What Would Jesus Do?

Address to the Commissioner Convocation Dinner

213th General Assembly
Louisville, KY
June 8, 2001
Sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians 

Freda Gardner
Professor Emerita of Christian Education
Princeton Theological Seminary
Moderator of the 211th General Assembly

Excerpts from this address appear in Covenant Connection Vol. 4, #3.

In Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, she speaks at one point of a situation at her son Sam’s school when she, Anne, was finding herself mentored by a very efficient and somewhat officious other mother who was driving Anne crazy. Wanting to reply to one of that woman’s suggestions, Anne was held in check by the thought that her reply, if uttered, would be enough, and here I am quoting: “. . . enough to make Jesus want to drink gin out of the cat dish.”

If that quote isn’t enough to make you wonder, I have to add, in an effort to speak the truth, that I have one of those Lamott moments with some frequency.

One of the surest triggers for me is to be advised to consider: “What would Jesus do?” The question irritates because, I think, just by being Jesus, Jesus does. Who he is is what he does, or, to turn it around, what he says is who he is, the One in whom there is no guile. There’s little evidence in Scripture that Jesus spent a lot of time wondering how to say something or how to act. he does and says who he is. There’s none of that stuff that we’re supposed to be rid of when we get through adolescence, although some of us have not been able to pull that off, or at least we can’t pull it off consistently.

I’m remembering a time when I had invited one of the girls in our congregation’s youth group to spend the weekend with me when her parents were going to be away and she had been invited to a great party. Before the party, we were talking about it, and she said that she hadn’t decided who she’d be that evening. Should she be the life of the party or the slightly pathetic “I’m easily hurt” waif or the compassionate strong confidante? These were serious considerations, and she was spending a lot of time and energy sorting out the possibilities.

There’s no evidence of an arrested adolescence in Jesus, and still we ask: “What would Jesus do?” And maybe, after all, it’s not such a bad question, even for those of us who think we know the answer.

I wonder if Jesus looks at our Church and sees so many congregations without pastors or educators and just shrugs and says, “Hey, that’s where we are.” I wonder if Jesus looks at those congregations and then turns to take in the scores of women and men, fully qualified, educated, called, poised to take on those leadership roles and sees also the single barrier that keeps them from using the gifts they have been given for the building-up of his Body, for the work of ministry among his people.

What would Jesus do? Maybe head for the cat dish. Again.

Or maybe, sometimes, he’d look at me and know at once that I am having a hard time with the “slow-to-see” and the “quick-to-condemn” and the “my-truth-is-all-there-is” crowd. Maybe he’d know that I’d never carry a sign saying “Jesus Hates All Haters” or “God Despises the I’ll-Never-Change” set but would also see in me ugly truths just below the surface: the stone in my hand, the twenty pieces in my fist, the quick joining of the “get-him-to-the-cliff-and-throw-him-off” crowd.

I wonder what Jesus would see and what he would do. I can ask the question with the best of them, even though I do know that Jesus has already done it. By being who he is, he has answered the question for every age with his life, his words, his death, and his resurrection.

How many ways does anyone have to inquire about who God loves? How often does anyone have to wonder if there are some to whom God gave no gifts for the common good? How frequently do we have to ask if it’s the right time, when we have heard “This is the time of your visitation”? When is it that we who proclaim one God will begin to live as if we believe that, no matter by what name that One God is named?

What else can Jesus do? He accepted lepers and persistent women and children and tax collectors and scoffers and those who couldn’t or wouldn’t see and aliens and the self-righteous and the overly ambitious.

And then there’s us.

And also them. We believe that Jesus loves us, the same Jesus who mentioned other sheep and said, “Unless you come as a child,” the one who helps us know that what God has made clean, let no one make unclean.

What would Jesus do? My hunch is that he’ll probably sit down at the long tables, maybe at B22 and G14 and T7, and undoubtedly at B23 and G13 and T8. He’ll be there when the first votes are cast and when the debate brings some to anger and some to tears. When R38 votes “yes” and W19 votes “no,” Jesus will be with each of them, saying who he is and reminding them of what he has done, and maybe will shake his head and feel the pain because some will not see or understand.

And when we, or they, throw the first stone, the stone of words or groans, of tears or anger, of smugness or despair, we may . . . will hit Jesus first.

How’s it ever going to be different? What can we do besides endure? Jesus did overturn the table of the moneychangers. Jesus did name the one who would betray him. Jesus did tell his closest followers to shake the dust from their feet if they were not welcomed, but then he was always found with the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the naked, and the vulnerable.

Are the ones we know and love the only ones who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the only ones who are locked up unfree, unable to accept the abundant life God has promised, the only ones who tremble, who shrink from real and imagined threats? When I hate, I am the one who hates and whose life is shaped by hate. If I am afraid, I am one with the fearful, those who do not believe that God can be trusted. If I am self-righteous, I cannot know the righteousness of God.

Several weeks ago in my congregation, our pastor preached from the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel the story of Jesus’ healing of the man who had been ill for thirty-eight years who had no one to put him in the water when the water was stirred up. David Davis, my pastor, spoke about our need to know about the motivation, the inner thoughts, the presence of faith in those who were healed by Jesus.

Among other things, David said, “The religious leaders just had to know more. It had to do with power and control. To admit we can never know enough about the heart and motivation of those who encountered Jesus of Nazareth is to come to grips with the fact that the focus of the Gospel always says more about God’s grace and less about us. And when you can’t figure it all out, when you finally figure out that you’ll never know all about “them,” well, then you’re sort of left with this absurd grace that pours out on you. While the Church is worried about them, the grace of God is played out up on that hill, on the Cross of Calvary. God sends his Son to die on the Cross, and you and I are still trying to figure out if the lame man deserved to be healed.” Or figure out if the “thems” of our life are worthy of God’s love.

The events of the last decades in the life of our church and in our personal lives have been about a lot more than a few lines in our humanly-created guide for living as Christ’s church. Each time we have tried or cried, voted or organized, strategized or despaired, given up or acted out our resolve, we have been given the opportunity to be Christ’s ministers in the world. We know the shape of his ministry. We choose again and again. Sometimes we have a sense of achievement, and other times we wonder if we will live long enough to see what new thing God is doing in our midst.

I want to close with a story from last year’s Assembly and from this year. Some of you have heard most of the story. It began at the Assembly last year sometime before the vote, the one in which nine more would have made the difference.

I was leaving the floor of the Assembly when a woman, an older woman, stopped and asked me if she could speak with me. She said she was a commissioner, first-time, and had been very nervous about her ability to fulfill expectations. She had read all the reports and prayed that God would see her through this very new experience. Then, before coming, she’d heard about the protest and the counter-protest that would be part of the Long Beach scene. She confessed that she’d never been anywhere near a protest and was frightened about it, and prayed once again for guidance.

On Sunday morning, she was walking toward the worship service when she saw the signs, the signs with words of hate and scorn, and she was frightened to tears.

She told me, “I asked God to please see me through this.” And then she told me how, when she turned away from the signs, she saw other women and men with linked arms, heads up, smiling and making eye contact with those who looked at them. By now, tears were in her eyes as she grabbed my hand and said, “I was wrong. I knew I’d been wrong. How do I go back to my church?”

We talked for a few more minutes, and she went back to her seat, and I came to the room where some of you were very upset about the latest attempt to thwart your efforts, an act of violence and, in my words, cowardice. And I shared the story of that woman with you, and I thought the story was ended.

Less than two months ago, I was at a meeting of Presbyterian women of one of our synods, and at one meal I sat down with two women I had not yet met. We’d begun to talk when another woman joined us. I don’t remember how she got into the conversation, but she soon began to speak about an experience she’d had at last year’s Assembly. It took me a while to realize I was hearing the same story I’d heard in Long Beach. I looked at her and said, “Did you tell me this on the floor of the Assembly as I was walking out of the room?” She looked at me and, with some surprise, said, “Oh yes, it was you!” I don’t know what that says about what happened to me in a year, but…And then she told the rest of the story, about her returning home and her continuing concern about how to share with her friends and fellow church members what she now saw so clearly.

And then she told us that it was just a few weeks later that her daughter came home from where she was living and working to tell her mother that she was a lesbian.

What would Jesus do? What does Jesus do? Maybe sometimes he takes the most awful language and the most blatant hatred and uses it to prepare a woman for a new form of discipleship, and a mother for a daughter who is ready to claim herself and trust that love will sustain such a revelation. Maybe, indeed, God’s purpose is being worked out as year succeeds to year. Maybe the time is drawing nearer and nearer, the time that shall surely be. And maybe God makes it possible for a whole story to be heard and shared and lets it bear the fruit of a conviction that truth will finally define the day and the people of God will take one more step toward the new Heaven and the new Earth that God is creating in our midst.

What can we do to hasten the time, the time that shall surely be, when the Earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea? I hope, indeed, I pray that I, that we, will not be the wounders, that our truth-telling will be in love, that we will recognize whoever will become the “them” of this Assembly as the other ones loved by God, offered new life in Christ, being nudged by the Spirit. I hope that we will put strong arms around the wounded among us, our friends who have suffered so much, our friends who have fought the good fight for a very, very long time, our friends who wonder if they have a future in this Church, those who have run out of patience or steam or hope, and hug them with the compassionate love of Jesus, who will be there, wherever we and they are.

And I hope that many of us will be given the strength to see God’s other frightened, manipulative, defensive children and to let God’s love reveal them to us as our sisters and brothers. It takes more courage to love than it does to hate, and more grace. I think it’s what Jesus would do . . . and has done . . . and can do . . . with us.