the road

faith, jesus, and a conversation on the road

Tag: worship

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.

a “good” life

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter at the 8am service

John 14:1-14

Easter is a season about life. We have the promise of resurrection realized and experienced in Christ. Jesus comes back to us from death, defeating death, to teach us, to inspire us, to fill us with hope. The hope of the resurrection is what makes Easter, and it is this hope that we experience throughout this season. But the gospel today, which in many ways is an Easter gospel in the vein of what has preceded and what is still to come in this season, is not about the hope in life we experience, at least not in the mortal, one-time experience of life of the here and now. This gospel today is an Easter gospel because it is about our death. And in our death, the hope that Easter brings. Hope that we must know. Hope that we must share. Hope that is our faith in the resurrected savior, Jesus Christ.

We often avoid conversation of death until it is unavoidable. There is so much joy in this world, in our lives, that death is not something which we want to dwell too much on. Even when there is a lack of joy in our lives, death still is not talked about, death still remains taboo. It’s because we should be happy in this world, with our lives, regardless of whether we actually are happy or not, we should be, or at least that is what we’re often led to believe. And because of this, we celebrate life. We celebrate the occasion of our births with great joy over the fact that we’re still alive, at least for another year. And we mourn deaths. We mourn loss. We mourn the fact that we are reminded that we are in fact mortal, regardless of how immortal we may feel. And because mourning is not a joyous occasion, we try to avoid it as much as possible. We try to avoid death, in any real sense, as much as possible.

It is because of our insistence on avoiding death that it is in fact hard to handle death when we are forced to come face-to-face with it. But in particular, we are greatest at avoiding any notions of our own mortality until it is too late. I’m a healthy young (or for some of you, youngish) person, you think to yourself, what sort of use do I have for a will (apart from the fact that you have dependents, a spouse, one or more children, to think of)? We avoid our own mortality by making death fantastical and ridiculous. We see this in film and television where regardless of it being a drama, a horror movie, or a comedy, death plays a character with which we interact, failing to acknowledge it as a reality in our real lives. We deal with death in a relatively safe manner, but still keeping it at arm’s length. Still protecting ourselves from the reality that supposedly comes with death.

This avoidance of death is compounded in part by the societal desire, and often pressure, to measure our lives, to make sure that we have lived what others may deem a “good life.” A life that was full of every experience possible. We checked off every item from the bucket list, for once that’s done than surely we’ll be ready to die. We have made sure that we have not missed out. And it is here that we begin to lose the point of Easter. We begin to lose ourselves in a pursuit that forgets what Christ has done before us, the promise that has been fulfilled for us, the life that is awaiting us after this life.

But, what if we took this life, acknowledging the very real presence of death at the end of that life, and saw the life we have been given as an opportunity to prepare. What if, instead of seeing life as something that must be lived to the fullest, as seen through skydiving, swimming with dolphins, and climbing Mt. Rainier, we thought of a life lived to its fullest wherein we worked to better the lives of others, we worked to protect God’s creation in all its forms, we worked to bring about the kingdom of God, we worked to prepare ourselves for our deaths. When Thomas asks Jesus, how can we know the way, he is asking a question that is asking Christ to quantify how we can measurably follow Christ, measure whether or not we have achieved the standards of a good life so as to be rewarded in the end.

If we are truly living a life in Christ, how could we not know the way? If we are truly living a life in Christ, following the way, the truth, the life, we can begin to answer the question of what is really important to measure a life well-lived. For there is a pretty clear answer as to what makes a “good” life, when it is a life lived in Christ.

A “good” life in Christ is one where we see the hungry and give them food, the thirsty and give them something to drink. A “good” life in Christ is one where we see a stranger and welcome them in, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, or any of the myriad of faiths in this world, be they Atheist or Agnostic, be they immigrant, refugee, or illegal alien. A “good” life in Christ is one where we see the naked and give them clothing, simply give it to them, with no qualifications. A “good” life in Christ is one where we see the sick and take care of them, regardless of how much money they have, regardless of how good of medical insurance they can (or can’t) afford, regardless of how they choose to live their life, the choices they have made in that life. A “good” life in Christ is one where we see the imprisoned, imprisoned by cruel and unusual mandatory sentencing laws, imprisoned for minor drug infractions, imprisoned for doing what they had to do to survive in a society that only works to keep them down, imprisoned for committing the same crime as a rich white college kid but being black so parole and community service were never going to be offered, and visit them, see them as human beings and not as thugs and criminals, stripping away their very humanity.

If we begin to understand the measure of a “good” life in Christ, and the stark difference it strikes with the measure of a “good” life in society, then we can begin to understand Jesus when he says do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me. The place where Jesus goes, to prepare a dwelling place for us, enables us to re-define death. Death becomes for us not death, but life. Death becomes for us a new birth, where we will be with the Father and the Son. When we acknowledge this reality of death, that it does not hover over us like a reaper, waiting to harvest our souls, we can change our understanding of this life that we have been gifted with. When we begin to see death in the light of Easter, the light of resurrection, we see death as our reward for a life well lived in Christ.

And, you know the way. You know the truth. You know the life that is in Christ. We simply have to acknowledge and celebrate this fact. We have to celebrate that what society might deem a good life is not a standard that we need to be beholden to. We have to celebrate that we have been given this one life to do as much good in this world as we can manage, taking up the mantle as a follower of Christ, creating good. And when that one life comes to an end, whether it be at the end of a long life or a short life, we will be rewarded with a dwelling place in the father’s house.

When we gather for funerals in this church (often hearing this very gospel in the service), when we acknowledge the deaths of our friends and family every Sunday, we say that we mourn the death and celebrate the life lived. It is important that we be given space to mourn for these deaths, it is hard to say goodbye to someone we hold near and dear to us. It is especially hard when it feels like that person’s time with this life, in this place, was cut short. It is important to mourn, because it is in our mourning that we acknowledge that the world is losing someone who put good into the world. And, it is hard for us to accept that their good will no longer be actively created. But, we also celebrate their life because we are resurrection people, and in this gospel today we know that through Christ, there is life.

We know that through Christ, the good that has been created in this world will beget more good as we celebrate the life of those who die, by carrying on, supporting, the good they created when they were with us. Christ is the way, the truth, the life, and because of this, we cannot help but celebrate a life well lived, we cannot help but be comforted by the fact that our loved ones go to the dwelling places, and one day we too will be amongst them in a new life, a new life experienced because of Christ’s salvific act on the cross and his subsequent resurrection, defeating death for the final time.