I wrote the sermon in the days before the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. I preached it on Sunday, June 12 before I knew that 50 people had been killed or that the shooter was a Muslim. I would not change a word except to add that LGBT people are also stereotyped and feared. They are among those whom Jesus would remind us are our neighbors.
One of my priorities in my first eight months here at Eliot has been to get connected with the greater Lowell community. I have done this by reading the newspaper every morning. I have done it by introducing myself to some of our elected officials. I accept almost every invitation I receive to attend a community meeting with organizations like the Merrimack Valley Project, the Non-Profit Association, and business associations. One of the groups I attend regularly is the Greater Lowell Interfaith Leadership Alliance (GLILA). Because of my activity with GLILA, Eliot received an interesting invitation: to host and participate in a Ramadan iftar. During the 30 days of Ramadan, devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the prophet Mohammed. When Ramadan falls during June, that means more than 15 hours of fasting each day. The iftar meal, then, is eaten with a sense of celebration and gratitude. It is accompanied by evening prayer.
The session and I had some good and thoughtful conversation about this invitation. We all agreed on the need for better understanding between Christians and Muslims. If you watch any news at all, you have heard about Donald Trump’s “suggested” ban on Muslim entry into the United States. We hear plenty about Islamic extremists who carry out acts of violence and terror in places like Tel Aviv, Paris, and San Bernardino, and we are prone to think that this is a normative Muslim belief and practice. The anti-Muslim rhetoric even trickles down to our local area where a Muslim cemetery planned for Dudley, near Worcester, has received opposition that seems to be leading the town to buy the property to prevent the cemetery. Whatever the intent of that opposition, Muslims who have lived in greater Worcester for all their lives feel betrayed by their neighbors.
Given this climate, the session agreed that Eliot should participate in any way we can to build relationships of understanding and trust with our local Muslim neighbors. But, an iftar at Eliot raised some interesting questions, not unlike some of the questions I have entertained about how Christians should (or should not) participate in Buddhist religious ceremonies, particularly for family events like weddings and funerals. What does it mean to have Muslim prayers carried out in the church? Is that right? Is it okay for Christians to participate in those prayers? Can we participate in a meal that celebrates the revelation of the Quran, even though we do not recognize the Quran in the same way?
A good place to start might be with this parable of the Good Samaritan that we have before us from Luke’s gospel. The story has become soft for us, familiar as it is. However, when Jesus told this parable, it stung. It is supposed to sting. Jews and Samaritans were the worst kind of enemies – enemies that used to be family. In the earliest days of Israel’s history, there was no distinction between the two. When Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, many of the Jews living in that region assimilated by adopting Assyrian religious practices and customs. Other non-Jews moved into the area and the various peoples intermarried. By Jesus time, Samaritans did not recognize the Temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. Instead they worshipped on Mt. Gerazim and used a different version of the Torah as their religious text. Ethnically, the Samaritans were viewed as half-breeds, politically they were traitors, and religiously they were apostate. They were considered unclean and untrustworthy.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous. Telling a story about someone getting robbed there would be like telling a story about getting mugged on any inner-city street after midnight. It shocks about as much an episode of Law and Order. What is shocking for this young lawyer who questions Jesus about eternal life and being a neighbor is the hero of the story. Jesus tells of two Jewish religious leaders who witness the suffering man but who do nothing to help. We can imagine our own excuses: they needed to protect their religious purity; they did not feel safe themselves. You know the line. The person who stopped to help: a Samaritan – a dirty, disloyal, profane Samaritan.
I could retell this story a number of ways to try to reinforce the shock value. When I told this story among black youth in a South African township, they cast themselves as the beaten man and imagined the white Dutch Reformed Church leaders who long supported Apartheid as the “good” Jews who did nothing to help. If you cast a white suburban soccer mom as the lawyer, you might cast a young, inner-city African-American man with sagging pants and a prison record as the Samarian. You might even use the “n-word.” It is supposed to sting. In the editorial section of the paper this week, a small-business owner complained about the immigrants who rallied at Shedd Park last Sunday: “tell [the criminals] all to go home,” he wrote. If this person were the lawyer studying at Jesus feet, I am sure the Lord would have cast Mary Viela in the role of the “good Samaritan.” It is supposed to push your buttons. The Samaritan is the last person you expect to help when someone is in trouble. It is the last person you expect to “do the right thing” or show mercy. It is no stretch to suggest that if Jesus were telling this story to patriotic Americans today, the good Samaritan could very well be a Muslim man or woman whom we stereotype and whom we fear.
I want to circle around to the Genesis text and take a few minutes to think with you about who exactly our Muslim neighbors are and what they believe. Allah is the word that people use for “God” in Arabic, just as Dios is the word that people use for God in Spanish (1). When Mohammed lived in Mecca around the year 600, the city was a pagan place where over 360 gods were worshiped. Mohammed was always drawn to the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity, though he never became a Jewish convert or a follower of Jesus. Over the course of his life and through the revelations he received, Mohammed became convinced that there is only one God and that God is the God of Abraham, the same God who is worshiped by Christians and Jews. That the God of Abraham is the only God is the primary theological claim of Islam. Muslims, however, trace their relationship to this God not through Abraham’s younger son, Isaac, but through Ishmael, the elder.
We do not only have to look to the life of Mohammed or the teachings of the Quran to understand that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism share worship of the God of Abraham. The reading from Genesis this morning highlights the story of Abraham’s two sons: Ishmael born of Abraham’s slave, Hagar; and Isaac, born of Abraham’s aged wife Sarah. There is a much in this story that makes me uncomfortable; it is a difficult story. Once Isaac was born, the rivalry between the two women increased and Sarah finally demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out. Abraham was conflicted, but God consented to the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael even as God promised to also make a nation of Ishmael’s descendants. Although Ishmael did not receive the double-share of an inheritance customary for an eldest son, he was not cut off entirely. Even more, when young Ishmael and Hagar ran out of water in the desert, God had compassion upon these two, renewed the promise to make a great nation of Ishmael, and remained with the boy as he grew up in the wilderness. God, it seems, has promise enough for two sons.
Now this is not to say that Muslims are basically Christians or Jews. There are significant differences in how we understand and know the God of Abraham. Neither Muslims nor Jews accept the Christian belief that Jesus is God’s own Son and is in fact God. They would claim that this belief conflicts with the monotheism that is so important to those faiths. Because of our belief in Jesus as God incarnate, Christians cannot accept another revelation after Jesus that conflicts with Jesus’ teachings. We cannot accept the Muslim view that Jesus was a great prophet who came before Mohammed. We should not compromise our belief that Jesus died and rose from the grave for the salvation of the world. I am not interested in interfaith dialogue that asks anyone to silence their most firmly held beliefs. But I am also not interested in building walls where none exist.
Who are our neighbors? If Jesus were telling the parable of the Good Samaritan today, he would tell us that the African-American teen with sagging pants and a prison record is our neighbor. He would tell us that the illegal immigrant with no driver’s license is our neighbor. He would tell us that the Muslim man who kneels five times each day in prayer to Allah, who fasts for 15 hours each day during Ramadan, is our neighbor. What’s more, when we look to Genesis, we remember that Muslims are not only our neighbors, but they are our brothers and sisters though our shared ancestor Abraham and through the God whom we worship together.
If we want to think of ourselves as faithful Christians – as the young lawyer in Luke wished to think of himself as a faithful Jew – then we are called to see these hard-to-love neighbors as men and women who are capable of mercy. What is more, we are to show mercy to these others even at risk of our religious purity or our personal safety. Let me say that again, we are to show mercy to “the other’ even at risk of our religious purity or personal safety. That is what it means to love our neighbor and be reconciled to our brother. Even more, that is what it means to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Indeed, that is what it means to inherit eternal, abundant life.
I hope you will accept the very warm invitation from the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell and from Eliot Church to come on Wednesday, June 22 for an evening of sharing friendship and practicing our faiths as we love God and love one another.
1. Adam Hamilton, Christianity and World Religions. (Nashville: Abington, 2005) p. 74.