Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. - Luke 12:7a
When I was in seminary I spent a lot of time at a shelter. There were people who’d lost their housing, their job or both. There were young adults who preferred the street to the terrible situations at home, people with mental health problems that led to drug addictions or drug addictions that led to mental health problems and there were women fleeing domestic violence. Jesus said they all had an inside track with him and I since my I was still on my honeymoon with Jesus as far as I was concerned they were all wonderful.
One day I wound up at a meeting with an ancient priest from Bayonne named Harry Smith who dressed like the exorcist and kindly asked how things were going. I spoke rapturously about the shelter for a few minutes while he listened to it all with a fatherly smile. When I finished he said, “My dear, your sentimentalizing the poor.” Harry had jabbed his finger down on the out of tune key on my moral piano. Embarrassed and confused and clapped shut, thought about it for a few days and concluded Harry was just an old fart.
And then came Mike. I didn’t meet him at the shelter, where by the way he could have gotten a shower, clean clothes and a meal any afternoon of the week but didn’t. I met Mike when he started slipping into my home church during the closing hymn to grab coffee and donuts and start hitting people up for money. He found out about the community garden I’d started with my youth group, roughly figured out my schedule and began hanging out there, blasting his music and asking about my husband. After a few sessions like this I finally told him to turn the music down and that I had a wife. As a strict Roman Catholic Mike was scandalized by my gayness but unfortunately not enough to avoid me.
Then one beautiful day Mike came up behind my wife and me after church when we were walking home. There must have been a baptism that day because there had been a lavish spread or fruit and sandwiches after worship which Mike helped himself to with grimy hands. Mike stopped us and asked for money to go to the Blimpie Base. I said “No.” Flabbergasted by my stinginess Mike responded “You don’t like me because I’m homeless.”
In Mark’s Gospel, at Jesus’ baptism the sky opens, he sees the Holy Spirit descend and he hears the voice of God. That’s how I felt when Mike said this. The clouds parted, a beam of light hit me, and I was flooded with rage and a sudden understanding of Harry’s fatherly diagnosis. I turned to Mike and said, “No! It’s not because you’re homeless! I just don’t like you Mike! It’s completely personal!”
Suddenly I had a genuine relationship with Mike. Jesus was bent over laughing by the bus stop.
It’s hard to tell the difference between sentimentality and Christian love at first but once you know what to look for its as easy as spotting musk melon in a pile of cantaloupes. The main difference is that sentimentality is generic. It paints the world with a roller, maybe deciding in advance of evidence that all rich people are suspect and all church people are good, or maybe that atheists are bad but Fundamentalists are worse. Love, on the other hand, is always specific.
Love takes time. It doesn’t step out into the world and see “those annoying kids on the corner” or “the sweet old ladies in the park”. Love finds out that kids are brothers with nowhere to be all summer. The oldest one bums cigarettes and shows off by cat calling, the middle one argues cigarettes cause cancer and tells him not to be rude and the youngest looks adoringly at both of them because they are the coolest people he knows. Love also knows that while one of those old ladies goes to mass every day before she makes dinner for her grandchildren she doesn’t have a kind word for anyone while the other one hangs out at bars, could curse you out in technicolor if you got on her bad side, has a heart of gold and the two of them have been friends since 3rd grade.
Sentimentality is elevator music. Love is a symphony.
Want to love Jesus? Resist the impulse to sort people like laundry. See them. Don’t have the time? Me neither. But there is that half hour train ride back and forth work every day with largely the same group of woman and men in suits. And there are those 2 minutes with the same cashier in aisle 5 every time you stop for groceries.
Too tired today? Luckily the job of being Jesus is already taken and the invitation to love always stands.
Your sister in Christ,