Several years ago, I was called to make a pastoral visit with a parishioner, Ramona who had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The doctor’s prognosis was that she had about one month to live. As I sat down to talk with Ramona that day, I expected her to want to talk about her family and her life (which she did, eventually). But the first thing Ramona ask me was, “Do you do cat funerals? I want to be buried with my cat.” I remember thinking, “This poor woman . . . first she gets this terrible diagnosis, and then her cat dies.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said. “When did your cat die?”
“In about month,” replied Ramona.
About that time I saw a rather decrepit looking cat skitter down the hallway from one room to another. And then it dawned on me what Ramona had in mind.
“My kitty is 20 years old,” she explained. “She’s got a lot of health problems and I’m the only person she really likes. She’ll never be able to adjust to somebody else.”
About a month later, I sat once more beside Ramona; this time at her bedside. Her family had called me earlier that day to tell me she had become unresponsive, and could I please come right away. After playing a few songs on guitar, I took Ramona’s hand, and talked to her about her family and about her life; and about her cat. And I told her not to worry, she raised her family well, and Kitty would be with her forever.
While I held her hand, Ramona passed away gently, peacefully, gratefully.
A week later we buried Ramona, with her cat sitting on her lap as she had done a thousand times before. If the letters BFF were not on the headstone, they should have been.
The relationships we form in life – the company we keep – is what defines us; determines who we ultimately become; and represents some of our greatest accomplishments.
In his farewell speech, Jesus prays for his disciples; he prays that he would remain in them – in their hearts – even as he carries those he loves in his heart forever. That all would be made one in the ever-present reality of God.
And they would accomplish that through faith and by their obedience to one essential commandment: to love each other. If we do that, Jesus said, then he would be with us, just as God was with him, now and always. It’s all about being integrated into God’s love for the world and the love of God’s Son for all people; and it’s about the possibility of human redemption through the Spirit of that love.
That’s what defines the holy company we are called to keep in Jesus Christ.
Memorial Day also brings to mind those with whom we have kept company: friends, family, congregants, patriots, fellow Americans, fellow Christians—people we have been blessed to have known, or with whom we have shared precious time in this world. People who, in some profound or small way, perhaps, have demonstrated God’s love and grace to us.
How many of you saw the movie “Schindler’s List”? It’s a true story about Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) who is a Czech business man and member of the Nazi party during Hitler’s regime. And Schindler opens a factory in Poland that makes pots and pans, hoping to get rich by hiring Jews as his workers because they are cheap labor. Schindler begins keeping company with his Jewish workers more than with his fellow Nazis, and before long—as he witnesses, first hand, the brutality of persecution intensifying—he begins to sympathize with their plight.
Soon, it becomes well-known in the Jewish community that this factory is a haven from death, in large part because Schindler himself works relentlessly to protect his Jewish workers from harm by bribing the Nazis.
One Nazi, Commandant Amon Goeth, who oversees a nearby forced labor camp where many of the Jews live, is particularly sadistic—a madman who is quick to kill Jews for no reason. So Schindler takes extra measures to cultivate a friendship with Goeth in an effort to protect the Jews. At one point, Schindler even tries to convince Goeth that it is a greater display of power to absolve people and spare their lives, rather than simply executing people. And Goeth is almost converted. But, ultimately goes back to his merciless ways.
But the height of this film comes when Schindler compiles a list of about eleven-hundred Jews whom he will transport back to his home country of Czechoslovakia under the pretense of starting a factory to make shell casings for the war effort. Once the Jews are safely in Czechoslovakia, however, Schindler announces to his workers—which has now become his community—that if the factory produces a single usable shell, he will be greatly disappointed. And so it becomes clear that the factory was a front for saving eleven-hundred lives all along.
The movie ends with an extraordinary scene of some of the real-life descendants of the Jews Schindler saved.
Schindler’s life was radically changed by the company he kept.
By the company he chose to keep.
Did you ever wonder why Jesus kept the company he kept?
Why he sat at table with sinners? Why he picked such a motley crew for his disciples? Why he went so far out of his way to reach out to the outcast, the overlooked, the unclean, the unlovely? It was because he believed in the immeasurable intrinsic value in all people, and because he saw such great, often untapped, potential in each and every one.
Even as he sees such immeasurable value and vast potential in us—in you.
Preaching Guru Fred Craddock tells the story of going back to Tennessee for a short vacation with his wife. One night they found a quiet restaurant. While they were waiting for their meal, they saw a distinguished, white-haired man moving from table to table visiting with guests. Rather an introvert, Craddock whispered to his wife, “I hope he doesn’t come over here.”
But the man did come to their table. “Where are you folks from?”
“Oklahoma,” Fred politely replied.
“Oklahoma!” said the man. “A splendid state! What do you do for a living?”
“I teach preaching,” said Craddock.
“Oh, so you teach preachers to preach! Have I got a story for you!”
Craddock groaned inwardly, just the very thing he feared.
Irrepressible, the man stuck out his hand to introduce himself, “I’m Ben Hooper,” he started and went on with his story. “I was born not far from here. My mother wasn’t married when I was born, so I had a hard time. My classmates had a name for me, and it wasn’t very nice. What was worse was going downtown on Saturday afternoon, and feeling a burning hole through my heart. They were all wondering who my real father was. When I was 12 years old, a new preacher came to our church. I would always go in late and slip out early.
“But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast, I got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. I could feel every eye in church on me. Just about the time I got to the door I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking right at me.
“Who are you, son?” he asked me. “Whose boy are you?”
“I felt the old familiar weight come on me. Even the preacher was putting me down, I remember thinking. But as he looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I know who you are. I can see the family resemblance. You are a son of God!”
“With that he slapped me across the back and said, “Boy, you’ve got an inheritance. Go and claim it!”
The old man looked across the table at Fred Craddock and said, “That was the single most important sentence ever said to me.”
With that he smiled, shook the hands of Craddock and his wife, and moved on to another table to greet friends. Suddenly Fred Craddock remembered: on two occasions the people of Tennessee had elected an illegitimate to be their governor. His name was Ben Hooper.”
Do you know who is sitting next to you today? How the Holy Spirit has expressed itself in this world through them? Do you know the divine potential they have within?
Do you know the man who fought heroically in World War II, to stem the tide of evil, save millions of innocents from death and destruction, and preserve our God-given freedoms? Do you know the man who, at 21, led a battalion of men at the Battle of the Bulge. Or the highly decorated pilot who flew dozens of missions to defeat the despots of genocide.
Or the man sitting next to you who served his country with honor and distinction in the Korean theatre, risking his life on a daily basis.
Or the one who fought bravely in Viet Nam and then came home to be spat upon by his contemporaries.
Do you know the parents, the wife, the grandparents who are maintaining jobs, households and families, while their son, husband or grandchild bravely serves this country in Iraq or Afghanistan, preserving the high ideals of what Abraham Lincoln once called the world’s last great hope?
Do you know the young widow who worked a full time day job so she could go to school at night to better provide for her family?
Do you know the older woman who, after her husband had a debilitating stroke, sat at his bed side, day after day, year after year, tending to his every need?
Do you know these men and women who strive to live each day with such integrity, face each difficulty with such faith, overcome each challenge with such courage? Who pray tirelessly for their brothers and sisters in the world, and have spent so many years working in Christ’s behalf?
For those people sitting next to you right now have struggled mightily with the hard questions of life and – through their faith – have learned to discover their own potential in the midst of that struggle. They are the same ones who, today, are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with you through whatever struggle you might now be facing.
We commemorate these people with a deep sense of gratitude today as well. And not only these good people; but also the vast host of people who have gone before them, and us, which our presence here also represents; for we would not be where we are today without them.
The company we keep says a lot about who we are, where we come from, to whom we belong and where we’re heading; as well as our intrinsic potential for fulfilling God’s will for our lives together.
We sit in this place this morning surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses: those whom we live with day by day and those who live now eternally with God, but whose presence also never leaves us.
From the forbearers of our faith – the men and women whose principled lives and moral character laid the foundation for the freedoms we enjoy today – to the smallest child sitting in the pew next to us who holds the future of that faith and those great principles in his or her hands.
And thus, by our presence here today, together we also pledge our advocacy to help the helpless, to commit our lives to uphold this nation’s best and brightest ideals, and to promise to preserve the legacy of such great potential for the generations who will follow. In Jesus Christ.