Encountering the Religious Neighbor

Medley of OT/Hebrew Scriptures focused on God/God of the Nations and Mark 7:24-30

Gen. 9:8-17 (summarized); Deut. 10:17; Isa. 56:6-8; Amos 9:7; Jonah 1:7-16 (summarized) Micah 4:2; Mal. 1:11. This sermon appeared in my self-published book titled Decades of Feminist Writing, 2020

As is our pattern, we have gathered today to worship the One God—God of all nations. Today we think of how God expects us to meet our religious neighbors, our religious kin. The teaching of our key redeemer Jesus focused on God’s broad kin-dom. He mentored us on how we might best engage with and learn from others who also pray to, worship and serve the welcoming God in their distinct ways. We can never be too grateful for how God includes peoples and nations or for what God requires of all of us. Recall Micah the prophet’s naming of a cluster of duties: to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” That triad gives us plenty to ponder as we begin today’s teaching.

We move toward God’s Wisdom through religious difference. Difference is good; it strengthens what separates. We honor those with whom we differ as we both find common views and honor distinctions. Theologian Jennine Hill Fletcher states, “ . . . ever-new perspectives on the mystery of God might constitute the ultimate human experience of salvation.”1 Rather than hold God captive—through our presumed right teachings or ways to worship—we do well to claim God beyond distinct limits. We both commit to and celebrate Christian features and convey openness to Divine Wisdom within other faiths.

Writing in The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks2 reports a gathering at the United Nations building, New York City, in August of 2000. Over two thousand religious leaders met for the millennium World Peace Summit. That event occurred to enlist leaders of major faiths to the cause of global peace. Four days later participants signed a commitment to mutual respect, nonviolent conflict resolution, duty to the poor and the environment. On signing, an Eskimo from Greenland named Lyberth reported that ten years earlier a person returned to his village reporting: “There is a trickle of water coming down the glacier. I think that the ice is melting.” Noting that day’s peace accord, Lyberth summed up the group’s hope by saying, “The ice is melting . . . The ice is melting.” What ‘ice’ might we observe to melt in today’s texts? What vision might we gain from our religious neighbors?

A kindred spirit of M. K. Gandhi’s was Badshah Khan. The two bonded through nonviolent effort for twenty-five years. I value having read a book3 about how Khan the Muslim reformer and Gandhi the Hindu lawyer mentored each other, whether for sedition or as God’s servants among disadvantaged folk. In jail with Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Christian prisoners, they together studied each other’s scriptures and practiced “pure faith and austere ways.”

Multifaiths shape who we are as we intersect. We in kindness confess Jesus as our channel through whom we know God. And we learn from diverse people who also practice sacred rituals and confess distinct means by which or whom they know wholeness (salvation). We share the Hebrew Scripture with Jews. Without Judaism there would be no Christianity. Further, we share covenant with Noah and his children. Chaos is not the last word. God’s mercy or God’s gift of relationship, of wholeness, will never again be destroyed. The rainbow reminds us of God’s promise; the network of nations fulfills creation. Fully in control, the One God is “God of gods.” The Ultimate is known through varied names and forms, I believe.

Convictions of multiple, ancient prophets are available. Whereas earlier law had excluded eunuchs and certain foreign peoples from membership among Israelites, a third Isaiah oracle assures their full involvement. With universal salvation why should people of faith fear, he wonders? Recalling the first covenant with Noah, we are to understand that God never had interest in one nation, in one type of person or expression of devotion alone. Via Isaiah, God challenges religions to avoid superior attitudes, to credit others alongside personal commitment and confession.

Prophet Amos reveals God’s evenhanded reign. With no lack of interest in Israel, God extended equal interest to distant Cushite tribes, for land with little-known Aramaean nations, even those who did not claim God’s authority. With distinct ethnic, cultural, and religious features, God did not withhold favor from any of them. Even enemies of Israel share history with the One God; Israel dare not define (therefore limit) God. That Christians do not alone possess God, that the Divine is pluralist in mode and expression, is at times hard for us to learn too.

Reflect a bit on Jonah’s need to learn that God cared for people of Nineveh. Why should he complain when his bush dried up if he failed to want the Ninevites to be valued? A noted teacher and writer originally from Sri Lanka, Wesley Ariarajah’s, book titled Your God, My God, Our God4 is perhaps the finest that I’ve read this year. He sees the prophetic point of Jonah’s story as God’s profound connection with humanity. Jonah represents a single religion’s limited, biased perception of people of faiths other than its own.

Having earlier mentioned prophet Micah’s summary of duties, his oracle envisions when people will live in peace. At that time, people will shape a hoe to raise crops rather than destroy orchards. Then all will gather with, claim, and learn from the One God but in distinct ways. With each nation or religion on a holy journey, each is driven toward justice with the neighbor. That posture reflects moral influence on others; God guides all together toward a perfect destiny. In the future, as now, there will be diverse names, forms, and expressions for being religious, for knowing Ultimate Mystery. To so live without fear or judgment, with trust and vision strong, sounds like religious “ice melting.”

Having noted prophecy about people of many nations moving toward Yahweh’s mountain to claim the Divine’s great name, we turn to a text from Mark’s gospel.. In it, Jesus encounters a neighbor not of his own Jewish faith. He responds to words from a Greek-speaking woman, a Gentile. Three readers will retell that story. Readers will at times overlap each other, so listen with care. The intent is to convey something of the chaos then present. About ten percent of people were then literate, able to read or write. The oral audience would have been Jews and Gentiles with major conflict between them. And the divine yet human Jesus, stuck in Jewish tradition, needs to learn from a neighbor. Pay attention as readers portray a context, to report an incident marked by surprise.

Reading: “A Woman’s Dogged Faith”
[Find this Reading above in “Jesus’ Teachings”/The Syrophoenician Woman, in the Category of “Scripture/Second Testament.”]

Hopefully, you recall the story of Jesus’ meeting a needy woman from Syria’s region of Phoenicia. By raising the food issue that separated Jews (called ‘children’ by Jesus) from Gentiles (called ‘dogs’), Jesus refuses to directly attend to the woman’s plea. She wishes for him to heal her daughter at home, possessed with a demon. Such possession likely caused acute convulsions and falls; it prompted disdain for the poor woman too. That she approached the stranger Jesus, even interrupted his need to rest, in a respectful, prostrate stance reflected shame, not protocol. Prior to that event, Jesus had mostly avoided Gentile, interfaith exchange or blessing. But, along with many miracle workers then in the Greek world, the woman knew about the Jewish Jesus’ power over sickness and demons.

Jesus’ response to her plea admits privilege for Jews,’ those first appointed to the gospel. But rather than feeling insulted, the woman produced a witty response—“even dogs eat children’s crumbs under tables.” Perhaps such boldness countered disciple shame or Pharisee unbelief in Mark’s prior accounts. Perhaps her freedom to “talk back,” her refusal to take “No” for Jesus’ response, conveyed her confidence and simple trust in his power. Perhaps too, since Jesus had earlier taught that religious customs were not to interfere with doing good to those in need, he paused. He showed readiness to learn from her that social convention, like Jewish privilege, was not to interfere with facing human need. At any rate, he a Jew modeled how to observe and learn from a person loyal to another religion. Further, the woman’s words, not a sign of faith or conversion to follow him, prompted Jesus to heal-from-a-distance. He credited the woman’s inherent religious Wisdom. For him our trusty mentor, having “ice” between religions “melt” ever causes one to rejoice.

I value insight about this text from people named: Mary Ann Tolbert, Joanna Dewey, Hisako Kinukawa and William Lane.5 Of special interest was the Japanese Kinukawa’s insight into the possible power injustice suggested by Jesus’ first comment. He disliked the difference between privileged, urban folk from Tyre and peasants of Galilee regarding food production. Kinukawa suggests that the pleading woman, herself disdained through a daughter’s demon possession, deserved compassion and help. Like Galilean peasants, she did not fit in with the wealthy Tyre folk whom Jesus likely resented. Her daughter had good reason to be healed. Further, though not from a Jew, her witty words had truth that Jesus honored. He healed from a distance; he knew that God includes religious difference. The “ice” between faiths can “melt.”

I wish yet briefly to bridge biblical texts with current experience. Ever more, people of diverse religions live, study, or work here in Goshen. How we welcome or judge, stereotype or expect to learn from them, reflects on our Christian faith. The privilege was mine to live in India, while teaching at Woodstock School from 1962-65. John and I have returned to the subcontinent multiple times. For decades, we have also engaged Goshen College students from Asia; they bring with them diverse cultural, political, economic and interfaith realities vivid from their region. Encounter with neighbors loyal to diverse religions has shaped my parenting, seminary study, writing, and Christian faith ever since. I am drawn to biblical texts that describe how people of living faiths share Divine leading. Texts today illustrate this sacred privilege.

For me, being a Christian links with Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. Last spring John and I were invited to join our good Sikh friend for the National Day of Prayer event in South Bend. To share faiths matters. Last February I joined a tour of Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka. Exchange with monks and exposure to sacred rituals, whether of tooth or stupa, prompted attention to my faith. Buddha was known for a long life of teaching and compassion. His followers reflect a spectrum of faithfulness as varied as those of us who name Jesus the Christ. Because a Hindu college student strongly wished for us to meet his parents, I also visited a noted Hindu temple at Rameshwaram in South India. Mine was the only white face among hundreds as we walked through and beheld features of its sacred halls for an hour. Barefoot along with all other worshippers on a rough stone surface, often in water brought from performing sacred rites in the nearby coastal waters, I pondered repeatedly what holy meaning rituals had for the loyal. My host and hostess could not have seemed more serious in their actions with priests. My internal communion with God as I know the Divine could hardly have been more real. Was not God present with each of us?

Committed to the Trinity, we Christians need not fear to learn from other expressions of the One God’s ways to “live, move, and have our being,” I believe. We have both Jesus’ example of readiness to change perspective when the Spirit guides us to further truth around us. And, we have promise of the rainbow as sign of long-lasting covenant with Noah’s family. May we join the nations to ascend whatever mountain to the house of God “that we may learn to walk in God’s holy paths.”

Aware that “we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own,” may we confess with Frederick Faber now and through the week ahead: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” Let’s sing together # 145 in Hymnal A Worship Book.