National Organ Donor Sabbath
November 17, 2013
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
I am reluctant to tell you about Jim Oakes. Not because of what he did, but because I do not wish to cheapen it. Jim Oakes was a hero.
A tall, strapping veteran of the armed forces, and still a young man, Jim landed a job with a natural gas company in northwestern Pennsylvania. He learned the business quickly, rose through the ranks, and was promoted into management. Jim was a quick thinker, a decisive man. Everybody liked him at the office. His wife and two little kids adored him.
The story goes, Jim’s company had some labor disputes, and the line workers went on strike. He and the other managers weren’t union members. When there were some difficulties in the gas lines in Buffalo, Jim’s boss sent him and another worker up to handle service calls. It was a definite change of pace for both of them. They rode around in a big orange truck and took emergency calls on the radio.
A call came in one day. There was a leak downtown somewhere, and the company needed to get it plugged. Jim and his buddy drove over there, and the buddy went down into the manhole cover. “I think I see the problem,” he yelled. Jim said, “Great!”
Just then, Jim saw his co-worker collapse. Without any regard for his own safety, he plunged into the hole to rescue him. He put him over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry, and began to climb the ladder back up to the street with the other man on his back. Just a few steps from the top, he too was overcome by the gas, and the two of them fell back down, passed out, and died. I believe he was twenty-eight years old, married with two little kids at home.
But that was Jim Oakes. He was my Uncle Jim, my mother’s brother in law.
The story has always had a profound effect on me. Here was somebody I knew, my uncle, who was willing to risk his life to rescue another. Although the story did not turn out as anybody would have hoped, it was clear to me that Jim Oakes was a hero. He did not count the cost. He did not calculate the risk. Jim plunged in.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The first time I ever heard Jesus say that, I already had a family story to make it real. It wasn’t a hypothetical virtue, it was something that somebody really did. Somebody I knew. My cousins lost their dad that day, my aunt lost her husband. But our family gained a hero.
This is what friends will do for one another: they lay down their lives for one another.
Jesus is preparing to depart his disciples when he says this. It is an extraordinary passage, for Jesus suggests that as he departs, there is a shift from power to equality. No longer is he the “Master” (capital “M”) with servants (small “s”). Now the Lord of life declares we are his friends, and that he is our friend. There is mutuality. Everybody stands on the same level ground. Nobody is better than anybody else. All are loved equally.
If you remember the plot of the Gospel of John, this relationship is possible because Jesus steps down from heaven. The mission of God is to send Jesus into the world. The One through whom all things were made takes his place among those he has made. He lays down his divine life out of self-giving love, to the end that all people might be full of his life. This move from “on high” to “side by side” is the essence of friendship. You stand side by side with your friends.
More than that, you will lay down your life for them. It doesn’t matter if you know them really well, or if you don’t. It doesn’t matter if they can appreciate the sacrifice or gain all the benefits, you give them your life as a gift. This is what Jesus Christ for us: he gives his life. But then he extends the self-giving love as a model for all his friends. “Lay down your life,” he says. He doesn’t spell out how to do it. He simply makes the invitation.
Is this something I can do? Something that you can do? I wonder if we will recognize the moment, or have the courage to go through with it.
And I think about this on a day when we join other congregations across the land in observing National Organ Donor Sabbath. Are you registered as an organ donor? A lot of people will affirm that it is can be a gift of life to donate the organs of our bodies when we no longer need them and others need what we can provide.
A recent Gallup poll says 85 percent of Americans believe persons should donate their organs upon their death. However, the report is that as few as 32 percent of potential donors actually follow through. It’s a generous act of stewardship, to share what we can with those who need it, to share no longer need – but will we have the courage to do this for the people that Christ calls “friends”?
A few years ago, I came across Peggy and Jim on Facebook, two friends from high school who married and live near Pittsburgh. I knew they were strong people of faith, Presbyterians, in fact. So I sent a note: what’s new?
It seems a young couple were coming to their church, Jessica and Aaron. They met at a medical clinic in Pittsburgh, where 33-year-old Aaron was a dialysis patient with a failing kidney and Jessica was his nurse. Aaron was there three nights a week, receiving dialysis. Jessica kept looking on him. Over time it grew into something romantic, and Jessica started taking him to her church where Peggy and Jim were also members.
Peggy is soft-spoken but pretty insistent. She started pushing Jessica to have Aaron join her on a church mission trip to Nicaragua. “We’d really like him to come with us,” she said. Jessica said, “I don’t know; Aaron needs a kidney from a living donor if he’s going to make it at all.”
Peggy said, “What do you have to do to become a living donor?” Have matching blood types, Jessica said. “I’m O-negative,” Peggy blurted out. So was Aaron.
She took a blood test. She mentioned it to her husband, who prayed with her about it. There were additional tests, all positive. Both the signs on earth and heaven seemed to confirm that Peggy was a perfect match. She had never had a major operation in her life, but she felt this was a direct invitation from God. So she underwent the procedure at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Aaron got one of her two healthy kidneys.
Seven months later, she and husband Jim danced at Aaron and Jessica’s wedding. Everybody is doing fine.
Silly me: I asked, “What’s new?” and discovered my old friend is a hero. She laid down her life for a friend.
We must not be afraid to do this. Jesus did it for us, and he is the author of life, the giver of life, the source and destination of life. He holds us secure, now and in the future. And he shows us what the spiritual life really is: a life of self-giving. This is a life of stewardship in the most comprehensive sense.
SPECIAL NOTE: You have the power to save lives. Consider registering online to be an organ donor. It's easy: go to www.donors1.org.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.