For his 80th birthday, my dad preached what he said would be, and was, his final sermon.
He wanted to tell what he’d learned during his 60 years in the ministry.
That was in 2010, but I still remember his sermon’s theme.
What he’d learned, he said that Sunday, was very simple: Christianity’s entire message could be summarized in a single word.
Everything else was mere window dressing and distractions.
“It’s all about love,” he said.
God loves you more than you can imagine, Dad believed. In return, you should love God back. And mainly you can express your love for God by unconditionally loving all the people he’s created, regardless of their station in life, their sins or whether they appreciate your efforts.
I’ve never heard a better exegesis of the New Testament’s good news.
For some reason, Dad’s sermon popped into my head recently.
As I mulled over his words, it occurred to me that if I were to preach my own version of his final homily, the only thing I’d change is that I might add a second word.
The core Christian message is definitely one of unconditional love (that is, when the message is delivered rightly, which mostly it isn’t).
But just as much as the core message is about love, I think it’s equally about humility.
“Let me teach you,” Jesus said, “for I am humble and gentle of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Christian love can only be expressed through humility. Human hubris is incapable of the self-emptying compassion the New Testament demands.
Humility produces gentleness. Gentleness produces peace for the gentle themselves and for those they encounter. Gentleness, in turn, then, becomes the conduit for love.
Because God loves us, and because he wants to use us to help others, he allows life to humble us. We must be broken to make us gentle enough for his service.
I’ve had the good fortune to cross paths with a few holy men and women. I don’t mean people of the self-righteous sort, because the truly holy rarely are judgmental prigs. I mean people God has profoundly used to touch and improve people’s lives.
Almost to a person, these saints were also glaring fools and failures and gadflies.
What’s more, they knew they were these things and felt terrible about it. Some could barely look you in the eye.
Yet, to paraphrase St. Paul, it was their weaknesses that made them so powerful. They knew they couldn’t depend on themselves, so they had no choice but to throw themselves onto God’s mercy and trust in his strength rather than their own.
They’d also been hurt so deeply they couldn’t stand the thought of hurting anyone else. They didn’t think they were better than anybody.
I’m not among those holy people, but I think I do understand how they felt.
During the lowest ebb of my life, I believed I’d let down everyone I loved most — my wife, my son, my congregation, God and, yes, myself. I was disabled by grief and regret and self-loathing. In addition, my physical health was declining.
I was pretty sure I couldn’t survive much longer, that I’d die decades early.
I realize this is a weird story, but one day a wasp got into my house. It buzzed past my head — way too close — and landed on the window blinds.
I’d always hated and feared wasps, ever since I first got stung as a kid.
After quickly grabbing a fly swatter, I crept toward the window, raised my arm.
And then stopped.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill the wasp.
I stared at this insect walking across the blinds on its thread-thin legs, and, as bizarre as this might sound, I had a sort of epiphany: the wasp was another of God’s creations, just going about its daily way.
To whatever extent wasps might possess consciousness, it wanted nothing so much as to live and be left unmolested.
Even though I might be a human being, and the wasp might be merely an insect, somehow we weren’t so different. I’d come to feel I was hardly more than a bug myself.
You might say I felt compassion.
My pain altered my understanding of this other creature. My appraisal of myself had been diminished to such a point I no longer felt superior.
I can’t remember how I finally got the wasp out of the house, and to be candid, this sympathy didn’t endure. It was only for a moment. In the years since then, I have, I’m afraid, dispatched other wasps.
But I’ve never forgotten that pang of recognition, when my own soul devastation caused me to react mercifully to the least of the earth’s creatures.
Something akin to this is what the truly righteous might feel all the time, probably not toward wasps but certainly toward their fellow man, especially toward outcasts.
The holy aren’t paragons. They’re the ones who’ve failed and floundered and endured insults until there’s nothing much left of them.
Despite all that, they’ve received overwhelming, all-forgiving love from the Lord. In his love, they’ve found the only peace they’re likely to experience.
So, when they encounter other men, women and children who’ve been similarly smashed, they feel not condemnation or condescension but profound empathy. They see Jesus in the broken, but even more to the point, they see themselves.
And that’s why they’re eager to show others that love which is the gospel’s heart.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.