Fading

 

Now all the Hindus and Muslims, agnostics and Buddhist were coming near to listen to him. And the preachers and believers were irritated, “This Jesus welcomes non-Christians and eats with them.” So he told this parable . . .

I thought that would get your attention. Of course the scripture uses the words “tax collectors and sinners.” These words would have little effect on us, although they would have been offensive to Jesus’ original crowd. The words I said—-may have been a bit offensive—-but for the punch line to have the same punch, the set up line needs to be equally offensive.

What does it mean to be a Christian in a multi-faith world? Some say we need to defend our faith, this is referred to as Apologetic. Make our case against those who disagree with our views. Have you ever known a person to change their mind because you made your point? Does our faith demand we stand against the Sikh, Jew, or Buddhist or simply stand faithful to what has been entrusted to us? Is apologetics the answer or is it to love?

I was born in a Christian home. Yet there was a point where I chose to follow Christ. I decided Christianity made sense to me and this is where I wanted to invest my life. For all the good we do we still have shortcomings as a people. We can bit oppressive, to others who don’t share our values. Further I am aware of the sex scandals in the Catholic side of our church, so we are an imperfect association of souls. Nevertheless the call to love our neighbors, live faithfully and sacrificially, to forgive and live lives full of the spirit sounds healthy and good to me.

My eyes though are wide open. There is something wrong with my faith, we have a vague hostility toward the cherished religions of our non- Christians neighbors.  We learn of a pastors imprisonment in Egypt and we say a prayer, and we should. Then we read of a Muslim child being ridiculed by classmates in Texas and we turn to the sports section. Isn’t this child deserving of God’s protection as long as their faith is practiced without malice toward others? My hostility is not aggressive, but apathy is the worst kind of hostility, it is to look the other way.

I have never read Anne Rice novels, but I have followed her career. She has lived a bit louder than most writers. Born and raised a Catholic she left the faith at 18. She eventually arrived at atheism and lived there until her fifties. In her fifties she returned to her Catholic roots, then in 2011 she announced she no longer wanted to be referred to as a Christian.

She writes to belong to those called Christian it would appear you need to be “quarrelsome, hostile . . . anti gay . . . anti feminist. . . anti science.”   I know the Catholic church from which she came can be a bit “anti”.  In 1633 they  put Galileo under house arrest for following the best science of his day. So there is some merit to her complaint.

But that’s not the whole story. In fact it is only the headline, Anne goes on to write, “My faith in Christ is central to my life . . . I remain an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God, but following Christ does not mean following his followers.” It appears she has rejected the middleman–not the source of our faith. This may say something about why other people struggle with being identified with Christianity. They may like Jesus but find some of our behavior to be contradictory to our saviors.

I can’t tell you the number of blogs or books I have read where people who believe and practice our faith now desire to be called “a Jesus follower,” ” a person of the way,” or a “lover of God,” anything but Christian.  There is some re-branding going on.

We are not the only faith trying to figure out the future and insulate ourselves from our crazy faith cousins. Muslims are working overtime to find new ways to describe their faith. A quick internet search reveals that their approach is to add adjectives to their name—–Progressive Muslims, Non-Middle Eastern Muslims, Peace advocating Muslims, and Moderate Muslims are just a few ways they are trying to distance themselves from their more extreme members.

We’ve got our own crazy faith cousins, who give the people of God, those called to love and forgive a bad name. There’s the pastor in Florida who burns the Quran. Then the television preacher who describes the Haitian earthquake as God’s punishment for Haitian sins. Then there is the bizarre sect that sends protesters to military funerals.

Okay—we’ve all got crazy cousins. So what do we do as Christians? Some want to change our name, yet to me the real issue appears to be—-our identity. Identity is often formed in any group by what we are against. Sadly it is by giving people a common enemy that identity is formed.  The radical Muslims are energized by their enemy “The West.” Political parties form identity not by being for something but by having an enemy. Labor knows who they are because of management. Clemson has the Gamecocks. But who is Christianities enemy? Especially since our founder told us to “love our enemies” thereby turning them into anything but enemies. Usually we have chosen a sin as our enemy? For a while we chose the abuse of alcohol.  Some have chosen to make war the enemy and promote the cause of peace. Yet others have chosen immorality as the enemy.  As surprising as it may sound—-Christians or Jesus followers are not very good at conflict. After all our founder brought a prayer to a sword fight. We lost the war with probation, the world continues to wage war, and as far as immorality goes as long as there is profit in it our cries will be drowned out by the sound of a soaring stock market.

It seems any public crusade makes believers appear like the moral police. To those who need to hear good news, we sound like the evening news reporting only what is wrong. We seem like narrow minded judgmental souls wanting to pour cold water on everyone’s fun.

If the Bible only provided us direction on how to be light and how to bear witness to the life we have found?  If we only knew how to live in a pluralistic society? If scripture only gave us specific directions about how to influence behavior in a diverse world? With other religions watching if there was a way to identify ourselves as Christ followers without having to be “anti” this or opposed to that?

Do you remember Matthew 25?

I was a stranger . . . YOU took me in

I was hungry . . .YOU gave me food

I was in prison . . . YOU came to me

I was sick . . . YOU visited me

When other faiths come to our shores, when people resist our message and call us names what is our response? Did Jesus say we are to preach to them—-no.  Did Jesus ask us to make laws to enforce  our code of conduct—–no.  Did Jesus ask us to bomb them—-no.  Did Jesus ask us to ridicule or minimize their faith? Did Jesus say when the stranger comes to your country make them fell unwanted? Did Jesus instruct us to ignore sickness and suffering? Of course he didn’t. In a word we  are instructed to “welcome” the stranger, the prisoner, the sojourner and those cursed with hunger.

Religion reacts with hostility, but the followers of Christ are to react with hospitality. Hostility and hospitality are historically related–so close but so far away. Hostility sees every cause, ever sin, and certain people as an enemy. The stranger can’t be trusted. The sick should have taken better care of themselves. They are the problem. The “other” must be kept at a safe distance. Hostility is an attitude of exclusion and repugnance and if you read the whole parable the people who practice such don’t have a promising future. Hospitality is to give water, make welcome, and love.

Jesus’ point was hostility is the enemy. Seeing people different from yourself and separating yourself from them is not the answer—it’s the problem. But when we see others; the immigrant, the Hindu, the hungry and do for them, we are seeing and doing it to Jesus. Hospitality is the way to be God’s people to others.

“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to ME (Matthew 25:40).

We can’t maintain hostility against the other when the other is Jesus.

The tax collectors and sinners were all seeking his company to hear what he had to say—–and he welcomed them. Can we really believe Jesus would not welcome the Sikh, the agnostic, or the sojourner from another country? Making enemies is counterproductive. Jesus took strangers and made them friends. The tax collector became Jesus disciple and the Pharisee gave Jesus his tomb. Jesus never gave them time to become enemies. A welcome does not imply agreement, but it does imply friendship and safety.

One of our own members shared this story with me. He was shopping during Christmas and he encountered this sales person who was condescending, and in a word, ugly. He reported to me that he felt like he had the right to tell her how she was coming off and to speak his mind, it’s a free country.  But before he could say anything he found himself acting Christian, “wishing her a Merry Christmas and telling her that he hoped this was her best Christmas ever.”  He was caring for one of the least of these—and didn’t even know it. The woman’s attitude changed. her whole personality changed. He went on to say—“saying what was on my mind may have been my right but there is a higher law that ask me to treat others with kindness and love.” We don’t have to preach but we do have to love. We don’t have to argue but we do have to love in the name of the one who loved first.

Announcing that God is sending earthquakes on poor Haitians is foolish to say, it makes God look bad and Christianity look hostile toward the poor, but is easier to say it than to welcome the “other.”

Burning the Quran is not a bold or brave thing to do in Florida. It’s not prophetic or loving, but it is easier to do than to welcome the “other.”

There are those who think the preachers job is to chastise people. Some  would prefer if we preached to those not here. Calling out the sins of those who avoid the church and give those who come a pat on the back. Why? To begin with why preach to people not here. Second —we can’t bring God’s kingdom with hostility, but we can with hospitality, Jesus did. So I speak to us—the gathered family of God. To warn us of how far we have fallen from our original purpose of welcoming, visiting, clothing, feeding, and building wells like we are doing it to Jesus.

We are familiar with the fading of colors. A shirt which was once bright red, over time becomes a pink or mauve. Washing and wear has its effects. So it is with God’s message of welcome and changing the world by giving water, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger. Before you know it we have traded compassion for arguments over the age of the earth, righteousness for arguing over Hollywood’s interpretation of the Noah story. Our identity has faded and we have turned the faith of loving our neighbors and enemies into the faith of building fences and making laws.

I began this message with a question, “What does it mean to be a Christian in a multi-faith world? Do we need to embrace  apologetics (defending our faith) or practice Jesus style love?”I should confess it is a trick question. Loving in Jesus name is the way we defend our faith.

In the 10th chapter of John Jesus is quoted by John as saying, “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold; them I also I must bring and they will hear my voice (John 10:15-16). Love is our apologetics, later in John’s gospel Jesus says, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”[i]

Two things I have learned from Jesus’ humble words. First–Jesus has laid down his life, that’s love, and love is a more convincing defense than any verbal defense. Second, there are other sheep I know nothing about. So I’d be smart to live my faith and love as my savior ask me.  Peter summed up this way in the book of Acts, “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by him” (Acts 10:34-35).

 

[i] John 13:35

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