Monday, July 25, 2011

Do I Know You?

Yesterday morning, I said something in the sermon that I didn't write. Luckily, I said it during first service so that I could keep it in for the next two.

I outline my sermons, but sometimes I write out specific sentences or phrases, especially what I call the "hook," or a kind of tag line that is intended for people to take home with them to remember the message.

This week's hook was, "Jesus is your friend so you can be a friend to others."

I know, kind of generic, not very catchy, pretty lame actually. But (thank you Lord) that's not what came out of my mouth.

What I said was, "No, I don't know you. But I do know Jesus. And because I know Jesus, I know you."

The set up went like this:

The Bible describes "regular old" friendship using the Greek word philia, which we usually translate "love." There's nothing at all inherently wrong with philia. Growing as a disciple of Jesus, however, requires us to move from philia to agape, divine love. Jesus said, 'There is no greater love (agape) than to lay down one's life for one's friends (philos).' (tangent: English is sometimes inadequate to convey the fuller meanings of ancient texts, so we need to take great care as we read them.)

To move from philia to agape, then, is to be willing to lay down your life for another. For whom would you lay down your life?

Here I paused and sort of scanned the room. I asked again, "For whom would you be willing to lay down your life?"

Many of us think of somebody in our family or a dear friend when confronted with that question, which is wonderful. But what Jesus asks of his followers is to lay down our lives for complete strangers, people we've never met before. After all, that's what he did. (Remember "Where is your mother? Where are your brothers, Jesus?")

The radical call of Christian friendship is to lay down our lives for complete strangers. That is an idea so counterintuitive in our fearful and distrusting world that we have a really, really hard time making any relevant sense of it.

And so I asked people to greet strangers throughout their week with as much joy and enthusiasm as they would greet a dear friend whom they had not seen in weeks. Smile at them and shake their hand and express your sincere happiness at seeing them! Act toward them as you would your very best friend.

Then, after the awkwardness passes, and they ask you, "Do I know you?" you just smile and respond, "No, I don't know you. But I know Jesus. And because I know Jesus, I know you!"

As soon as I said it, I thought it was kind of corny, and wondered where exactly it had come from. After all, that's where I had planned to say, "Remember that Jesus is your friend so you can be a friend to others." But there was also a sense of the power of that simple idea. I don't know if others in the room sensed it, but I certainly did. It was a moment in which all of us shared in a word from God, a simple truth that challenged all of us to a deeper commitment to Christ. And I do mean all of us; I felt the challenge myself.

As I've written before, the church does not have a problem with programming or facilities, lack of sufficiently catchy mission statements, or even worship style or preaching as much as it has a profoundly impoverished Christology. One of the ways that shows up is the alarming frequency with which "church people" only hang out with other "church people." Yes, friends love each other and thats just fine - but there is more to being a follower of Jesus than loving on the people you already know.

"Our church is friendly." Great. That's super. So is every church, when you ask them. Now, what else is it? There's a difference between being friendly and being a Christian friend.

So, "church people," inventory your week this week and keep track of how many interactions you have with other "church people." Then if you need to do some breaking free, do it. Put yourself in places out and about (coffee shop, grocery store, hair salon, restaurant) where you have opportunities to meet and talk with strangers who haven't yet become friends. And greet them as if they are already your very best friend you haven't seen in ages.

Then, after you freak them out a little bit, you could pay for their coffee or put your groceries down to help them carry out theirs or give them a 50% tip or bus your own table and ask them to sit down and rest while you do or ... do something that backs up your words. Something you would think of doing for your best friend. Something you would deeply desire to do for someone you love.

Then, if they ask, invite them to come to worship with you. And if that door doesn't open, try again next week! Whatever happens next, you will have made a friend for Christ's sake.

No, I don't really know you. But I do know Jesus. That makes me your friend.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"I Will Be With Your Mouth" or: Speaking for God

“I will be with your mouth.” That’s all the further God wanted to go at this point, apparently (Exodus 4). Not “I will be with you,” as had been the case other times. Nope, this time all God would promise Moses was that the divine presence would be targeted at one specific body part.

God would not be with Moses’ left pinky toe, but would be with his mouth. Ha!

Of course, Moses’ complaint had to do specifically with his mouth, as he had said that he was “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” and as such was unsuited to follow God’s call to go to Pharaoh and demand release of the Hebrew people. (btw “Speech” and “mouth” are both the same word in Hebrew - peh - a word used 5 times in Exodus 4.)

How many times have we said something along those lines? As in, “I just don’t know what to say.” Or maybe, “I would go and visit her, but I wouldn’t know what to say.” Or in another context, “I’m just not comfortable talking with people about ‘religion.’” Or said in a specific way, “I feel like if I invite someone to church, they’ll think I’m being pushy.” Or something like that.

Listen to God - “I will be with your mouth.”

Or maybe, “Just let me do the talking.”

Now, we may be tempted to misunderstand this, and think that if God is doing the talking, we don’t have to do anything. We might take our protest a step further, like Moses did. We might say, “Well if you are going to do the talking, Lord, I’ll just stay home and read a book.”

Moses’ protest continued, “Please send someone else.”
It’s not my job.
That’s why we hire church staff, isn’t it?
That’s not really my “calling.”
I don’t think that’s one of my “spiritual gifts.”

But when we do so, we may find that God’s next move makes us even more uncomfortable. Yes, God appoints Aaron to go along with Moses, but do you know how God defines that relationship? God tells Moses, “He shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him.” It almost seems like God is saying to Moses, “All right, you won’t go yourself? Well, you trying being ‘God’ for someone else for a while and see how you like it.”

Moses maybe should have gone with the whole “I will be with your mouth” thing while he had the chance!

When Moses tried to shirk his obligation in realizing God’s mission, God did not remove Moses’ responsibility, but rather increased it. God told Moses, “Okay, I will still be with your mouth, and I’ll be with Aaron’s mouth, too. But now I’ll be holding you directly responsible for what words he says, as well as your own.”

So maybe we should stick with the whole “I will be with your mouth” thing, also. We talk a lot about having “filters” on our speech, a kind of governor on our words that prevents harmful, hurtful, hateful, and otherwise offensive things from coming out. When someone is under stress or not thinking clearly or somehow out of sorts, often those filters do not function well or are removed altogether. They may end up saying things that they do not intend, and never would have said without the filters in place. And filters don’t work just for the choice of words, they also work for the tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and all of those communication tools available to us.

One way to think of God is as the divine filter for our words. We need to listen very closely to what we say (and are about to say) and run it by God a few times to see if it makes it through God’s filter. And that is as true (or maybe more so) for online communication as face-to-face conversation.

God’s very precise and kind of peculiar promise is, “I will be with your mouth.” You still have to go, but I will be with your mouth. You still have to start the conversation, but I’ll let you know what to say. So go, say “hello,” and see what happens after that.

God has something really important to say, and we are the ones God wants to be saying it.

Are you saying what God wants you to be saying? And are you saying it in a way that God wants you to say it? And if you’re not sure, maybe you should just be quiet and listen for a while? I'm sure God will let you know.