The Greatest Commandment

Some years ago, I was working in a hospital in Missoula as a physical therapy technician. I had just finished grad school in Bozeman and writing an impressive-sounding thesis in behavioral neuroscience. I found a free place to stay in my Mom's basement and devoted some time to figuring out exactly which medical career path I was going to give my life to to save the world.

Mary, one of the senior PTs, grabbed me as we were charting in the morning. She said she could use my help with an initial assessment of a patient in the ICU. I followed her upstairs as rounds started.

She filled me in on the way up. The patient, who, due to privacy laws I'll call "H.", was over 90. He was apparently an ornery individual who had been found, alone and dehydrated, after a fall in his nursing home somewhere up the Bitterroot. ETOH was on board. She'd probably need my help with transfers.

Great, I thought to myself. Another drunk old cowboy. How far I'd fallen from my lab days. Doing important things.

H filled the tiny ICU room. Despite his age, he was an imposing man with a deep, booming voice and a faded tattoo of a hula girl on an atrophied forearm that was still probably bigger than my thigh. We started to explain how we would move him from his bed to his wheelchair. He told us he'd do it himself.

It didn't work. There was a lot of swearing, crashing, and thrashing, and I managed to grab his hand just in time to steer him back to where he was sitting.

His eyes teared up as he looked at my hand holding his wrist, steadying him as he regained a fragile equilibrium rather than toppling over sideway back onto the bed.

"On Saipan," he said, "We left ten thousand men on the beach."

"I'm sorry?" I said as Mary sat next to him on the bed and I relaxed my grip.

"I drove a Higgins boat. On Saipan I grabbed a man who I thought was drowning and tried to get him back in the boat, Jap machine gun had damn near cut him in half..." He was starting to cry in earnest now. "I was so friggin' scared I dropped him back in the water..." He broke down.

That was my introduction to H. Over the course of the next few days as his faculties started to return to him, he told us his story. He had dropped out of his Texan high school to join the Navy at 17 after Pearl Harbor and, despite being wounded in combat several times, by the late stages of the war found himself driving landing craft onto hostile beaches across the Pacific.

If you've seen Saving Private Ryan, you have a pretty good idea of what this was like. This boat was essentially a box with a ramp in the front. This doomed the Marines in the front of the boat. They were more that 'exposed', they were in a metal box that had one side open to enemy fire.

The boat crew, however, were more protected, at the back in an armored compartment. The Marines knew that they stood a very large chance of not making it home, or maybe even out of the boat, but they also knew H, as the commander, was in a armor plated tub at the helm of the boat, and was much more likely to survive.

So, they gave him their last letters. Between artillery, machinegun, rifle, grenade, flamethrower, kamikaze attacks, bayonet charges, disease, even drowning- the odds were bad enough that every man wrote one before an assault, and H ended up stowing each platoon's letters in a waterproof ammo can for that attack.

And this is where it gets interesting. He didn't send them. How could he? He didn't know who the casualties were, or when they might have happened, and he didn't have a way to find out. Not until after the battles. Which went on for another year after Saipan.

He did the only thing he could do- he waited until he could get his hands on casualty lists for the units that had embarked on his boat, compared them with the letters in his ammunition boxes, and figured out which of his passengers didn't make it back.

When H came back from the war he delivered as many of the letters as he could afford to, in person. He quickly ran out of money, so he would find whatever work he could for a couple of weeks, buy another ticket, and track down the next loved one. He did this until he completed the task that he- I won't say "appointed" himself, I'll say- that he knew he had to finish.

For three years, alone, using every resource he had, this 22-year old lived for no other purpose than to bring the last words of brave men to the people they loved and to tell their families how they died, because he thought they deserved more than a government form letter.


"My command," Jesus said in our reading today, "is this: Love each other as I have loved you."


H. heard this command, and honored it. He may not have articulated it particularly well or- without swearing every other word, but he lived it with an unimaginable sense of commitment. He didn't know any other way of living. For H, God was in his bonds with the men he served with. That knowledge, that his purpose was to serve with and for them- was as water is to a fish: It was the only context in which he could make sense of himself.

Now, what does that mean for us, here, now, in beautiful, affluent Bozeman Montana? It's fair to say that few of us have been given the terrible gift H received in battle, that of standing shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters while facing the worst horrors we can imagine. If we're going to draw inspiration from H in our quest to fulfill Jesus' command to love each other, we're going to need a bunch of help.

Fortunately, we have people like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to turn to for that help. In the sermon we quoted in our responsive reading earlier, his real focus was on how to maintain our sense of humanity in a rapidly mechanizing and materialistic world- challenges which I believe we can certainly relate to today.

Contrast the story which I just told you with this one taken from that sermon. After describing God in that earlier reading we did, as a God who exists in the invisible bonds holding the universe of matter and humanity together King has laid the ground work for what we'll hear next by describing a materially successful, contemporary man. We pick up Rev. Dr. King's voice as he gets to the point:

"...when this man had come to the heyday of his prosperity and his stock had accrued the greatest amount of interest, and somehow his Cadillac car was shining with all of its radiance, and when his palatial home stood out in all of its impressive proportions, it tells us that he died. And maybe that added drama to it, the fact that he came to physical death at this moment, but even if he hadn’t died at this moment, he was already dead. And the cessation of breathing in his life was but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirt He died when he failed to keep a line of distinction between the “within” and the “without” of life. He died when he failed to realize his dependence on others; He died when he failed to realize his dependence on God." (Full text can be found here)

The punchline of this parable- that "He died when he failed to realize his dependence on others"- is at the heart of our quest to follow Jesus' greatest commandment, and I believe that this concept is worthy of consideration as we move forward into this new week seeking to live that commandment from a renewed perspective.

We are, all of us, an integral part of God's Vine, and we need to work together and honor ourselves if we are to grow into what we're meant to be.

Today I offer you H's story as a counter example to the Fool in Rev. Dr. King's story. H came back from the war with the world at his feet- he had savings from combat pay, the GI Bill- but he knew that what was really important was honoring his role in the community he had lived in, honoring his bonds with his fellow men- which, to me anyway, is a fine way of honoring the Spirit.

We need each other as surely as leaves need stems, and stems need roots. We cannot afford to forget that, nor will we as long as we live the Word.