The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The One God. Amen.
As a part of Evensong this evening, we honor an outstanding, compassionate priest and former Provost of the National Cathedral, Sanford Garner. As Mary Garner has reminded me on numerous occasions since the date of this Evensong was set, Sanford would be the very last person who would have wanted any fuss made over him, or even to have his name mentioned. But in the presence of such a fabulous gift as what Frederica von Stade will be offering us this afternoon during the Offertory, it is certainly appropriate that we reflect on one of the concerns central to Sanford’s ministry, that is interfaith relations and how we as a global family of faith communities can live together.
The theme of the lessons this afternoon, from Isaiah, the Psalms as well as from Matthew, all reflect on light and radiance.
From Isaiah: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”
From the Psalms: “Look…and be radiant, so your faces shall never be ashamed.”
From Matthew: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill can not be hid.”
I have always been fascinated by the geography of the sentence, “A city built on a hill can not he hid.” If you read many of the commentaries on Matthew, this city “that can not be hid” is frequently referred to as Zafat, a city that is indeed built on a hill in the Upper Galilee, northeast of Nazareth. But the problem of this identification is that archaeological evidence seems to indicate that Zafat was not in existence until the end of the first century, long after Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage. If that is really the case, what is so good about this is that one particular city can not be pointed out as the “city on the hill that can not be hid” anymore than any one individual can have that attribute if we let our light shine before all people.
Today we live in a world that puts whole faith traditions into stereotyped categories. How many times this week will we hear in different news reports the words “Islamic terrorists” or “Islamic fundamentalists” being used to describe insurgency movements in Iraq? Following the London bombings last year, I met with a Muslim on the staff of the United States Institute of Peace here in Washington. He told me how fearful he and his family were to leave their home after the bombings because of the fear of retaliation simply because they were Muslims.
In some Middle East and African countries today, Christians are being targeted just because they are Christians and because they are seen as puppets of the West. Today in certain countries around the world Christians are being persecuted and they are losing their lives because of their faith tradition.
Today as our President visits Colombia, the President of Venezuela depicts President Bush with the most uncomplimentary attributes. Such language, if it is used by us or by other people, such language simply is not helpful to build bridges of understanding. Such language only creates stereotypes and certainly does not “give light to the world.” When we speak like this, or when anyone speaks like this, we are not the salt of the earth because our salt has lost its taste.
This afternoon we gather at this Evensong because we know there is a different way. During this Lent when the Church calls us to a time of repentance, we are called upon to “turn around,” to be more inclusive, to break down our own prejudices and fears that enslave us, fears and prejudices that make us less than human, fears and prejudices that make us less than human to live in the perfect image of God in which we have been created.
The Prophet Isaiah says it well, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” When the yoke of oppression is broken, when there is justice, we will know peace—peace at home, peace in this nation and peace in the global community in which we live. The thing about it is that this is not difficult if we truly believe that each person is created in the image of God, be they Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains or whatever religious tradition that one chooses to connect with the Divine Presence that we name as the Loving God, in whose image we are all created and connected with one another.
As an example of this, let me share with you one of the programs of the National Cathedral’s Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation. This program is called the Inter Religious Campaign Against Malaria in Mozambique. As many of you know, the Diocese of Washington has a companion relationship with the Anglican Province of Southern Africa. Back in 2003 and 2004 in a partnership with Fresh Ministries from Jacksonville, Florida, a PEPFAR grant for $10 million was secured to fight HIV and AIDS in South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique. In 2006 we visited Mozambique to meet with the Anglican Bishop about HIV and AIDS in his country. I was amazed at what Bishop Denis said to me. ”John, the big killer in Mozambique is not HIV and AIDS, instead it is malaria.” The Bishop went on to say, “We need help to eradicate malaria.”
One of the things the Bishop also said to us was, “Mosquitoes do not only bite Anglicans, they bite Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Methodists and Bahais as well!” As a result an Inter-Religious Campaign against Malaria in Mozambique was established to help provide technical programming, human and financial resources to expand existing educational and social mobilization efforts by interfaith communities, working to eradicate malaria in Mozambique.
What is amazing is that the entire Mozambique Council of Churches is at the table plus the Assembly of God, Seventh Day Adventists and Roman Catholics (that is all the Christian Churches in Mozambique) along with the Muslim Congress and Muslim Council—parenthetically, might I say the Congress and Council have never gotten along together, but the two different Muslim organizations have come to the same table for the first time because of malaria. In addition there are Hindus, Bahai and traditional African religions at the table. With this group 98% of the population of Mozambique is represented.
Just imagine the grass-root delivery system that the Faith Based leaders have. What is incredible is that everyone is working together to eradicate the mosquito which knows no distinction between tribe, race or creed. What is happening in Mozambique today is an interfaith model of working together for justice and peace for all people. To use the Gospel for today, the interfaith religious leaders in Mozambique are indeed “the light of the world.” What they are doing together cannot be hid.
In a speech that Sanford gave a few years ago on the cooperation among faiths, he said:
All major issues in the world today are spiritual issues at their core. One way to find and manifest solutions would be for all Faiths to join together in cooperative efforts. This would also fulfill the Christian’s commitment concerning the reduction of poverty and diseases such as HIV, AIDS, environmental stewardship, respect and dignity for all, including those who need education and other basic human rights.
Sanford went on to say,
This cooperative leadership among Faiths could provide a model for inter-governmental dialogue as well as grass roots individual relationship building among neighbors. I see Interfaith in broad terms that includes partnership among groups within our own Christian Faith.
Sanford is right. His prophetic words a few years ago are even more challenging to us today. Interfaith dialogue has become an urgent necessity in a world that is “fighting demons of suspicion, ignorance and contempt for people of other cultures.”
The Muslim President of Senegal, President Wade, said last year at the UN High Level Conference on Interfaith Conversation for Peace: “Intolerance and extremism fly in the face of the sacredness of true religious purpose,” and he suggested instead that people should examine the common roots of religions and recognize that they all come from a source that “prescribes good and encourages forgiveness and love.” President Wade went on to say there is no justification for violence in the name of the Qu’ran. He added, “The real message has always been rapprochement and harmony.”
The National Cathedral is committed to reconciliation. This Cathedral is committed to dialogue and action between our different faith communities. We can not permit God to be hijacked and religion to be misused. Until we in the church, synagogue, mosque or temple break down our own barriers, how can we expect civil society to take the lead in justice and peace? “Mosquitoes do not only bite Anglicans, they bite Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Methodists and Bahais as well!”
“You are a light of the world. A city built on a hill can not be hid.”
In the name of God. Amen.