Lent 3 (Narrative Lectionary, Year B)
When I was in my first couple months of seminary, there was a guy in a couple of my classes named “Bob”. Bob was one of those people who is not good at picking up on social signals. He talked a little too loudly, asked questions that were a little too personal, and volunteered more information than you might want. He was a very nice guy, though, friendly and well-meaning. No one disliked him, but no one really sought him out either. (Yes, you may point out the painful irony of this behavior in seminarians.)
One evening, I decided to walk from my apartment to downtown New Haven and I ran into Bob. He had been riding his bike, but he hopped off and walked along with me. We talked and we went to a little diner and had a piece of cake. Then we walked back up the hill to the divinity school. He was really talking and I felt awkward trying to say goodnight, so I invited him in for a cup of tea.
I called a friend to let her know that Bob was with me, just so someone would know this information. (For the record, there was never any point where I was concerned about my safety with this guy. Otherwise, I would not have allowed him into where I lived.) In the meantime, Bob looked at my shelves and asked about watching a movie. I made tea and he sat in one of my two chairs and I sat in the other. At one point, he was chilly. He asked about a housecoat, but I gave him my huge flannel bathrobe, which he put on over his clothes and a blanket he put over his lap.
I emailed my friend, “Bob’s STILL here! Watching a movie! Third cup of tea! Wearing my bathrobe over his clothes!” I could practically hear her giggling over the email, “What are you going to do?” I didn’t know what to do, so I sat through the rest of the movie thinking about how to get him out of my apartment. When the movie ended, he announced that it had been a terrible movie and proceeded to go through the reasons why. He brought up things I had never considered and he was right.
Then he asked to use the bathroom and said he thought he should go home. He asked if he could give me a hug. I opened the door to the apartment and we hugged briefly in the hallway and then he left. At this point, we’d spent about seven hours together. I called my friend and we kept laughing about the oddity of the situation and about “Bob”. Not my finest moment, that.
Many weeks later, he returned a borrowed book to me with a note thanking me for helping him to feel less lonely. Thank you, he said, for being a friend when I wasn’t sure this was a good place for me. Thank you for being so generous with your tea, your housecoat, and your time. Your friend, he said, Bob.
That note made me want to kick myself and I’ve never forgotten it. I especially remember it in my own Bob moments- when I talk too long, tell a story that doesn’t quite hit the mark, when the words I offer seem woefully inadequate. When I’m trying to love my neighbors as I love myself, even when I’m not sure about how I feel about them or about me.
The greatest commandment, the Shema of Deuteronomy 6, doesn’t need elaboration. It says what it means and it means what it says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus adds to it from Leviticus 19:18, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The commands go together and are the foundation of what it means to have faith. These commands are how we respond to the way God has loved us, even in our most human moments… especially in our most human moments.
We’ve all been welcomed when we were Bob… when we awkward and uncertain…when we have over-stayed a welcome… we’ve had makeshift families or friends in odd places who offered us hospitality… we’ve all let someone who needed to stay longer than we wanted… We will be called to offer that welcome again. And we will receive it again. These are the moments of God-with-us and God-in-us that are the challenges of living in this world.
Fulfilling these commandments doesn’t make us closer to God, but helps us to perceive God’s nearness to us. In those moments, of welcome and of being welcomed, we are not far from the kingdom of God.