Thank You for Your Service!

1 John 5:1-6John 15:9-17

“Thank you for your service!!”

Doug and Theresa Russell were working with several customers in our Food Pantry this past Monday when John came to church. He was a strong-looking young man, maybe in his late twenties. He had a crisp Boston Red Sox baseball cap on his head and Walkman earphones around his neck. He carried a few papers in his hand and smelled faintly of alcohol. His speech was slurred and his words were confused, and it took the three of us a few minutes to figure out what it was exactly that he wanted. It wasn’t food, and it wasn’t money.

The papers in his hand were cards for his two nieces, cards printed with the well-known prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me so love...” The cards were stamped. He sat down in the office to write his name on the back of the cards, and did so with great struggle. I began to wonder if he was, indeed, drunk, or if there was something else plaguing him. He asked if I could write the addresses on the front from his address book and put the cards in the mail. There was something ominous about the whole encounter, a feeling of finality. As I finished addressing the envelopes, he asked me a question. I couldn’t quite understand him, but I did make out that he was asking about the bus. I asked him where he was going. “Roswell Road,” he said. Knowing that it would take him an hour to get there by bus, I offered him a ride.

As we rode down Windsor Parkway, we talked. “I’ve got some big things coming,” he said. When I asked for clarification, he revealed that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer six weeks ago. “They’ve given me a year and a half to live,” he said, “But it won’t be that long.” I asked if he was in pain. “All the time.” He asked me for a piece of paper, and scrawled something on it. When we arrived at Roswell Road, I asked him if he would like to pray. “Pray for my soul,” he said. We did. He gave me a hug and wandered off down Roswell Road. On his seat, he left the note he scrawled, which graces the front of our bulletin this morning: “Thank you for your service!!”

We are a mere six months into our journey as pastor and congregation, but I think you know enough about me to know that I’m not one for sentimentalized Christianity. I’m not fond of shows like “Touched by an Angel” or the old Michael Landon show “Highway to Heaven.” When angels appear in Scripture, the first word that comes is, “Do not be afraid.” So what little we know of angels is that there is something about them that is discomforting. The first thing that hit me as I read John’s note was that this message, “Thank you for your service,” was intended for OPC. And in it, I recognized something angelic. There was something about John that seemed uneasy. I question my own wisdom in offering him a ride, even though it seemed right at the time. But when I saw that note, I knew that there was something of God in the whole encounter, and I knew that I had to share this note and this story with you today.

It doesn’t seem like much, addressing a couple of envelopes, a few moments of prayer. But for John, it seems it was more than enough to elicit authentic gratitude.

Many of you dedicate your time and talents to our ministries of compassion: the weekly work of our Food Pantry and Bargain Shop, building with Habitat for Humanity, support for Interfaith Outreach Home and Thornwell Children’s Home, commitment to Atlanta Ministry with International Students and Fellowship Mission. Next year, we are adding the tutoring of English as a Second Language, and the Outreach Ministry is continuing to explore ways of enhancing our ministries in this day and time. There are moments, I’m sure, when we wonder about the impact of these ministries. So as we do these things, I want us to hear these words of John and, I believe, these words of our Lord, to us: “Thank you for your service!!”

I don’t think that it is any accident that John wandered into church on a Monday looking for a steady hand and a way across town. There is something in the character of church that seeks to serve. It is far deeper and far more central to our faith than the simple doing of a good deed. To understand it, we turn to a different John who shares divine words with us. This John is the author of the three letters of John. It may or may not be the same person who penned the gospel of John, but it is clear that he comes from the same community. And in this first letter, our first reading this morning, we learn something of what it means to love Christ and to love God. We read that to love God is to love God’s children, this blessed broken humanity by whom we are surrounded and of whom we are part. And as this John says, sharing divine words with us, to love God is to obey God’s commandments. It is not enough for us to simply love God by word, but we must live out that love in deed. Let’s put it this way: if we truly strive to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, then that love will burst through the bounds of mere word. It will move us beyond the simple assent to ideas and theories about divinity and humanity, bringing us into loving compassion for our fellow children of God. We have no illusions about the presence of brokenness and evil in the world. But we believe that the hope of resurrection, not the despair of crucifixion, has the final word. And by this faith, by this love, by this obedience, we are drawn to action and compassion.

As we seek to learn what that action is, we turn to yet another John who brings us the words of Christ. This John, the beloved the disciple, is the author of the fourth gospel. And in this gospel, we find our second reading from this morning, where Christ is gathered with the disciples. It is their final meal together. They have broken bread and Christ has washed their feet. And as he speaks to them, he encourages them in the commandments of their faith and this new commandment, his commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

At the center of all that we do, as we seek to be faithful to our calling as Christians, lies this command of our Lord and Savior: “Love one another as I have loved you.” As we share our lives together, as we seek to love one another and the world in which we live, we must anchor ourselves in these words, remembering first how it is that Christ demonstrates his love for us and for the world. He welcomes sinners and eats with them. He brings healing in his words and in his touch. He feeds thousands with spiritual and physical nourishment. He challenges and he comforts. And he comes not to be served, but to serve.

In this essence of Christ’s character, in this witness of his life and ministry, we see what is required of those whom he loves. And as the church, as the gathered community who daily celebrates the fact that we are loved, there is this commandment to share that love. And when that love is shared with the children of God, through our ministries of hospitality and transformation and healing and service, it will surely bear fruit.

This morning, my dear friends, I want you to hear these divine words of gratitude for Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. They have been delivered through the scrawled hand of a broken man named John who is now confronting his own pain and certain death. I am sure that many of you have had angelic moments like these as you have served in this place. I am sure that there are thousands of stories like this from our history thus far, and that there are thousands more waiting for us in our journey together. So as I share this story of our modern-day John with you, I do so not as a single moment. Rather, I offer it as part of a larger fabric of service and love. As we help this young man, he comes to a place of true thankfulness. As we listen to him, we are brought to a place of true compassion. As we pray with him, we see in his face the face of our Lord as he confronts his own pain and certain death in the shape of a cross. And as that cross comes into focus, we learn something of the essence of Christian love.

My brothers and sisters, it is Christ who first loved us. It is Christ who chooses us to bear fruit. And it is Christ who calls us to that ministry of sacrificial, serving love. As we live out that love in this place, I pray that we will hear these divine words echoing in our hearts: “Thank you for your service!!”