On the Monday after Easter, I had the privilege of presiding at Harriet Provost’s funeral. When her daughter Cherie and I met to plan the service, we knew it would be small, because at 92 we knew there were not a lot of friends left to grieve her passing. Cherie also knew no one in the family would feel comfortable standing in front of the funeral home to give a eulogy. So instead, I suggested we keep the service informal and invite those present to share their stories of Harriet. “All right,” Cherie said hesitantly, “but I am not sure anyone is going to speak.”
On the day of the funeral, when the time came for me to invite the twenty-five or so people to share, there was silence for a while, but then one brave soul took the risk and shared her story of her friend Harriet. After she finished, another hand went up and another story was shared. Then suddenly hands were going up all over the room. With each story, we laughed, and we cried tears of joy as people shared stories of how Harriet, in her own, unique and comical way had connected with them and left her indelible mark of love deep within them.
After thirty minutes of stories and laughter, shared by children as young as eight years old and a friend of over forty years, I observed with those present, that the common thread through all these stories was how they had experienced the love of God through Harriet.
Anyone who knew Harriet, knew she was a woman who lived without pretense, and without judgement. She had the uncanny knack for unabashedly sharing stories from her life that told you she wasn’t perfect and did not expect you to be perfect either. She also had the ability to let you know you were love by the little things she would do for you, like making sure there was ice cream for her great grandson when he came over and, if there wasn’t, it was an emergency for Cherie to rectify; or how she took pride in being a BFF with the little girl next door who she watched every morning until the school bus came.
I suspect Harriet rarely told people about God but knew how to be the love of God to everyone she encountered.
In this morning’s reading from the First Letter of John, the writer declares, God is agape’, love, or as translated by King James, God is charity.
Charity is the relational, non-erotic aspect of love. Charity occurs when we concern ourselves with the needs of the other over ourselves. It is this aspect of love which Christ calls us to abide in when he asks his disciples to abide in him as he abides in us. It is this form of love that Harriet shared unconditionally with others.
I find our passages from both First John and this morning’s Gospel moving. They affirm for me what I have always held true in my heart . . . that a spark of the divine resides in each of us. For as the writer of First John also proclaims, “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”
Harriet, knew God, shared God and by her ability to easily love others, acknowledged the love of God or what I call the divine in others. It seems she innately knew all are born children of God, and are therefore born as part of the Divine.
God is love and we are able to love and are able to experience love because God loved us. It is the experience of God’s love that has transformed us and can transform others when experienced through us. For too long we have been taught evangelism takes place when we tell people about God. . .or that transformation takes place when we surrender our lives to Christ and subject ourselves to a series of laws and rituals. The truth is, telling people about God, about your experience of Christ can transform lives, but only after they have experienced the love of God through us.
So often I find myself saying to people, “don’t tell people about God, be God, be Christ to them by seeking to see them as fellow children of God.
The greatest gift we can offer anyone is the love of God. It is amazing, in this modern world of cyber communities, cyber friendships and our ability to share our lives in real time through Facebook, Twitter and countless other networking sites, how lonely the vast majority of us continue to feel. In fact, research indicates, despite all the ways we are able to cyber-connect, we feel even more lonely and isolated from the world than ever before.
As a cyber-society we share all the good things in our lives, our vacations, our accomplishments along with every gurgle, smile and coo of our children and grandchildren. But for the most part, the relationships are superficial and fail to fulfill our longing for connection and our need to be loved unconditionally.
This is the gift that Christ gave to all he encountered. Christ’s gift of Divine love and divine acceptance was so powerful that it healed the sick, the blind, the deaf and the lame, it brought Lazarus and the Centurion’s daughter back to life. It was Christ’s gift of love that transformed or changed the lives of the tax collector, Mary Magdalene and others.
The book and movie, Dead Man Walking, chronicles the work and ministry of Sister Helen Prejean with Louisiana death row inmate Matthew Poincelot. At the beginning of the story, Matthew is portrayed as a cold, angry, unlovable monster of a man. The crimes he had committed were inhumane. Sister Helen however did not believe all there was to Matthew was a heartless monster. As chaplain and a spiritual director, Sister Helen seeks to find the humane, even the divine that resided deep within Matthew. In the beginning, Matthew is resistant to Sister Helen’s visits. He lashes out against her, refuses to speak with her, and insults her.
Over a long period of time, Sister Helen manages to chip away at Matthew’s defensiveness and anger and eventually gains his trust. In the end, Matthew finally connects with the child of God he was created to be. Through Sister Helen, Matthew experienced God’s forgiveness as she worked to have his sentence commuted from death to life in prison.
In the final scene of the movie, Matthew Poincelot enters the death chamber a changed man. He is no longer angry and vengeful. He expresses deep remorse for the crimes he has committed and faces his death with peace as he dies assured of God’s love and forgiveness because he had been transformed by being offered the gift of Divine love through Sister Helen.
At the end of our passage from First John the author writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection. “ I invite you my brothers and sisters in Christ, to cast out fears in others by being the love of God to all whom you meet. For it is the love of God which transforms us and the lives of all we meet.