One of the things that offended the religious establishment in Jesus’ day was the fact that Jesus crossed social barriers. He did it all the time: touching lepers, partying with “sinners” (a hysterical categorization that reveals the self righteousness of the religious crowd), and then of course there’s the case of the Samaritan woman. She’s thrice an outsider: she’s a woman, she’s an adulteress, and she’s a Samaritan. Respectable people who studied their Bibles all day would literally go out of their way to avoid her. Not Jesus – instead, he goes out of his way to see her and converse with her.
He’s showing us how we’re to live. That’s why I’m so encouraged when people in our congregation “cross over” those barriers that normally divide us. My friend Lars is part of an immigrant resettlement project, and though I don’t know all the details of what that entails, I know that it means befriending those who are resettling here in the U.S.A. from other parts of the world. “Another part of the world” that’s losing people these days is Iraq, which is where Lar’s new friend is from.
It turns out that he was an Imam in Bagdad, a Muslim spiritual leader in the center of that city. There’s too much to his story to tell in this short space, but this man asked Lars if he could meet his pastor, and that’s how Lars and I met in a little Greek place by Greenlake with this man and his translator. I learned a great deal about Islam as we sat eating calamari, lamb, and pita bread – learned about the boatload of suffering he endured. If I told you even the little bit I know, I fear you might miss my point, so I’ll spare you the details. It was, though, one of the richest conversations I’ve enjoyed all year.
I asked him what he thought of America and he told me that, because of many things he and his family have suffered, he had a very low view of America – and Americans…until he met Lars. He reached out and held Lars’ hand and it was clear that they were friends. Lars has crossed the street, has invested in a life, would tell you he’s been blessed by the friendship, and all this with a people group many Americans are quick to objectify, fear, or loathe.
I’d forgotten my credit card when I left the restaurant, and so a few minutes later, back out my church, I saw Lars and the Imam outside my office window (he’d come by the church with my credit card). I went down, and gave him, per his a request, a tour of our church building. He asked what happens when we gather for worship and I pointed to the wall where we display words to songs, and scriptures to be read. He glanced at the pew and asked about our book. I told him it was a Bible, and soon I was reading the passage from which I spoke this past weekend. The translator worked hard to express things; the Imam listened with fierce intensity. The passage was about becoming like innocent children, coming to Jesus, and finding rest.
He asked if we had an Bibles in Arabic and I told him we didn’t but that I’d get him one. He brightened. The translator wanted one too. I told that about Deuteronomy 6 and how we believe in the declaration that our God is One. He spoke of “the prophet”. We spoke, together, of the need to listen; and then we parted.
If crossing social barriers is the way of Jesus (and it is) then Lars, I want to thank you for being the presence of Christ in this man’s life, and for giving me a glimpse into what it means to offer a space of hospitality in our broken world. On Thanksgiving Day our church will open it’s doors to serve people, whoever God might bring, with a big feast and the hope is that people from many stations of life will come together and enjoy genuine community, a snapshot of God’s good reign. Thanks to my friend Tom, and his team for all that cooking, and the friends like Karen, and Ben who are showing me the way of Jesus when it comes to crossing.
All these crossings, all this hospitality and serving – this is the Christian life. But it’s more: this is the hope of the world. The Word crossed over… emptied Himself… moved in for a while… served, loved, and laid down his life. Now it’s our turn.