glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, November 15, 2015

My House Shall be Called a House of Prayer for All Peoples: A Sermon after Terrorist Attacks

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. 

 Never have Jesus’ words felt more true. And honestly, it is hard to know what to say, with the world in such turmoil and crisis. The Paris terrorist attacks took so many innocent lives—people just doing what people do, attending a concert, a football game, and dining in restaurants, bars, and cafes. They were sons and daughters, husbands and wives, parents, aunts and uncles. They were ordinary people, like you and me, who deserve to mourned, loved, and upheld in our prayer. Not in a flimsy way—with simply words or Facebook posts, but in a real and deep way. Because they were real people. They were people who were beloved by their families and friends, people who were and are beloved by God. 

 It hasn’t registered as much in the news, but there was an attack this week in Beirut, Lebanon, too. Forty-one people were killed and more than 200 wounded by suicide bombers. In recent months major attacks also have been perpetrated in Turkey—100 were killed by two suicide bombers; and in July in Egypt as well. That’s to say nothing of the on-going crisis in Syria, where people live in daily fear for their lives, whether from ISIS or their own government. It is this crisis that leads people to flood into Europe, in search of refuge, safety, and a possibility for peaceful lives for themselves, for their children, and their children’s children. 

We should be clear that what happened in Paris on Friday night could happen anywhere that people live and move and associate freely. And we should emphasize that the vast majority of those killed by ISIS-related terrorist attacks are not Westerners, not Christians or Jews, but Muslims. It’s just that our press seems to focus on the events in countries most like ours. It’s not a plot to keep other news from us, I think, or I hope. It’s just that it’s hard for people with busy lives to focus on happenings everywhere. The world is clearly a mess. But, I believe, it is also in search of some glimmer of hope, some sense of possibility for a better future. That’s true for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and also for Hindus and Buddhists, and people who don’t profess any kind of religious faith, but who want nothing more than to see the world embrace a vision of peace. And not just a vision of peace. But also a reality of peace. 

Most of you know that this summer my family and I took a trip to Sweden. Our plans were that we would stay in Stockholm for a few days, sighting-see and such, until my friend Anders met us several days later for the remainder of our trek across Sweden and into Norway. Before heading out on our trip I researched options for how to get from the airport to the hotel, and learned that the cheapest way, given we were four people, was to take a cab. So, after landing and getting our luggage, I hailed a cab at the airport. Because there were four of us, I had to sit up front with the driver, and everyone else was in the back. At first I spoke to the driver in English, but soon I thought I would try out my rusty Swedish on him. That surprised and delighted him, as his English wasn’t that strong. It was good enough to get people where they need to go, but maybe not so strong for a 40 minute drive. 

It turns out that the driver is from Syria and I think finds Sweden a challenge sometimes—they are very distant and different countries after all. At one point, he asked me about my occupation. After wondering what I should say for a moment, I gave in and told him I am a priest. That led, rather predictably, to a somewhat uncomfortable conversation about religion—I’m a liberal Christian, and he seemed to be a more conservative Muslim. But then, somewhat out of the blue, he started fiddling with his smart phone, until he pressed play on a video file. He held the phone over his shoulder and turned it up as loud as he could, so everyone in the back could hear. Speaking on the video was a Muslim Imam, in Jordan I think, speaking about how faithful Muslims are expected to work for justice and peace, not only for fellow Muslims, but also for Christians and Jews. On the video he also said that faithful Muslims are called to condemn violence and do whatever they can to bring people together. 

Suffice it to say, it was not the cab ride to downtown Stockholm I expected. It might even be the weirdest cab ride ever—probably especially for my family in the back seat, who didn’t have a clue what we were talking about, in Swedish, and why this video was being played at them. But it testifies to the fact that people everywhere, of every religion and race and background are longing for a more peaceful and less divided, violent, and warring world. Even Syrian cab drivers in Stockholm. Maybe especially them. 

Over a year ago, a global coalition of Muslim scholars and leaders—over 120 of them—came together to offer a refutation of the so-called Islamic State. They wrote a letter to ISIS leaders, arguing point by point that their actions are a perversion of the Islamic faith and sacred text, the Qur’an. In fact, what they said sounds a lot like Imam in the video in the Stockhom taxi ride. Here is some: 

  • It is permissible in Islam [for scholars] to differ on any matter, except those fundamentals of religion that all Muslims must know. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats; hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers. 
  • Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and without the right rules of conduct. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’. 
  • The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to deny children their rights. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to enact legal punishments (hudud) without following the correct procedures that ensure justice and mercy. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to torture people. Armed insurrection is forbidden in Islam for any reason other than clear disbelief by the ruler and not allowing people to pray.
  • Loyalty to one’s nation is permissible in Islam.”  

These teachings tell us that what we see in the news around the world is a perversion of Islam, an ancient religion that unfortunately most of us here probably don’t know all that well. In fact, that’s exactly what I said to the taxi driver in Stockholm: many of us in the United States don’t know many or even any Muslims, which makes it all the harder to understand their tradition, and to make the necessary distinction between radical extremists and terrorists and those who are our neighbors. But, I believe, whatever we can do to deepen understanding will benefit not only us, but our whole society and world. 

A powerful example of this deepening understanding, mutuality, and relationship was made manifest over the past few days in Boston. Just as we were learning of the terrorist attacks in Paris, hundreds of Massachusetts Episcopalians gathered for our diocesan convention. On Friday night St. Paul’s Cathedral was rededicated after over a year of renovation, and Bishop Gates officially took his seat. Then, on Saturday, we undertook the business of the convention, including an introduction to the several faith communities that are housed at the cathedral, which in 1913 Bishop William Lawrence called a “House of Prayer for All People.” 

In his time, Bishop Lawrence likely meant all colors and economic backgrounds. Today, it also includes a community of homeless or recently housed residents of Boston who worship alongside the more affluent cathedral parishioners on Sunday mornings, and then have their own service and lunch on Monday afternoons. It also includes a vibrant Chinese congregation that meets for worship on Sunday afternoons and programs on Friday evenings. There’s an inclusive and unusual community of young adults who gather at the cathedral for non-traditional worship on Thursday evenings. And finally, on Friday afternoons as many as 500 Muslims who work downtown flood into the cathedral for their obligatory noon-day prayers. They’ve been coming to St. Paul’s Cathedral to pray every week for 15 years, since 2000. 

A beautiful feature of the cathedral renovation is a foot-washing station downstairs, for the Muslims to use before their prayers. Chiselled in granite above the faucets are the words: “A house of prayer for all people.” Bishop Lawrence brought forward that idea in 1913, but he didn’t make it up. It’s directly from the Bible—Isaiah 56:7. At Saturday’s convention a member of the Muslim community spoke to us of how significant the cathedral, our cathedral, has been in providing welcome in the midst of downtown Boston. With the news of the Paris attacks so much in the forefront of our minds, his testimony was a sign that people of faith can overcome fear and distrust. We can stand together and pray together—for peace, reconciliation, and understanding. Praying together doesn’t mean that they will become Christians or that we will become Muslims, but rather that we will all deepen in our understanding that we are one, we are united, as beloved children of God. 

Politicians will do whatever they can to keep us safe in the face of global violence and religious extremism—doubtless debating, fighting and disagreeing on the best ways to do that. Our job, as Christians, is to pray—for our leaders, for our communities, and for our world. And then, once we’ve prayed, and as we are praying, our job is to do whatever we can to break down the barriers that separate us. We Christians have a model for how to do that in Jesus Christ. Jesus, whose whole life was about drawing people together, in faith and understanding. Jesus, who made himself vulnerable, even to death on the cross, so that we might live barrier free lives. That’s our model. That’s who we are as Christians and what our faith calls us to. 

It’s not assigned for today, but I thought I would close by sharing a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians. To me it’s one of the most powerful and profound passages in scripture, and can perhaps be a guiding influence to us, who follow Jesus, as we work to bring reconciliation in our broken and violent world. 

“So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles by birth, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near... For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near…. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.” 

 May we be that peace, that reconciliation, that holy temple, and that house of prayer, for all people. 

 To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 © The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

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