“We do not have to like or approve of those we are called to reach out to, and that can be very demanding.”
A hospital chaplain bringing Holy Communion to bedridden patients came across a cleaner on her knees scrubbing a granite staircase. When she saw the chaplain, she gathered up her things in silence and almost cowered against the wall. The chaplain stopped to ask her did she think that what he was doing was important. She assured him she did. He then asked her did she think that what she was doing was important, and she said not really. He then told her that her work was just as important; a dirty hospital would be a dangerous place for any sick person; her work was very important.
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King believed that everybody could be great because anyone can serve. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermo-dynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
In tomorrow’s gospel we are told how Jesus uses a social occasion to explain that service makes demands. While a guest at a meal he offers this advice to his host: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
This is not just a story about sharing food nor is it a demand that we abandon the enjoyment of family and friends; Jesus himself enjoyed family and friends. Rather it questions the tendency we all have to live in bubbles – social, cultural, religious, political, economic, with little or no engagement with or understanding of the world that exists beyond.
The Epistle reading goes further by urging us to show hospitality to strangers and concern for those who are in prison. This suggests that we do not have to like or approve of those we are called to reach out to, and that can be very demanding.
Médecins Sans Frontières
David Nott, a vascular surgeon working in London, has also served regularly with Médecins Sans Frontières in war situations such as Bosnia, Gaza, Iraq and more recently Syria. Nott, a committed Christian, describes an encounter he had with Isis fighters in Syria who forced their way into a hospital in Aleppo where he was operating on a wounded man. A colleague told him to say nothing as these aggressive men would have killed him instantly if they discovered he was a Christian. He tells how he trembled with fear as his colleague told them the patient – one of their own men – would die if they distracted the surgeon.
In 2014 Nott received an award from Queen Elizabeth and was invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace where he was seated beside Queen Elizabeth. She was keenly interested in his work but when she asked him to talk about it he became upset and found it impossible to talk about his terrible experiences. She, realising that he was distressed, sent for the corgis and for the next 20 minutes they quietly fed the dogs while everyone else enjoyed lunch. Charming as that moment of royal sensitivity was, it arose from the trauma that David Nott experienced in Syria.
Our world is a nasty place right now as we see every boundary of human decency abandoned in Syria and many other countries. It is tempting to become despondent but thanks to thousands of people like David Nott love and human compassion refuse to give in even in the darkest of times. St John’s gospel assures us that that is how it will always be: “The light [Jesus Christ] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”