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May 10, 2009 | 8:00 a.m.

Intimacy and the Hard Labor of Love

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 118:1–9
John 15:1–8
I John 4:7–21

There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity. . . . Nothing that we despise in others is entirely absent from ourselves. Why have we thought so intemperately about the frailty and temptability of others? We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only  profitable relationship to others . . . is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God did not despise humanity, but became humanity for the sake of all.

Adapted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer


The date was September 4. Early that morning, a provincial German schoolteacher named Ernst August Wagner woke up, got out of bed, took a bludgeon and a knife, and proceeded to butcher his wife and four children. Then, after dropping in on his brother’s family for a pitcher of beer, he boarded a train for the town of Müklhausen, where he had worked several years earlier. When he arrived there, he set fire to four houses, then took out two pistols and shot twenty people in the street, killing eight of them. The date was September 4. The year was 1913, not quite one hundred years ago.

The story is told by Philipp Blom in his book The Vertigo Years, in which he disputes the notion that the years leading up to the outbreak of deadly World War I in 1914 were “unbearably innocent.”

You may wonder why I mention this horrible event at the beginning of a sermon on intimacy. I do so to remind us that the deliberate and systematic slaughter of human beings has been around for a while and continues to be, in spite of the intention of those who memorialize the most horrific and extensive slaughter in modern history, referred to as the Holocaust, and who may have hoped, perhaps naively, that the remembrance of that horror might somehow at least reduce the occurrence of such slaughter.

I mention it also to suggest that paradoxically there is a certain perverse intimacy that is played out when people kill other people, especially when this is done up close. Hand-to-hand combat is an intimate form of interpersonal interaction, deadly to be sure. One of the things that fascinates, disturbs, and captivates us about stories of torture is the terrible intimacy of it, though the death and suffering of war occurs on a scale that dwarfs the torture chamber. In war, when people, enemies and noncombatants alike, are killed from bombs dropped from high altitudes or from rockets launched from miles away, those dropping the bombs or firing the rockets never lay eyes on those who are being killed. Nevertheless, often when they hear about the destruction of human life for which they have been responsible, some may spend a lifetime being haunted by the awareness of what they did. So a bond of intimacy is formed with strangers, people unknown and people dead. The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder attests to the bond of intimacy that exists between those who hurt others and those whom they hurt. I can still see, from time to time, the startled look on the face of the German soldier into whose body, at point-blank range, I emptied my .45-caliber pistol on a bitter cold night in January 1945, as he lunged at me and my foxhole buddy, with his bayonet aimed at our bellies.

The intimacy of which the writer of I John speaks as well as that of the words attributed to Jesus by the writer of the Gospel of John—words about the relationship between the vine and the branches—is of a different sort. It is the intimacy of love and care and inclusiveness, the intimacy of being committed to the welfare of others and to doing the loving thing needed to fulfill that commitment. This intimacy is the result of God’s initiative and is spawned by God’s unconditional love made known in Jesus Christ. God’s bid for intimacy with us and all people everywhere becomes the basis of our intimacy with God. We love God because God first loved us, writes John. For us to experience this intimacy requires our willingness and our work to foster such intimacy with others, the intimacy of doing not the hateful thing sometimes desired that results in destroying others in one way or another, but the intimacy of doing the loving thing needed in the present moment that results in edifying and healing others.

However, intimacy is not for everyone. In his book The Master, noted Irish author Colm Toibin tells of the struggle American writer Henry James had all his life between his yearnings for intimacy and his desire for privacy, a struggle with which most of us can identify. In spite of the idea of many observers of human personality that most people long for intimacy, many people fear it.

Some years ago a young woman talked with me about her lack of desire to pray. Her concern was not only personal, but professional as well, inasmuch as she was in her final year of seminary training and was on a track to be ordained as a minister. She knew that her antipathy toward prayer would create problems regarding her own spiritual development and her pastoral ministry, including her leadership of public worship. She reported that she had particular difficulty praying the Lord’s Prayer and would choke on the words “Our Father.”

As we talked together, I asked her what she associated with prayer, what words, images, ideas came to mind. She responded with the words dependent and vulnerable. Several conversations later she told me something she said she had not told anyone before, namely that she had been sexually molested by her father when she was seven years old. Prayer is a form of intimacy, and even though she had experienced a strong call to ministry, she was not about to get too close to “Our Father.” No wonder she choked on those words.

According to the perceptive writer Henri Nouwen, in his little volume Lifesigns, it is our fear of both closeness and distance that keeps us from experiencing the intimacy referred to in the Bible and especially in these words of John in his epistle. It is the intimacy of care and commitment to one another. For that is what it means to love one another. Such intimacy transcends our fears of either distance or closeness and frees us to “work in solidarity with all humanity, especially with those who are suffering” (p. 52). It does not require that we like one another. Liking is not a prerequisite to loving, to doing the loving thing needed, needed not by the person doing the loving, but by the one being loved.

What John is reminding us is that in Christ God has chosen to dwell with us, to make the world and humanity God’s home. When we choose to make God our home, our dwelling place, we participate in a holy and divine intimacy that frees us to be who we were created to be and assures us that we are not ultimately alone in the world. And we choose to make God our home by loving one another, seeking one another’s welfare, being there for one another through thick or thin and, if need be, sacrificing ourselves for one another, including sacrificing our convenience and, at times, some of our freedom.

It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Love God, love one another. God in you, you in God. “Beloved, let us love one another.” Like it’s something we can do with one hand tied behind our back. Piece of cake, as we say. A walk in the park, as we say. No sweat, no problem, as we say. And that’s what we want our religion, our faith, to be: simple. A recent catalogue from a well-known religious publishing house promotes these book titles: Three Simple Rules for Following Jesus, Three Simple Rules for Youth 24/7, and Three Simple Rules for Christian Living.

But simple does not mean simplistic. To apply the simple formula “love God, love others” to the complexities of life that form the context in which you and I make decisions and take action calls for more discernment than meets the eye and for more thoughtfulness that meets the requirements of reality.

Make no mistake, love is work. It is hard labor. One look at the cross of Christ will remind us of that. The death he died was the hard labor of sacrificial love. Love is hard labor because to love, as the scriptures speak of it, goes against the grain of our worst angels. And if they are in command of us, it will not be love we offer to others, especially those who aggravate us or seek to destroy us. It will more likely be the back of our hand or the blast from a nuclear bomb.

No one knows this more than a mother or a father when children are out of control and defying their parents. Overwhelmed by frustration and sometimes seething with anger at a recalcitrant child, a parent may lose it and strike out, at times with disastrous results. To love someone, to do the loving thing needed to someone you don’t like at the moment, takes hard labor, intentionality, and self-discipline, to say nothing of a huge helping of the grace of God.

Throughout my years of ministry there have been times when my inspiration has lagged behind my inertia. When that has happened, I have learned that I might then begin to drift toward a “what’s the use?” form of futility about this whole business of ministry. In order to interrupt that drift, I often read once more a letter I became aware of years ago. It was written shortly after World War II by a young man who sustained serious wounds during that war. He died as a result of those wounds a few years after writing the letter. It is a letter of courage and candor, of pleading and promise, and of hope. It is a reminder to me of why I’m in this work of ministry.

My name is John Crown. I am a paraplegic at Halloran General Hospital. My physical wounds are very small in comparison to my spiritual wounds. I have come back from death to a world that I no longer care for. I, who have been engaged in the great struggle to save the world from tyranny, and having seen my comrades die for the cause, can now find no peace in the world or in my country.

Having lived close to death for two years, the reasons why there is no peace seem infinitesimally flimsy. Russia wants the Dardanelles, Yugoslavia wants Trieste, the Moslems want India, labor wants more wages, capital wants more profit, Smith wants to pass the car in front of him, Junior wants more spending money. To these I say, is it necessary to kill and cripple human beings for these petty gains?

Anyone who thinks a human body is so cheap that it can be traded for a tract of land, a piece of silver, or a few minutes of time should be forced to listen to the moans of the dying, night and day, for the rest of his life.

All the troubles of the world originate in the common man. The selfish and greedy ways of nations are just the ways of each individual man multiplied a hundredfold. When the morals of the common man drop, so do the morals of the nation and of the world.

As long as our individual morals remain at a low ebb, so will be the world. Until each of us stops hogging the road with his car, stops fighting over the seat on the bus, stops arguing over who is going to cut the grass, there will be no peace in the world. If we wish peace again, we must return to the great commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” for the love of God.

“Beloved, let us love one another.” Amen.