This is the sermon I wasn’t ready to write for the service I wasn’t ready to lead to honor the friend I wasn’t ready to lose.
We’ve come together today united in our love for John, to share in our grief, and to find comfort in the presence of each other. I’m not going to sugar coat this, grief sucks. Grief is like a form of arthritis. Somedays, it hurts so bad, you can hardly stand it. And other days, it’s not so bad. But there’s always a level of aching that never quite goes away. Some days are harder than others. Some seasons are harder than others. But over time, we will gradually heal. Our fond memories will be good medicine as the days and months and years go by. The love and light and laughter that John brought into our lives has left us forever changed.
Let us find solace in love. When I say love today, I’m not talking about some sweet, sentimental, frilly, foofy kind of love. And I’m not talking about some high-minded, ornate, abstract theological frippery kind of love. I’m talking love at work. Love that is messy. Love with some dirt on its hands. Because that is the kind of love that John shared with all of us. John lived love as a verb. His religion was praxis over proclamation, action over spoken creeds. What do I mean by that?
John and I were in New Haven one night. We’d gone to an AA meeting and were walking towards a restaurant for dinner when a young homeless guy came up to us and asked us for money. John immediately said, ‘Yeah, hang on a sec.’ He fumbled around in his coat pockets digging for his wallet and in the process, pulls out a full pack of of cigarettes and hands them to me to hold. He then pulls out his wallet and hands the guy $20. The guy saw the cigarettes and asked if he could also bum a smoke. John smiled that big, disarming smile or his and took the pack from me, lit two cigarettes, kept one in his mouth and passed one to me, as he so often did, and then handed the guy a nearly full pack of cigarettes and then gave him the lighter besides. John wished him a good night like he was an old friend. It didn’t matter that it was dark. It didn’t matter that there weren’t a lot of people around. It didn’t matter that this guy could easily have intended to mug us both. It didn’t matter how he was going to spend that money. John saw another human being in need and responded with kindness, with generosity, with compassion and without hesitation and without judgement. He said to me over dinner, ‘I’ve been that guy. I know how it feels to be on the other side of that interaction and, Sweetie, let me tell you, it’s not fun.’
And that, my friends, is the kind of love that I’m talking about. That is love at work in this world. Even in the midst of our pain, even in the midst of our struggles, to act with compassion towards others and to recognize their full dignity as fellow human beings, that is the kind of love that will bring us solace and comfort. That is the kind of love that is light in the darkness. That is the kind of love that sets prisoners free. That is the kind of love that should come to mind when we hear that God is love. God’s love is specifically love at work.
God loves each and every one of us. God knows the secret things we struggle with, the things we don’t talk about, the things we manage to cover and still get through our days. And God is at work in those struggles. In the economy of God’s Grace, nothing, absolutely nothing, is wasted. Not one day is unimportant. Not one moment goes unnoticed.
As many of us experienced in our relationships with John, John had a gift for seeing the good in us even when we couldn’t see it in ourselves. John learned each one of our soul songs and he would sing it back to us even when we’d forgotten the tune. And he did that even at times when he couldn’t see the good in himself. That is love at work. That is the love of God shining through this beloved child of God.
When we act out of compassion, out of kindness, and with generosity of spirit towards others in the world – even when we may have our own struggles – we allow God to work through us. We allow God who is love, God who is love at work, to work through us. And as that love moves through us, it not only changes the world around us, it changes us as well.
Some churches don’t have much tolerance for a gay man. Society certainly doesn’t have much tolerance for an addict. But what we saw in John was so, so much more than who he loved or what disease he wrestled with. What we witnessed in John was an everyday kind of holiness. What we witnessed in John was what Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber would call an accidental saint – a paradoxical person who doesn’t fit the typical rigid religious stereotype of a holy person but nevertheless, is indeed a holy person doing the work of God who is love.
John is no longer here with us. His work here is done. Now it’s up to us to carry on. John saw something uniquely good and wonderful in each one of you. As you sit with your memories of John, remember what he saw in you. Know that what John saw only in glimpses, God sees with perfect clarity the truth of your goodness. I would challenge you to live out of that goodness in whatever way you can. Be love at work in the world. Get your hands dirty bringing the love of God into this world. God knows this world need it.