Please pray with me for a moment. Gracious God, teach us to move the fences. Teach us to open doors and hearts to you and to your people, to those who are the other, the strangers. Gracious God, teach us to see you in the face of those whose faces do not look like ours, who worship and pray from different texts and in different postures. Gracious God, teach us to move the fences, that we might truly know the ones beyond the borders we have made, that we might know you, and in all their differences, the dignity of your people. Amen.
We gather this good morning while the painful remembrance of the tragedy of 9/11 is still in the air. And the very first thing we do in this remembrance is to grieve for all those who suffered so unjustly on that day. We stand with them and their families and we mourn their loss. We are never more completely human than in times such this, times of great and acknowledged loss. And we are never more fully engaged in a sacred act than when we pray for those who have died, that their lives may endure ever closer to God.
Times of remembrance are such rich times, when we are drawn to ponder the special relationships of our lives. Certainly this tragic anniversary is a time when we claim a special connection with those who were lost.
And I hope that it is also a time when we can claim two other relationships as well, two sustaining and empowering relationships. First the relationship we have with our God, our God who love us calls us unbidden to love him and the relationship we share with God’s people, including the other, the stranger, the one who is different.
We have received in our faith just one thing: an invitation to relationship. Relationship with God and with all of God’s people. And this year, on this day, in this place it is particularly important that we open this invitation and grasp it in our hands and act on it with all our hearts. We have received in our faith just one thing, an invitation to relationship. It is an invitation we dare not ignore.
For as you know, this season there is a new danger in the air. Demonizing voices of hatred and threatening acts of violence and intimidation have invaded not some far-away land, but our own nation. Reasonable people, people of faith and reason decry these threats and these crimes. And I join them this morning. But it is not enough that from so many pulpits these voices of hatred are denounced. It is not enough that priests and rabbis and Imams say, “Do not burn sacred books.” It is not enough that we ask for tolerance and coexistence. We are not called to mere tolerance; we are not called to mere coexistence. We are invited into relationship. We are called to love God and to love God’s people.
The Rev Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his last sermon from this pulpit. That Sunday morning he said, “Through our…genius, we have made this world into one small neighborhood and yet…we have not had the ethical commitment to make it a brotherhood. We will do this…we will learn to live together as brothers. Or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, in an inescapable network of mutuality.” (See note no. 1 below.)
Dr. King left this pulpit to face his own 9/11, struck down by hatred at the hands of a man claiming to be Christian. A rending of the nation’s heart followed that day, and the fabric of a people was torn. The dreadful alternative to true relationship was experienced in those days, and it has taken a generation to make real progress in his still unfinished work. Dr. King’s life and death remind us that fear does a terrible thing to a people. And he reminds us that God’s faithfulness is in holding out that invitation no matter what, whether we see it or not.
Your Cathedral has a Rare Book Library that is full of treasures. We have some of the oldest editions of our Book of Common Prayer and we have a stunning four-hundred year old King James Bible that belonged to Prince Henry, the Prince of Wales. We have ancient texts and illuminated manuscripts. And we have this treasure that I have brought out to share with you this morning. I know you can’t see it very well from your seats and the print in this book is even very small from where I stand. But I thought we should take it out of the vault and have in our midst this morning. This is the first edition of the first translation of the Koran into English. It was published in 1649 in London and it is one of your treasures. It is a treasure not just because it is old. It is a treasure not just because it is rare. It is a treasure because for centuries a people of God have turned to these inspiring words for sustenance, for illumination, for hope. It is a treasure because it can be a bridge between God’s people.
It is not for me, an Episcopal priest, to teach from the Koran. In all humility I must leave that to my brothers and sisters in the mosques of our city and our nation. But we do have the benefit of a fresh teaching in a recent letter that dozens of leading Muslim scholars wrote to the Christian church. It’s a kind of epistle, a ground-breaking letter in which they quoted three sources of scripture. First, words dearly familiar to us from the book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Mark. And then we hear their counterpart from the Koran, words found in this treasure in your library, where it was written, “O people of scripture! Come to a common word between us and you, that we shall worship none but one God and that we shall ascribe no partner unto him, and that none of us shall take lords beside God.” The scholars quote Mohammed, “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”
A common word between us and you is what the Muslim scholars called their epistle to us and to all three of the faiths spawned by Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A common word between us and you they called it. (See note no. 2 below.)
I call it an invitation to relationship with a God who loves us intimately and completely in all our diversity and difference. A relationship with a God who loves us as we are but does not leave us as we are. A relationship with a God who, as our Gospel for today reminds us, seeks us when we are lost and holds us close like the single lamb that has wandered away. We are invited into relationship with each other, relationship modeled on that large-heartedness.
In the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the north transept you will find another of your Cathedral’s treasure: an amazing seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry that depicts a scene from Hebrew Scriptures. It was recently restored, and when the experts came to re-hang, I climbed up on the scaffolding to watch them. If you have ever seen the back of a fine tapestry you will see that all the different colored threads are held together by tiny knots, hand-made knots that pull the threads into relationship with one another, so that on the front of the of the tapestry the design is revealed. Each thread plays its part in the design, and each knot holds the relationship of the multi-colored threads together. If the knots are broken, the design fails.
So it is in the tapestry of God’s people. We are invited into a relationship of mutuality in which the dignity of our difference is embraced by God and in which we are called to acknowledge each other as we are. To a relationship of mutuality in which the dignity of our difference is embraced by God and in which we are called to acknowledge each other as we are.
Jonathan Sacks, a spiritual icon of our day, is the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. He writes, “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith and ideals are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of being in a relationship with him in which I am made and remade in God’s image.” (See note no. 3 below.)
We hear the voices of Muslim leaders, Dr. King, and Rabbi Sacks, and yet we struggle. We are a people in conflict, a people at war. When we are at our large-hearted best, we know and accept the embrace of our God and we build the connective tissue that binds us to those with whom we share this troubled planet. When we are not at our best, when we are small or afraid or isolated or isolating, we break the knots that hold us to each other. I need to tell you that I don’t know exactly what small, healthy steps we ought to take to build the sacred connection we are invited to be part of. I appreciate that it is hard and confusing and that it takes two to dance. I know that there is evil in the world to which we must respond and that there are limits to our human patience. But my guess is that with small steps we will enter the stream of human history as builders of God’s hopes for us. With small steps we will be peace-makers and lovers. I don’t know all the small steps ahead, but I think you will know them yourself when together you take them.
I recently re-read a World War II story of four American soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge. One of the quartette was killed in the ferocious fighting, and the other three couldn’t leave his body, uncertain when it would be recovered. So they approached a priest in a French village and asked to bury their friend. The priest was friendly, but with great certitude said that the churchyard was consecrated ground, only for baptized Christians. He asked the soldiers whether their friend was a baptized Christian, but they were sure that he was not. So the priest told them that while he could not bury the soldier in the churchyard, they could bury him just outside the fence. At the end of the war, the three surviving friends found themselves in a convoy near that French village, and they decided to stop and pay their respects to their friend. They found the church and went to where they remembered burying him, but could not find the grave. They sought out the priest. “Yes, I remember you,” he said. “After you left to go back to the fighting, I started thinking and praying about what I had told you; and it seemed so wrong, so hard. I couldn’t change where he was buried, but I did what I could. I moved the fence.”
I think we, too, are to be fence-movers. With hope in our hearts we, too, are to take the small steps that build Christ’s peace. We, too, are to honor the dignity of our differences and to reach out our hands to accept that invitation of God.
1. A Knock at Midnight: The Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Carson, Claybourne, Ed. Warner Books, New York, 2000.
3. Dignity of Difference, Jonathon Sacks, Contiuum, London, 2003.