Ms. Meghan Roth
Part 3 of the sermon series Sharing Faith in a Pluralistic World
February 27, 2011
Deuteronomy 10:10-19; James 1:19-29; Matthew 28:16-20


Most mornings, I hang out with Kiran and T.J. They tell me about the winter storms, the commute into Atlanta, the latest video gone viral and Charlie Sheen’s most recent outburst. Somewhere, interspersed in this “news,” I learn about what else is going on the world: protests and violence in the Middle East and Northern Africa, contentious budget cuts and protests in Wisconsin, and earthquakes in New Zealand. I hear about the suffering in the world, all while running in place for a couple miles, glued to the television so conveniently provided for me by your excellent fitness center.

I often leave feeling refreshed from a good workout and adequately (I would not say well) informed of current events. But I also leave feeling like I have heard some critical news and have not done anything helpful in response. I have simply been running in place for a good half hour. In some ways, I am in that instance a hearer and less so a doer.

For three weeks we have discussed what it means to share our faith in a pluralistic world through words, relationships and now actions.

We heard tonight from the letter of James, which Reformation leader and theologian Martin Luther notably deemed an “epistle of straw” – that it was utterly worthless because, according to Luther, it seems to value works-righteousness—that our works are what save us. But what this epistle-writer explains is that our faith is one with our actions—the fruits borne of our faith. Hearing the Word and Doing that which we are called to do are not mutually exclusive. They are united in the very Word, the wisdom of God – what James calls “the implanted Word.”

This epistle emerges a couple centuries after the life of Jesus, but it is no less significant. The author writes to several communities of faith reminding them to embrace their identity in Christ and to not only hear the word but enact the word in faithful witness and action—actions of mercy, compassion and justice to ensure the welfare of all people, especially the marginalized, like the orphans and widows in their distress. Doing so will not only provide for the common good but will save and bless those who do so. Protecting their neighbors is of collective benefit.

But wait… What if those vulnerable neighbors are from different communities? Or, in countering injustice they have to work with people outside of their community of faith?

This is where the biblical witness does not say much and even has some problematic responses. How do we hear the Word of God and do the Word of God in a pluralistic world, and presumably engage our faithful responses alongside and with people of different backgrounds?

These early communities of faith, recipients of the letter of James, were struggling to live out their faith in authentic ways and to define their faith life, although times were a’changin’. Within a century, the Christian church would find its way into the corridors of power (but that’s a different story for another day). They tried to embrace their identity in Christ and to enact that which they felt called to do in sometimes hostile and adverse situations. How were they to welcome with meekness the implanted word and engage it in faithful “doing” without bumping elbows with their neighbors of different backgrounds? Most likely, they couldn’t.

But one assumes that they were to and would practice faithfully the instructions given to them by James – “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” – with all people, right? Except we really don’t have much by way of knowing what their Interfaith Council looked like in those days.

Or, consider our passage read from Deuteronomy. Moses shares with and reminds the people of Israel of their covenant with God and the expectations in such a covenant: Love the Lord your God, keep God’s commandments and do all this for your own and others’ well-beings. Love and execute justice for the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

This all sounds well and good. Yes! the people of Israel cry. We hear the commandments, and we will abide by them to ensure the welfare of all people, including the strangers.

But what happens next in the story? As the story goes, Joshua leads the people of Israel into the land promised to them by force. How do we reconcile the rhetoric against the people of other regions and their gods? the violence done to the other inhabitants of this promised land? The people of Israel, in turn, face persecution and oppression at the hands of those who take them into exile. Interethnic and interreligious conflict is not new. Perhaps we can explain it away contextually and by the authorship of the narrative, but it is part of biblical witness, and these are stories of tension

We also have heard the text from the Gospel of Matthew tonight and for the past three weeks. This community was also not exempt from interethnic and interreligious conflict. The early Christian community in the Gospel of Matthew was struggling with how to follow the teachings of Christ as it became more and more alienated from their former Jewish community.

Examples for engagement, at least positive engagement, in a pluralistic world are not readily found in the biblical witness, but this is the immediate context for us today. How do we share our faith, particularly through actions in such a pluralistic world? We can actually return to the same biblical examples. The stories are messy, adversarial, and at times violent, but the biblical witness points to greater possibilities as well.

We can look again to the instructions in the covenantal code—love the Lord your God and love your neighbor, execute justice for the widow and orphan. We follow the instructions in the letter of James. We are slow to speak, quick to listen, slow to anger. We go into the world, as instructed in the Gospel of Matthew, to be a source of transformation and to accompany people in their lives of faith. We find ourselves rooted in the love of God and our faith bears witness to this love in our relationships and actions.

In October 2009, I attended the Interfaith Youth Core conference in Chicago. IFYC is headed by Eboo Patel who wrote Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Nation. He also served on President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  IFYC provides resources for youth and young adults to mobilize for common action around social justice with and for a pluralistic community.

According to their model, we must listen to the stories of one another and share our stories with honesty and compassion. We can translate this is into the Christian faith by recalling the first part of our sermon series about words. We take care with our words so that they reflect the Word of life and light; the Word of grace, mercy and peace; and the Word that inspires justice for all people.

The second step for IFYC action is to build relationships. Likewise, as in the second part of the series, Mark discussed how our relationships are places where we make our faith evident. Authentic sharing and story-telling are the foundation for our relationships.

Then these key practices inspire deeds of mercy and justice. This is IFYC’s third step. With heartfelt listening, story-telling and relationship-building, people can come together for common action for the common good: our actions.

Now, this is not to say that common action in a pluralistic world is easy. Well there you have it, the three or four step process of interfaith engagement, for which we can even see reflected in the biblical witness. Nope. Common action is not without conflict, and it is difficult to sustain. Sometimes we think it is hopeless and impossible. Sometimes we think it’s our way or the highway. Sometimes we think that we have to shed our differences in order to reach a more common goal. It is important to have a common vision, but we should not do it at the expense of losing our unique ways and practices.

Shel Silverstein, in Where the Sidewalk Ends, includes the poem:

I will not play at tug o’war.
I’d rather play at hug o’war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.

Don’t get me wrong: The beautiful vision of harmony and peace is good but dismisses the reality that we will bump and bruise and knock each other intentionally and unintentionally in the process of interfaith action.

Last August, I traveled to Poland and Germany to study the Holocaust and Nazism and the responses (or lack of response) from faith leaders and communities during those years of turmoil. In light of this study, our group, which was comprised of students from various faith traditions, we considered other ethical situations that should provoke response and action from religious communities (and oftentimes do not) such as war, hunger, homelessness, discrimination and hate crimes, and immigration. What do our faith traditions have to say about the needs in and of our world? How would we respond as leaders? We asked one another. And could we come to some sort of common vision amongst ourselves? What would we have done in the Holocaust? Would we have spoken up?

Rabbinical student Jillian Cameron, a participant on this trip, shared with me and the other participants, “When we are silent about things that are going on in the world, especially that which we could connect with or could relate to, we are not only doing an injustice to those people but are also doing a great disservice to ourselves.” She continues, “We as faith leaders have a great responsibility to name those things and keep them in the consciousness of our communities.”

Empowered by her own tradition, Jillian reaches to a rabbinical source of wisdom in The Ethics of the Fathers: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?” She shared with us that she has recently taken up education and advocacy with her community of faith in regards to the recent protests and events in Egypt. She knew that they could not stand idly by and not raise awareness to the ongoing events. She recalled in a recent sermon the Exodus, God’s covenant with the people of Israel, and also where they wavered in and out of obedience to that covenant. She encouraged her congregation to remember their identity in faith and to act because of their beliefs to “stand with [Egypt] in the fight for your freedom amidst the most modern of slaveries, poverty, inequality and corruption.”

Bilal Ansari, another participant, Islamic Studies student at Hartford Seminary and prison chaplain for the U.S. Department of Justice, shared  with us, “Interfaith is not a function, or a role in the life of faith leaders. It must be a part of our personal survival.” Our traveling companions were quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. Our conversations on the trip were not without disagreement. We knew that we disagreed strongly with one another on some issues and held deeply personal beliefs. But, in reflection of our intense experience with one another, Bilal also writes, “We as an interfaith fellowship of believers walked into those gates at Birkenau and out the gates of Auschwitz, with one breath our life breath was forever connected. Our spirits were uplifted, our souls were intimately engaged with care for the other. Joy and pain of one was joy and pain for all.” We took the time to share our stories, build relationships and learn how to act for the common good.

When we embrace our identity as people of God, honor differences of other faith communities, seek to find shared values, and build mutual relationships, we can act of one accord for the good of all. And doing so is a reflection of the gospel message and sustains our lives of faith.

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