Sermon: Sunday, March 8, 2009: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16  ;  Psalm 22:23-31  ;  Romans 4:13-25  ;  Mark 8:31-38


On the fourth floor of a fairly nondescript brick building at the corner of Van Buren and Peoria, just north of the Eisenhower and just west of the Kennedy, you will find the offices of the Interfaith Youth Core. They are a local organization, home-grown in Chicago, but reaching out to young people across the country of different faiths in an effort to promote a more tolerant, peaceful, just global community by engaging youth in acts of service that build mutual understanding – rather than waiting until we have a better understanding of one another to begin working together on the world’s most pressing needs.

Their website describes their method as follows:

There are millions of religious young people in the world interacting with greater frequency. That interaction tends either toward conflict or cooperation. Where so many of these interactions tend towards conflict, the Interfaith Youth Core aims to introduce a new relationship, one that is about mutual respect and religious pluralism. Instead of focusing a dialogue on political or theological differences, we build relationships on the values that we share, such as hospitality and caring for the Earth, and how we can live out those values together to contribute to the betterment of our community.

The founder of Interfaith Youth Core is Eboo Patel. You may have heard his name in the news recently, as he was appointed to serve on President Obama’s Faith Advisory Council. In his book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Patel reflects on his experience of growing up Muslim in the United States and discovering the interfaith movement. He writes,

I am an American Muslim from India. My adolescence was a series of rejections, one after another, of the various dimensions of my heritage, in the belief that America, India, and Islam could not coexist within the same being. If I wanted to be one, I could not be the others. My struggle to understand the traditions I belong to as mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive is the story of a generation of young people standing at the crossroads of inheritance and discovery, trying to look both ways at once. There is a strong connection between finding a sense of inner coherence and developing a commitment to pluralism. And that has everything to do with who meets you at the crossroads.

Patel goes on to share stories about the importance of interfaith work at this time in history, when we live in an increasing diverse and rapidly diversifying society. We are told that diversity is good, that it’s a value we should aspire to in our workplaces and in our houses of worship – but we’re not taught how to negotiate it very well as young people, and as a result we continue to gravitate toward people more similar to us than not, or to deal only superficially with our differences. This leaves us vulnerable to dangerous divides that appear at unexpected moments. Again, Patel writes

In high school, the group I ate lunch with included a Cuban Jew, a Nigerian Evangelical, and an Indian Hindu. We were all devout to a degree, but we almost never talked about our religions with one another. Often somebody would announce at the table that he couldn’t eat a certain kind of food, or any food at all, for a period of time. We all knew religion hovered behind this, but nobody ever offered any explanation deeper than “my mom said,” and nobody ever asked for one.

This silent pact relieved all of us. We were not equipped with a language that allowed us to explain our faith to others or to ask about anyone else’s. Back then, I thought little about the dangers lurking within this absence.

A few years after we graduated, my Jewish friend reminded me of a dark time during our adolescence. There were a group of kids in our high school who, for several weeks, took up scrawling anti-Semitic slurs on classroom desks and making obscene statements about Jews in the hallways. I did not confront them. I did not comfort my Jewish friend. I knew little about what Judaism meant to him, less about the emotional effects of anti-Semitism, and next to nothing about how to stop religious bigotry. So I averted my eyes and avoided my friend, because I couldn’t stand to face him.

A few years later, he described to me the fear he had experienced coming to school those days, and his utter loneliness as he had watched his close friends simply stand by. Hearing him recount his suffering and my complicity is the single most humiliating experience of my life. I did not know it in high school, but my silence was betrayal: betrayal of Islam, which calls upon Muslims to be courageous and compassionate in the face of injustice; betrayal of America, a nation that relies on its citizens to hold up the bridges of pluralism when others try to destroy them; betrayal of India, a country that has too often seen blood flow in its cities and villages when extremists target minorities and others fail to protect them.

My friend needed more than my silent presence at the lunch table. Pluralism is not a default position, an autopilot mode. Pluralism is an intentional commitment that is imprinted through action. It requires deliberate engagement with difference, outspoken loyalty to others, and proactive protection in the breach. You have to choose to step off the faith line onto the side of pluralism, and then you have to make your voice heard.

Patel’s sense of shame and feelings of betrayal are shared by many of us who have found ourselves in similar situations as young people, or even as adults, ill-equipped to deal with religious and national bigotry, and unsure what our faith has to say about it. What do we, as Christians, have to say about people of other religions? If we have nothing to say, then what basis do we have for responding to religious slurs, hate speech or the harmful policies that they give rise to? Does our faith offer us any historical precedent or framework for understanding how Christians understand our faith in a world filled with other faiths?

I believe it does. In fact, if you consider the story of the early church it seems to me you have to realize that Christianity has been a part of the interfaith movement from its very inception. Listening to Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning, we are hearing the voice of one who has indeed “chosen to step off the faith line onto the side of pluralism.” Remember that Paul, too, was writing in a time of great religious pluralism. The dominant culture of the time was Roman culture and Roman religion, Judaism was one of many regional religions tied to an ethnic group that had been scattered throughout the Roman empire – existing both in Palestine and in diaspora throughout the ancient near east. Christianity wasn’t even quite Christianity at this point, but seen by most as a splinter group, an offshoot of Judaism.

Paul’s letter to the Romans, most scholars now believe, is the last of the New Testament letters to have actually been written by Paul, probably somewhere around 57 or 58 CE. Less than a decade prior to this letter, the Emperor had expelled all Jews from Rome, though it appears the policy was reversed a few years later. While they were away however, the Jews who were part of t
he Christian community in Rome lost status in the community – the way any of you might lose power or influence over what happens here at St. Luke’s if you were to be forced out of Chicago for a while – and when they returned the Gentile Christians had taken the driver’s seat. Already the church was divided by ethnic and religious identity, which can never be neatly separated.

Paul’s letter speaks to the divided community in terms that have become familiar to us during this season of Lent, using the framework of law and gospel. He reminds the Roman church that everyone has the law, and here he doesn’t mean civil authority so much as pre-existing religious practices that instruct us on how to live a good and moral life. The Jews had the law passed down from Abraham, the Gentiles had the laws of their former religious practices. Everyone has the law, and no one is keeping it, Paul says – including the Jews, for whom adherence to the law was the cornerstone of their religious identity. Speaking to a church filled with people predisposed to segregate themselves along lines of race and ethnicity, class and nationality, culture and religion Paul reminds everyone who reads his letter (including us) that they belong in the church not because they come from the right background or follow the right set of rules – but because of their faith in God.

Now this is where we have to be very careful in our discussion about interfaith dialogue, because we might be tempted to draw the wrong conclusions from Paul’s corrective to the Romans. Paul does not mean to say that they should find their new identity in a new set of ideas or dogmas about how to have faith with God – replacing law with law – though we Christians have sometimes made that mistake as we’ve wandered into interfaith conversations around the water cooler or the dinner table. We do not get to approach people of other faiths, or – for that matter – other Christians who practice their faith differently than we do, claiming superiority or a closer relationship to God on the basis of the way we practice our faith. To do that is to make the same mistake the early church in Rome was making, mainly assuming that faith is about us and what we do rather than God and who God is. To make this clear, Paul points to the person of Abraham as the model of faith. Paul writes,

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Here Paul proves himself to be a preacher of both grace and humor. Grace, in that he finds a way to appeal to a story large enough to encompass the diversity of the crowd he’s talking to. Humor, in that he finds a way to gently remind those that think their place in the community rests on their observance of the law or their ethnic pedigree that even their forefather, their great patriarch, was sort of a failure on that count. What do I mean? Well, Paul is too well-versed in Hebrew scripture to make the assertion “no distrust made him waver concerning the promises of God” seriously. As I recall the story, Abraham – on two separate occasions – hands Sarah over to foreign rulers as a concubine in order to save his own skin (Gen. 12:10-20 and Gen. 20:1-18); he decides God is taking too long to fulfill God’s promises and gets his slave Hagar pregnant instead, then tosses both her and her son, Ishmael, aside to die in the wilderness when Sarah finally bears Isaac – which they never thought would happen, and in fact laugh in God’s face when God tells them it will.

In light of the facts, Paul’s comment that “no distrust made him waver” can only be read as irony, underscoring the fact that in reality the faith of Abraham was as fragile as the faith that any of us hold in God. To the church in Rome, split into those who called themselves descendents of Abraham and those who were not, Paul says “don’t base your claim to God’s favor on the fact that you’re descended from Abraham – base your faith on the fact that God is faithful, even to people like Abraham!” By which he could just as easily have said, “even to people like you.” Even to people like me. To people who hear over and over again that God has a purpose and a plan for the world that involves healing and reconciliation for all people, care for the poor and freedom for the oppressed – but still manage to carry belief that my way of thinking, or worshipping, or being makes me better than the person next to me, or the person half way around the world.

If there is anything that Abraham did that earns my respect and was pleasing in the sight of God, it came at that moment at the very beginning of his story in Genesis 12 when God calls to him and says, “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Go from all that you think you know, all that gives you standing and rank and place in your world, and set out for a place, a way of being, a life that you can’t imagine – but that I will show you. That’s what makes Abraham a pioneer of faith – not that he keeps the law, but that he was willing to walk away from all sorts of laws, and customs, and privilege to become the person God needed in that place and at that time. That is faith, not a set of rules, but a relationship of trust. Not even trust that never wavers, as Abraham’s surely did, but trust that takes that first step into the unknown places of God.

In this season of Lent we are called to set out on a journey just as mysterious and unforeseen as the one Abraham was called to. It is a journey that will lead us away from the familiar ways of being, to the meeting place that Eboo Patel called the “crossroads of inheritance and discovery.” The place where all that we are and have been is encountered by who, by the grace of God, we are becoming.

We do not enter into that space lightly, and we do not leave it without paying its cost. When Jesus begins to teach that the Son of Man, God’s saving foray into the human experience, would undergo great suffering, his disciple Peter tries to take him aside to chastise him. Peter, who had just confessed Jesus as the Messiah – God’s chosen one – was not willing to hear that what it means to be God’s chosen was different than what he’d been taught to believe it meant. Peter thought being chosen by God, anointed by God, meant that Jesus would overthrow the Roman powers by force, would triumph over structures of power and oppression by reversing the oppressor and the oppressed’s roles. But Jesus has no such intentions. Jesus didn’t come to make one group of people right at the expense of all the others, just as God does not give us the gift of our faith – our trusting relationship with God – at the expense of all others
. In Christ Jesus, God shows us a path to a new way of being, a new life, that comes by standing in solidarity with those the world hates: the poor person, the religious minority, the diseased body, the unwelcome foreigner, the despised outcast.

From its inception ours has been an interfaith movement. The inner coherence that comes with Christian faith and life only makes sense when it is paired with a commitment to pluralism, because the Christian call to respect and care for the “other” can only make sense when we are gracious enough to allow others to be other. Further, when Christ Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow, we have to understand that in part as a religious calling to protect the human dignity of those who do not take up the cross – who, instead, keep faith with their ancestor Abraham by practicing the mitzvah – those Jewish acts of human kindness; who keep faith with their ancestor Abraham by giving the zakat – the almsgiving for the needs of the poor that is required of all faithful Muslims; who, as faithful Hindus with no connection to Abraham, practice ahimsa, respecting all life by practicing non-violence because of the belief that God is in all things; even, then, those who practice no religious tradition and hold no belief in God – because we do, and like the Hindus we also believe that God has made all and is in all, and therefore we will respect and protect life wherever it is found. That is the burden of the cross –sometimes light, and sometimes very heavy.

Christian faith, already an interfaith movement from its very beginnings, can proudly take its place among the family of world religions. Each week, as we prepare to come forward to receive the sign of God’s grace at the Lord’s Supper, we sing “and so with the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.” I imagine that hymn is full of melodies and counterpoints, themes and repetitions. We have a part to sing in that chorale, we sing one song among many. Trusting that God is reaching out to form relationships of faith with all God’s children, calling each family of faith to venture forth into unknown lands of promise, we can follow the one God has sent to us – the one who meets us at the crossroads.


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