A sermon preached on August 29th, 2010 based upon Luke 14:1, 7-14
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
There’s been a lot in the news lately that raises up the question of how Christian should relate to Muslims. Garnering the most attention has been the controversy over the plans to build an Islamic cultural center near the site of ground zero in New York City, which pollsters tell us the initial response of most Americans is to oppose. This is a complicated issue charged with a lot of powerful feelings, over which intelligent, well-intentioned people can disagree.
But some of the stuff coming up in the news is just plain bizarre, like the polls that tell us a growing number of Americans actually believe President Obama is Muslim, in spite of his consistent practices and professions by which he identifies himself as a Christian.
Then there is the pastor in Florida who has gotten attention by calling for a national burn-the-Quran day to be held on September 11th, with the notion that this would somehow be a proper way to remember those who lost their lives on that day.
Like the Bible, the Quran is a big book, and if you search inside you can find passages that could inspire someone with violent tendencies to attack non-Muslims.
For instance, when you come across a perverse verse like this one: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” you might well be tempted to burn the book. Oh. My mistake. The verse I just read actually comes from our Bible; Psalm 137:9 to be precise.
And that’s the point. If you haven’t spent much times reading in the dark corners of the Bible – the verses that don’t ever come up in the Sunday lectionary readings – you might not be aware of the incendiary stuff you can find there.
For instance, there is the curious story tucked away in 2Kings 2 about the time the prophet Elisha gets mocked for being bold by some children. Elisha curses the children in the name of the Lord, at which point two she-bears come out of the forest and maul forty-two children to death. (I’ve thought about using this story in a children’s sermon to make the point it’s not a good idea to mock bald guys, but I think you would agree, it’s best not to go there.)
And lest you think that the bizarre parts of the Bible are only found in the Old Testament, consider a story found in Acts 5. Things have been moving along nicely up until that point in the early church. The Holy Spirit has been growing the Church by leaps and bounds, with everybody sharing all their possessions so that no one is in want (a practice sounding a bit like communism.) But then we hear about this church couple that sell a piece of land and secretly hold back some of the money they receive for themselves rather than turn it all over to the apostles. Peter calls the husband into his presence, tells him he has lied to God, and promptly the man is struck dead. Three hours later the wife comes in, is informed of the same judgment, and she too falls dead.
As tempting as it may be, I will never use this story for a stewardship sermon.
And so my point is, everybody’s sacred scriptures has a dark side, and we wouldn’t appreciate some Imam in Saudi Arabia calling for a national burn the Bible day because of our more distressing scripture passages. And so by the basic principle of the golden rule, the Florida pastor’s idea is, to say the least, ill advised.
Anyway, it was with this whole question on my mind of how Christians should relate to Muslims that I read this morning’s Gospel lesson. Jesus is invited to the house of a Pharisee for a dinner party, and while he is there, he offers some words of advice, which amount to two basic points.
First, don’t get stuck in the obsession people often have of focusing on their personal status. Don’t be all about self-promotion, where your life is defined by an endless quest to climb higher and higher up the social ladder. It’s a big mistake. Aspire instead to be humble, with your life focused on being used is service of something greater than your little self.
And second, make a point of going out of your way to help people who are destitute – people who can’t repay you for you generosity.
These are, I think we would all agree, two very good and noble teachings, but it is worth pointing out they are hardly unique to Jesus. Similar ideas are found in the Quran of Islam as well as in Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
Which points out that there is a lot of common ground to be found in the teachings (at their best) of the great religious traditions. They all teach some form of the golden rule; they all teach humility, forgiveness, compassion, and service.
All of which begs the question, what, then is special about Christianity? In answering this we would point to Christianity’s unique claims about Jesus: specifically, that he was in some sense God-incarnate, that he died a sacrificial death on behalf of all people, that he rose from the dead. Islam doesn’t make such claims on behalf of Mohammed, nor Judaism about Moses, or Buddhism about the Buddha.
Christianity, at its heart is about relationship with a person, specifically Jesus. The idea is for Jesus to personally mentor us.
If we’re going to have a personal relationship with this guy then we are obliged to get to know him as best we can; spend lots of time figuring out what this Jesus cares about – the kind of life he is trying to mentor us into.
As I said before, we find that many of the values that Jesus taught are shared by other religious traditions. The one thing you can say about Jesus is he has this tendency to take these values further, to a more extreme place, despite the associations that the word “extremist” evokes these days.
For instance, not only did he teach the golden rule; he went further, emphasizing the love of enemies. He talked about going the second mile, turning the other cheek, about forgiving without limits.
And the central event of the old, old story of his love involves Jesus being so dedicated to this way of life that he refused to forsake it when doing so meant he was required to die an excruciatingly painful, violent death on a cross. To the end of his life he refused to get involved in the turf wars that ravage our world – all the jockeying for position and power that leads to so much brutality and violence.
And his extremism in this regard puts a burden on our shoulders when it comes to how we are to deal with people of other faiths.
There is a little detail in this morning’s story that is significant and easily overlooked, and that is the fact that Jesus was in the home of a Pharisee in the first place.
Well before this, the tension and conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees has been growing intensely. On a number of occasions they’ve criticized him for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus himself has already begun to read the writing on the walls, telling his disciples that he will die at the hands of religious authorities, of which the Pharisees were a part.
The Pharisees aren’t what you would call “Jesus’ people” – the people with whom he would be most readily at ease. Jesus and the Pharisees represent, in a sense, two diverging religious traditions. (The Pharisees have become for us something of a stereotype in regard to the judgmental, condemning persona. They did, in fact, represent some of the best of religion in terms of the generation of good deeds.)
Nonetheless, despite the awkwardness, here Jesus is at their dinner party. Why? Because they have invited him, and it would be rude to reject their hospitality (another value honored in all great religious traditions.) An opportunity is given to Jesus to have a personal encounter over a dinner table with those with whom he has had disagreements, and he will not pass it up. In a world where our instinct tends to be to avoid people we don’t agree with and hang with “our kind of people”, this really is truly remarkable.
There is a story about a renegade Baptist preacher named Will Campbell who worked on behalf of civil rights in the deep south during the fifties and sixties. As time passed, his ministry often led him to care for the poor white folks who got caught up in the violence of the KKK.
One time there was a murder trial taking place in which a poor white man was on trial for the brutal murder of a black man. During the course of the trial, Campbell split his time between the man on trial and his family, and the grieving family of the victim of the murder.
A reporter noticed this, and confronted Campbell about his behavior at the trial. “This is a contradiction. You can’t be on the murderer’s side as well as on the side of the family of his victim. How do you explain your actions?”
The reporter continued to badger Campbell with his seeming inconsistency until finally Campbell lost his patience with the man: “I’m doing this because I’m an (expletive, expletive) Christian!!! That’s why!”
Jesus refuses to acknowledge the lines of division drawn by the world, and as his followers, we are obliged to do the same.
A quarter of Americans say they know “nothing at all” about Islam, the Pew Research Center found this month, and of non-Muslims polled, 58 percent said they don’t know any Muslims.
Pastor Mike Slaughter in “Change the World” – the book our bishop has recommended we read — quotes a letter he received from a man saying he used to call himself a Christian, but wasn’t so sure he wanted to claim that word anymore. The man works in the engineering department of a local university:
“I work with so many people from so many different cultures, religions, and backgrounds, and many of them I have found to be beautiful people—people that I love with all of my heart and soul and people that I call my family. One of them is a Muslim, yet so many fault me for accepting this person because of his religion. We share the human experience!”
Not surprisingly, a Gallup survey last year found that Americans who don’t personally know any Muslims were twice as likely to admit to “a great deal” of anti-Muslim prejudice.
This is similar to the experience of Americans with gay and Lesbian people. Generally speaking, the people who are quick to condemn gay people are people who don’t personally know a gay person. Fortunately, the situation is changing, since most people these days have someone either in their family or in their work place who have had the courage to come out. Unfortunately, the exception to this trend tends to be in a majority of churches, where it can often be mighty difficult for a straight person to encounter an openly gay person.
My auto mechanic over the past 18 years is a faithful Moslem named Sohail. He’s also one of the best people I know in Parsippany. In a line of work that provides ample opportunity to rip people off, I have never known him to do so. He is conscious of the fact that God is watching how he treats people, and on occasion goes out of his way to do good deeds for people who can’t repay him. In his garage he employs people who are at least nominally Hindu and Christian, providing an appealing model of people of different faiths getting along together.
I am pretty sure that Sohail is better at remembering God in the course of his day than I am. Five times a day his faith requires that he retreat for five minutes into a back room in his greasy garage to lay down his prayer mat and say his prayers. In the midst of what is a very stressful line of work, Sohail’s prayer times regularly remind him for whom he’s really working.
When I hear broad generalizations spoken about Moslems rejoicing over Americans’ grief and tragedy, I remember Sohail, and know the stereotype doesn’t hold. Though there are Muslims who have done some pretty evil things in the name of their religion, Sohail’s faith has been a vehicle by which to be a better human being. The same can be said for people who call themselves “Christian.”
In so far as Christianity at its heart is about a personal relationship, it values personal relationships in general. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the well-known story about a man who getting beaten up and left half-dead at the side of the road. The priest and the Levite pass the man by, refusing to engage in a personal relationship with him. Finally a Samaritan comes by and shows compassion on the man.
If we were looking for a contemporary example of what Jesus was trying to get at in his story, we could do no better than to have the Samaritan be a Muslim.
The most critical religious struggles of our age are not really taking place between the great religious traditions as they are happening within these traditions themselves. The struggle is between the fundamentalist versions and the moderate versions that emphasize the common core values that resonate with the golden rule.
The group seeking to build near (not on) Ground Zero is from that moderate wing of Islam, intentionally seeking dialogue with other faiths. They are not the people who blew up the world trade center.
Perhaps, if I were to respond simply as an American, I might well come down on the side of those who say that the associations are unavoidable and therefore the Islamic Center is an affront to the memories of those who died. Maybe.
But unfortunately, I am obliged to see things first as a follower of Jesus, and so, if they build the center and they invite me over for dinner, I am obliged to go and share in the opportunity to be with them in friendship.