This sermon was preached at Holy Cross Lutheran November 28, 2010, sadly racism continues to live on in ways that threaten so many lives and the question of this sermon seems even more urgent today. The readings included Isaiah 2:1-5, “Amazing Peace” by Maya Angelou, and Matthew 24:36-44, during the sermon I read from the Qur’an Sura 19:1-30 which you can find by following the link in the body of the sermon.
While I was studying for an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, I worked as a volunteer women’s center. Because I was studying the religions of the world, women who were being persecuted as a result of religious belief were often referred to me.
I’d been working with a young woman who was being abused by her father and brothers because they felt that she was adopting Canadian ways and thereby abandoning Islam. I remember visiting her in the hospital emergency room after her brothers had beaten her nearly to death. She told me that the last thing her brother said to her before tossing her out of the back of a van, was that she should consider herself lucky that they had talked their father into letting them beat her, instead of doing what he had ordered in the first place which was to kill her. I sat at her bedside wondering how a brother could do such a thing to his sister. I decided that they must be religious fanatics and I wondered how any religion could drive a father to seek the death of his own daughter.
The next morning I didn’t feel much like going to my Religious Studies Methodology Seminar. The Seminar was comprised of 7 students from various faith traditions along with 4 atheists and 3 agnostics. Together we studied the various methods of studying religion. We were about to embark on the phenomenological approach to the study of religion. “The Phenomenology of Religion” is a fancy academic way of describing the study of actual religious experiences of the divine. As we stumbled to our seats the professor announced that he would be dividing us into groups of two and he wanted us to learn all that we could about our partner’s religious experience. We would have two weeks to come up with a 1,000 words describing on the phenomenology of our partner’s religious life. I was paired with an Imam who was studying Western approaches to religion prior to taking up a position in a local mosque. Ibrahim was a recent immigrant from Pakistan. But he might as well have been from Mars as far as I was concerned. On that day of all days, Muslim men were not exactly my favorite characters.
I had decided that any religion that could land a woman in the emergency room simply because she refused to wear a veil and wanted to choose who she dated, well that religion was misogynist and so I wanted nothing to do with Ibrahim. As it turned out, Ibrahim wanted nothing to do with me. He explained to the professor that as a point of honour he could not meet privately with a woman, so we would be unable to study together. Our professor, who also happened to be a Jewish Rabbi, simply told us to work it out. So Ibrahim and I agreed to meet at his home where we could be chaperoned by his wife.
I had studied Islam, and believed that I had an enlightened view of Islam. But if the truth be told, I didn’t trust Ibrahim precisely because he was a Muslim Imam. I imagined that he was by the very nature of his vocation conservative. I determined that as an Imam he must be responsible for the subjugation of women. I was full of anger toward him, which for the sake of the Methodology credit, I would have to suppress. After Ibrahim’s wife Fatima had served us tea, she asked if I minded if she took notes. I assumed that she was doing so on Ibrahim’s behalf, so I agreed provided she’d supply me with a copy as well. Ibrahim was fascinated with the idea that after I received my Religious Studies degree, I planned to attend seminary so that I could become a cleric. He smiled and told me that he dreamed of the day when Fatima could put her PhD to good use and become an Imam in her own right. Clearly my assumptions about Ibrahim were wrong, but I remained suspicious.
Over the course of the next two weeks and long after our assignment was turned in, I was a regular visitor to Ibrahim and Fatima’s home. While we studied together at UBC, both Fatima and Ibrahim served as my tutors and guided me through the honors’ class in Islam. Later Fatima, who is a marvelous Torah scholar, helped me study for my Judaism finals. When it looked like I was going to fail Ancient Greek for the second time, Ibrahim came to my rescue, helping me to learn the intricacies of Greek grammar. In return, I helped Ibrahim sort through the intricacies of Ancient and Medieval Christian heresies. Together the three of us we managed to get through a course in 20th Century cults that required fieldwork in a wacky New Age centre that served up all sorts of magic mushrooms that were guaranteed to provide you with the most astonishing phenomenological data.
Our friendship was hard won. Each of us had barriers to overcome, suspicions to lay to rest, prejudices to unravel and misconceptions to un-learn. Fortunately we had Jesus in common. It was over long discussions about Jesus that we were able to see that what we had in common was far more precious than what divided us.
It began on that first visit when Fatima suggested that a paper that she had written on Jesus in Islam might be a place for Ibrahim and I to begin. I knew nothing about what Islam thought about Jesus, so I agreed that it would be as good a place as any to begin. Fatima corrected me, she didn’t mean that we should begin with what Islam thought about Jesus, but rather that we should talk about the role of Jesus in Islam. She suggested that we begin by studying the stories about Jesus in the Quran.
There are stories about Jesus in the Quran? Well, as I’d never read these stories, I agreed that we should begin there. So from the Quran, we began to read the story of the of Jesus’ birth.
Reading from the section of the Quran entitled “Mary” – read here: Sura 19:1-30
From Ibrahim and Fatima I learned that in Islam Jesus is revered as a prophet who is filled with the spirit of God. Indeed one cannot practice Islam and not revere Jesus as a prophet. I learned that in Islam, God raised Jesus up to be with God, and with God Jesus has been exalted among the prophets.
I also learned of the wisdom of Islam. I learned of the great Islamic schools and libraries that preserved the knowledge that was destroyed in the west during the dark ages. It was the great Muslim scholars that preserved the philosophic teachings of ancient Greece after the fall of Rome. The church declared these philosophies to be heretical and attempted to destroy them. It is thanks to Muslim Scholars that the Greek notion of democracy was preserved and indeed the classical wisdom of the west was preserved in Arabic and rediscovered during the Renaissance from Arabs who had migrated to Western Europe. From Ibrahim, I learned of the rise of women in Islamic culture. I learned that like Christianity and all the great religions of the world, Islam has its fundamentalists and even its fanatics. I learned that like Christian leaders, Islamic leaders were rediscovering metaphoric understandings of the Quran. In Ibrahim and Fatima I came to know that we are fellow “people of the book” and together we revere the Scriptures: the Torah, the prophets, the Gospels and the Quran. But before I learned to love Ibrahim and Fatima, I had to let some things inside me die.
Earlier this week some of us gathered here to listen to Sister Joan Chittister talk about Spirituality and Culture. Chittister said something that resonates with me on this Advent Sunday. On this day when we hear Jesus speak of the end of an age. Chittister said that, “Every age that is dying is simply a new age coming to life.” So I can’t help wondering what age is it that needs to die so that a new age can be born? Or more precisely, what needs to die in us, so that a new age can be born? Is it time to let our fear and prejudices die so that trust and friendship can be born? Or are we content to let the terrorists win? For if the goal of a terrorist is to inflict terror, then the terrorists have indeed won. For now we are not only afraid of the terrorists. We are also afraid of our own authorities, who in the name of security will pat you down in ways you never imagined would be necessary, ways that would make your grandma blush, right before she reached for her umbrella to hit someone upside the head. But not even old women, or nursing women, or indeed the wounded are safe from the intrusion of security officials who are just doing their job, when they ask to see that prosthetic breast from a cancer survivor, or when the alarms go off because that bionic hip replacement has been detected. We are afraid.
We are very afraid, as endless arguments in the media suggest that we begin to profile on the basis of race and subject every Muslim male to an exhaustive search as if the terrorists don’t already know how to apply the necessary make-up to transform themselves into blond-haired Scandinavians .The terrorists have won because they have learned how to play on our fear. So as the fear rises we forget who we are, as we become people who resemble the horrors of history who were also just doing their job. We forget all that we hold in common with those who have been judged to be the others. As we demonize the others we loose sight of our neighbours and we miss opportunities to love them. And so remembering the Prophet Jesus, the one we call Messiah, I know that it is time to let this age of religious intolerance die so that a new age of peace might be born.
On this first Sunday of Advent, when we are called by the One who proclaimed the hope of a world were peace and justice are the ordinary realities of life; the One who reminded us that the time has come for nations to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; so that one nations will not raise the sword against another, and never again will they train for war.
On this the first Sunday of Advent which is dedicated to the hope of peace on earth and goodwill to all, on this Sunday we would do well to ask ourselves: What needs to die in us so that a new age can be born? Chittister reminds us that “Nothing we do changes the past. But Everything we do changes the future.”
So I ask you are you content to spend your life looking over your shoulder and reacting to the past? Or are you willing to let suspicion die so that trust can be born? What kind of future are we going to shape? A future based on fear, prejudice and hatred? Or a future based on hope, hope for justice and peace?
When I think of what needed to die in me in order that friendship might be born, I can’t help wondering how I could have been so arrogant as to believe that I am not prejudice. That was the first thing that needed to die…..the notion that I’m an enlightened person who treats everyone equally. I have learned that none of us are free from prejudice. So, we need to constantly examine our hearts to see where we have hardened them to the needs of our neighbours. Each of us has carefully drawn boundaries that we must be prepared to erase over and over again.
I also had to let the arrogance of comparing our best to their worst die in order that I might see that a religion is not the sum of its worst practitioners. We must be prepared to add it’s very best and it’s mediocre to the equation. For if we were to judge Christianity by the sum of its worst practitioners we’d end up like Christopher Hitchens, left with no choice but to condemn Christianity and declare that God is dead. Just this week past week, here in Toronto Hitchens was able to convince an audience by a margin of 2 to one, which had gathered to hear him debate Tony Blair. Tony Blair was unable to convince the majority and so the resolution: that religion is a force for good in the world failed. Hitchens who is himself dying of cancer is adept at adding up the excesses of Christianity and indeed the excesses of all religions, to arrive at his conclusion that religion is poison and that God is a delusion. If all you do is add up the excesses of religion, then I too would have to agree with Hitchens and join him in his quest to ensure the death of God.
Religion is not the sum of its excesses. When we add to the equation the beauty and the wondrous experiences of those adherents to the religions of the world who have acted out of the compassion that all the great faiths strive for, we can’t help but continue to long for the inspiration of the Divine to empower us in the ways of compassion. Yes there are aspects of our old notions of the Divine that will have to die in order for this current age to pass away.
If the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed is to come to be, then the current age will have to end. For justice and peace to become a reality in the world, we will have to let old fears and prejudices die in us. If the nations are to beat their swords into plowshares, and learn war no more, it will have to begin with us. So, I ask you to examine your own hearts to see what fears and prejudices need to die in you, so that Christ can be born anew in your heart. Martin Luther said that each and every year we needed to make our hearts into mangers to cradle the Christ child. Meister Eckheart insisted that it really didn’t matter if Mary gave birth to Jesus all those years ago, if the birth of Christ does not also take place now in you.
What needs to die in you to make room for the Christ child to be born anew? What needs to die in you so that you might become the bearers of compassion to the world? Are you ready to love your neighbours?
Both Ibrahim and Fatima became regular volunteers at the help-center. Ibrahim was particularly good at helping Muslim women overcome the excesses of their Muslim fathers and brothers as they struggled to live together in the west. I remember one young Muslim woman who was reluctant to talk to an Imam until the day her father arranged a marriage for her. She was so desperate that she was willing to speak to an Imam in the hope that he might be able to convince her father to relent. Ibrahim wasn’t able to convince the young woman’s father. So, he and Fatima decided to break the golden rule of the Crisis Clinic and they took the young woman into their own home after her family threw her out. Ibrahim and Fatima work very heard to bring Islam into the 21st century. We will also have to work very hard to bring Christianity into the 21st century. In this week’s bulletin, I included two poems by John van de Larr. I encourage you to use them in the coming weeks to help you to dream beyond your fear. I’d like to conclude with one of those poems. It is entitled: An Incredible Hope:
We imagine a world where peace and justice
are the ordinary realities of life;
We dream of a planet where giving and sharing
are second nature to all people;
We envision an earth where joy and celebration
fill the news and our lives;
It may seem like a delusion,
but we have an incredible hope!
We hope in the One who has come:
who proclaimed such a world,
and who gave his life for it;
We hope in the One who is always coming:
surprising us with the presence,
and the restoring work, of God;
We hope in the One who will come:
in every age, to every generation,
until this dream has come true.
We have an incredible hope, O God,
and we praise you for it! Amen.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, let such hope be born in us. So that all the world may know Shalom, Peace, Salaam.
Benediction: Let fear die.
Let compassion be born anew.
Let old hatreds die.
Let love be born anew.
Let the idol of God that confines
this age to the power of the sword
So that Christ can be born anew.
Let this age pass away,
Let justice and peace be born!
Let the hope of God, V
the love of Christ
and the power of the Holy Spirit
be born in you. Amen.