This is the third and final sermon in a series on Islam and Christianity. This sermon was preached on June 26, 2016 at Eliot Presbyterian Church.
Last Wednesday we had a fantastic group of people gathered here from Eliot and from the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell for a time of learning and relationship building. For me, it was wonderful to hear about Islam from people who practice that faith and to reach out in friendship instead of fear or suspicion. The event was prompted because Muslims are currently in a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. We were invited to join them for their fast-breaking meal, called an iftar. I was especially moved by the fact that our meal was prepared by people who had been fasting all day.
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, five practices that are considered obligatory for all Muslims, assuming they are healthy enough to participate. In our sermon series so far, we have learned that Muslims claim to worship the God of Abraham, the same God of Jews and Christians, although they do not recognize Jesus as God’s Son. Last week we learned that Muslims understand salvation as the result of repentance and virtuous living. As Christians, we understand salvation as a result of God’s grace alone made known through Jesus Christ, not the result of our repentance or our good deeds. Today, I hope you will remember these five pillars of Islam and find there a source of connection and inspiration for your own practice of Christian spiritual disciplines.
First among the five pillars of Islam is a profession of faith. To become a Muslim, one must say and believe that there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. Believing in only one God and giving testimony – giving voice – to that believe are at the heart of what it means to be a Muslim. We find similarity here with what it means to be a Christian. Romans teaches that if you “declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). In the Presbyterian Church today, we have a dozen creeds and confessions of faith; however, earliest church had only one confession: “Jesus is Lord.” The newest confession in our denomination, the Belhar Confession, adopted just this week at the General Assembly, similarly proclaims: “that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.” Saying what you believe is as important to Christians as it is to Muslims.
This first pillar is mainly about belief (in God and Mohammed) and a little bit about a practice (saying what you believe.) The remaining pillars are mainly about practice, about what Muslims do. All of them have parallels in the Christian tradition.
First is the practice of prayer. A devout Muslim prays five times each day, always in the direction of Mecca. The Christian faith also has a pattern of praying at certain times of the day, though it is seldom observed any more. Some monks and nuns pray at 6:00am, 9:00am, noon, 3:00pm, 6:00pm, and midnight. The rhythm of praying at certain times is a reminder that we ought to let God control the schedule and rhythm of our lives, rather than always needing to be in control ourselves. For Christians, it is also a way to train ourselves to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) as the apostle Paul teaches. Muslim prayers include repeating verses from the Quran. Christians do this when we pray the Psalms. Muslim are embodied with particular movements. Praying with your whole body is a powerful experience. If you have never knelt with your head on the floor in humility or submission before God, you should try it. It is a physical reminder of our dependence upon God, a way to keep pride in check.
The third pillar of Islam is fasting. Muslims can choose to fast at any time, but they are required to do so from sunrise to sunset during their month of Ramadan. When Ramadan falls during June (as it does this year) this can mean nearly 17 hours of fasting during the day. At our gathering last week, we learned that the fast is not only mean to be an abstention from food, drink, and sexual intimacy. It is also a time to purify one’s heart of malice. Like what we read in the prophet Isaiah today, Islam teaches that God is not pleased when people fast from food but fight with their neighbors, oppress their workers, or cheat a brother. Muslims believe that hunger helps a person remember her dependence upon God and encourages compassion for those who struggle with hunger not by choice but by circumstance.
Christianity also has a strong tradition of fasting. The early church fasted before making important decisions, particularly about who would be leaders or sent as missionaries (Acts 13:2, 14:23). In the Old Testament, we see people fasting as a sign of repentance from sin, as the Ninevites did in response to Jonah’s preaching (Jonah 3:5); as a sign of lament as all Israel did upon the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:12); and when seeking God’s help, as David did when his infant son was dying (2 Samuel 12:16). In the gospels, we see Jesus fasting for 40 days after his baptism before he begins his ministry (Matthew 4:2). Later, though, people question Jesus because he and his disciples seem to feast a lot whereas John the Baptist and his disciples do a lot of fasting. Apparently some people thought that Jesus and his followers did not fast enough (Matthew 9:14)! Feasting reminds us of God’s abundance and the joy of kingdom living. Fasting teaches us dependence upon God, not our own strength, and is appropriate in times of repentance and sorrow or to help us discern God’s will.
The fourth pillar of Islam is the practice of charity or alms-giving. This is more prescriptive than the call to charity in our own faith. Some sources teach that a person should give 2.5% of his annual income to help the poor. Others teach that a person only has to give 2.5% of his savings. In some places where the government is Islamic, this has even been assessed as a tax. However you do the math, Muslims are expected to care for the poor by sharing their resources.
As with the other pillars, the practice of charity is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, though our Scripture offers many models for when or how much Christians should give. The Old Testament calls for farmers to give to God the first fruits of their harvest, suggesting we should not wait to see what is left over from our spending before we give to God (Deuteronomy 26:1-4). The Old Testament also prescribes giving one-tenth of the harvest to the Lord (Leviticus 27:30). This is the commitment that Eric and I have made, to share 10% of our income with the church and other organizations that care for the poor and strengthen our communities. In the gospels, we see Jesus teach one ruler that he should sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:22)! Taking a vow of poverty is one way Christians live out this kind of radical discipleship today. While there is not one “right way” to give charity, all of these practices remind us that our wealth belongs to God (not to us), that we should use our wealth to care for our neighbors, and that we can trust God to provide for what we need.
The last pillar of Islam is the practice of making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. In Muslim belief, Mecca is the site where Adam and Eve received forgiveness for their sin in the garden, where God provided water for Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, and where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael in an act of faith (1). (It is nearly identical to our Old Testament story about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac.) Making pilgrimage to Mecca is a spiritually transformational experience for Muslims and is a source of unity among Muslims from around the world.
For Christians, pilgrimage to holy sites, particularly Jerusalem, only developed after Christianity became the religion of the empire. Before that, Jews would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem at least once per year for significant religious festivals, singing songs as they climbed the mount of the Lord. Their voices still echo for us in the Psalms: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people” (125:2). Practitioners of Christian pilgrimage today might say that where you go is not as important as the going itself. We remember that God’s first command to Abraham was “Go . . . to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). God traveled with his people Israel when they wandered in the wilderness. Jesus was known as a homeless wanderer, and much of his teaching takes place on the roads between Jerusalem and the Galilee (Matthew 8:20). Charles Foster writes that, “being Christian . . . means following the Yahweh-man” (2). Pilgrimage might teach us that this is not a metaphorical or strictly spiritual following, but that it literally means going where Jesus went and going how Jesus went (without much baggage, with compassion). Just like praying with your face on the floor is a physical reminder of your spiritual dependence upon God, pilgrimage is a physical reminder of your being sent in the name and power of Jesus.
I hope that you can see how much we share in common with our Muslim neighbors in the practice of our respective faiths. Saying what you believe, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage are integral to both traditions. In many cases, Christians could learn from our Muslim neighbors who often practice these disciplines more faithfully than we do. At the same time, we must remember that it is not our practice of these or any other disciplines that make us worthy of God’s grace. We should be careful not to turn these practices into tools that we can use to control or manipulate God. (If I say this, then God will save me; if I pray this, then God will do that; etc.) Instead, the disciplines are tools that God uses to pour grace into our lives. They are the tools that God uses to shape us into the image of Christ. When we practice the disciplines of prayer, fasting, charity, pilgrimage – or others like study of Scripture, hospitality, or silence – we are opening up a channel through which God can work to transform us, but the transformation belongs to God’s grace alone (2 Corinthians 3:18).
We call it practicing our faith for a reason. We often fail to get it right. We stumble along the way. Disciplines like profession, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage create the space for grace to work so that God, “who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
May it be so. Amen.
1. http://www.whyislam.org/submission/five-pillars-of-islam-2/pilgrimage/pilgrimage/ (This website is one that my Muslim colleagues at the local Islamic Center have recommended as a trustworthy source on Islamic belief and practice.)
2. Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). Page xv.