George, Irma and Jesus

Something pretty remarkable happened during worship yesterday in one of the congregations I’m blessed to serve. The congregation gathered for worship, sang hymns, and heard scripture read. After reading the Gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, I stood up to preach. Very shortly after the beginning of the sermon, though, we all realized that we were contending with a distraction, namely, the sound of snoring.

Now, there’s probably nothing all that remarkable about someone snoring through one of my sermons, but this case was unusual. For one thing, it was LOUD. Heads were turning all over the large sanctuary, and eventually, we all knew the source: a man sitting by himself over in the back corner. We all sort of chuckled and I pressed on, with the sermon punctuated at points by clearly audible SNNRRRRRRCK! sounds from the corner. The service continued through the hymn of the day, the offering, and communion, and still the man slept on.

After the service, I approached the gentleman in the corner to see if he needed any help. It took a great deal of effort to rouse him, and when he did wake, his eyes were bleary and bloodshot. In a slightly slurred voice he told me his name (I’ll call him George) and apologized for sleeping through the service. I told him not to worry about that, and invited him to join us for coffee and cookies. He thanked me for the offer, but just kept sitting there staring blankly at the pew in front of him.

After a short time, a nurse in the congregation joined us. George had a nasty looking partially healed cut on his head; he told us that he had fallen on the ice sometime in the past couple of days. The nurse and I started going through possible resources to help George find a warm place out of the cold. I’m not sure about her, but I really wasn’t sure what the best thing to do was. Fortunately, there was someone else nearby who had no doubts about what was needed in that moment.

I’ll call her Irma. She’s a woman in her seventies, and she is in worship nearly every Sunday. As the nurse and I were thinking through what to do next, Irma knew exactly what to do. “You can come sit in my Sunday school class,” she called across the sanctuary. “It’s nice and warm, and there’s plenty of room.” And then she did the really remarkable thing. She made a beeline across the room to George, wrapped her arms around him and said, “I love you, we love you, and it’s going to be okay.”

I was awed, humbled and immensely proud all at once. Irma was crossing all kinds of lines, blowing them apart with hardly a thought. An age line. A gender line. An ethnic line. The list of things that could have separated her from George was far longer than the list of things they had in common. None of that mattered to Irma, though. This was one of God’s beloved children, and she loved him. As she held him in that bear hug, she said to him, “I know it seems bleak and hopeless, but I promise, it’s going to be okay. You see that man up on the wall? (Pointing to a stained glass window of Jesus over the altar.) He loves you, and so do I. And that may just be a Tiffany window, but he’s real, and his love for you is real. My son is sitting in his lap, and he has you in the palm of his hand, too.”

George needed a lot of things yesterday morning: food, shelter, medical care. But Irma saw what he needed most: to know that he was loved, and by God she wasn’t going to let him out of her sight until he knew it. I’m not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes in that moment, and I have tears in my eyes now as I write this.

I read a lot about what’s wrong with the church these days, how we’ve failed the millennial generation and how we’re not relevant, how we’ve done this wrong and that wrong. I read a lot about people doing really dumb things in the name of religion, whether denying the evidence of science or protesting gay football players or handling rattlesnakes to prove their faith. I’ve had my own share of headaches and heartaches with organized religion, and more than once I’ve thought of shaking the dust off my feet and walking away from the church. I also know that what Irma did yesterday wouldn’t happen in every church in America, or even every church in my denomination.

But it did happen at Salem yesterday. And it happens more often than we know, in places we’ve never heard of. Every day, ordinary people of faith, in the midst of their ordinary lives, reach out to other ordinary people in crisis and show them that they are loved and valued, and tell them about Jesus’ love for them. One of the great privileges of being a pastor is that every now and then I get to be a witness to one of those miracles. And when people ask me (as they often do) why I still believe in the church, I’ll tell them about Irma and George. Because ordinary little miracles like that are why I keep coming back.

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