It happened on a bad week, but doesn’t it always? I had been in the local news for some difficult truths I had shared during a press conference regarding an issue at the state capitol. As always following the news our church had received various emails and calls to make certain we knew I was a heretic whose punishment was the very flames of hell, to let us know how wrong we were, to ask if they had fired me yet and some which were a bit threatening.
So when I walked into worship on the following Sunday morning, I was already carrying some tension. On top of that add a sermon I felt was most important for our community and I was a bit beyond “just a bit” anxious.
Worship began and then he came in. He took his time finding a pew during the introit. He fidgeted a great deal. He made noises. He did not follow our social norms. And he carried a very large backpack, which he held tightly on his lap. His entrance and his presence were very noted by the community.
By the second hymn the tension in the sanctuary was obvious. I was unsure what to do. During the offertory prayer I retreated to the side and asked one of our deacons to go sit directly behind the man. He did so and positioned himself in a pew directly behind our visitor.
Something did not feel right. I was afraid and I could feel in the room that I was not the only one. The whole place suddenly had an atmosphere of fight or flight.
His behavior continued on throughout our service. After the sermon finished he abruptly stood and left. An odd feeling lingered in our space.
During the pastoral greeting time several folks commented on our guest. It became obvious that fear was the common response. I even received a text from a dear member stating, “Pastor, I was ready to shield you.”
I could not shake it that day or the next. I began to feel as though I had failed as a pastor. You see in the last few months what I have preached over and over is this: choose love, not fear.
I truly believe this is the gospel mandate for our time. We have tried fear and it has not really worked, so why not try love? We live in an age where it is easy, even encouraged, to jump to fear, so let’s go counter culture and lead with love. It seems very gospel to me. It’s what Jesus would tell us today.
Choose love, not fear.
I had preached the words but then I lived the very opposite in front of my people. I had lived out fear. I had enacted the wrong parable.
I knew what I should have done. The gospel gave me the imagination to see how things could have played out differently. And so I prayed for a second chance, a spiritual do-over of sorts, what we Christians call grace.
The following Sunday a deacon came to my office, “Griff, our guest is back. What should we do?” I smiled, grateful for this moment, and said let me handle it.
And as worship began I walked in and found the guest, I walked over and took his hand. “I am so glad you are here this morning. Do you mind if I hug you? Is there anything we can do for you this day?” And he broke out into a smile, “Pastor, it’s a good day. I enjoyed being here so much last week I invited my mom today. I would love for you to meet her.”
His mom showed up later. I learned a bit more of his story and of her story, a very common one in downtown Austin, Texas, that involved mental illness, poverty and homelessness. We prayed together and then he disappeared.
But the hug and greeting, the embrace of love and not fear changed the space. No one was afraid that day. No one paid him much attention at all.
We live in a world that is ripe with fear. And fear is such an easy response and reaction. And fear might very well be valid. But what if we choose love?
You see I think Jesus had every reason to fear — demon possessed folks running to him, folks covered with disease reaching out, powerful leaders angry with him, threats of violence all around.
And yet he chose love.
He chose open arms.
He chose a shared table.
He chose to touch and to bless and to cast out.
May we choose the same.
It may very well be how we heal our broken world.