I was trying to get the attention of one of the kids at school the other day but the student wasn’t responding. At first, I thought he was in his own little world. Then as I said his name a bit louder, I decided he was flat out ignoring me. As I got even closer I wondered if something was wrong. Maybe he wasn’t ignoring me. Maybe his hearing needed checking. I was growing concerned. After all, this kid was one of the sweetest in the class. As I repeated his name, another teacher asked who I was calling. She laughed when I told her and then offered his correct name. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been listening. I had been calling the wrong name the entire time.
That story came to mind while I stood in the parking lot of the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando recently. The scene where 49 people were killed is our country’s deadliest mass shooting. Surrounded by the memorials left by friends and family, I fought the feeling that kept rising in the pit of my stomach. A feeling of despair and heartache; a feeling that, although evil’s days are numbered, it had won a battle that night. I thought of the mothers who had buried their precious children. The kids who would never again hear the sound of their parent’s voice. The siblings who would tearfully stare at the empty chair this holiday season. The loved ones who, with broken hearts, would never forget. I read the notes pinned to the fence that had been put up around the gray building. I stared at the pictures and the smiling faces now gone and it dawned on me that as a church we haven’t always done a good job of loving our neighbor. We do alright with the neighbor who looks, votes and lives pretty much the way we do. However, some neighbors don’t always fit the mold we have created. They love, live and sin differently. We aren’t nearly as brave as the expert of the law in Luke 10 when he asked Jesus point blankly who his neighbor was. Maybe we’re too afraid of what Jesus would say.
Empathy begins when we agree to meet others in their darkness. It flourishes when we refuse to cast stones and instead listen and care even when we don’t understand. It changes lives when we share our hope in Jesus as we call people by the name God bestowed on them. A name of love. A name of worth. A name God gave to the world long before the world had the inclination to rebel. A name spelled out in John 3:16. One given to all creation but especially to those created in his image. It was echoed again in Mark 12:30-31 when Jesus instructed those who were listening and those who would someday read. How often we forget that loving God and neighbor are also acts of salvation.
Jesus never said we would be known by where we stand on issues, how well we debate, boycott, vote, quote Scripture or lambaste those who live differently. As the bride of Christ, he instructed us to love so powerful and purposefully that it will become the very definition of who we are and why we’re here. We will be known by how well we love or by how well we don’t.
God wasn’t in our empty church building that Saturday night twiddling his thumbs waiting for our decent and orderly worship service the next day. No, he was in a Florida nightclub comforting those he had watched take their first breath. He loved them, wept for them and held them as they took their last.
If we want to change the world for Christ, then we need to be telling the world who they are. They are loved. They matter. They were made for a purpose. The one who is calling them is bigger than the lies and brokenness of this world. They were made in his image and he gave his only son so that they may have life. He will never leave nor forsake them. He will never disappoint or discourage.
People will never listen to us if we continue calling them by the wrong name. They know where we stand on issues. Church, let’s show our neighbors how well we love.