I jotted down the first notes for the sermon this morning a couple of weeks ago. Long before that crazy video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad went viral in the Arab world becoming the spark which ignited angry demonstrations that, in recent days, have filled the news and providing the cover for what now seems to be terrorist attacks on US Embassies and Consulates. Back then, I imagined this morning’s sermon to be an upbeat one which shared with you information about a new interfaith youth program for high school students that we are helping to launch next week. Needless to say, the events of the last week have changed both the tenor of the sermon and amplified the importance of what we are hoping to create. At a recent lecture I attended, Eboo Patel, the founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core said:
“We live in the most religiously diverse country in the world. We live in the most religiously devote country in the west. And the conflicts in which we are involved are framed as religious conflicts.”
So, with that…
This morning, two dangerous questions are on the table.
1. First, can you be a Christian, believe in and follow Jesus, take the Bible seriously including the verse at the end of Matthew’s gospel which has Jesus telling his disciples to go out into the world making disciples of all nations, and still accept and learn from and honor the witness and practice of other religions? Not to convert them and not merely to acknowledge their presence, but to honor the truth their traditions hold and to stand alongside them and to partner with them?
2. Second, with the headlines in the news and all that we have been through and, according to nation polls, what seems to be the prevailing sentiment in our country today, to decide about this: Is Islam fundamentally evil? Or, bad? Or, a religion prone to violence?
As an example of the importance of these questions I read this in this morning’s New York Times in the section entitled “Sunday Dialogue: Conflicts Over Religion.” A person from Oregon wrote:
“How can there be peace when two major religions, Christianity and Islam, consider non-believers to be infidels, or worse? As long as Christianity and Islam teach that each is the only way to God, that all else is wrong there will be no peace.”
The first question first…
I grew up in a small town just outside Pittsburgh, PA where Presbyterians were a dime a dozen because grandparents and great-grandparents had immigrated to western Pennsylvania from Scotland and Ireland. And, where you could, and still can, find a Presbyterian Church on every other street corner. Growing up there, the touchstone verse of my childhood was John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
That verse shaped both my faith and my understanding of Christianity.
If you were Christian and believed in God’s only Son you were saved.
If you did not, you were not.
A couple of times each year our little church collected supplies for missionary barrels that were then sent to men and women in the far corners of the world who were teaching others about Jesus and converting them to the Christian faith. I went to college with that world view. In college I had something of a born again type experience which took the faith of my childhood and transformed it into an emerging commitment as a young adult. But rather than turning in the direction of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or the campus branch of the Christian Fellowship my newly emerging faith was shaped by Thomas Merton and by the Taize Community in France and by the research I was doing on the life and teachings and work of Mohandas Gandhi. But still, “for God so loved the world…” provided the framework within which I thought about my faith.
That way of thinking about my faith worked pretty well for a pretty long time. It was when we moved to Bedford and to this congregation that the tremors that had started years before began in earnest and the ground around me began to shift. For the first time in my life I found myself in a serious conversation with people who were not Christian. Bedford Presbyterian Church and Temple Shaaray Tefila worshipped together. Rabbi David Greenberg and I taught classes together. I discovered that the way he thought about his life and faith was not all that different than how I thought about my life and faith. At the same time all that was taking place, a young woman who had grown up in this congregation asked if she could speak to me. Her faith was important to her. This congregation was important to her. And, she had fallen in love with a man who was Jewish. My guess is that John 3:16 loomed in the background of her mind, as it did in mine. How should I respond?
Around that same time a good friend told me about his father-in-law, a pastor in the Reformed Church of America, who stood in the pulpit one Sunday morning and shared with the congregation that when he got to heaven he fully expected to see people there who were Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist. His remarks touched off a firestorm of criticism which lead to his being fired for being honest.
With all that, I was forced to reread and restudy the Bible and to reconsider what I had been taught and thought I knew. In the world in which I now knew and with the people that I now knew, John 3: 16, at least the way I had understood it as a child, did not work for me anymore.
I could not see God condemning them to hell.
I could not see my job being to convert my Jewish colleagues and friends.
I came to realize that my role…
As both a pastor and a Christian was to be the best Christian I could be and, in doing so, encourage them to be the best Jew they could be.
But, the truth is, much of larger Christian community, to say nothing of some within Presbyterian Church, disagreed and continues to disagree with my answer. Not too many years ago a sizeable portion of the Presbyterian Church sought to codify a specific set of beliefs that all Presbyterians would affirm. Many of those “standards of faith” would have made sense when I was a child, but they no longer fit in my world today. The challenge for those of us who have moved away from the view that it is Christianity or nothing is both to know enough about Christianity that it makes sense in both our head and our heart and to know enough about the faith traditions of our neighbors that we can begin to talk. In the world in which we live and with the headlines in the news, quiet acquiescence to cultural Christianity and ignorance about others is no longer an option.
You and I have work to do, and it is critically important that we do it.
But just so you know…
Next Sunday we are plunging in with our youth. We officially begin the Westchester Youth Alliance next week with a daylong training event at Holmes Presbyterian Center led by two young adults trained by the Interfaith Youth Core which is the interfaith program started and run by Eboo Patel. The Westchester Youth Alliance grew out of a dream and a grant that Bedford Presbyterian Church received to start an interfaith youth program in this part of Westchester County. 15 congregations have climbed on board – Christian and Jewish and Muslim. With the grant money we received we have hired a part-time program director. Next Sunday we will sit down together – Christian and Jew and Muslim and none of the above – to begin the conversation that we hope will deepen our faith and values, and change both our lives and the shape of the communities in which we live.
You and I need to follow our children’s lead.
And, as for question number two…
Is Islam a violent religion?
Is the response in this morning’s New York Times correct?
We see flags burned.
And, angry faces become the headlines in the news.
And words like: terrorists, Sharia law and jihad become synonymous with Islam and something to be feared. One evening this summer at the town pool, I had a conversation about this with a woman who is devoutly Christian and a member of a church in the community. Somehow our conversation found its way to the question for today. Her questions of me carried all the negative cultural perceptions of Islam. When I shared what I knew and challenged her assumptions her response was, “Well where, then, are the moderate Muslim voices? Why aren’t they condemning the violence.” “Those voices are there.” I said. “They are there doing their best to counter the shouts of those on the streets and those who, out of fear, twist the fundamental message of Islam.” But, as you know, unless you are shouting, voices like that don’t make the news as Rachel said so well in her blog post this week which I encourage you to read.
So, in response to that second dangerous question, I wonder…
Is the Islam that we see depicted in the news any more violent that what Christianity has been or is? Or as Judaism has been or is?
Or Hinduism has been or is?
Both human history and our sacred texts are replete with examples of how religious belief has fueled violence. But, you and I would say that the misuse of religion in that way – crusades, holocaust, bombing of clinics – is not what we understand as the heart of our faith.
The Jesus we know and seek to follow…
The Christianity which calls to us and calls us to serve others…
The heart and truth about what we believe…
Is about compassion and kindness and justice and peace and inclusion and sufficiency. We need to learn enough so that we begin to see that the same is true about Islam, as well. To say nothing of Buddhism and Hinduism and Judaism and others.
In his book Sacred Ground Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and a Muslim, write about research done by David Campbell and Robert Putnam who, in their book American Grace, write about what they call the My Friend Al Principle:
“Say you are a beekeeper and your friend Al is a beekeeper. Apiculture brings you together, and through this shared activity, you learn that Al is an Evangelical Christian. Prior to meeting Al, you harbored a host of prejudices about Evangelicals, but if Al is a beekeeper and a good guy and an Evangelical, then maybe other Evangelicals aren’t so bad.”
He goes on…
“Putnam and Campbell actually show strong statistical evidence for this principle – that people’s regard for entire religious groups improves through a positive, meaningful relationship with even one member of that group, often formed through common activity. Putnam and Campbell discovered that their data suggested something else: by becoming friends with Al, the beekeeping Evangelical, not only did your attitude towards Evangelicals improve, but so did your attitude towards Mormons and Muslims. They conclude, “We have reasonably firm evidence that as people build more religious bridges they become warmer towards people of many different religions, not just those represented within their social network.” (pp. 77-78)
Dr. Patel then speaks about learning to sing a new song.
Rather than a song of exclusivism which has been the song all religions have sung for far too long. We need to learn a new song about interfaith understanding and partnership that calls forth and calls upon the best in all our religious traditions. And then, having learned that song, we need to teach that song and sing that song so it begins to challenge and to change the chorus of voices that perpetuate stereotypes that lead to violence.
Can we do that?
The truth is we have already begun.
In countless ways we stand in partnership with others of different churches and different faith traditions.
We have done much.
Now it is time to do more.