Author: Caldwell, Quinn G
Date published: May 17, 2011
Sunday, May 22
Aas 7:55-60; John 14:1-14
I HOPE YOU'RE LIKE me in at least one respect: I hope you're lucky enough to find yourself frequently working and worshiping with people of other faiths. I have come to believe that the future will be made of such moments.
Interfailh gatherings, especially those about things that really matter, are always fraught; if they weren't, we wouldn't need them. There are two ways for planners to organise such events so that a minimum number of people are offended, hurl or caught up in a bloody conflict. Tn the lowest common denominator method, nobody does anything that everyone in the room can't agree with, The Christians pare God down from three to one in their prayers; the Jews leave their tallii and their chosenness at home: lhe Muslims find a way to turn their backs on Mecca and say what they have to say without using Arabic. All agree noi to do or say anything that mighl offend anyone. This is noi my favorite method, but it works well when those gathered don't know one another or don't yet trust one anolhcr. The problem is that to remove all that is potentially offensive in a conversation about ultimate things among people with conflicting truth claims is to remove lhe possibility of saying much of any import.
In a second method, we all bring our particularity to the lable. We speak from our own traditions and arc unafraid to do so. Christians pray to Jesus, the Jews bust out the Hebrew and the Muslims reference Muhammad with abandon. Rather than agreeing not to risk being offensive, we agree not to be easily offended. Good relationships and a high degree of trust are absolute requirements in this method.
I prefer this method, I'irst because it allows me to be fully me in my prayer and work, but also and more importantly because the great challenge of our day is not to learn to live with watered-down versions of other faiths, but to live with them in all lheir fullness. What could 1 possibly learn about Islam from a Muslim who's pretending not to be one? This method takes a lot of work and leaves unresolved tensions between conflicting and exclusive truth claims. But it's worth the effort for the relationships it builds and the peace toward which it points.
Yet whatever kind of interfaith gathering I might be in charge of planning, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't invite martyrto-be Stephen. Think of the last interfaith gathering you went to. (If you can't think of one. you probably should get on that; the world needs people like you there.) Can you imagine what would happen if Stephen stood up at an interfaith gathering and said there what he says to the council in Acts? In this week's passage he's a persecuted, heaven-gazing and saintly soul, bui back up a few verses and read what he's just said to the council. I would have been mad at him too. He may or may not have been accurate in his accusations, but he sure wasn't bringing his ?-game in terms of interfaith dialogue.
And Jesus? Well, he makes plenty of exclusive truth claims likely to offend people of other faiths ("I am the way, and the Truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me"). He certainly has plenty of ornery disputes with people of his own faith. And his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman who asks for healing for her daughterone of the only inlerfailh conversalions about religious matters of his we have on record - doesn't start out well: he calls her a dog.
But I would certainly invite Jesus anyway. Here's why: remember that one interfaith conversation? The one that didn't stari out so well? It ended much better than it started. Didn't Jesus end up hearing what the woman had to say, and didn't he end up extending all the grace in his power to heal her daughter? Didn't what started out as misunderstanding, anger, judgment, maybe even fear- didn't that end up with the Savior of the world learning a thing or two from a foreign woman of a different faith?
"What's the way to the place you're going?" asks Thomas. "I am the way," says Jesus. In other words, he is saying: "Learn what I've learned: don't call people dogs. Believe what I've come to believe: grace is for everybody, even the ones that don't believe in the same God you do. Do what I do: listen, be convinced, and if God's given you lhe power to heal somebody, don't you dare- don't you dare - refuse to use it.''
Here's how it is: the world gets smaller and more full of people every day. Most of those people with whom you're sharing less and less space do not believe what you believe. Even if you've so far managed not to spend much time with them, you're not going to be able to manage thai much longer.
When you do come face to face with those strangers, don't feel as if you need to hide who you are or what you believe: bring your full-on faith and expect them to do the same. But don't do as Stephen did. Do it in this way: try to be gentle. Try to be unoffended. Remember that even if Jesus is bringing everything to its fulfillment at the end of time, for now he needs us to find a way to live with other people's gods. Remember that he promised that whatever he did, you would do even better.
Reflections on the lectionary
Sunday, May 29
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22
WALK THROUGH MOST people's houses, and you'll quickly get a sense of what they love. The art on the walls, the books on the shelves, the kitchen gadgets, photographs, knickknacks and pets, the size and number of TVs- all reveal where the occupants" hearts lie.
A tour through most people's homes will also show you what they fear- especially if you're willing to poke around. Here are some of the fears my house would reveal. Locks on the doors and windows: invasion and theft. Fire extinguishers: destruction. Gate in the kitchen doorway: unsupervised interaction between giant dog and tiny son. Suction bulb syringes in every room: infant choking to death on his own vomit (the result of seeing a particularly graphic video at the hospital). Savings and retirement account statements: instability and poverty. Then there's - oh Lord - the medicine cabinet. Moisturizer: wrinkles. Sunscreen: skin cancer and wrinkles. Special shampoo: dandruff. Vitamins: wrinkles? Scurvy? You get the idea. Some of these items reflect prudence: others reflect more than a little silliness. Ail of them reveal fears.
The same could be said of Paul's tour through Athens. In one sense, all the idols and temples point to what the people of the city love: their gods and the virtues, blessings and graces they represent. In another sense, they show what the people fear: those same gods and the anger that the people will call down upon themselves if they fail to worship them properly. Of all that Paul sees, one thing speaks more eloquently of fear than the others: the altar to an unknown god, the one that's erected just in case there's a god out there whom the people haven't yet heard of but who is powerful enough to make them sorry should they offend him or her. Ever the opportunist, Paul tries to win the people over to his God by exploiting both the Athenians" fear and their prodigious capacity for devotion.
"Do not fear what they fear." says the author of 1 Peter. Do not fear gods of stone and metal. Do not fear unknown gods. Do not fear humans who set themselves up as gods, dealing death and offering a pale imitation of life. Do not even fear death. Fear that in trying ?? preserve your bodies you might miss out on life. Fear that though the realm of God is all around you, you might miss it if you're not paying attention.
When they ask why you're smiling and what unknown God you know that they do not. have an answer ready. Be prepared to tell them what you have seen and what you have heard. Tell them what is worth fearing and what is not.
My favorite benediction comes from the New Century Hymnal: "May you love God so much that you Jove nothing else too much. May you fear God enough that you need fear nothing else at all." People always get the first half of that statement with no problem, at least in theory. But once in a while I'll hear from somebody who doesn't like the second half- the part about fearing God. "I believe in the God of love," she says, "the God Jesus showed us. I don't believe in a wrathful, punishing God, and I won't worship a God I'm scared of."
Fair enough. I'm not about to argue with those who say that they worship the God made known ?? them by the living Christ, but I do usually tell them this: there's fear and then there's fear. There is the kind of fear that most of us know is silly but share anyway: fear of what the neighbors think or fear of drooping skin. There is the kind of fear born of prudence or lived experience: violence from the people around us. losing the ones we love. Then there is the fear of God, which is more like awe. For me the difference is what I would be willing to drop to my knees for. It's hard to imagine bowing down to thieves or wrinkles. But what about the day when I find myself face to face with the Creator of heaven and earth? I imagine that then there will be nothing I can do but bow down, and that I will love doing it.
The challenge is to find ways to live bowed-down lives. Not lives forced into being bowed down or cowed into being bowed down. Not lives bowed down to gods made of gold or plastic, or to security locks or younger-looking skin. I'm speaking of lives bowed down under an easy yoke of devotion, a light burden of intimacy with a living God who created all and loves beyond any simple understanding, who invites us out of our lesser fears. Our task is to find ways to live so that when visitors come poking in the cabinets of our lives, they learn that while we may worry about our kids and hate dandruff, we know that the only thing really worth fearing is a life without God.
The author ix Quinn G. Caldwell, associate minister of Old South Church in Boston (UCC).