One of the most treasured parts of our church community is its global flavor. There are at least 15 different nationalities represented at St. John’s, an amazing variety of peoples that mirrors the boundary-crossing mission of Jesus himself. Just three miles from Nazareth where Jesus drew up, there was a major crossroads through which people from all over the world passed. There, Jesus experienced firsthand what was often called “Galilee of the Nations” (Isaiah 9:1). It’s something to keep in mind when reading about Jesus’ ministry to individuals like the Samaritan woman who he befriended as a Jew despite the centuries of animosity between them (John 4). Then there was Jesus’ commendation of a Roman soldier’s faith who boldly trusted his power to heal (Matt. 8), and his compassion for the daughter of a Canaanite woman (Matt. 15). Jesus welcomed the curious and the critics and, being no respecter of persons, he spoke with kings and lepers and little children alike. All to say that Jesus fulfilled the prophetic mission of Israel to bring God’s light and love to the nations (Isaiah 9).
Along these same lines, we celebrate this weekend the birth of the Child who drew magi from Persia, to worship beside a manger with a Jewish family from Nazareth; and we recall with gratitude the Egyptians who welcomed the Holy Family when they fled Herod’s deadly plot. Last Sunday I was reminded of such stories when one of our church members, who grew up in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, shared how Jesus first touched her as a child. The following is Katya Chelu’s memories of “Christmas in Ramallah.”
There’s nothing more thrilling and delightful than the Christmas of curious little Moslem children imitating the Christian children in Palestine and the rest of the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S.
We, adolescents and children of all ages went out to forage for trees in the forest
nearby where we often had our picnics. There were white pine and spruce trees from which we cut our branches. Some youngsters made the Christmas tree from any fruit tree they could find. For decorations, we had extracted gold and silver tinsel from candy wrappers and made snow from cotton balls. For gifts, we placed fruits, cookies and chocolates in little boxes we glued together and set at little wooden tables we made from some material construction left in the back yard along with gigantic building nails. To these tables, we also added tiny slices of apples and oranges and ate all in celebration of Christmas to our hearts’ content.
For my family, there was an invitation to attend the Quaker Christmas pageant at Friends High School for Boys which the male members of my family attended. We asked the neighbors next door to go with us and we all had a blast. Of course, both adults and children made mistakes such as sit down when we were supposed to stand and vis-à- vis. We reveled in the music and performances, but what touched our heart strings the most was the school’s choir whose melodic voices wafted through the air like angels singing in the heavens. I believe that’s when the beloved Jesus first tapped me on the shoulder to follow Him and what a sweet and heavenly beckoning that was!
When I heard this story, the universal language of hospitality and genuine friendship struck me, so critical to conversations about faith and values. But what Katya reminds me of today is the truth that even before such words of faith are spoken, we can simply and sincerely invite. We can welcome friends, neighbors, and family members from different cultures and backgrounds to a Christmas Eve service, or a simple cup of coffee – which, by the way, is a significant act of hospitality in the Middle East. We can also accept such invitations, with graciousness and an eagerness to learn from those who are different from us. When we do, we bear testimony to the love of Jesus. And for many, our simple but sincere invitation, across boundaries of culture, religion, and prejudice, may indeed be Jesus’ first “tap on the shoulder.” Hope to see you soon…