten a page on my beeper, but I figured that the patient in that room must have called the chaplain’s office. Since I saw that my other patient was still on the phone, I waved an “I’ll see you in a minute” and headed one door down the hall to the other room. The man waved me in and then followed me.
I wasn’t ready for what I saw. A middle-aged woman was not in a bed — she was braced and bound almost upright in a stainless steel contraption — the like of which I’ve only ever seen used in prisons to administer a lethal injection to a strapped down criminal. She was upright with both of her arms stretched out, and was holding onto the bars at either end with all her might, and it didn’t take a medical degree to see that she was in great pain; the expression on her face — eyes clenched tight shut — told me all I needed to know. It was like walking onto Calvary — for the woman was literally crucified on that bed of stainless steel.
Then she opened her eyes and looked at me, and a wave of relief flooded over her, her arms and her hands relaxed just a bit, and she said, “I knew you’d come.” I thought to myself, “Well, this is good timing. Glad I decided to wait outside the other patient’s room for a few minutes!”
The woman relaxed a bit, some of the tension in her arms softening. We talked about how she felt, and she told me about her faith — which was great. She’d had cancer once before, and gone into remission, but now the cancer had reappeared. But she felt sure that God was with her and would be with her in and through all of her pain. There really wasn’t much for me to do as a chaplain — this was a woman who had it all together, and she knew where she’d put it. And with the gathered family we prayed and prayed and prayed — you’d think I’d been born and bred a Baptist to see me that day, and the power of Pentecost and the Spirit was upon us in that room.
As the prayer came to a close, and we all became quiet for a moment, I asked if she had called for a chaplain, so I could make the proper entry in the hospital records. That’s when I got my second surprise.
“Call for a chaplain?” she asked, looking a little confused. She looked at her husband, who shook his head. “Why no. We didn’t call for a chaplain.” That’s when I guess I looked a little confused.
“No,” the husband said, “We were praying a little while ago, and then my wife told me she’d had a vision that a man of God was coming to see her. And that’s when you came.” Suddenly her husband’s short sentence, “Here he is!” took on a whole new meaning.
Suddenly I was no longer simply talking to a woman and her husband in a hospital on the upper East Side of Manhattan. Suddenly I was sitting in a room with people for whom visions are reality, for whom faith is a certainty, for whom men of God come walking through the door as a matter of course, people for whom God is very near. This was not just Golgotha, but in its own way the new Jerusalem.
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In his farewell in Deuteronomy, Moses told the children of Israel, “The commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away… No, the word is very near to you….” The lawyer in today’s Gospel used a rabbi’s classic technique of combining two Scripture texts — Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy concerning the nearness of the law and loving the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and that text from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But it took Jesus to show him who the neighbor was. For the neighbor is the one who, like God, is very near to you.
God and God’s word were and always had been truly and uniquely present with the children of Israel: God had led them out of Egypt with signs and wonders, had been with them in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, God had dwelt among them in the tent of meeting, the tabernacle of the presence, God had even bent the heavens themselves and come down to the top of Sinai.
Yet, as Jesus assures us, God is just as present in every loving act of charity done to a neighbor. The work of God is as close as that, as close as the needy one placed in your path by circumstance or design — and after all, is there any “circumstance” under the grace of a God who fills his people’s hearts with the knowledge of his presence? who is so very near to all of us? God is present in the meeting of a hated Samaritan and a wounded Jew. God is present in hospital wards and nursing homes. God is present in the peace we share in this liturgy, and in the bread we break and the wine we drink. God is present to us and in us and with us, when we have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hands to work and pray. There is no circumstance — it is all design!
The commandment of God is neither too hard nor too far away. We can all take part in it, all of us neighbors to one another, all of us working together, being present to each other as God is present to us.
And it’s not just that we become agents of God when we help others. That is true, and it is God’s will for us, and we give thanks to be instruments in God’s service, to be “good Samaritans” to lend a hand when it is needed. But God is also present in the ones who suffer; as God was uniquely present in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that the whole world might come into the reach of his saving embrace. God is present in the sick and wounded whom we serve, for as Christ told and assures us, when you do good to the least of these, you do it to me.
When I walked through the door of that hospital room that hot summer day, the woman there saw in me the presence of God, believing I’d been particularly sent down that particular hall on that particular day, to that particular room at that specific time. And indeed, I had been sent, though I didn’t know it at the time. God can do such things, even when we aren’t aware God is doing it; leading and guiding us to be where he wants us to be, as he led that Samaritan once long ago, as indeed he had led the priest and the Levite who instead of following God’s lead, chose to pass that gracious opportunity by. God leads us, but it is still up to us to follow.
But I’ll tell you something else: when I went through the door of that hospital room, and saw that woman with her arms stretched out, and the grip of terrible pain upon her face, I knew I too was in the presence of God, the God who in Christ became flesh and suffered upon the cross, the God who bears our griefs and weeps with us and for us, the God who is very near and not far off, very near, so near that we can feel his breath.+