The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

First Congregational Church

February 6, 2011

Psalm 117

Jonah 3: 7-10 and 4:1-3; and 9-11

John 14:1-7

12th Element of the Scout Law

A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion.

Mansions of the Spirit

 “Do not say, I follow the one true path of the Spirit, but rather, I have found the spirit walking on my path.  For the Spirit walks on all paths.”  …Khalil Gibran

Khalil Gibran was a Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher.  Born in the town of Bsharri, Lebanon in 1883, he emigrated to New York in 1895 with his mother and siblings.  His most famous book was “The Prophet,” published in 1923, but wildly popular during the 1960s.  Gibran was the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.  His writings have had world-wide influence.

I always thought Gibran was a Shi’te or a Sunni Muslim, or maybe a Ba’hai.  But no, I find that the faith tradition from which he emerged was the Maronite Catholic Church, a Christian group in full communion with the Roman Catholics, but centered in the Middle East.  There is much we do not know about the variations practiced by members of our own faith, and so many presumptions we make about others – such as, if you were born in the Middle East, you must be a Muslim.

Good Scout that I am, I found myself yesterday remembering that in order to respect the convictions, customs and beliefs of another person, one has to know something about those convictions, customs and beliefs.  I quietly thanked Gail Johnson for this sermon suggestion and headed for my files on interfaith dialogue.

Traditionally, many Christians have been fearful to engage in interfaith communication for fear that such contact might damage their own fragile faith and spirituality. After all, Jesus did say, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

But the John 14 passage also says, “In my house there are many rooms,” or in older translations, “in my house there are many mansions.”   Furthermore, we should not attempt to fence God in, I said to myself. The Lord God has a mind of His own and will do what He will. If He wants to save the people of Ninevah, for instance, he will do so, even if it makes Jonah mad. (ad lib Jonah story) And in this multi-faith world of ours, we might take a moment to ruminate on the lessons of the Jonah story. If we are to be forces for peace among peoples, we have to leave open the possibility that their welfare may also be concern to God.  I have a Canadian friend who may be able to explain this better.

A few years ago, I met via Internet a woman from Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, Canada. Marie was a woman about my age; owned a jewelry store; seemed to be well-read; definitely friendly. She wanted to know what I did so I told her I was a minister.

Marie was excited. "Have you read Michael Ingham's book, Mansions of the Spirit?" Well, I hadn't, but I figured I could fake it until I had time to get over to Border's Books.  We promised to sign on and chat with each other in a couple of days.

The next day, I went to Border's, no Mansions of the Spirit; I went to Barnes and Noble, no Mansions of the Spirit; I went to Metro Books, you got it, wasn't there; wasn't in the order catalogues either. Came home and fired up the trusty computer and signed on to Amazon.com, even then the world's largest online bookstore -- no Mansions of the Spirit. I figured my new friend Marie, perhaps, perish the thought, didn't know what she was talking about.

"I don't understand, it was featured on the cover of the Canadian edition of Newsweek, and it's terribly controversial here in Canada. I'll send you a copy," Marie reported the next time we messaged one another. In a few days, the book arrived from Canada: Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World.

Canada is not very far away. We speak the same language, after a fashion (eh?); and we have similar cultures. We are politically friendly most of the time. Our people practice the same religions. Yet a book which was making serious impact in one English-speaking country was totally unheard of and unavailable in the English-speaking country next door.

We're isolated, folks. I tell you we are isolated.

The book’s author was a Canadian Anglican bishop who thought perhaps, we as a world should be engaging in more interfaith dialogue.  Furthermore, he said, this dialogue would eventually lead to more peace in the world. But to do this effectively we must modify our exclusivist approach to our faith.

As an example, salvation, for the exclusivist, means you must believe exactly what the exclusivist believes about God, and you must give up entirely whatever it was that you thought you believed before. The exclusivist says, “no one can be saved unless they do it my way.” 

But, being “saved” is not the spiritual goal of some folks.  These people may look at spirituality from the point of attaining enlightenment. The two sets of religious vocabularies are not interchangeable, Ingham warns. But it is critical that we understand each other.

Ingham quotes Roman Catholic scholar Hans Kung: "There will be no world peace without peace between the world's religions; there will be no peace between the world's religions without dialogue between the world's religions."

Before we dialogue with others, however, 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.

Ingham’s suggestion regarding "dialogue" between differing faith traditions was not what was causing the controversy in Canada, however.  Nearly everyone believed in dialogue -- as long as the purpose of the dialogue was to convince the other party that they were in error.

Maybe I can illustrate this with an example from when I used to train chaplain volunteers. I had one Protestant minister who delighted in telling my Unitarian student -- who did not believe in the exclusive divinity of Jesus -- that he loved her anyway and would pray for her.

Now can anyone tell me why this "loving", "tolerant" comment did not please the Unitarian? It made her livid.

The minister was completely perplexed. He said he loved her and would pray for her -- what could possibly be wrong with that?

She said his comment was condescending and offensive. She didn't need or want his prayers. She would pray that he attained some form of enlightenment before his pathetic, narrow little life ended on this earth.

My effort at peacemaking between these two was totally futile. Each of them refused to consider the possibility that the other’s position might have any validity.  Their distaste for one another lopped over into the rest of the group -- each volunteer determining who was more reasonable or more unreasonable, looking at it from his or her own religious or philosophical point of view. Dialogue was no help whatsoever. Every time we tried to talk about it, it got worse.

Ingham would believe that world conflict was my little volunteer group writ large. We need more than a willingness to evangelize or quietly coexist with people from religious and cultural groups different than our own. Are we merely being polite until we muster the arguments to convince them that they are wrong and we are right?

We have to begin to understand that, yes, we may be right for us; but they might be right for them, the bishop says. Two different opinions, two different experiences, both of which may be right. God formed these cultures, watched as each developed spiritually -- and possibly sent guides most suitable for each one. 

Just like in Kahlil Gibran’s verses, “there are many paths to God,” Ingham suggests. We know what is the right path for us, what the challenges are and what the benefits are. Jesus is Our Way. But is He the Only Way?

He is the only way for me, says Ingham. But Buddha, Mohammed, or Spirit Woman may be the way for you. What can I learn from your way to deepen my own spiritual journey to God, and what can you learn from me?

"If Jesus Christ is not the only way to God, Ingham has denied the whole foundation of Christianity!" according to Ingham's detractors.

"Not so," defends Ingham. He uses the parable of the five blind men trying to describe an elephant.  I told the story to the children a few months ago.

God is the constant, he explains. 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."

  Ingham invites Christians to remain firmly rooted in their faith in Jesus Christ, but also to recognize the Grace of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the other great religious traditions of the world. By so doing, we can begin to overcome our historic divisions and antipathies, and work together for world peace.

I would like to add that the same approach works closer to home when we recognize the Grace of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit is in those with whom we disagree in our communities, and our families, and in our workplaces, and even in our Scout troops.

May the Spirit be with each of us, even those who worship differently than us, as we travel on our life paths.  Lord, Bless Us All. Amen.

Please join me in Hymn No. 609  “Take My Life”

 BENEDICTION:

Praise the Lord, all ye nations; extol him, all ye peoples.

For great is his love for all of us,

The faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. 

Go in peace. Amen.

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