Sorry, but I don’t think that’s evangelism

I was just now in Foyles, trying to look at newish theology books. A couple of young women, one head-scarved, one not, came by. One said to the other that this is where she could get a Bible. Immediately, an older man by the shelves with a friend, leapt in: “The Bible, yes, you should read that. It’s true.”

The head-scarved woman hit back. “Are you saying that to be helpful, or because you’re prejudiced?” The dialogue, such as it was, developed. She tried to challenge him about his presuppositions. He denied he had presuppositions because he knew the truth, and indeed, knew the author of the Bible so he could understand what it said, since it was God’s word, and anyway, Jesus said the Bible was true.

When he quoted it, it was the KJV, and virtually all his quotations, prefixed “Jesus himself actually said” were from St John’s gospel: this is a definition of “actually said” which is somewhat stretches the semantic resources of that phrase!

He’d clearly also read some kind of “Evangelical Apologist’s Guide to Where Islam Goes WRONG”, and kept telling the woman what she believed, and why it was wrong, since it contradicted the Bible. He didn’t, of course, listen to what she was saying about her belief.

I give her credit for a) being feisty, b) not letting him get away with his views and c) being far more intelligent and sophisticated about truth, faith and texts than he was. She had the advantage that she’d read at least parts of the Bible, had Christian friends, and was an Arabist and student of the Quran. He knew the Authorised version, and what other people had told him about (I approximate his pronunciation) “The Book of Korrrr-ran”.

I wanted to apologise to her on behalf of other Christians. Instead I left to catch a train, leaving her with at least a friendly remark which she seemed to appreciate, and pointing out to the would-be evangelist that of course he had presuppositions, and if he wanted an honest conversation he’d acknowledge them.

There was no relationship in this conversation. There was no respect for her as a human being. There was no consideration of the dynamics of an older man approaching a young woman. There was no attempt to listen to what she actually said, since he “knew” what Muslims believed.

And I’m sorry, that’s not evangelism as I see it.

Evangelism might have started in that context with a “Do you need any help choosing a Bible?” and seeing where the conversation went. But it would have included listening to what the woman was saying, and not assuming that there was an automatic right of a man in his sixties to approach a head-scarved young woman with a peremptory challenge about her beliefs, before he’d even found out what they were, or received any signal his approach was welcome.

Frankly, it made me embarrassed to admit I was Christian.

Good neighbours. Sermon in Morogoro Cathedral

I don’t often cross post things. And I almost never post sermons. (In fact, I hardly ever write sermons down, so posting them would be an impossibility!) However, I put this on or diocesan web site earlier today, and I’ve decided I also want to place it here. I hope it reflects an encouragement to take partnership in mission and cross-cultural friendship seriously.

The Chair of our (Tanzanian Diocese of) Morogoro Partnership Group asked me if I could write down a summary version of the short sermon I preached in Morogoro Cathedral on Sunday 30 August. This is an approximation of what I said intended for phrase by phrase translation. I have tried to reconstruct what I said on that occasion, and run it by colleagues to check. I have added a couple of glosses in italics. The Gospel Reading set for the Sunday was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:23-37).

This is, as best as memory serves, what I said.

Dear brothers and sisters, thank you. Thank you for your warm welcome to our group, thank you for inviting us to join you today in worshipping our Lord, thank you for the privilege of this invitation to share the scriptures with you. Asante sana. (Thank you very much.) We have already read you our bishop’s greetings, and offered you our own, but again I greet you in the name of the Lord on behalf of our brothers and sisters – and yours also – in the diocese of Worcester.

My brother John has already read one of the most famous stories in the Bible, and one that is much loved in our church in England. Today I think that story gives us both a challenge and a comfort. Like many of Jesus’ stories, it starts with a question.

In my country, children are full of questions. I expect the same is true here in your lovely country as well. Children ask questions, don’t they? It is how they learn things they don’t know. But in my country, something happens when we grow up. A lot of us stop asking questions, in case people think we are stupid.

But Jesus tells us we must become like little children. That means a lot of things, but I think it means we must always go on asking questions, because we all have a lot to learn. And when it comes to reading our Bible, we must keep asking God questions about what it is he wants us to learn.

Today’s story starts with a question. It is not a good question. The teacher of the law, the expert, is like a Bible professor: he is asking his question not because he wants to know the answer, but because he wants to test Jesus. He wants to be able to say either “good answer” or “bad answer”, he is like a teacher giving a child a test.

Jesus is not trapped so easily. He makes the teacher give an answer. It is Jesus’ own favourite answer: “Love God, love your neighbour.”  Then Jesus says “Well done.” Imagine how it would be in the Bible College if the student tells the Principal “well done”, or in school if the child tells the teacher “Good answer”.

The teacher of the law is not happy, he tries again. “Who is my neighbour?” This sounds like a better question. But Jesus doesn’t like it. It sounds good, but it means: “Who are the people I have to love?” Is it my family? Then I can ignore those who are not family. Is it my village? Then I don’t have to help people in another village? Is it my country? Then I don’t have to love people from another country.

Brothers and sisters, we are all here together today because of we know Jesus not only wants us to love people from other countries, but wants to make us his brothers and sisters, and so make strangers, English, Tanzanian, people from all countries, into family. But the teacher of the law does not know this, and so he asks “Who is my neighbour? Who are the people I have to love, and therefore who are the rest who I can hate?”

And so Jesus tells the story of the man who falls among thieves and lies wounded and bleeding by the side of the road. The priest (the pastor) passes by, the levite (the catechist) passes by, the Samaritan (the foreigner, the heretic) stops to help. And at the end of the story Jesus asks his own question: “Who was a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?”.

Look at Jesus’ question: “Who was a neighbour?” It means our question must not be the question of the teacher “Who is my neighbour?” but a new question: “Who can I be a neighbour to?” The Samaritan turned the wounded man into a neighbour by helping him: he did not see a Jew, he did not see a relative, he did not see a fellow countryman, he saw a man in need of help. He saw a man who needed love. And he helped, he loved, without asking questions about the man’s race, or family, or wealth, or status. This is Jesus’ challenge to us: he wants me, he wants you, to be a neighbour to anyone who needs help.

But there is also comfort. St Augustine was a great north African theologian 1600 years ago. Once he preached a sermon on this story in which he said the Good Samaritan was Jesus himself. He did not think of the risks to himself, he did not ask if we were worthy of help, but he loved us, and gave himself for us. He brought us to an inn, his holy church, so that we could be cared for, he handed over two coins: baptism, in which we are washed clean of our sins, and holy communion, the food of life which sustains and heals us.

There are times in our lives when we feel unable to help another, when we feel like the man who is wounded, beaten, bleeding by the side of the road. We are unable to get up unaided and continue our journey through life. But Jesus is always there to help us, to rescue us, to carry us and save us. And in his holy church he gives us each other to act as neighbours, to act as brothers, to act as sisters, to love, and care for, and help each other. This is a great comfort, that we do not journey alone, but with Jesus, and his whole company of friends.

Brothers and sisters, I spoke of St Augustine, child of Africa. He was not only a bishop and teacher for his own church, but his writings, his sermons have inspired the church for hundreds of years. One of the greatest theologians and teachers who has ever lived was African. And there were Christians in Africa before there were Christians in England. In my country and in your country we need to remember this.

Yet for many centuries, there were very few Christians in Africa. In many places, the church disappeared. In recent centuries, European countries acted as neighbours again and brought the faith of Jesus back to Africa. We were not always good neighbours. Even if we shared the faith, we did many things neighbours should not do. Many times in the past we Europeans behaved more like the thieves and not like the Good Samaritan. But now our Christian faith is strong again in you.

In Africa, Christianity disappeared in most places for centuries. In England, in Europe, it is disappearing today. We are like the wounded man by the side of the road. We need a neighbour. In Europe, in England, the church needs a neighbour to help us on our journey. You know you have much material poverty in your country. We have more poverty than you think, but we are still a rich country – in money, in buildings, in material things. Yet we have grown very poor in the things of the Spirit. You are very rich in the Spirit, in faith, in hope, and in love of Jesus. We need you to be neighbours to us as well, to be a neighbour to our church, to bind up our wounds and support us on the journey.

Brothers and sisters, I thank God for our friendship link. I thank God that Morogoro and Worcester can each give something to one another. That we can belong together to the family of Jesus, his one holy church. That we can help each other. That we are neighbours to each other. I pray that we will continue to learn to be good neighbours.

Bwana asifiwe. (= “Praise the Lord”. Response: Amen)

Alleluia. (Response: Amen.)