I am completing the manuscript for a book on Martin Luther. I begin the chapter on Luther's period of refuge at Wartburg Castle with this story...
Early in my ministry I worked as an associate pastor under a seasoned veteran senior pastor, Dr. Bernard Fitzgerald. Talking in his office one day, he shared with me a story from the early days of his career. Soon after completing his service in World War II, he got married and responded to a call to ministry. While serving his first church he learned he had tuberculosis. He spent several months in the VA Hospital in Asheville, NC and was told by doctors he may never be able to pastor again.
Spending long days in bed he got discouraged. He felt such a clear leading from God but now it looked as though he would not be able to follow his call. One afternoon he noticed a man wearing a mask and gown walking from bed to bed talking with patients. Something about the man's demeanor and the way he engaged the other soldiers led Bernard to believe this wasn't a doctor. The gentleman finally reached Bernard's bed and asked about his condition. Within minutes the story was spilling out - Bernard explained his call to ministry, entering seminary, getting sick and finding out his career plans may change.
The man listened with interest and compassion. When the story ended the visitor asked if he might say a prayer with Bernard. Taking his hand, the gentleman closed his eyes and said, "Lord, your servant didn't ask for this situation and he certainly can't change it by his own power, but remind him that while he is limited, you are unlimited. While he is still, you are busy. Work on his behalf so that this bed may become a sanctuary of your presence giving him an assurance that you will provide for his future just as you have his past. In Christ name. Amen."
Bernard said in that moment he felt a rush of peace come over him. As the man got ready to walk away Bernard realized they had not introduced themselves so he shared his name. The man shook his hand and said, "I'm Billy Graham."
Bernard, of course, went on to have an incredible ministry even in retirement. He said he never forgot the day a stranger took time to pray at his bedside. He discovered that an unwanted exile didn't take him from his career but prepared him for it.
A few weeks ago Bernard passed away...the day after Billy Graham!
Two men who had vastly different but significant ministries crossed paths because one took time to visit a stranger and pray at a bedside. You never know how offering ourselves to others can be life-changing.
This Sunday we will think about the power of community and the way God changes us through each other. Church may be meaningful just to watch online or attend in person. But if that's all it is, that is far from the vision Jesus had for ekklesia (Greek word we translate as church). The word actually means community, fellowship. It is about intertwining our lives with others like the roots of a tree. We truly get rooted in our faith when we are connected to each other.