Reflections

What makes us Christians?

For those of us who say that we’re Christians, what is it that defines us as a people?  Certain things about ourselves are determined for us.  Things like our birth parents, our ethnicity, our skin color, the shape of our eyes, even the condition of our bodies to some extent.  But other things we choose for ourselves.  The people we choose to love and hold onto, our families, our spouses, our friends, and our faith.  We choose to be Christian.  But if that’s the case there has to be a way for us to determine if we are or not.  Jesus made it really simple.  Love one another.  Not sometimes.  All the time.  Love one another. 

The Pharisees were always trying to trip Jesus up.

They wanted to embarrass him, ridicule him, make him seem small in front of the crowds so people would stop following him, so they were always testing him (when they weren’t trying to kill him).  And on this one particular day after finding out that Jesus had silenced their rivals, the Sadducees, they tried to get him with this question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  The Law, as you probably know, was the set of rules that had been passed down for generations by the Hebrew people.  Maybe this expert was hoping he could get Jesus to make a mistake, but Jesus quickly answered the question, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 

It’s kind of funny when you look at Jesus’ answer. 

The expert never asked what the second greatest commandment was, but Jesus thought it was important enough to package them together.  The truth is how can you truly love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind if you don’t love your neighbor? John wrote about this in one of his letters to the church.  In 1 John 4, he writes, “20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”  But that is a lesson far too many people seem to have forgotten.  People who claim to be Christian, yet refuse to get vaccinated.  People who claim to be Christian, but assault Asian-Americans (and elderly Asian-Americans at that) just because of how they look.  People who claim to be Christian and assert that taking away a woman’s freedom to choose is about protecting life, but then feel equally passionate about denying them food, housing, and medical assistance.  The hypocrisy of claiming to be Christian and yet clinging onto so many unchristian actions is sickening.  And if it’s sickening to us, is it any wonder why there are so many who are abandoning the church? 

The problem is people are hiding their own fears and prejudices behind the shield of Christianity.

Claiming it’s their faith that guides them gives them an out for behaving so poorly instead of owning up to the truth behind their claims.  A close examination of our faith would reveal those hypocrisies for what they are.  But most people on the outside are not familiar enough with our beliefs and our teachings to know the difference, so when someone claims faith as an excuse they think, “Well, who would want to be part of a faith that believes in THAT?”  And they would be right.  The answer is for us to get out into the world and SHOW our faith to others in tangible, real ways that reshape the conversation.  Who we are as believers in Christ should be so obvious that the next time someone claims it’s their “God-given right” to own a gun and shoot someone, it’s easy to say, “No, it’s not.”  We have to do a better job of showcasing our faith.  Not with bumper stickers or t-shirts, but with genuine compassion for our fellow human beings.  As John writes earlier in his letter, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).”  Indeed, this is completely in line with Jesus’ final commandment he gave to the disciples.  When he said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).” It’s by our love that the world will recognize us for who we are. 

The red or “hazardous” areas were reserved for African-Americans and other people of color (from Berkeleyside.org)

When we were a very young church, we were a shelter for others in our neighborhood.

Literally, our neighborhood was a consequence of redlining by racist politicians of their day.  It’s hard to believe in Berkeley where social justice is a bastion of our community that at one time we were segregated by race in these city streets, but it’s true.  The area surrounding our church was specifically for Asian immigrants, particularly Japanese immigrants, and their families, so when the Methodist church decided to reach out to those immigrants, it only made sense to plant a church right in the middle of their community.  THAT is the hallmark of Christianity and particularly of Methodism.  Our Methodist history grew out of John Wesley’s desire to take Christianity to the people.  Others thought he was crazy to go out into the park and into public gatherings to share the good news of Jesus, but he got tired of a church that was insular and isolated.  He felt God’s call on his heart to share God’s Word any way that he could.  And if that meant taking it to the people, then that’s what he did.  He went to where the people were.  Did he make mistakes?  For sure.  Was he always right?  Not by a long shot.  But his genuine desire to share God’s love formed the foundation for our church and others like it.  It’s that belief that inspired people like Frank Herron Smith to reach out to a culture and a people very different from his own and work so hard at cultivating relationships across those barriers.  It’s why we dedicated our sanctuary to his legacy, because the love he showed was so genuine we couldn’t help but be inspired by it.  And indeed many were so inspired they followed in their footsteps to become pastors and missionaries and servants of God in their own right. 

Outreach should be invitational in a non-threatening, non-judgmental, but still faith-based way

It’s time for us to reach out to our neighborhood and be our own inspiration to others.

Gone are the days of opening up the doors and watching people come in.  Gone are the days when the church was the hub of society and the center of our social life.  People would come to church to have those water cooler talks they might not otherwise have.  You’d come to church to talk to your civic leaders or your teachers or your coach.  You’d come to find spouses and dates to the prom and buddies to hang out with.  Today that role has been taken by others who do it far better than we do.  If not Starbucks then you’ve got Facebook and Instagram and a whole plethora of other options to build culture and connection.  And people crave connection.  Human beings are created by God to crave being in community.  We’re just not exactly picky about what kind of community that is.  So the church has to continue to evolve.  We have to reach out in new ways and go beyond our doors and out into a world that needs the love of Christ more than ever before. 

We have a unique opportunity.

Our church is so fortunate to be situated in the middle of an actual neighborhood.  Most churches are located in downtown areas or on busy street corners where there is lots of traffic, and that might seem like a smart move to take advantage of being in a high traffic area, but BMUC is situated in the middle of a community.  There are families living all around us.  There are schools and houses and people living everyday lives right here where we are.  Now it’s up to us to reach out to them, to take advantage of our location, our heritage, and our resources to share the love of Christ with those right here in our neighborhood.  We already have this beautifully landscaped front area leading up to the church that’s warm and inviting, and we have this incredible lower parking lot that our entire neighborhood passes by every day.  I’m hoping we can utilized these gifts in a way that will bring attention to who we are – not to brag or boast which is certainly unchristian – but to inspire and offer something everyone needs – the love of Jesus Christ.

Our Flowering of the Cross inspired non-churchgoers to ask questions of faith

I have a passion for outreach.

And that’s because I know if the people in the church hadn’t reached out to me, I never would have developed a relationship with Jesus.  I would have been just another person who THOUGHT my life was swell.  And it was.  But my life is so much better and deeper and richer for having Christ in it.  And don’t we want that for everybody?  Wouldn’t this be a great world if everyone lived by the teachings of Christ?  Loving one another and caring for each other?  We can’t do that huddled inside the church.  We have to invite people in and we have to open up our doors and take church outside the walls.  And it has to be more than just movie nights and clean comedy.  Our goal isn’t to have them walk into the building.  That’s easy.  Our goal is to invite them to explore a relationship with God.  That’s why we do Cookies and Carols.  Everyone loves singing Christmas songs, but we try to make sure we don’t just sing standards, but also hymns and carols we would typically sing in church that talk about Christ.  That’s why we do the Easter Egg Hunt.  Not just so kids get free candy, but so we can share the story of Jesus in a non-threatening, non-judgmental but fun way (that includes candy).  And I’m hoping we can do other things that are both fun and faith-based.  This year we’re planning on doing a Blessing of the Animals in our parking lot and invite the community along.  Seems like everyone in Berkeley has a pet so why not offer to say a prayer of blessing over them and maybe offer some treats for both humans and pets alike?  These are stepping stone ways of introducing faith without being overbearing or judgmental and I hope we expand on those invitational opportunities as we grow together. 

I would also love for us to do mission work in the public eye.

Again, not to brag or pat ourselves on the back, but to do two things – one, give others outside the church the chance to participate in what we do on a regular basis and help others.  And two, to let people know the church is about more than helping ourselves, but wanting to meet the needs of our community.   The more people know us for our acts of love, kindness, and compassion, the more they’ll want to be a part of who we are.  I believe people are drawn to that kind of positive energy that comes from helping one another. 

Every church in America is worried about finances.

But if we FOCUS on that, if we make THAT the measure of success, we will fall short every time.  It is the quickest way to spell failure.  Instead, we need to focus on what we have to offer our community that might be different than what they hear about in the news and see on their screens.  If they can come to know us by the love we share, if they realize what we stand for instead of what we stand against, it will inspire them to come see for themselves what it is that has transformed our lives.  And after all, isn’t that what we are about?  Transforming lives through Christ’s love? 

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