The Rev. Dianne O’Connell                                                                           

First Congregational Church

October 3, 2010

Genesis 16:1-11

Romans 12: 14-21

Mark 2:13-17



PEACE:  Even with Infidels?

            As some of you already know, my sermon this morning comes out of last week’s remarks when I suggested that each of us identify our own “Lazarus,” that person or persons whom we really wish to avoid and with whom we find no commonality, for whatever reason.  Under the heading of “practice what you preach,” I gave some thought to my own personal prejudices and to whom, perhaps, I should reach out to and make an effort to understand before I meet them at the Pearly Gates of Paradise.  I found that that the segment of God’s world I would just as soon avoid was actually quite large – it encompassed the entire Islamic World.  There are between one billion and 1.8 billion Muslims on this earth, making it the second largest religion, after Christianity with about 2.1 billion adherents.  That’s a lot of people to avoid; to avoid this many people in today’s world may not even be possible.

            My prejudices, right or wrong, stem from three beliefs:

            1.         Muslims don’t like me – I count among the infidels whom they would just as soon wipe off the face of the earth.  I, of course, consider them infidels, as well, but don’t wish to cause them any harm; I just wish they thought and felt more like me.

            2.         Muslim belief and practices are particularly demeaning to women, a group representing more than fifty percent of the world and a group to which I belong. 

However, Muslim women I’ve met seem to like being Muslim and are proud of their faith and culture, which is all quite confusing to me.

            3.         A small group of terrorist attacked my country in the name of Islam, and continue to plot ways to kill my people and disrupt our political and economic system.  I sometimes forget that the Ku Klux Klan wreaks its misery in this country in the name of Christianity and in the process defiles our Christian symbols.  Where in Scripture would you find burning crosses, for instance?

            So this is no idle sermon exercise.  I personally have a lot of work to do in this area. How should we react to and treat our perceived enemies?  This is very current, practical theology. 

            Scripture provides mixed messages for our guidance.  

            I always liked Proverbs 25:21:  “If you enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

            Or how about Matthew 6:27, “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

            What to do?  How to respond?  The struggle is before us everyday.

             Our perceived church leaders can lead us astray, as well. Last month, a Christian pastor in Florida, Terry Jones, caused an international crisis with his plan to burn a mountain of holy books. A Muslim Imam in New York, Feisal Abdul Rauf, on the other hand, talked of peace, interfaith dialogue, and his desire to be the first one killed should there ever be another attack on New York City. It’s a confusing world. Thirty-seven year-old Sharif El-Gamal wants to build a cultural center and mosque where one currently exists a few blocks from ground zero in New York. He says his faith and identity has been hijacked by extremists within Islam.  When I think of Pastor Jones, or the Ku Klux Klan, for heaven’s sake, I think I know how he feels. 

            Living together in a diverse, multi-cultural world is one of the biggest world challenges of the day.  Some of us are doing better than others.

            Did you know that the Texas Board of Education last week adopted a resolution to curtail references to Islam in Texas textbooks?  They want to stop “creeping Middle Eastern influence in the schools.”  This is not the way to promote peace and understanding among peoples.

            The President of the United States, Barak Obama, was asked a question this week which would be rather odd for anyone else.  A woman asks in a public forum, “Mr. President, why are you a Christian?”  Obama answers that he arrived at his faith as an adult because the precepts of Jesus Christ helped him clarify the kind of person he wanted to be and that he was “a Christian by choice.”  This was not good enough for some of his chronic critics who insist that the President is really a Muslim.  Did they want him to say, “I had no choice.  I was forced to be a Christian? ”

            Not that these are bad questions in and of themselves.  In fact, we should reflect on such a question ourselves.  “Why am I a Presbyterian?”  “Why are you a Congregationalist?”  And how much do we know about those people who don’t follow the same religion as us?

            Just this past week again, poll results were released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which show that Americans don’t know much about religion, period.  Atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics in answering questions about major world religions, while many folks could not correctly give the most basic principles of their own faith traditions.

            I would like to suggest that our faith tradition, my faith tradition, requires us to do better than this.  Years ago I was introduced to a book called Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World, by Canadian Anglican priest, Michael Ingham.

Ingham maintained that more interfaith dialogue would eventually lead to more peace in the world. But to do this effectively, we must modify our exclusivist approach to our faith.

For example, Salvation, for this type of Christian, means a person must believe exactly what the church founders thought about God, and that person must give up entirely whatever it was that he or she thought they believed before. This kind of Christian says, “no one can be saved unless they do it my way.” 

But some people don't come at spirituality from the point of being "saved". Some folks look at spirituality from the point of attaining enlightenment. The two sets of religious vocabularies are not interchangeable, but to be theologically bi-lingual is critical if we want to understand each other.

In addition, before we can have a meaningful conversation, we need a firm understanding of our own roots; our own scriptural and cultural foundations. We need to know and personally feel what it means to be Christian, and how we got that way.  And, we have a responsibility to pass on these understandings to our children.

Which brings me to another book, this one loaned to me by Paul Hancock, “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson.  Mortenson has been changing the world, one school at a time. Through his "Pennies for Peace" program he has done more than just talk about the rights of women in Islamic countries, he has and built more than 130 schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is a man doing God’s work, if you ask me.

There are many paths to God. We know what is the right path for us. Jesus is Our Way. But is He the Only Way?

 If Jesus Christ is not the only way to God, hasn’t Ingham denied the whole foundation of Christianity?, you might ask.  Ingham explains himself by using the parable of the five blind men trying to describe an elephant. (tell story)

God is the constant. The elephant is real -- so is each of the perceptions of the blind men trying to understand and describe the elephant from their own limited perspective. God did not create the elephant to trick us, but to lead us into a deeper understanding of elephantness and of what the elephant can mean for us.

Ingham believes that as we become more deeply committed to Christ in our Christian faith we actually discover companionship and fellowship in faith with people who follow other religious traditions. It's the depth of commitment that counts.  No one wants to dialogue with a wishy-washy, non-committed Christian. If one truly wants to learn what it means to be Christian, one wants to interact with a practicing Christian. One can't learn much about the spiritual foundation of the Jews from a person who states, "Well my parents were Jewish, but I never learned much about it." It is important to not only learn about it, but grow from it, learn from it, become part of it -- before sharing it with others as a foundation for dialogue.

 So, what about me?  What about us?  Can we engage in this dialogue, guided by our own religious tradition, yet open to the presence of the Holy Spirit working in other traditions, as well?  Perhaps, this dialogue should take place over a cup of tea.

The title of Mortenson’s book, “Three Cups of Tea” comes from a Balti proverb:  The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger.  The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest.  The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family.”

As the Holy Spirit would have it, an amazing thing is scheduled for later today.  Greg Mortenson’s mother, Jerene, will be speaking at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla, about her son’s work.  It’s at five o’clock and I’m going to drive out there. Anyone want to meet me?

            I want to listen to her presentation and learn how I can help build schools for girls.  They won’t be just like the ones that my daughters attended.  They’ll be schools grounded in Islamic culture and faith, I’m sure.  But they will be schools, training girls to engage in dialogue. Maybe one student will grow up and be an ambassador for peace.

Perhaps, we can be a good Christians by reaching out to our young Islamic sisters on their terms, and by making a small contribution to peace among us infidels, the estranged, but nonetheless loved, children of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.    Amen.

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