Some years ago, I was asked to visit an elderly widow who was distressed by the onset of blindness and frailty. I saw her regularly for perhaps a year, and eventually took her funeral. When as a young single woman she'd moved to Leamington to start work, her father had told her not to go to the pub, where she wouldn't be missed if she didn't turn up, but to go to the church where she'd find friendship and care. One of her regrets was that over the years, she'd got out of the habit of going - and thereby failed to reciprocate the friendship and care needed by others in their loneliness and need. But the hymn speaks of the love of God for us all, indiscriminately: the lonely and the self-satisfied; the religious, the agnostic and the atheist; those who respond to love and those who don't; those who are reasonable, well-adjusted and trusting, and those who are hurt and rejected. 'Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.'
In his moving book 'The Sorrowful Way' (SPCK 1998), Michael Perham takes this hymn as the title and theme of a chapter. He writes 'If Christ's song is a love song for the world, then the bread that he breaks and gives is for a broad community of 'jagged' people, each with his or her disfigurement, or hurt, or eccentricity or inadequacy...We should be suspicious of any Christian community that seems to be a company of the healthy, the whole, the rounded, the pleasing and self-pleasing, the paten of unbroken rounded hosts. For the kingdom is a company of sinners, misfits and ragged, jagged, aching souls. The Church is the company of the broken, and it is the body that is broken - in the upper room, on the cross, at the altar, of the Church - that redeems.'
How true that is, and how challenging. It's so easy to join in the 'sweet praises' of God when we feel safe and at home among people like ourselves, people who are harmonious and reasonable and caring, people who don't intrude upon our sensitivities or disturb us by their characteristics. We like the body of Jesus, the Church, to be a body which is perfect - for us. When it isn't - which means most of the time - and its inadequacies grate, we're more likely to cry 'Crucify!' than 'Hosanna!'
But those inadequacies are within us too. Each of us is to some measure a sinner, a misfit, broken. We might conceal it very well indeed, but it's there. And the fact is, we can't be redeemed unless we recognise our brokenness. That may cut across our pride, our self-reliance, our carefully constructed defences, but the acknowledgement of our human nature with its shadow side as well as its positive side sets us on the path to forgiveness, acceptance and maturity. And it grows compassion and love within us for other ordinary, flawed people who have joined us on the road to Jerusalem.
As we kneel together at the altar rail and stretch our hands out for the Bread of Life, we experience the presence of a love far greater than our own; a love which encompasses and binds us to God, not only with those whom we love, but also with those whom we find it hard to love; a love which reaches out to those whom we have hurt and to those who have hurt us; a love which transcends both our petty preferences and our most deep-rooted fears and divisions. Try as we may, those preferences, fears and divisions may seem unshakeable, sometimes with good cause. But we put our faith in the God who shares our brokenness and redeems us by his grace.
My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh and die?