by Michelle Terry
Something happens when you begin training for ministry. Your words and actions – whether from the pulpit or not — become more significant to others. People watch your actions and hear your words and associate both with God.
When I first became a pastor, I found the weight of this responsibility to be excruciating. I’ve since adjusted to it, though I am constantly aware of it. Still, a certain tension remains. When to speak? When to stay silent? What to say when it’s time to speak? Given the host of hot-button issues in our world today, these questions can be difficult to answer.
Jesus’ new commandment
Some time ago, I began using Jesus’ new commandment as my guide. Given on the night in which he was betrayed, this is the word of a man who knows death is imminent. Jesus realizes he doesn’t have much time, so he imparts these final words, the last instructions for his ragtag team of followers, right after humbling himself and washing their feet.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). That’s it. Our primary task in life with Christ is to love.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, anxiety and anger rose to fever pitch in our country. Debates raged. Islamophobia gripped our politicians and our talks around the water cooler. It seemed to me that the theme was “We must stay safe at all costs!”
Naturally, I too wanted to remain safe, but something didn’t feel right. So I began researching how the turmoil caused by ISIS in the Middle East led to a refugee crisis that rippled around the world. I prayed and wondered and worried. I remembered Jesus’ new commandment, and the thought wouldn’t leave me that Jesus didn’t add “when it is convenient” or even “when it’s safe.”
He simply said love. His life and death bore witness to God’s emphasis on loving those who are hurting, persecuted, hated.
So I preached on the refugee crisis in the Middle East, though I was so nervous I felt like I was back in seminary. I led a Bible study about our response, as Christians, to ISIS and the ensuing debate. During that study, I was asked a question about Islam that I couldn’t answer. In a flash that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit, I realized that if someone had a question about Lutheran beliefs, I would rather they simply ask me directly — so I emailed the local mosque. I invited a speaker to teach us about Islam.
True, this is not the bravest, boldest step ever taken. But it is also not like me. A social activist I am not, though I greatly admire those who are. I preach, I teach and I serve my little corner of the world, and I tend to leave the big stuff to others.
And yet, I could not let the only voices people heard be those of hate and fear. I could not pretend that this would be in any way compatible with the gospel of Christ. My culpability in remaining silent while God’s beloved children suffered convicted me.
|Pastor Sara Cutter of Zion Lutheran, Middletown, Ohio and Pastor Michelle Terry (Middle) of Bethlehem Lutheran also in Middletown, Ohio pose with Dr. B. Salem Foad (Right) from the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.|
In February, we cohosted the event “Understanding Islam” with another ELCA congregation in town. It went well. Our speaker was beyond gracious and informative. I was stunned to learn how little I actually knew about the Islamic faith. I was less surprised to discover the many ways that Christian values and Islamic values agree. These two distinct faiths do hold dear many of the same tenets.
“By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples”
I began this reflection by relating how people sometimes make judgments about God based on the actions of a pastor – but actually, that’s true for every single person who follows Christ. When we remain silent or when we join the voices that call for more violence, more separation, more hatred, we risk giving others the impression that this is what God wants, too.
But the simple truth is that Jesus follows up his new commandment by telling the disciples (all of us!), “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
How much more compelling would Christ’s church be if we lived this out more faithfully? How much more clearly would the church reveal God’s love if every time someone shouted, “No, not you!” at another, the church replied even more loudly, “Yes, God says especially you!”
Learning from our Muslim neighbors was a sacred gift. All who attended are better for it.
Should you contact your nearest mosque? It certainly wouldn’t hurt. Still, God gives us so many ways to love one another well. Our privilege and our challenge is to find the unique ways God is calling us to love others in our own place and our own time, so that the whole world will know we are Jesus’ disciples.
Loving God, you fill us with your love and invite us to go share it with everyone. Help us to love others, even when it is difficult. Inspire and strengthen us to be your grace in the world. Amen.
1. What Bible passages have influenced your life? Helped you make decisions?
2. In what ways can you show God’s love to Muslim neighbors? to the Muslim community?
3. Is there a time in your life you showed love to another, even though it was difficult? How did the Spirit give you strength to do that?
Michelle Terry serves Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Middletown, Ohio. She is also a proud wife and mother of three young children, as well as an avid Buckeye football fan.
Photo of hands by Elizabeth McBride. Photos from the interfaith conversation at Bethlehem Lutheran, Middletown, Ohio, courtesy of the writer.