Monday, December 15, 2014

I'll Ride with You, But Do I Have to Bring Jesus with Me?

I woke up in the middle of the night to see a tweet from dancer Sharna Burgess, that said “Thinking of you” with the hashtag, “prayersforsydney”. [Thanks, lsn, for the correction. The error was all mine, not that of the lovely Sharna Burgess, and I made it twice.] Knowing that she is Australian, I figured she meant the city, and a little further reading showed that there was a hostage situation going on in a cafe there.

By morning I woke up again, this time to the hashtag “illridewithyou”. Since the hostage taker is Muslim, Muslims around the city are concerned about reactions to them, and their fellow Australians have begun offering to accompany them on public transportation to prevent harassment, or worse. “Illridewithyou” is trending worldwide as I write, with both concrete offers of help along specific routes and supportive comments.

And as it happens, the offers of help fit in well with the subject of yesterday’s sermon at St. Anonymous.

I showed up at church after a long absence. Not so long, when you consider that I was there three weeks ago for the bake sale, but that was Layperson Sunday, so Pastor J was not there. Yesterday she greeted me like the prodigal kid, minus the ring and the fatted calf. I wonder if she would be so happy to see me there if she knew about my habit of discussing her sermons on my blog, not usually in a favorable light. I really need to make more of a point of writing about the ones I like and appreciate, not to mention about the things I like and appreciate about St. Anonymous in general, but the whole point of my blog is to give my grump side a place to play.

Yesterday’s sermon, however, was not one of my favorites. It was based on the story of the shepherds in Luke:
The Shepherds and the AngelsAnd in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,14 “Glory to God in the highest,    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”[a]15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.Luke 2:8-20English Standard Version (ESV)
The story itself, I love, not the least because it is, of course, the story that Linus recites in A Charlie Brown Christmas, when Charlie Brown despairs of ever finding the true meaning of Christmas. Dr. J, however, really, really, loves it, and said she could preach any number of sermons on it. This time she chose to focus on the latter half of verse nine “they were filled with great fear” and verses seventeen and twenty. The shepherds, despite being filled with great fear, spread the word about what they had seen and heard.
Dr. J went on to use this story as scriptural proof that we need to be out there talking to people about Jesus, even though it is scary. She hears from so many members of the church that their way of witnessing is to do good things for others, not talking about Jesus, and she used the shepherd story to show that this attitude is “not scriptural”. The shepherds were afraid, but they went and spread their story anyway.

She went on to deal with the argument that “I don’t know a lot about Jesus”. She urged us to review the events of each day and look for places where Jesus could have been acting - the smile a stranger gave us, our not speaking up in a meeting when it wouldn’t have been advisable, finding our lost car keys.

Okay, that last one was mine. But by this time it had occurred to me that people with a story to tell, tell that story without urging. The shepherds saw a light from Heaven and heard an angelic voice, followed by an angelic choir. Do you think they needed prompting to tell that story? A few generations down the road their grandkids were probably saying “Not this again” at holiday dinners. The “Jesus helped me find my car keys” stories I see on Facebook don’t come close. 

Pastor J went on to say that if all we did was to do good for others, we would build an awesome life for people, but how would they ever hear about Jesus?

Not seeing the problem here.

"It’s like we are saying to God, 'God, I’ll help you build your Kingdom, but I’m not willing to talk about you' . . . It’s easier to do good things for others than to talk about Jesus.”

Okay, seriously? Has she not noticed that there are a lot of people in public life talking about Jesus, and that we still don’t have this paradise on earth she’s envisioning if we all substituted doing for talking, or for talking about what we are supposedly doing? Meantime, my cousin Garett is still in Liberia, as far as I know, and so are a lot of health workers who are risking their lives in a place where thousands of people have died of an incurable disease and she seriously wants me to think that that is easier than telling people about Jesus?

But I started off talking about #illridewithyou, so let me get back there. Suppose I were in Sydney and free to offer what escort service I could provide to someone in a headscarf. What would it sound like to that person for me to say, “I’m doing this because Jesus wants me to” or “I’m doing this to be Jesus to you today”. I know that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, but would they take those statements as a sign that we have some beliefs in common or as a sign that I’m part of what they are afraid of? How much sensitivity to their fears would I be showing, and wouldn’t showing sensitivity to their fears be something Jesus might want me to do?

I think if I were going to bring religion into it at all, it would be by listening. “I know a little about your religion, but probably only enough to get a lot of it wrong. What does the Quran say is the obligation of believers in a situation like this?” Maybe that would get us around to a discussion of our shared and disparate views of Jesus, maybe not. I’m having a hard time seeing how strangers offering friendship to other strangers in jeopardy is going to give Jesus a sad.

I imagine, though, if I were there ride sharing with people in jeopardy, eventually I would wind up with a story to tell: a story that one of them told me, a story about what it felt like, sharing non-privileged status with a stranger, a story of other strangers offering support.

And as I said, people with a story to tell, tell that story without urging. Maybe that would have been a better message, to get out there in the world and do something, do more than you are doing now, do more than you think you can do. Sooner or later, you will have a story, and you will tell it.