This week commemorated the 75th anniversary of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. I drove through Grovers Mill on the way home from worship this morning in Plainsboro, after Anita Milne told the story as background to her sermon. She retold the story of Zacchaeus as a parable read by a runaway Martian from the invasion in 1938. The advantage of hearing the familiar Bible story from the point of view of a Martian is that we can differentiate ourselves from all of our traditional premises in hearing the story. Was Zacchaeus or Jesus the one who was short? Was Zacchaeus saved by Jesus’s visit to his home, or was Zacchaeus already living a faithful life, but not recognized as such by the community which was prejudiced against him? Anita told the congregation that there are 14 ways to hear and interpret the story …
Church growth guru’s have suggested that one way to evaluate your congregation is to imagine that you bring a friend who is not familiar with your church to your worship service. What parts of the service would you need to interpret? What parts would embarrass you? What parts would you think they’d find especially meaningful? What kinds of questions would they have? What would you say?
When my family and I were hosting international exchange students and I was volunteering with AFS, we often had non-Christian and non-western students with us for church and for the holidays. I remember how especially difficult it was to describe the importance of Easter to an agnostic, but traditional Buddhist, girl from Thailand. All of our Christian assumptions were seen for the first time. Why do you decorate eggs? What do eggs have to do with Easter? Was Jesus real? What do you mean he rose from the dead? Why did they kill him? This is good? What does it have to do with the Easter bunny? Or the girl from Viet Nam we hosted through Christmas International House who was introduced to Santa Claus for the first time: I should sit on the old man’s lap? Tell him my wishes? Exactly why is this not creepy?
Strangers, foreigners, aliens question the things we take for granted and bring more light to the how and why we do what we do or believe what we believe. This is one of the reasons it’s GOOD to be with people who believe differently than we do. One of the reasons it’s GOOD for us to engage others in faith conversations, not to convince them we’re right, but to allow them to challenge us to a new and deeper understanding of Christ.
So, in honor of the dodranscentennial of the fake martian invasion, let’s imagine we’re describing our church experience to an alien … a real alien. Someone not familiar at all with our assumptions, our experience, our faith, or our beliefs. What would the martian think of the way we worship, the faith we share? What would we be challenged by? What would we be embarrassed by? In some ways, our neighbors who are not church-goers, who were not raised in the church, who may not be Christian at all … these neighbors may have the same questions. What does that mean for us?