Today, there are approximately 2 billion Christians in the world, 1 billion Muslims, 600 million Hindus and 300 million Buddhists.
Within Christianity, the fastest growing form of Christianity has been for most of this century, starting in 1906 and continuing until today, Pentecostals, which according to Harvey Cox, professor of theology at Harvard, now accounts for approximately 20 percent of the world’s Christians.
Religion—in its broadest sense of a universal human behavior—which once was predicted would be overwhelmed by secularism, is today as diverse, booming and confusing as any time in human history.
The two most noticeable reactions to all this religious activity and variety at the end of the second millennium are the rise of fundamentalism and the acceptance of syncretism.
The rise of religious fundamentalism is universal, showing up in every major religion. Professor Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, who will be in residence at this Cathedral the last weekend in September, has done a monumental study of the rise of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. As the world shrinks and religions come more in contact, one reaction is to retreat into a rigid absolutism.
The other reaction is loosely called New Age, which, according to some estimates, includes 10 to 20 percent of Americans. Although the word “syncretism” was invented in English only in the early seventeenth century, experimenting with meshing various faiths into a hodge-podge of belief is as old as human history.
What guidance can we find for an age of extremes, an age of fixed fundamentalism and sloppy syncretism? What should we be concerned about in the development of our own faith vis-a-vis the faith of others? What do we teach our children?
When we look at the Bible, however, we discover once again that the old adage is true, the more things change the more they stay the same. And when we look at the Bible closely we discover there is wisdom there, wisdom waiting to be discovered.
The Bible, even just within the Old Testament, has struggled with both extremes, fundamentalism and syncretism, and it has found a balance that you and I can find helpful. In those eras when the religious authorities had become so accommodating to other religions that faith in the God of Abraham was nearly lost, rules were developed to purify the faith. Strict, explicit rules about diet, about excluding foreigners, about who was and who was not a believer, about who could and who could not be allowed to worship. Perhaps under the circumstances of lax accommodation to other religions, such tightening of the rules was understandable.
But there were other times, including the era in which that stirring passage we heard from Isaiah was written—”My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” The ancient Jews had lived in exile in a foreign nation, Babylon, for approximately fifty to sixty years. Then they were freed and allowed to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. The rule that was on the books, specifically in the book of Deuteronomy, written at exactly one of those times when the beliefs and practices of the faith had become lax, was that no foreigners could worship in the Temple. The rules that had been created to include some and exclude others were in force when the writer of those inclusive words declared a new rule: God’s Temple will now be a house of prayer for all people.
But this welcome is not without qualifications. As stirring as those inclusive words are, the qualifications that follow are as important. Anyone who keeps Sabbath—a concept far more complex than just keeping a holy day, it really means a distinctive lifestyle in which one intentionally sets aside a portion of one’s time, money and spirit for God and for the poor—is welcome. Anyone who works for a just society and who sincerely seeks personal integrity will be welcomed. Why is this the new rule announced in Isaiah? Is this merely a bunch of liberals on some political correctness jaunt? The prophet is clear: All such people—those committed to justice and personal integrity—are already on the path to God, sometimes even more surely on the path to God than those who wrote the entrance rules! The standards have not been lowered by allowing in those traditionally deemed unacceptable. The criteria for entrance into God’s presence have been significantly raised. The rules are now the highest moral standards. They are God’s standards. The rules for entrance now are a heart and hands that work at justice for others and at life-long, personal search for moral, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual wholeness, the wholeness God wants for each and all God’s children.
What was the situation when Jesus lived and taught? The world was a very small place indeed. Most of the major religions and philosophies of the day were in direct contact with each other. Although most of his ministry took place in Galilee, Jesus grew up next to a town deeply influenced by Greek and Roman philosophies and religions. When he went to the Temple in Jerusalem, Roman guards stood in a special tower that had been erected to watch every move in and around the Temple. But as we see in the passage from Matthew’s gospel we have already heard, Jesus makes exceptions.
In Matthew’s version of this important incident a Cannanite woman approaches Jesus. Already two rules have been broken—a non-believer and a woman approach in public Jesus and he responds. Jesus reminds her that his first call is to his own people; they are the ones God prepared through the Law and the prophets for Messiah. But the woman continues to seek him. She says she will settle for the crumbs that fall from the table. Jesus is moved. He recognizes her sincerity in seeking him. He explicitly says, “Great is your faith.” He answers her petition.
I suggest to you that the wisdom we need in an era of extremes can be found in the stirring words from the book of Isaiah and in the teachings and example of Jesus. What would Jesus do? We know exactly what he did and, therefore, that we should do the same.
The task for Christians today is to welcome all sincere seekers after God yet at the same time become more clear about our own faith and, as importantly, more consistent in practicing it.
A few years ago, Hans Küng, arguably the most significant theologian of this century, edited a book entitled Christianity and the World Religions. In the introduction he identified his task as a Christian today: Christian self-criticism in the light of other religions and Christian criticism of other religions in the light of the gospel. This is a very difficult balance to keep. There is nothing faddish or sentimental or easy about that task! Yet, it is much closer to “what Jesus would do” and in fact did than fundamentalism or syncretism. You see, there is a stance for us to take other than the extremes of fundamentalism and syncretism. That is a difficult balance to maintain, far more difficult than only becoming more rigid about our own faith or more tolerant of others. It requires us to remain open to all people and, at the same time, to be as clear as we can about what we believe and, as importantly, to practice it consistently.
This morning, you are worshiping God in the sixth largest cathedral in the world. What would motivate people to build such a magnificent sacred place on the highest hill in our nation’s capital? Its founding vision included that phrase, “A House of Prayer for All People.” It is in your leaflet this morning. There is a banner carried in procession with that great prophetic wisdom emblazoned on it. The first person to apply it to this Cathedral was Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee, 1843–1907, the first bishop of the Diocese of Washington and the first dean of this Cathedral. Today, this Cathedral seeks to continue to live in that balance, a balance between a narrow understanding of God’s work in the world and an indiscriminate acceptance of all beliefs and ideas.
Finally, to put all our questions into perceptive, step back for a moment and look at the people sitting around you this morning, or those with whom you work or those you see on the television news not as you usually see them but as God sees you and them all the time. God sees all the barriers we have developed and that we guard so closely. But do you think they matter to God as much as they do to you? We have seen in God’s prophets and in God’s incarnation, Jesus, how God regards us. God seeks and welcomes all who work for justice for others and all who sincerely long for personal wholeness, as God intended for us in Creation.
There is a story in Jewish lore that can continue to instruct us long after you have forgotten this sermon. A young disciple went to her teacher and, wanting the approval of her master, said, I now understand that the greatest teaching of the Law and the prophets is “to love my neighbor as myself.” You have learned much but you have much to learn, the teacher replied. The greatest teaching from the Law and the prophets is this, “And God breathed into humankind the breath of life.”
Every human bring is a child of God. God loves and seeks every person. Those who put that belief into practice for themselves and for others are already at the entrance to God’s presence.