2 Corinthians 5:1621
May I start by making a confession? I have a confession to make. I find it hard to be a person of faith these days. That’s my confession, and it pains me to offer it. Lately I’m finding it more difficult to be a person of faith. It’s not that I doubt the existence of God or the love of Christ. I have not ceased to rely on God’s grace. My relationship with God is still the wellspring from which everything else in my life flows. That has not changed. And yet, I find it hard to be a person of faith these days. After all, when you survey all the horrific things that are being done these days by people who claim to act in God’s name, it’s difficult to be a person of faith, isn’t it? I have no quarrel with God, but I do have a quarrel with so many who represent themselves as God’s friends. Religious fanaticism may always be wrong, but in our time it is also dangerous. And the monotheistic religions seem particularly susceptible to fanaticism. Perhaps that is because those who believe in one God can slip so easily into the assumption that there is only one way of relating to God.
So President Ahmadinejad of Iran is bent on the destruction of Israel and questions whether there ever was a Holocaust. Shiites and Sunnis worship the same God, but they’re now out to get each other because they worship that God in different ways. There is such enmity between Palestinians and Israelis that suicide bombers are dispatched and walls are built.
And President Bush, a Christian, gratefully no longer uses the language of crusade to describe our country’s actions, but considering the ideological certainty with which he acts, the ways in which that certainty makes otherwise unthinkable acts like torture seem justified, the consistent preference for unilateral action over cooperation or dialogue—it makes me wonder: if this is not a crusade, it is uncomfortably close. So there are new challenges in calling oneself a Christian these days, because of all that is done in the name of Christ in our time.
Remember when Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb where Jesus had been laid. Upon finding the tomb empty, Mary cries out, “They have taken away my Lord!” Mary believes that Jesus has been stolen, snatched away by hostile figures. I feel that way a lot these days. The public face of Christianity in America today (James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and now Ann Coulter with her recent assertion that Jews need to be “perfected” by Christianity), the way in which Christianity has been used by political interests to consolidate their power, the way our faith has been used to justify violence and intolerance, makes me want to cry out, with Mary, “They have taken away my Lord!” How else are we to explain that the faith of Jesus, a penniless rabbi who taught that we are to love our enemies, welcome the stranger, love the outcast, who blessed peacemakers and said that these are the children of God, has come to be declared as pro-rich, pro-war, pro-torture, pro-intolerance, pro-American? So I find myself wanting to say, “They have taken away my Lord.”
More and more folk I know seem to be questioning the entire religious enterprise because they do not want to be associated with what others are doing in the name of religion these days. This perspective is given passionate, even angry, expression in Sam Harris’s bestselling book, The End of Faith. Harris begins that book in a way that is sure to get the reader’s attention. He describes the actions of a suicide bomber, then goes on to say that, although his parents are sad to lose their son, they also “feel tremendous pride at this accomplishment… The neighbors find that even a great cause for celebration and honor the young man’s parents by giving them gifts of food and money.” Harris then contends that, based on those facts alone, you would not know many things about this man: how old he was, whether he was of high or low intelligence, rich or poor, but you could easily guess one thing about the man—that he was religious. But Harris doesn’t think it is enough to condemn religious extremism. No, he goes on to say that more moderate religious expressions may be just as bad because we (yes, he’s talking about people like us) have created a “culture of toleration of religion.”
There are, of course, ways we should object to Harris’s argument. God is not responsible for human error. What people do in God’s name may or may not be in accord with God’s will. When we act in hate, we lose our claim to be acting in the name of the God of love. Hatred is always reprehensible. When it is spread in God’s name it also becomes blasphemy.
Then, too, religion is not the sole source of violence. In fact, in the twentieth century (the bloodiest of all centuries) nationalism was the greatest source of violence. Even the seemingly religious wars have complex sources: racial, social, economic, and historical factors all come into play as well. It is not that God enlists us to fight God’s wars. Rather, it is human beings who try to draft God into military service in support of their cause, a draft that God surely must resist and deplore.
Having said all of that, however, I am still left with the painful realization that so many in our time, to use Jonathan Swift’s acid phrase, have “just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another.” The fruits of religious faith seem to be such a bitter harvest these days. So it’s hard to be a person of faith these days. I find myself sympathizing with the increasing number of people who have concluded, “If this is what religious faith looks like, I want no part of it.” I sympathize with people like that—but I am not one of them. I am not one of them because I know that religious faith is so much more than what the extremists would have us believe.
I do not believe that this time requires that we walk away from our religious beliefs, or even diminish their importance. Rather, I believe this is a time that requires that we draw upon the best of our religious traditions. We need enough religion to make us love one another. Religion does have great power, but when something has the power to do great good, it also has the power to do great harm. Religious faith is a bit like nitroglycerin—it can be used to blow up a bridge or it can be used to heal a human heart.
There is an urgent need for people of faith who can recognize God’s image in the person who is not in their own image. And who will be capable of that in our time? Who will be able to recognize God’s image in the one who is not in their own image?
It will not be the religious extremists, who are ready to exclude anyone who does not agree with them.
And the secularists will not be of much help in this new era, either. Those who hold thoroughly secular worldviews do not appreciate religious conviction and so are strangely ill-equipped to deal with many of the central issues of our day, so many of which have important religious dimensions. People who dismiss religious faith often end up dismissing people of faith. They lack the vocabulary and the points of reference to enter into many of the most important conversations that are taking place today, within our culture and across cultures. Besides, secular people do not benefit from the best of great religious traditions, all of which emphasize the importance of receiving strangers.
Much the same could be said of those who hold their religious convictions lightly. This is not their time, either, because they are not particularly equipped to relate to those whose faith is central to their very existence. No, today something more is required.
I am an outgoing person, but I prefer not to talk with people seated next to me on an airplane. I would rather read or listen to music. On a flight not long ago I was in that coveted middle seat. After the plane took off, the man on my right took out a copy of Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith, that impassioned denunciation of religious faith I mentioned earlier. Then the woman on my left took out a copy of one of those best-selling Left Behind books, popular with conservative Christians, which offers an apocalyptic vision of the end of time. I thought, “We could have a very interesting conversation here right here in Row 23. I am one who takes the Bible seriously, but not always literally. My relationship with God is the bedrock of my life, but I also affirm that our understanding of who God is and what God expects of us unfolds over time. In other words, I am in just the right seat for such a conversation.”
I had planned to use the flight to begin preparing my sermon for Sunday. My Bible was in my briefcase at my feet. I thought, “Just bringing out my Bible will probably get this conversation going. It’s the kind of conversation that could last the whole flight and even it could feel as if the conversation were just beginning. And I am in the middle seat.” So I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the latest issue of The New Yorker and put on my headphones.
But, you know, I don’t think we can afford to do that anymore. Those of us who have been put in the middle seat—not the bland middle of the road, but the lively middle seat—are indeed the ones who are called to be in conversation with others who may differ from us and one another.
After all, this is a time for people who have deep religious commitments and thus can appreciate the commitments of others. What is urgently needed in our fractured, interconnected world are people of faith who, the more deeply they hold their own religious commitments, the more room they make for those not like them.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, tells of going to see a Jewish mystic who told him this parable:
Imagine two people who spend their lives transporting stones. One carries bags of diamonds. The other hauls sacks of rocks. Each is now asked to take a consignment of rubies. Which of the two understands what he is now to carry? The man who is used to diamonds knows that stones can be precious, even those that are not diamonds. But the man who has carried only rocks thinks the stones are a mere burden. They have weight but not worth. Rubies are beyond his comprehension.
So it is, he said, with faith. If we cherish our own, then we will understand the value of others. We may regard ours as a diamond and another faith as a ruby, but we know that both are precious stones…. True tolerance, he implied, comes not from the absence of faith but from its living presence. Understanding the particularity of what matters to us is the best way of coming to appreciate what matters to others.
This is what is needed in our time: people who have mined the best of their religious traditions for the riches they contain. We need people who are used to carrying diamonds and so know something of the value of rubies. And it is an urgent need.
It is a need for faith communities like this one, faith communities that are both deeply rooted in their traditions and radically open. I use the word “open” here in two ways.
For one, there is a need for people of faith who are open to God’s continued revelation. God’s truth is eternal, but our grasp of it unfolds over time. As the Pilgrims headed out for this land, their pastor, John Robinson, blessed them on their way with these words: “There is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s Holy Word.” In my denomination, the United Church of Christ, we often use a more contemporary version of that understanding. We say, “God is still speaking.” We are still trying to catch up with what God is up to and what God would have us do in response. Our grasp is never complete, which means that humility about our own conclusions is essential.
A couple of years ago the Boston Globe asked me and a religious leader representing a different Christian tradition to have a dialogue about same-sex marriage. I am supportive of same-sex marriage and this other religious leader is opposed. The reporter’s last question was, “Is it possible that you are wrong in your position?” My response was: “Of course it is possible. I can only be sure of God’s sovereignty, the grace of Christ and my own fallibility.” The other person’s response was quite different: “I am not wrong on this issue. All of scripture and tradition supports my position.” In these responses we were not only expressing our individual convictions, we were also reflecting the traditions of which we are a part. Mine is the tradition of the Pilgrim’s pastor, John Robinson, who said that “there is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s Holy Word.” And I believe that there is a need—an urgent need—for that kind of witness in our world today.
My tradition, as well as the tradition of this Cathedral, also is “open” in that we are open to others who may differ from us. Those who represent the “Christian Right” believe that the reach of God’s salvation is limited, indeed. According to them, faithful people of other religions are condemned, and so are many Christians (probably including me). Is it any wonder, then, that the “Christian Right” will not engage in interfaith conversations? What can one learn from the damned?
By contrast, we are able to draw on the distinctive riches of our faith, but in ways that do not reflect intolerance of other traditions. We share what we know about the God revealed in Jesus Christ, but without claiming that Christ is God’s only revelation. We are able to affirm our own commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and savior, without suggesting that you are damned if you do not share that commitment.
Much of the first hundred years of this Cathedral’s history was spent in building this glorious place of worship. It is awe-inspiring to consider all that went into that endeavor, all the commitment, all the creativity, all the resources, all the faith. And the result is magnificent.
But now what? You spent the first hundred years of your history building the walls of this beautiful Cathedral. I wonder if you might spend the next hundred years building bridges among faith communities. In our time we do not need any more walls. We need a whole lot more bridges. And this National Cathedral is uniquely poised to be a true instrument of reconciliation in our time. Although the Apostle Paul was talking to all who bear the name of Christ when he said that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation,” this Cathedral is equipped to take up that ministry of reconciliation in powerful ways. Mind you, building bridges is difficult work, more difficult even than building a cathedral. It may require even more commitment, more creativity, more resources, and more faith than went into the building of this place. But how needed, and how magnificent, is the work of reconciliation in our time.
I am humbled whenever I remember what my professor of preaching used to tell us. He said, “Just remember that many of the people you address on a Sunday morning almost decided not to come.” You may have a long list of things you have to get done today. You may have had a tough week and so you thought you heard the Sunday Times crossword puzzle calling you. I already made my confession at the beginning of this sermon. Now it’s your turn: Who almost decided not to come this morning, for whatever reason? May I have a show of hands? In any case, I realize that at least some of you almost didn’t come this morning and here I am saying that there is an urgent need for