When I lived in Japan as a missionary many years ago, I heard a lot of stories. I heard stories of Japanese Christians, and how they came to faith. Some of the stories were from the time immediately after Japan lost World War II. It was a time when the Japanese people did a lot of soul-searching.
I heard one story about man who had been in the military during World War II. I no longer remember his position, but I still remember the American pastor pointing to the pew where this man always sat, every single Sunday. He threw away his Shinto "god-shelf" when he became a Christian. He no longer venerated his ancestors as you were bound to do, as a good Japanese man. He was all in.
What had finally convinced him of the truth of the Christian faith?
It was the story of the creation of the world. The Shinto religion only had a creation story for the creation of Japan. But the Christian faith -- their creation story told of the creation of the whole world. Therefore, the Christian God must be the greater God. The Christian God is the God of the whole world, not just one country.
The Christian faith is a tiny minority in Japan. All of the churches where I worshipped were small, just fifty or sixty people making a congregation. Yet there was a witness of the good news in Japan, good news of great joy to all the people: not just one country.
After three years of living and working in Japan, I returned to the United States. I remembered this man's story, although I'm not sure exactly why. Perhaps it was so odd to me. I am used to testimonies that focus on the grace of God in Jesus. I'm used to hearing stories that focus on personal redemption. And all of that might have been there. But the final piece of the puzzle for this man -- was that the Christian God created the whole world. A god bigger than his country -- that was a god he would follow. A God who created the whole world was a god worth believing in, a god worth following.
A God who created the whole world. A God who loves the whole world. Not just one country. That is the God we confess when we come to church every Sunday. That is the God we claim to follow. So as much as I love my country, as much as I love this place I call home, I have to believe that God has wider concerns. God loves the people fleeing violence in Central America, the displaced children in Syria, people who are starving, no matter their country. God wants them to be fed. God wants them to know God's love and grace.
In the Scriptures there are stories of a promised land and a chosen people: Abraham and Isaac, and the nation of Israel. But the chosen people were always set within a larger story: the story of a God who created, and loves, the whole world. Not just me, but you. Not just American children, but children from Syria, children from Guatemala, children who are hungry, children who are afraid. Wherever they are.
Tonight I am thinking about that Japanese man, the one who threw away his god-shelf and went all-in, who never thought that being Japanese and being Christian were the same thing. Maybe it was easy, in a country where there were only a few Christians. But even here in the United States, where there are many more Christians, I think we need to make a distinction. I need to make a distinction. I need to throw away my god-shelf and go all in.
I believe in a God who is bigger than my country.