John 10:11-18

One of the riches of life in this National Cathedral is that it forces you to think about big questions. Just three months ago we hosted here the National Prayer Service following the presidential inauguration, and in it you could hear the voices of many faiths—Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox—all speaking and praying from their own traditions. They represented the broad sweep of religious practice in our nation.

America, you know, has become the most religiously diverse nation in the world. There are more Muslim Americans than there are Episcopalians by far, more Muslims than Jews. Los Angeles, according to Harvard scholar Diana Eck, is the most complex Buddhist city in the world. You can now spot Hindu temples and Muslim mosques dotting the metropolitan D.C. landscape.

On most days, though, we gather here as Christians to worship, explore, and grow in living the Christian faith. We are part of a Christian cathedral and community serving a multi faith nation and world, at a time when religious faith itself has become one of the most powerful forces on the globe.

And so one of the big questions we face as Americans and Christians is, How do we live with religious differences, especially in a time when many religions are growing around the world and are often intensely tribal and divisive? Faith traditions can be fiercely particular. Often the more committed you are to a religion, the harder it is to compromise. Is there room in God’s heart, and in our hearts, for people of other faiths?

One of the chief impacts of the 9/11 attacks was the fresh realization of how dangerous religious faith can be. The attackers were radical Muslim zealots who believed they were carrying out their destruction as an act of religious devotion. We know, of course, that Christians have been capable of the same thing, in the Crusades, for example, in the pogroms in which Christians over the centuries have gone on rampages killing Jews. And of course, there have been countless Muslim-Christian wars, Hindu-Muslim clashes, Hindu-Sikh and Arab-Israeli conflicts, and much more.

“Dear God, save us from the people who believe in you,” someone scribbled on a wall here in Washington after 9/11. Religions are powerful–and dangerous. It’s enough to make you ask, in a world that seems to get more interconnected and yet more tribal by the day, is it possible for religious people, and especially Christians, to be forces of healing and hope in this dangerous twenty-first century?

This question of inter-religious understanding often surfaces in the most basic of ways. Someone will ask in a course I’m teaching, Can people who aren’t Christians be saved? Sometimes it emerges out of concern for friends or relatives who are nonbelievers or believers in other faiths. Underneath that question is another one—is it possible to recognize in someone of another faith a full human being and a beloved child of God? There are many Christians who believe if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior you are going to hell, just as other Christian traditions have insisted that only the baptized faithful can ever get to heaven. Given the billions of people across the face of the earth and down through the centuries who are not Christians, the ranks of hell must be filling up fast.

Every Easter season we hear from John’s gospel part of Jesus’ teaching about being the Good Shepherd. It’s one of the oldest and most loved images for the Risen Lord. “I am the good Shepherd,” Jesus says. “I know my own and my own know me…. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” This Risen Lord is active and at work, this passage says, shaping and guiding the lives of his flock, and the flock, of course, consists of his disciples and followers.

But then Jesus throws a curve. “I have other sheep who are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Did you hear that? There are other sheep and other folds. God’s love isn’t limited to just one people, his followers, he seems to be saying.

Scholars don’t know exactly what Jesus’ words point to. But what’s clear is that this flock is open-ended, not closed. There are always others who belong to the shepherd and in some unimaginable way will find their way into his fold.

Who is saved and who isn’t, who’s in and who’s out? I remember puzzling over that as I made my way back into the Christian faith as a graduate student. Christians believe that in Christ God was reconciling the whole world. And yet if that meant God was only reconciling Christians, there was a problem. I looked around and what I saw didn’t add up. My closest friend, and one of the finest human beings I knew, had grown up in a hellfire and brimstone church in a small town in the South, and he literally would break into a sweat any time he walked into any church. Because of his early life, faith for him was impossible, and yet his life was in so many ways a model for mine.

The finest teacher I had in graduate school was a secular Jew, who loved Shakespeare and St. Paul. As I heard him talk about King Lear or Measure for Measure, I found my own faith growing deeper and clearer. I heard Christ through him.

And later as a professor I knew well a Muslim colleague who was one of the gentlest, wisest people I had ever encountered. None of these was Christian; all of them were luminous, even holy, human beings.

At the same time I remember thinking back over my own church experience growing up. There were, of course, many good souls, but there were also many who seemed hypocritical, insincere, angry, or self-righteous too. This was the South of the 1960s, and many of them were strong segregationists. How could it be that these people were somehow in and my un-churched friends were somehow out?

Only later did I encounter St. Augustine’s sobering words: “God has many whom the church does not have, and the church has many whom God does not have.”

What became clear to me then was that God is bigger than all our formulas, more mysterious than all our ways of drawing the line.

What kind of God could it be, when you think of it, who would consign to everlasting damnation any who do not believe by a certain formula, or who do not duly join the right church, or even who don’t believe in God at all? Christianity proclaims a God who is unbounded Love, whose love for everyone is literally beyond our imagining.

The best analogy we have for that has been the love of a father or mother for a child. But what parent would ever choose under any circumstances the eternal suffering of his or her child? How can it be that some people place God on an ethical level lower than what they would expect of any parent? A parent’s love at its best is endlessly loving and forgiving even when the parent believes that what the child has done is wrong. Surely God’s is that and more.

The biblical vision of God is far grander than that. In the Old Testament God makes a covenant with Noah after the Great Flood, promising to bless the whole creation. In Isaiah, God proclaims a salvation that is to reach to the ends of the earth, not by everyone becoming Jews, but by everyone learning from the Jews to live in God’s ways of justice and peace.

In fact, Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, says that God’s vision for the world is that it be a place of marvelous variety, including a variety of religions. Each religion has a different story to tell of how they have experienced God, and we all have much to gain by learning from the experience of others. There is one God, but many faiths.

Do all religions say the same thing? No. Even though they often have many things in common, there are profound differences. Do all religions basically believe in the same God? Not if you probe very deeply. There’s no blending of these different faiths into one.

What makes us Christians is that we believe that this God who loves everyone everywhere, and has reached out to the human race in every time and place and through countless religious traditions, actually came among us in one human life. In Christ we Christians see a God who has taken on our flesh, lived, suffered, and died for us, and promises never to leave us. No other religion claims anything like that.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have important things to learn from the Muslim sense of awe before God, from the Jewish passion for living God’s Torah, from the Buddhist sense of compassion and surrender of the self, from the Hindu sense of the sacredness of every part of the world.

If you glimpse how grand God’s love is, you realize that the question is not who’s in and who’s out, but who knows this love and who doesn’t. The whole human race is in the fold of God’s love. What Christians believe is that we have been privileged to see the depth and breadth of that love in a one-of-a-kind way. And it’s our duty to tell that story as generously and imaginatively and energetically as we can.

The role of the church is indispensable. That’s where we come to reconnect with that love, to be fed by it, to understand it, to find the compassion to live it. Without the church there would be no Christianity. It is our lifeline, and with all its failures, it’s meant to be God’s essential instrument for healing the world.

But what saves us is love. “God is love,” it says in the First Letter of John, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

The final measure of every life—Christian and non-Christian, believer and non-believer—is this: Did we ever grow out of our fear and self-absorption, our sin and violence? Did we ever discover God in the face of the stranger and of those close to us? Have we allowed God’s love to shape the way we live? We need the practices, the disciplines of our tradition to do that, as people of other faiths need theirs.

It is a natural Christian hope that people everywhere might come to know the depth of God’s love that we see in Christ. But God’s ways are mysterious. And we must never forget that God has other sheep and other folds and will stop at nothing, now or for all eternity, to lead every human being, in ways we cannot imagine, to know and to grow in this immense love.

I’ll never forget the service I was part of after the terrible events of 9/11. Like this Cathedral and so many houses of worship across the country, the church I served offered a service of grief and commemoration. To it we invited Jewish and Muslim friends, and a rabbi and an imam spoke and prayed with us. The music was deeply moving, and the prayers we offered, Arabic and Hebrew, spoke of the calling of the God we have known in our different ways to be healers and peacemakers.

But the part that lingers with me still was near the beginning when a Muslim muezzin stood up in the back balcony and chanted long and hauntingly a call to prayer. Then a Jewish rabbi lifted his shofar, the ancient ram’s horn trumpet of the desert, and made it sing with the call to Yahweh. And then our own Christian choir sang its beautiful, familiar chant.

We had come together in our grief, fear, and yearning for a world of harmony and peace. We each sensed the calling of the God we knew. And we found ourselves being drawn closer together as we called on the God who made and loves us all, who has come to us in such strange and different ways, whose mercy and patience are more than we imagine, and whose desire is our joy and delight with each other.

That is the God that we human beings seek. And that is the God who calls us in Christ to follow and to serve.

“I have other sheep,” Jesus said, “who are not of this fold.”

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