Loving strangers, outsiders and enemies

All of the thoughts and stories in tonight’s homily and even some of the sentences are taken from the second chapter of Philip Yancey’s book, Vanishing Grace. It is a book about how the one place that should be the great dispensers of grace, the church, is failing at the task. Glenn Harris is leading a study of the book at 6:30 Wednesdays, right before this worship service throughout Lent. My homilies will be taken from this book, too.
All of humanity longs for two things. First, a sense of meaning or purpose for our life. We want to believe our life matters. Second we long for a community where we belong, where we are accepted. We want to believe that our lives matter to someone else. Yet, even though these are exactly the longings Christian faith preaches they fill, the majority of people do not trust us to do this. Why not? It is not because our answers are not “right” or right sounding. It is because our presentation is not convincing. Church ends up turning more people away from God instead of to God. The perception is that outsiders are welcomed if they would make good potential new members. Those who do not fit into our preferred demographic or our sense of moral “goodness” are ignored or made to feel unwelcome.
There is a Christianity Today article that sighted common complaints by non Christians about Christians. You don’t listen to me and you judge me. were at the top of the list. Think about it when we ask someone outside of the church what is the first word that comes to mind when you think of the word Christian, what are the chances that love is going to be the response? To me this feels like a fundamental failure of the church. I don’t believe many churches are good at loving the stranger. Some of us are better than others at serving the stranger, but loving? Are we a “loving” church? Most members of any church would say, yes, because they are an insider. They have felt love in their church. Ask a different question though, do outsiders feel loved when they come here?
It depends. Outsiders that look like us, have an easier time of it. Since Thadd has been gone, I have been visiting with new people to our congregation. I have had had a lot of these visits over the last few months. When I thought about this today, I was ashamed to realize that everyone I visited resembled me. I don’t mean they were bald, lumpy and middle aged. That is the real me. I mean how I imagine myself to look. White. Attractive. Professional. Youthful. Well spoken. Were these the only “sorts” of people that visited? The answer is no. Were these the only sorts of people that felt welcome enough by us therefore visiting long enough for me to notice them? Maybe. Were these the only sorts of people that I noticed or even subconsciously wished to encourage because they looked like my ideal of the perfect new member? Wow, what if that were true?
It is no big deal to love someone that looks like us. It takes real efforts of grace to see God’s image in someone who is not our image. Even tougher is to love someone who is your enemy, a unique command of Jesus. There is a soldier who has created a website asking Christians to adopt a terrorist to pray for. He used the list from the Department of Defense of the most dangerous terrorists. He received 1000 volunteers, but far more people responded who thought it was immoral to harbor anything but hate for these monsters. Many of those responses came from Christians.
I have sat with many Christians who have said I can forgive almost anyone except…and then they fill in the blank…someone who harms my family, a child molester, a drunk driver…We all have a boundary to our love, but God does not. The more unlikely people we love, the more we resemble God who after all even loved people like us. In the book of Acts, Paul was there the day that the disciple Stephen was stoned to death. As Stephen was being murdered, he prayed to God to forgive those who were doing this to him. It makes one ask if Paul would have met Jesus on the road to Damascus if Stephen had not prayed for him?
Dr. Francis Collins is a noted MD and PhD. He headed the human genome project, that mapped for the first time all three billion letters of the human genetic code. This work is the basis of groundbreaking medicine, that have saved and will save lives for years to come. He is also a very open and vocal Christian. Even participating in debates that gained worldwide attention with strident non Christians like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Scientists in America have derided and insulted him. Calling him in the press a clown, a whacko and ignorant.
He was made the National Institute of Health Director and he held this post when atheist Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the book God is Not Great, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Knowing each other from their public debates, Collins spent hours with the Hitchens family, going over choices for treatment and helping him find the most cutting edge tests. He used his influence and knowledge as NIH director to help Mr. Hitchens. During Hitchens ordeal he received many hate filled letters from “Christians” who took glee in his predicament and saw it as punishment from God. Some thought that God had given him this particular cancer to stop him from speaking blasphemy.
Yet in one of Hitchens last columns, he paid tribute to Dr. Francis Collins. He called him a selfless, Christian physician and a great humanitarian. He praised his work at helping science and religion speak to each other. Most impressive to Christopher Hitchens though was that he visited him while he was sick, sat with him, listened to him, and did everything within his power to help him. Christopher Hitchens died a committed atheist, but all Dr. Collins ever saw was a child of God, made in God’s image.
How do we overcome all the bad press that Christians receive, rightly and wrongly? How do we get people to think of love when they hear the word Christian? We love..like Jesus loved, humbly, abundantly and universally. Amen

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