Life presents us with unwanted and unexpected life changing realities. I had one such experience 18 years ago.
I was 4 minutes into a treadmill stress test when my physician stopped the test and said what he needed to say, and I needed to hear, "You are going to Seattle tonight, you could die anytime."
My excuses melted away and my wife and I were on our way to address a severe blockage that required triple bypass surgery.
That unwanted event gave me a new appreciation for life and its ever-changing circumstances. I have become an avid walker who has covered 25,000 miles since my surgery. It's the equivalent of around the world in miles and maybe in experiences lived.
My walking has promoted good health, creative thinking, much reflecting, major life decisions, many sermons and "Living and Growing" articles. This time of reflection is a meaningful part of my life and faith journey.
Life has confirmed these comforting words my doctor shared prior to my surgery, as words for all of life: "God has been watching over you." When those words were shared, I was weak, vulnerable and awaiting life-saving surgery. I was "one of the least of these." Thankfully I received good care.
My needs were met without question. It was obvious something needed to be done. Caring intervention saved my life. The unconditional care I received helped me more fully understand the application of Matthew 25:40 to all who use conditional thinking to withhold empathy, compassion, justice, love and caring from those we label as "the least of these." That verse reads: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
In these 18 years I have gone "around the world" in my spiritual and life experiences as I have struggled to better understand who "the least of these" are. Anyone of us could become "one of the least of these." Jesus ministry focused on those society chooses to ignore. During this economic downtown, many unexpectedly become "one of the least of these" facing hunger and homelessness. Thankfully, many who still "have" are reaching out to those who temporarily "do not have."
When the economy improves, their vulnerability will likely diminish. But there are many who, because of lifelong visible and invisible disabilities, face a lifetime as "one of the least of these." They find themselves victimized, homeless, imprisoned, and hungry. Their disabilities do not allow them to pull themselves up and out of a bad situation. These are the people Jesus calls us to reach out to. They are the "throwaways" of society. Unfortunately, people of faith, without faith, the powerful and powerless spend too much energy searching for conditions to deny people love, care, compassion, empathy and justice, which are at the core of unconditional love!
As a pastor, the struggle is personal for me. As parents of four adult children, two who were born with irreversible brain damage, we have watched in horror as our precious children have been harshly judged, victimized, stigmatized, discriminated against, imprisoned, homeless, and hungry because of the conditional thinking of exclusion that is too frequently practiced by society. Not only does this impact our children, but it impacts our family who also feel excluded.
As advocates we speak not only for our family, but all the families of "the least of these" who suffer in silence and isolation. We are grateful for all who reach out unconditionally to our children and us.
I invite us all to practice understanding, compassion and empathy as we relate to "the least of these." When we exclude, we do damage to our community. When we include, we bring the community together.
When we fill our lives with the unconditional love of God, all people become people of value. God values diversity and fills us all with the potential to love without condition. May we let God's love be our guide!
The Rev. Larry Rorem is a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church of America pastor worshiping at Resurrection Lutheran Church.