Wednesday, October 11, 2006

For Such a Time as This

On Taking Risks & Embracing a Spiritual Broad-Mindedness
A Shell Ridge Sermon by Greg Ledbetter (preached* 10/01/06)

If we do not learn to live together as brothers and sisters,
we are going to perish together as fools.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

SERMON TEXTS: Esther 4:14; 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 & Mark 9:38-50

For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ Esther 4:14

John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him … whoever is not against us is for us. Portions of Mark 9:38-40

For Jews, a new year began on the evening September 22nd … for Jews we are now in the year 5767. Perhaps you remember the old classic, “In the year 5767 …” Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the new year and begins a 10 day period of “high holy days” that culminates with the highest holy day in Judaism, which is Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. At sundown tonight, Yom Kippur begins. It is the most solemn day of the Jewish year.

For Muslims, Ramadan started on September 24th. This is the most holy time in the annual Muslim calendar. Muslims believe that during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, the Holy Qur’an was sent down from heaven. It was revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel as “a guidance for mortals, a declaration of direction, and a means of salvation.”

The month of Ramadan is a time of worship and contemplation during which Muslims concentrate on their faith and spend less time on the concerns of everyday life. Daylight hours are spent in fasting, prayer, and study of the Qur’an.

At the end of the day, the fast is broken, but it is resumed the next morning. Ramadan ends with the holiday of Id-al-Fitr (the Feast of Fast Breaking), three days of celebration with gifts, meals, and prayer. (from Seasons of the Spirit)

And for Christians—Doug Brown, what Sunday in the liturgical year is this again? … wait … I think it is the 17th Sunday of the lesser feast of St. Douglas the ill-humored … or was it St. Douglas of Lingua … a highly quotable figure who said, rather famously, “don’t need no stinking lectionary”.

Actually, Catholic Christians remember today St. Therese of Lisieux who is, perhaps the second most popular catholic saint after St. Francis of Assisi whose feast is this coming Wednesday, October 4th.

While Christians are not uniform in their observation of this Sunday, many Christians around the world choose this first Sunday in October to celebrate that in spite of our many differences, followers of Christ come around the same table and break the bread of Christ’s body and receive the cup of Christ’s blood.

So in the Muslim world there is a major time of introspection and deepening of faith going on … and in the Jewish world there is a major time of reflection and atonement going on … and in the Christian world … we, uh, come together to eat.

While for Christians, this time is not particularly notable beyond the celebration of worldwide communion, these are the highest and holiest of days for Jews and Muslims. Together with Jews and Muslims, we three faiths represent the off-spring of Abraham and Sarah …we’re often called the Abrahamic faiths …

Now you don’t have to be a basher of all things religious to yet be able to acknowledge that these three faiths alone have been at the center of many of the world’s bloodiest and most horrific conflicts. Father Abraham and Mother Sarah must drench their graves with their tears over the way their offspring have sometimes spoiled the inheritance that Abraham claimed.

The recently ended war in Lebanon is just the latest example of Jews and Arabs battling it out … and of course internally Lebanon is a barely contained hotbed of animosities between Christian, Arab and Jew. And, of course we know that the highly un-civil war that is breaking out in Iraq is between competing versions of Islam … Sunni and Shia …

As the song that I wrote just after 9/11 asks it:

When will the offspring of Sarah and Ab-a-ra-ham
Gather 'round the fam'ly tree?
God and Allah are one, Jews and Arabs are kin,
No one is safe 'til all are free.
(Children Keep Asking Why – Words/GHL-Music/Neal Young)

So it occurs to me that in the midst of these holy seasons and holy wars, that the time is right for leaders of good faith (and I say that with as little self-conscious irony as I can) … the time is right for leaders of good faith from each of these traditions to come together for the purpose of making peace among the children of Abraham … and Sarah. And would that our own American Baptist General Secretary, Roy Medley, would stand and be among the first of those leaders to join in such a gathering.

There actually are some precedents for such gatherings. An “Abraham Summit” was held at a Jewish temple in Washington, D.C. in October of 2002. The summit partly conceived by Bruce Feiler who is the author of “A Walk through the Bible” and “Abraham”. Feiler also initiated “Abraham Salons” where people within the same community could come together and discuss their faiths … their differences … and their similarities.

TIME Magazine in that same year put Abraham on its cover … saying: “Jews, Christians, Muslims all claim him as their father … can he be their peacemaker?”

This entire, long introduction simply leads me to two people in the Bible whose words and actions give us some small hope that we can play our own part in the healing of the great drama of conflict among people of faith in our world.

Playing that part takes a measure of courage that is willing to put one’s own self on the line and take risks … and playing that part also takes a measure of what I would call “spiritual broad-mindedness”.

The two Biblical people are Queen Esther of the Old Testament … the Hebrew Testament … and Jesus.

First, the story of Queen Esther as told by Tamar Frankiel …

The original setting of the Esther story, in ancient Persia, is set in a time when the Jews of the realm were under threat of their lives. Haman, the king’s appointed minister, was an anti-Semite of the first order (indeed, this is the first major evidence of the people being called “Jews” rather than “Israelites” or members of a tribe). His personal grudge against Mordecai was translated into a determination to destroy all of Mordecai’s people. He had persuaded the king that the Jews were dangerous because they kept their own customs – suggesting they might be traitors to the king. A decree was issued that on a certain specific day, chosen by lot, the 13th of the Jewish month of Adar, all Jews in all the Persian provinces would be attacked and killed.

No one doubted that this decree could be carried out. Like most emperors of the era, King Ahasuerus ruled with an iron hand. He may have advisers, but once a law was signed, there was no reprieve.

But, as the biblical story tells us, it so happened that Ahasuerus had chosen as his queen the beautiful Esther who, unbeknownst to him or any of the court, was a Jew. Mordecai appealed to her to find a way to step in. Yet she knew that if Ahasuerus rejected her, even for some trivial reason, she would die. Would she take the risk?

Esther’s decision comes as the pivotal point of the story. Mordecai appeals to her: perhaps you have been put in this place for just this reason!*

*Dr. Tamar Frankiel is
Dean of Students and Professor of Comparative Religion
at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California,
a transdenominational rabbinical,
cantorial, and chaplaincy school.
She is author of numerous
books on Jewish spirituality.

And now Jesus … the quintessential anti-terrorist of his time … he doesn’t drape himself with murderous intent toward all who were not with him—whether they be Samaritans or Jews who opposed him or the Roman empire … and he does not spout violence inciting invective like:

“Whoever is not FOR us is AGAINST us!” … no … Jesus quite oppositely declares that: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” There is, in Jesus’ words, what might be called a “spiritual broad-mindedness” that cuts against the militant, triumphant creedalism of his time … and ours.

We need religious leaders in our world who understand that the time for conversation about the decidedly mixed blessing that religion is for the world is NOW … we need religious leaders of all faiths who are blessed with the feckless courage of Esther and who understand that if they are to be more blessing than burden in this conversation, they will be of a mindset typified by the spiritual broad-mindedness of Jesus. Whoever is not against us is for us.

CONCLUSION (a blend of what was written and what was actually said):

There is a new documentary movie out called “Jesus Camp”. From the little I’ve heard, it is one of those “be afraid, be very afraid” kinds of documentaries. I want to be clear that I have not yet seen the movie, but I am led to understand that it is about a Christian summer camp that is all about teaching little Christian boys and girls to be good warriors for their Lord, fighting the good fight against everyone who is not like them. And I suppose there are elsewhere on this aching planet … Muslim camps … Zionist camps … where little Muslim and little Zionist boys and girls are being taught to be warriors for their faiths. And it strikes me that they all may well be hastening the day when God will return, but not to end the world as these might think in a judgment that vindicates their narrow versions of faith, but when God will return to stand and weep over the smoking ruins of earth … making painfully and profoundly true Martin King’s sad warning: If we do not learn to live together as brothers and sisters, we are going to perish together as fools.

Now I want to contrast “Jesus Camp” with the simply named “Summer Camp” at the “Oasis of Peace” at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam community in Israel. Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam is an intentional peace-making community where Jews and Arabs live together peacefully and productively. This Jewish/Arab community is a living model in a land where there are many who are skeptical of this possibility.

This summer, a dozen young adults who grew up at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam hosted a week-long camp for 10-12 year-old Palestinian children from refugee camps. Acting as camp counselors, chaperones, and activities organizers, young residents from the “Oasis of Peace” demonstrated the profound impact they can have on the region by touching the lives of Palestinian girls and boys who had never met someone from “the other side.” Organized and directed by Ranin Boulos, age 22, activities included swimming, arts & crafts, drama, music, nature hikes, soccer, dancing, and even a special performance by the Arab-Jewish Youth Circus, as well as field trips to the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa, a tour of Old Jaffa, a trip to the beach, sailing, and a tour of Jerusalem including a visit to the Biblical Zoo. The young Jewish and Arab organizers from Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam created an experience that not only affected the lives of the children who participated, but also changed the lives of the organizers as well.

“I didn’t think these kids would have this much impact on me. We got really, really attached to these kids,” said Ranin. “Now, they have hope. They came here and saw that there are different people … they even started learning a few words in Hebrew. They loved our village, and the impact of the village on these kids was very clear Now they realize that things can be different. When they grow up, they will realize ... They have memories.”

Link to complete article:

And how about at “Camp Shell Ridge”? … what do we find here? I hope we find a community more like Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam … a “Jesus Camp” that lives out, not a spiritual narrow-mindedness of fundamentalist faiths, but a spiritual broad-mindedness that Jesus demonstrated when he said: “… those who are not against us are for us.”

It is my hope, further, that every communion Sunday at Shell Ridge will be one form or another of “Worldwide Communion Sunday” …

It is my hope that every time of worship at Shell Ridge is a time of acknowledging that God is the God of all people of whom we are one family … a deeply beloved family, of course, but one of many beloved families, nonetheless.

It is my hope that every time our children gather to learn in this place:

  • They will be taught and they will learn that there are many members in the diverse, worldwide Christian family and that God loves us all,
  • They will be taught and they will learn that there are many children in many faiths in the world who claim Abraham and Sarah as their ancestor and that God loves them all;
  • They will be taught and they will learn that their Christian faith is a good and noble faith in a world of many good and noble faiths and God loves them all.
  • They will be taught and they will learn that they are a part of God’s plan to bring peace with justice

I pray that within the collective consciousness of the children of Abraham there is yet a seed that is preparing to germinate … a seed of justice … a seed of peace … a seed of hope … a seed that will sprout and grow into a new family tree … a family tree that is sturdy and fruitful and protective and a thing of beauty for all to see.

But it will take time … it will take courageous voices of spiritual broad-mindedness being raised above the din of the religious zealots … and it will take more time and more courage, still. As the last verse of my song tries to tell it:

When can we stop running, when can we weary lie down?
Not for a long, long, long while.
Labor for peace, children, labor for justice come 'round.
Labor for earth, reconciled. (GHL)


*The sermon above is a slightly edited version of what was preached on the Sunday noted. My sermons typically go into the pulpit in what I think of as a “rough, but preachable” form. They are, however, rarely in a form that is ready for immediate publication.

For Additional Reflection:

Seasons of the Spirit

Just as Esther took her stand and acted to preserve life, and as Mark’s community exercised hospitality in times of risk, to welcome and shelter those who are vulnerable still requires our courageous action today. In such a time as today, who waits on your action and courage? What aspect of your identity as God’s child may be hidden, in need of claiming for God’s work in this time and place?

Help us, O God, to recognize the times in which we live and to choose to live faithfully. Grant us courage to stand with and speak for those at risk. As we are able, help us to preserve community and redeem the time you entrust into our hands. Amen.

Keep It and Live It, That’s All.

A thousand cults, a thousand creeds,
Is one a rose and the rest all weeds,
Or is each one suited to meet some needs?
Is your own so great that the rest seem small?
Then keep it and live it, that’s all.

Pagan, or Christian, Gentile or Jew,
How may you know that your own is true?
Not for him or for me or for others, but you,
To live by, to die by, to stand or to fall,
Why, keep it and live it, that’s all.

When the wolves of the world are on your back,
Does it help you to beat the mad pack back,
To laugh at the snap of the snarling pack,
Does it leap in your heart like a huntsman’s call?
Then keep it and live it, that’s all.

When the strong are cruel and the weak oppressed,
Does it help you to help? Does it sting in your breast?
Does it sob in your soul with a wild unrest,
To fight against might and let nothing appall?
Then keep it and live it, that’s all.

When the last fight comes and you take your stand,
And the sword of your strength breaks out of your hand
And the ground ‘neath your feet turns to shifting sand,
Does your religion sing when your back’s at the wall?
Then keep it, it’s yours and that’s all.
--Edmund Vance Cooke

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