Texts – Genesis 9:8-17; Amos 9:7-8
Sermon, 8th St. Mennonite, Oct 22, 2006
One of the wisest choices that John and I made during our first year of marriage was to teach at Woodstock School in India for three years. We have returned to that land of sacred mystery seven times since the early ‘60s for other assignments. While John delves into India’s history, I am drawn to her religious richness.
Decades ago, German Max Muller said “To know one religion is to know none.” One of my mentors with interfaith study Paul Knitter encourages our being “religious interreligiously.” I further believe that living for some years where my chosen religion was favored by a small minority opened windows to God’s broad Wisdom. Privileged to value and understand at deep levels our Jewish heritage, Christians often distrust Jews. While they did not accept Jesus as their Prophet or Messiah, no Christianity would exist without Judaism, without the Jewish Jesus.”
Living in India with its complex religious heritage alerted me to biblical texts of exchange between people loyal to diverse faiths. Recently I took a Hindu friend, a professor of botany, to Merry Lea, Goshen College’s outdoor property for ecological studies. En route, our discussion roamed, from the humility of washing another’s feet in each of our traditions to her questions about the scary features of Halloween that appear in yards. I later pondered rituals linked both to saints and goddess Kali.
Other religions teach me about my own—when I’m open to hearing rather than bent only on telling. Christians may ignore God’s Wisdom about diverse religions and nations that surface in our scripture. We may minimize Jesus’ radical inclusion of non-Jewish Samaritans or deny that he learned truth from the Syrophoenician woman, enough to change his course of action. We downplay Peter’s conversion to God’s impartial acceptance, truth taught by an ‘outsider’ Cornelius. Stories of Naaman, Ruth, and Jonah also portray the God of all peoples.
Those inclined’ to think of themselves or their religion as ‘the best,’ who have vision for only their saving option, or who presume to have the final word on faith may truly fail to credit God’s breadth and commitments. Those who exclude fail to practice the basic, universal command “love the neighbor as the self.” Religious people need to be both loyal and open. To claim a distinct faith is valid, useful, and expected by religious others. But we need not close off occasions to learn from them both details of their truth and how it may enlarge insight into our own faith.
Our present Sunday School lessons that focus on immigration remind me that in 1965 the US opened its borders to Asians. This so-called Christian nation of many immigrants has a heritage to ponder. Recall the reservations with limited space and resources that were created for native peoples. Recall the Protestant resistance to growth among Roman Catholics. Recall WWII when 110,000 Japanese Americans were relocated to remote “centers” behind barbed wire fences, under military guards.
Now, as the world’s most religiously diverse nation, U.S. resistance to an influx of new worship places occurs. A Vietnamese monk faced hatred when he wished to use his ranch-style home for a small Buddhist temple. After a Muslim community in Flint Michigan met to celebrate a holiday, all of their parked cars had flat tires. At a temple in Pennsylvania shared by Hindus and Sikhs, they found LEAVE printed across their altar and the Sikh scripture torn to bits. Now, this nation builds a wall along part of its border with Mexico to restrict entry, including to Christians.
Perhaps we should ‘escape’ to the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. The Genesis text that was read picks up where the myth or pre-scientific Flood recedes. The Flood occurred when God could no longer tolerate the corruption that had built up for ten generations. Chosen to survive and begin a new race, Noah and family plus the pairs of animals waited inside while a dove was sent to test the flood level outside. When back on land, Noah built an altar on which to offer to God whole, clean animals. Sacrifice expressed desire for God’s favor. Smelling the soothing scent, God vowed inwardly, ‘Never again will I curse the ground and all of life.’
When the floating and waiting had ended, God repeated the vow. Not that the people had changed, God had. People will disobey. But this covenant or promise of “never again” is God’s heartfelt, universal pledge. God alone declared that a rainbow would call to God’s mind this one-sided promise. The bow is a sign to God. A sign of God’s plan to stick with creation. God’s new commitment followed the fact that God remembered. And God remembered after becoming angry enough to destroy all but a remnant.
But that remnant had potential. From beasts to birds to human beings, life continues. Not assured that it will always be good, it will be. The bow in the cloud assures a divine pledge to all nations. From Noah and wife’s three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth—also characterized as good, bad, and indifferent—branched forth the world’s nations. While Israel’s roots stem from Shem, Canaanites branch from Ham and Philistines from Japheth.
Ten generations later, along with Abraham and Sarah’s covenant, tension came into play—tension between the universal and distinct. That God, who cares for all nations, simply elected Israel, a nation like any other, to help convey God’s care for all nations. That task prompted tension. Not meant for privilege or freedom, election does not displace other nations. Israel was to enable others to better understand the One God’s love. But the journey between nations has been filled with tumult. Whereas only God may rightly give or take life, people have been killing each other, physically and emotionally. Further, many Christians aspire to limit how or whom God saves.
British writer Karen Armstrong finds profound agreement about the Ultimate among the great religions. While many of the world’s people call what transcends us God, others use names like Nirvana, Brahman, or Allah, the Arabic word for God. Buddhists yearn for profound emptiness—not being attached to anything—to give life meaning. Armstrong names key approaches to the God of all nations—theology and compassion. Doing theology, to study God, is something like writing poetry. It attempts to express what cannot fully be expressed. Doing theology, we search into our inner being; we struggle to find more depth. That type of struggle or effort is central to the key Muslim term jihad. That fact calls us to trust Islam, despite how extremists might distort it.
How Christians understand Islam today may depend on what we read. Recently, a Mennonite invited me to read The Great Divide The Failure of Islam & the Triumph of the West by Alvin Schmidt. Although even the title conveys bias, I read it in order to locate risks for readers who fail to discern. Although Schmidt includes some useful facts, I experienced how he negates Islam and glorifies Christianity. When a resource prompts ill will or distortion, will readers who know only one religion ‘buy into’ the bias.
C. S. Song from Taiwan is noted for Story Theology. An ancient story “Alice in Looking-glass House” reveals a conflict in relating across religions: Alice sees things from her stance alone. She thinks her view of others is right, rather than “seeing what others are really like in themselves.” Threat for one’s own group reflects fear of the other. Dialogue begins with monologue for those who think that their religion is the only valid one. But for dialogue to be honest and worthy, each participant needs to bargain: “I believe in you and you believe in me.”
In Song’s story “The Wild Goose Lake,” Sea Girl longs for water from the lake to be released to the canals of her drought-hit village. How will she get the golden key needed to open the stone gate? With the stone gate a metaphor for religious faith, the challenge becomes How will hearts of adherents of diverse religions be opened to the depth and riches of each other? Rather than hold God captive—through our presumed right teachings or worship—we need to discover God beyond our distinct limits. Therein is the raw material for peacebuilding, story, plus theology.
The practice of compassion creates a sense of God. Rabbi Hillel summed up Jewish teaching while standing on one leg: “Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” As we try to live Jesus’ pattern of selfless compassion, we can also encourage and learn from Buddhists’ about deep compassion and nonviolence. Intent not to be attached to anything—objects or doctrines—a Buddhist has a generous, selfless way of being in the world.
Or, consider Abraham’s encounter from his tent at Mamre, in the heat of the day. Three strangers appeared on the horizon. Strangers could kill. But Abraham invited them in to his tent, and Sarah prepared a special meal for the unknown trio. The hosts provided comfort; they showed simple compassion. The story explains that without fanfare, one of the three strangers proved to be Sarah and Abraham’s God. Indeed, people of other races and religions can shock us into an encounter with God, I believe, if we start from a stance of welcome or inclusion.
To learn from those who might have dark skin, speak Spanish, or practice diverse worship rituals gives new insight into God’s depth. This does not say that all religions are true
nor that distinct practice or conviction must converge into one religion. As in the above stories, to value difference moves toward kindness and compassion. How people treat each other becomes a central issue. Rumi, the great Muslim Sufi, says the Qur’an’s reason for God’s having created difference is “so that they can learn to know and compete with each other toward good works.” Rather than fear difference, we admit limits to our religion and expect wisdom from other groups to enrich ours.
Another Hebrew text to note today comes from the prophet Amos. Think of the religious difference present among the peoples named. In 9:7 Amos’s vision records God’s reprimand: “Are not you Israelites like Cushites to me? Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, the Aramaeans from Kir?” God’s rule over all the nations is evenhanded. As obscure, distant Cushite or Ethiopian tribes were delivered after being enslaved and exploited, so Israel was brought up from the land of Egypt. As God uprooted and gave land to little known Aramaean nations, so God controlled Philistine’ destiny, alongside Israel; God helped to settle them both.
Israel’s problem, in Amos’ mind, was its ignorance and arrogance. It presumed that it alone was Yahweh’s people. But election does not exclude; nor does it bless favoritism. Not a national deity then [or now, as implied in “God bless America” signs], no nation is to oppress or denounce others. Israel was jolted from expecting others to conform to its religion (reductionism). So, Christians today ought not limit God to receive others only through a Christian way of salvation, I believe.
Where does the fact of One God (known by diverse names), being Master of all Nations and Communal with many religions lead our thinking after today’s worship? For Christians, openness to the One God and many faiths need not weaken loyalty to Jesus the Christ. Jesus indeed directed his teaching to God and God’s kindom or Way/ We have a pattern to follow.
During his Last Supper, a close meal with the 12, Jesus washes their feet, predicts his betrayal, warns that the world might hate them, and tries to comfort their emotions. Thomas often expressed common views. Here, he asks Jesus, “How can we know the way (that you will take to reach God)?” Not boasting, Jesus claims to be the way to God for all who follow him. For loyal Christians, he shows and lives the way of suffering love (also a pattern to follow). Having lived intimately with God, he shares the truth learned from God. For example, God is impartial so no one is favored over others. For the way which is open to God’s Ways lets God decide who and how to include. Even Thomas would see the idolatry of trying to decide about others, in God’s stead.
Another New Testament text often cited is Acts 4:12. The context was a Jewish healing event. As Peter and John enter the temple, they meet a man lame from birth. Peter offers all that he could for the circumstance—“in the name of Jesus, walk.” Peter offers a symbol of Jesus’ presence—healing, a term that also means saving. To which act, the Jewish temple leaders ask, “By what power or name did you do this?”
Convinced that God’s Spirit had acted through Jesus’ name, in his life and resurrection, followers like Peter confess how he had transformed them. They express love language, like the child who confesses “My parents are the best in the world!” Not knowing all parents, and far from all-knowing about how God relates to people of all nations, the child or Peter or we believers confess to the extent that we are able: Jesus is the one through whom Christians best know God. Not for privilege or power and not with freedom to oppress or exclude, Peter confesses the name of Jesus the Healer.
So also, I proclaim Jesus as a universal savior, available to all. With Paul Knitter, I confess that “Jesus truly embodies and expresses God’s love,” not that he does so only, solely or fully. “Not the whole of God, Jesus is wholly God.” Other religious figures may also wholly reflect the One God. Other people of faith know other ways that give life deep meaning for them. As Wesley Ariarajah—pastor, professor, and prophet from Sri Lanka—confesses, “God has always been savingly present in Asia.”
I believe that God, also called Yahweh/Allah/Brahman, is the Way for all nations. But I don’t claim to know God’s form nor how the Way transpires for all. Third Isaiah saw God’s temple becoming “the house of prayer for all nations,” even for eunuchs and foreigners. The “most relational of all relational beings” [Carol Christ], God remembered and vowed “never again” to destroy all of life but a remnant. The bow of colors reminds God of this vow.
Through Amos, a prophet of ancient Israel, we learn of the people’s problem: to “think of themselves more highly than they ought.” Although chosen to convey God’s universal love to the nations, people forgot God’s fairness. Their ignorance and arrogance toward those who were different Amos could not accept. As Israel needed a jolt from expecting others to conform to their religion, so Christians today grow through honoring sacred traditions that differ. For example, we learn about Jesus’ stillness with God when tempted or in deep agony through Buddhist profound meditation. And we are free to confess that Jesus’ Way of suffering love offers discipline enough to better understand the “One God, Diverse Religions, and All Nations.