Friday, December 18, 2015

What I said at the Mosque

A few years ago, I was invited to an event at a mosque near the church where I was rector to be one of the speakers on “How to Promote Peace, Love, and Harmony in a Diverse Society.” It happened to be on Christ the King Sunday. Here is what I said:

Thank you, Imam Kauser and members of the mosque, for hosting this event and for welcoming us to your place. I am honored to have been invited to share some thoughts on how to promote Peace, Love, and Harmony in a Diverse Society. It is an important topic that needs attention in a world in which there is so little peace, love, and harmony.

I want to begin, somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, with diversity and difference. I do not think we do ourselves any favors by denying the reality and the significance of our differences. In fact, I think we need to start by recognizing and honoring our differences.

Some differences don’t matter all that much – what sports team we support. Others matter more – our political convictions. Some differences, like race, have a tragic history in this country. Differences between nations lead to the odd situation in which Muslim and Christian Americans fight together in battle against other Muslims and Christians of different nations. And there are differences of faith which are themselves too often a source of disharmony.

How do we pursue peace, love, and harmony in a diverse society? I suggest we are talking about hospitality which is a central virtue in both Christianity and Islam. In the New Testament, we are encouraged, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).

But hospitality requires that we have a place into which we welcome others. That is why acknowledging our differences matters. It is only if I know the place where I am and can recognize the contours of my place that I can be hospitable. That is true of our homes. It is true of this mosque. You have welcomed us to your place. It would not be right for me to walk around this place with my shoes on or treating casually what you consider holy. It is similar when you have visited St. Barnabas. And it is true of the “place” of our respective faiths with their peculiar understandings of God and life.

We see things differently. We understand God differently and those differences are important. I expect that Muslims have difficulty with ideas such as the incarnation in which God in some mysterious way became human, or that the Messiah died on a cross to reconcile us to God, or that God is somehow three persons yet still one God. To be honest, Christians sometimes find these mysteries baffling. And no doubt there are elements of Islam that Christians find hard to accept. We must begin by acknowledging and honoring those differences rather than pretending they are not real or do not matter.

So, what I have to say I say as one whose place is that of Christian faith – not as an American, not as a liberal or conservative, not as a generic spiritual person (I don’t believe such a thing exists), but as a Christian. I am confident you, our Muslim neighbors have your own way of coming at this.

How should Christians engage non-Christians? We begin with Jesus. Today we celebrated Christ the King Sunday. It is an audacious thing for us to claim Jesus Christ as King. It is a provocative thing, because we do not just claim that Jesus is King of Christians but of everyone, indeed, of the world. The fundamental Christian affirmation is, “Jesus is Lord”. But, Christians do not always live out the implications of this affirmation. We have been good about claiming Jesus is the Way. We have been less good about living the way Jesus is.

And, what is the way Jesus is? In short, it is the way of self-emptying love. Jesus tells us to love our brother and sister within the Church. Indeed, even to speak derisively of one another places us under judgment (Matthew 5:22). Jesus also tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). You, members of the mosque, are our neighbors and if Jesus is the Lord and his is the way, as a Christian, it is incumbent upon me to love you. But, Jesus goes even farther and commands that we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us.(Luke 6:27-28). Brothers and sister, neighbors, and enemies – that does not leave anyone beyond the obligation to love.

So what does that look like in this context? In 1 Peter 3:15 of the Bible, we are told that if we reverence Christ as Lord in our hearts, we should, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" and, very importantly, it adds “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” We are not to be bashful about the hope that is in us and the particular faith on which it is founded. But, we are commanded to be gentle and reverent. As the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker wrote,

“There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.”

Because we are all created by God and in the image of God, we must treat one another with due reverence. In the end we are connected to one another by the God who created us all. Here is another quote from Richard Hooker:

“God hath created nothing simply for itself, but each thing in all things, and every thing each part in other have such interest, that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto any thing that is created can say, ‘I need thee not.’”

So, my Muslim neighbors, I am happy to come to your place – your physical place to be sure – but more significantly, the place of your hope and faith. Show me around. You might even invite me to stay. And I welcome you to visit the place of my hope and faith. I may invite you to stay. We can engage one another, discuss and even debate our differences. We might learn from one another. Sometimes we will agree. Other times we might walk away shaking our heads convinced that the other is just plain wrong. But, if we do it with reverence and gentleness, we will be practicing a hospitality that leads to harmony even as it acknowledges and respects our differences.

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