Having just taken on the pastorate for two congregations, I have been busy trying to acquaint myself with two very different congregations. One of the important tasks, of course, is to visit the shut-ins, who would like to meet their new pastor but are unable to come to church to do it. I diligently began this last week, visiting a handful of people in assisted living homes in the greater Rochester area.
One of my first was to a man about whom I knew nothing but his name, Larry. As I walked into the large building, confidently sporting my clerical collar, a man was walking out. He was wearing old jeans and ragged green sweatshirt, and the man, who looked to be about in his 60s, looked as if he had walked some tough roads. “Are you preachin’?” he asked, his speech slightly slurred. I said no, not today, I was bringing communion to someone. He asked if I was from the church down the street, and I explained that I was from a Lutheran church in another suburb. “Lutheran!” he said. “I grew up Lutheran! Baptized, confirmed, and went to church every Sunday and Wednesday!” We chatted about that for a while, before he grew tired of the conversation and went on his way. But as I went in and met Larry, the man came back. “I have to tell you something!” he said, with urgency. “When you lock your car, when it’s in your garage and you lock your doors, you’re locking Jesus out of your life.” No sure how to respond to this, I muttered, “Oh…” and thanked him for offering me this advice. We parted ways once again.
As Larry and I found seats in a common area, and I began to get to know him, I also began to wonder what this place was. I had expected senior living, but everyone I saw looked middle-aged or younger, and each one seemed to carry a burden of some sort. Larry was pleasant enough, but slurred his speech, and couldn’t seem to finish the same sentence he started. I wondered if this was a rehab center, or perhaps a home for mentally ill adults. (I later learned it was the latter.) Whatever the case, these were adults who were not readily accepted by the general population. They were the outcasts, the people you avoid on the street, the folks with whom you avoid making eye contact. Being there in the midst of them, my heart felt a deep need to love them.
Larry had requested that I bring him communion, and so as the visit neared an end, I started to set this up. Lo and behold, my Lutheran friend wandered back into the room at that moment and headed for our table. I asked if he would like to join us. “Yes,” he said, and sat down. I was moved that both of these men, whom I later learned were mentally ill, knew the liturgy! They crossed themselves at the appropriate times, they said the right responses, they prayed the Lord’s Prayer – this clearly meant something to them. When I asked if they would like to hear some Scripture, the man who joined us asked if he could read and talk about the text. Of course, I said, and he read something from Revelation, and talked about what he believed God to be saying in this word. I then read something from Philippians, and he read something from Psalms. This man was on fire for the Word of God! Finally, it came time to share the sacrament, and I looked them each in the eye as I said, “The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you.” If I had met these men on the street, I don’t know that I would have looked twice at them. And yet here we were, strangers-turned-friends, sharing together in the most sacred experience that Christians share together. “For you.” Christ died “for you.” This meal is “for you.” God’s love is “for you.” The deep need I had felt earlier to love these men and the others I saw in the facility was realized in that moment – by the love of God in this sacrament, I did love them.