the road

faith, jesus, and a conversation on the road

Tag: exploration

one of our own

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, preached at the 8am service

John 17:1-11

Fair warning: I’m going to be discussing an important interfaith understanding today and I want you to know that a) I have a point beyond the mini-points I make throughout, and b) this will tie into today’s gospel reading if you promise to follow along.

Now, with that warning out of the way, I’m going to make a statement that I think many, if not all, of us here today would at the very least agree with: I respect Islam and its followers, a group of people known as muslims.

Islam and Muslims are a constant topic on our news cycle, this past week in fact marked the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and prayer. But more often the news reflects stories of attacks on refugees from predominantly Muslim countries (including here in Spokane earlier this month on a family that are members of St. Stephen’s just up the hill), attacks on Sikh men (or our very own Sikh Temple here in Spokane) because they “look” Muslim, the proposed travel ban to restrict entry in this country for people from predominantly Muslim countries (including blocking families who put their life on the line to serve as interpreters and guides for our military in their home countries), or the use of the phrase “Islamic Extremism” or the fact that “Terrorist” is nearly instantly defined in many people’s minds as a brown foreigner from the Middle East (even if most acts of terrorism that have occurred on our soil were perpetrated by white men), or perhaps most shockingly this past week in Portland where two men, Ricky Best and Taliesin Meche, were murdered when they stepped between a man verbally attacking two women for their muslim appearance, it’s easy to understand why my opening statement of “I respect Islam” has become a radical thing to express, especially from a pulpit. But why should it be so radical? What has happened to our understanding of the world that fear and hate have flourished towards a different culture and a different religion?

During the refugee crisis with the travel bans this spring, one of the statements from the administration was that Christian refugees would be allowed in, I assume meaning if they could pass a test or something proving their worth as “one of our own”. Apart from the dangers of a religion test to enter a country with no official religion and in fact the right to express any religion firmly ensconced in the most revered of the constitutional amendments, what I want to know is why people don’t think muslims who practice Islam are not “one of our own”?

First, for clarification, in case this is new information, I want to clarify that those who have been labeled “Terrorists” by media and government are not “Islamic Extremists”, they are radical religious fanatics who represent a departure from the organized faith tradition known as Islam. This is the same as saying members of Westboro Baptist Church (those who protest military funerals, holding up homophobic signs decrying homosexuality) are not practicing Christians, the Ku Klux Klan does not represent the teachings of Christ, or Madonna practicing Kabbalah does not make her an Orthodox (or even Reformed) Jew. So, with that understanding, when we speak of practicing muslims, those who actually follow the teachings of Islam laid out in the Quran, I again have to ask, how are they not “one of our own”?

For all of the differences we share between us, theology and interpretations where we agree and disagree, we also share common ground. We have fundamental differences for sure, our understanding of faith and our experience of God in relation to us as creation are both similar and vastly divergent, but we share so much if we simply stop and look at each other face-to-face. We both draw our roots (together with Judaism, of course) from the first prophet, Abraham. And we both recognize the prophet Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the final prophet in Islam before the prophet Muhammad receives the word of God in the form of the Quran. Jesus is referred to as Messiah, sent to guide the Children of Israel with a new revelation (starting to sound familiar?). As the most mentioned person in the Quran, Jesus takes a very prominent role in the understanding of faith, named “Spirit of God,” “Word of God,” “Messenger of God.” Many miracles are attributed to Jesus, and he ministers to the Children of Israel. Jesus is known as a Muslim, meaning he was one who submitted to the will of God. Now there are differences, for example, there is not the same understanding of crucifixion and death, but they do keep the tradition of the Ascension, believing Jesus was raised alive to Heaven, to await the final battle of good vs. evil. And this is important information to know, because the words and actions of Christ are echoed by the prophet Muhammad throughout the Quran. We cannot divorce the historical and cultural contexts during the writing of the Quran, but we also cannot ignore how similar teachings about faith and how to follow God exist throughout both of our traditions.

And so today, when we hear Jesus speaking to us from the Gospel of John, we have to understand what is being said and who it is being said for. John serves in many ways as the divine gospel, in that the divinity of Christ is John’s greatest thrust, influencing our understanding of Jesus as deity, but not informing our understanding of Jesus historically. This is not a bad thing, John provides for us a firm foundation for our faith and is one of the earliest to describe the life of Christ in the manner of a faithful follower that has been greatly impacted by Christ’s life and example.

It is with this historical context of John and of Islam that we must read verse 3 of today’s lesson: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

There are many pastors and priests out there who will read this verse and declare it as proof that the only true religion is Christianity and everyone who has not personally accepted Christ into their hearts will be spending an eternity in the hell fire. Furthermore, they will use this verse as proof that those muslims over there are sinful heathens that simply need to know Jesus in order to turn their lives around and start living the right way (which for some unknown reason closely resembles a version of America that has never really existed but most closely resembles a, very, segregated and idealized version of a Christian-only town in the rural south circa 1950). But, they miss the point because that’s not what Jesus is saying in John, and historically this interpretation makes no sense.

Muslims know the only true God through Islam, because it is the same God that John writes of today. It can’t not be the same God when we share our foundation on the first prophet Abraham.

Muslims know Jesus, they know him differently than us, but John knows Jesus differently than even Mark knows Jesus (to use the earliest gospel as a counterbalance).

So, how are they not “one of our own”?

Why do we insist on hate and fear?

If we simply stop to look at each other, if we start to bridge the chasm that has erupted between us because of cultural and historical misunderstandings that have been allowed to perpetuate and permeate our respective cultures, we will see we are way more alike than we are different. If we simply stop to look at each other, we will see Christ reflected in the faith and actions of a muslim man, woman, or child, not because they are trying to become Christian, but because Jesus is the most highly revered prophet of the Quran, apart from the prophet Muhammad himself.

When we look at our interpretations of the words and actions of Jesus that we find in our gospels, it’s important to remember that there exists a greater context into which we enter. Christianity is not an insular faith with no connection to anything else in the world. We grew out of Judaism, our messiah was himself a devout Jew. And, we share the prophet of Jesus with Islam. We share an understanding of the great role that Jesus played as a messenger, as the Word of God (an understanding which we get from John’s Gospel). This is why it is so short-sighted to read the words on the page and declare that there is only one faith in one God that can only come through Christ, and that’s Christianity, because it simply doesn’t actually pass muster upon closer examination. This is not to say I don’t think Christianity is a very good way through which to connect both with Jesus and God, but I find it hard to say it is the only way, when I know that it really isn’t in practice.

I want to leave you with this: these past few weeks we have honored the post-resurrection time of Christ among us and now is the time where Jesus has ascended into Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father following his ministry among us after the resurrection. As we set out to follow in the footsteps of Christ and do his work, with our Advocate the Holy Spirit alongside us, I want you to ask yourself: does Jesus care more about me converting people to being Christians, or about reaching out and helping my neighbor, all my neighbors? And, what does your answer mean for you today? Amen.

the end of times

This sermon was preached at St. John’s Cathedral on November 27, 2016

The eschaton, the end of times, the second coming, apocalypse, is our theme as we enter into the season of Advent. And you might tempted to give fully into the passage, start charting number patterns and constellations to determine what day this last day will be, or you might be tempted to ignore it as an unnecessary and perhaps out of place lesson that’s really about the fact that Jesus has promised to come back, the rest being simply metaphorical language used to tell a story. What I want us to do today is accept this text at face value. We don’t need to go down the rabbit hole looking for signs that the end is nigh, for this passage is not about being anxious and packing our bug-out bags for when the world’s economy inevitably collapses on the 21st of May. Nor should we dismiss this passage as a piece of metaphor, a story told to assuage historical fears for historical readers, nothing for us to be troubled by in the here and now. Let us instead treat this passage as a reality for our here and now. Let us take this text at face value and consider what this passage actually means for us.

In our here and now we live in what Karl Barth referred to as “between the times.” Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we already live in a new day, a new time, a place where the promise and grace of God has been made manifest, a place where Christ has already died for our sins and has offered that salvific act for all of us here and now. And with the promise of Christ to come again, to come once more and be a symbol of God’s power of grace, forgiveness, mercy active in this world, we can be comfortable in this between times reality. This here and now need not be shaped by fear of what is potentially to come but rather it should be shaped by the gratitude for what Christ has already accomplished in this world. And, if we are shaped through that gratitude, then we can’t help but begin to prepare the path, to stay vigilant and active in the ministry that has been left for us, work that we will be doing until Christ comes at the unexpected hour.

Theologian Mark Yurs writes of this apocalyptic text that the truth of the text lies in the fact that “we are not expected to know everything, but we are expected to do something.” It is in this dichotomy of knowing and doing that we often miss the boat, that we forget that this text is applicable to our lives today. For we all like to know stuff.

The existence and (sometimes) popularity of apocalypse proclaimers in our own society speaks to our hunger to know and our forgetfulness in doing. One of the biggest Christian book series, which even inspired multiple movie versions including a big budget version starring Nicolas Cage, is the Left Behind series (of which I’ll admit I read the original run of 12 books). Books that cashed in on the hunger of evangelical Christians to know and prepare for what was sure to come in the near future: the end of times. More cynically, cult leaders have capitalized on people’s desire for what is advertised as knowledge in the form of certainty, that they know what is to come and when. Even the doomsayers who walk the streets waving their signs declaring “Repent! The End is Nigh!” do so to spread knowledge.

The Episcopal Church itself draws in a certain type of person who wants to use their brain to wrestle with the scriptures, to learn about their faith, to discuss and parse out how the stories we hear from an ancient time far removed can inform and influence our lives today. It is easy for us to fall into this trap of intellectualism. We highlight the great passages from our book studies and discuss them at length, then put the book on the shelf to absorb the next great writer without ever acting on the lessons we’ve gleaned. We hunger to know more and more that we often forget that no one, not even Christ, expects us to know everything. And, perhaps most importantly, Christ expects us to do something with what we know.

For the hour when Christ will come is unexpected, it cannot be known. So, we should get busy doing what we do know, for all the work we do to learn and digest will never inform us when the end will come. It will come when it does, and we need to be ok with that. This sense of an unexpected hour can get us worked up, stressed out, there is a sense that we want to guarantee that we are “in”. We want to know unequivocally that heaven awaits us. We can get so worked up, gobbling up all of the resources on prayer, spirituality, how to live a Godly life so that we can draw closer to knowing we are in, that we forget that Christ has already taken care of this for us. That we live “between the times” and as such, we are simply asked to accept what Christ has already done for us and get busy living that reality, spreading it out into the world through the work that we do. And, we are not expected to do everything either. Rather, we are simply called to live into a life that takes the reality of Christ’s salvific act for us, and allows that to inform how we operate in this world as we await Christ’s coming again. Mark Yurs writes “If they do what they can in a spirit of hope and trust they will do enough,” and enough is all we should ever strive for.

So, what is this apocalyptic story if not a promise and a reminder? It is a text that describes the reality of our life living “between the times,” of being in a both/and reality that asks us to accept and live into the reality that exists before us here and now. We can’t help but ask if we will live to see the second coming of Christ. And, who knows if we will? I certainly do not. And anyone that tells you they do is either lying or trying to sell you something. And this is ultimately because, it is not the point of the lesson. And, this is why every year we start the season of advent with the apocalyptic literature that has been left to us by Christ. For it is in the season of advent that we are again reminded of our position of being “between the times.”

It is in this season of advent that we should be reminded that we actually know how the story goes. We all know what is to come at the end of this season. We all know what we will gather to celebrate 4 Sundays from now. In fact, the church calendar always brings us to places we know. Advent leads us to Christmas. Lent to Easter. And it does so to remind us that we do actually know the story, know the lessons that have been left for us, know that Christ has promised and continually lives into that promise every year without fail. Christ is born in this world. Christ lives in this world. Christ dies at the hands of this world. And (eventually) Christ is again born in this world. This cycle that we know so well, this promise lived out every year, is all we really need to know. And because we know it so well, we are called to do something with it.

Advent thus must be for us a time of doing. We can get so wrapped up in the otherness of the festivities of this season, that we forget that the work of Christ is most important in this coming month. We declare we will be more involved in the new year. We declare that we will take this season to learn, to gain more knowledge, about all the great things we can get involved with and then start to try them out as our new year’s resolutions. But the new year is upon us. Advent is the beginning of our year, the beginning of our cycle reminding us that Christ has come and will come. And it is in this season of advent that we must be emboldened by the fact that we already know enough, we have enough knowledge, and by committing to do in a spirit of hope and trust, that we will do enough for this world.

Now, I must confess I am not a big poetry guy, probably because I haven’t found that one poet that opens my eyes to the beauty of the genre. But, I am a big music guy, and in lyrics I find the poetry that speaks to me. I want to leave with you the following from a song by the band Nickel Creek, words that speak to our “between the times” reality in this season of advent:

The battle is over.

Here we all lie

In a dry sea of Solo cups

With the sun in our eyes.

But it’s one of those endings

Where no one claps ’cause they’re sure that there’s more.

What a great way to start the first day of the rest of my life.