A Sermon for Sunday September 12, 2010, Mark 12:28-34 and I John 4:17-21
Standing in a room of a mosque filled with Muslim Americans, the middle aged gray-haired president addressed the September 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and the rise in anti-sentiment toward American-Muslims that followed with these words:
“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that. The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Quran itself: ‘In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil, for that they rejected the signs of Allah and help them up to ridicule.’ The face of terrorist is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is about peace…When we think of Islam, we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace…America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads, and they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”
Three days later, in a speech before Congress that was broadcast worldwide, the president said to billions of Muslims:
“We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. It’s teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends.”
And much, much later, at an Iftaar dinner held at the White House (in which Muslim-Americans gathered to break the Ramadan fast), our nation’s leader made these opening remarks:
“Ramadan is a special time of prayer and fasting. It is a time of charity and service to those less fortunate. It is a time to celebrate Islam’s…vibrant culture, which has enriched civilization for centuries. Ramadan is also a good time for Americans of all faiths to reflect on the values we hold in common—including love of family, gratitude to the Almighty, devotion to the community, and a commitment to religious liberty. The freedom of worship is central to the American character. It’s the first protection in the Bill of Rights. It holds together the fabric of American society—supporting every individual’s right to practice his or her beliefs without fear…Americans have a history of standing with Muslims facing suffering and hardship—and it’s a proud history. As you break your Ramadan fast at this Iftaar dinner, let us renew our faith in the universality of freedom. Let us celebrate the millions of Muslims that we are proud to call American citizens. And let us honor the many Muslim nations that America is proud to call friends.
We all would do well on this 9th anniversary weekend of 9-11 to remember these courageous words spoken often by a controversial leader whose own Christian beliefs were criticized during his presidency—George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States. Bush’s statements about Muslims and Islam reflect an honest and sincere attempt to honor what Jesus said were the greatest commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’
Nowadays it seems that many Christians have forgotten what it means to practice these commandments. And it’s not just the folks on the fringe like Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center who nearly barbecued a bunch of Qurans in Florida. Over the past several weeks and months, there have been numerous reports of anti-Muslim sentiment—in the form of hateful rhetoric, violence and destruction—occurring all over mainstream America:
- The Madera Islamic Center in Madera, California (a community where about 200 Muslims have lived for more than 30 years) was vandalized three times in August—a window was smashed by a brick and signs have appeared with hateful messages like: “Wake up America, the enemy is here” and “No temple for the god of terrorism.”
- The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee which has existed in the community for three decades has had signs on its construction site for a new facility damaged and spray-painted with the words “Not Welcome.” Just last week, a dump truck and other construction equipment were set on fire in what the FBI has deemed an act of arson.
- In western New York, police said a group of teenagers recently yelled obscenities, set off a car alarm and fired a shotgun during two nights of drive-by harassment at a small-town mosque near Lake Ontario.
- A Manhattan, New York cab driver was slashed and stabbed in the throat by a film student after being asked about his Muslim faith a couple of weeks ago.
- Protestors of the proposed site of the Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero have held signs saying “Building a Mosque at Ground Zero is like Building a Memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz” and “All I Need To Know About Islam, I learned from 9-11”
It’s difficult to wrap our brains around the countless ways in which human beings mistreat one another, especially when it’s Christians doing the harm…Christians who profess to follow a Creator, Savior and Spirit of unconditional love. It’s mind-boggling to think and know that some Christians, who claim to believe in Christ who suffered unto death on the cross for all of creation, can cause so much suffering.
Has an inability to get past one’s own suffering, one’s own hurts, worries and fears pushed many Christians toward a life of bitterness, ignorance and hate? In his book Drops Like Stars, Christian pastor Rob Bell writes that all of us are going to suffer, and in those moments of pain, the suffering is going to shape us somehow. When it does, Bell says we have to choose whether we “will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware, more or less.”
After 9-11, the majority of folks in the world were afraid. How has the fear affected us as Americans and as Christians in the last 9 years? The fear can harden and turn to hate. Or it can soften us and make us more open, more alive. Jesus teaches us, according to a letter to the early Christian church that: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.
Samir Selmanovic, a Christian minister known for his work in interfaith dialogue and the founder of Faith House Manhattan, a community of Christians, Muslims, Jews and humanists/atheists, says that it was his aunt’s Muslims beliefs that helped him gain a better understanding of Jesus’ teachings. In his book It’s Really All About God, he says:
“She taught me as a little boy that as a follower of Islam, I would have to learn to be ‘one who submits to God’ (which is the literal meaning of the word Muslim)…Later, as a Christian, remembering my aunt’s words helped me understand that Jesus’ commandments to love God and to love others are actually one. Love is one. Submission is one. Whatever separates us from one another is what separates us from God. Whatever brings us to one another brings us to God…To be is to belong to one another… Without embracing the world as our community, the only difference between liberals and conservatives, believers and nonbelievers, Muslims and Jews, Christians and atheists is where we divide the world and whom we consciously or subconsciously vilify…Everyone fears some individuals or groups and blames them for whatever is wrong with the cosmic order…Fear of depending on the other paralyzes us. Those who fear cannot love, and those who cannot love cannot receive. The chain of blessing breaks, and the spiral of self-sufficiency takes us all down.”
To live a fearful and self-sufficient life that denies the need to be in loving relationships with other human beings, particularly those whose culture and religion is different from our own, is counter to God’s purposes. One of my heroes of the Christian faith, Archbishop Demond Tutu, whose non-violent actions helped bring peace and reconciliation to South Africa, which was for many decades ruled by a system of legal racial segregation or apartheid, writes:
“The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation. In Africa recognition of our interdependence is called ‘ubunutu’. It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness; it speaks about compassion… A person with ‘ubuntu’ is open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are.”
The scribe who asks Jesus the question about the greatest commandment grasps the concept of ubuntu. The scribe understands the meaning of belonging to a greater whole, of being in relationship with others who might have different views, opinions or beliefs. The scribe comprehends and accepts without hesitation the challenge and responsibility of loving God and neighbor. And as a result of choosing to be better, open, and more aware, Jesus says to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus implication is that those who closely follow the commandments to love God and neighbor will help make the kingdom of God a present reality in this world! Those who closely follow the commandments to love God and neighbor can embody and live the kingdom of God in the here and now! That’s you and me and so many more beyond the doors of this church!!! Numerous Christians are living the kingdom as I speak, even in this very sanctuary, like:
- members of the Shade Tree Sunday School class who will be participating in an Interfaith Habitat For Humanity project in November or…
- one of the HS youth who recently gave encouragement, respect and praise to their Muslim classmate who, while fasting for Ramadan, handed out donuts and popsicles (humbly and without complaint) for Northview High School’s student council or…
- the folks who prepare meals and provide hospitality during Family Promise Week for homeless families, some of whom are Muslim.
There are many opportunities for us to live the kingdom and loudly proclaim that there is “no fear in love”—no fear in the love God wants us to show to another human being. One of those opportunities is just a few steps away in the church breezeway. On the tables you’ll find copies of the 219th General Assembly’s summer report “Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations” that has been approved and commended to PC(USA) churches for Biblical and theological study and guidance. I encourage you to pick up a copy as you leave today and after reading the report, share what you’ve learned with other Pleasant Hill members, other Presbyterians, other Christians and Muslims in the community.
Another prospect would be to visit the website http://www.groundzerodialogue.org/ to view some wonderfully engaging, heart-felt and thought-provoking films collected under the title American Muslims and the Ground Zero Controversy. One of them contains an inspiring interview with a New York firefighter, a Muslim American, who helped with rescue efforts during 9-11. Watch these with family, friends, church members or even neighbors you don’t know and begin a conversation. The General Assembly report nor the films are over-night solutions but they are a start, a place where we begin to move closer and closer to God’s kingdom.
And if there is still any belaboring doubt among you as to whether Christians can fully live out the kingdom of God and loudly that there is “no fear in love”, let me offer one last story for your consideration…
Several weeks ago, upon learning that a mosque would be built near his church, Pastor Steve Stone of Heartsong Church in Cordova, a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, put up a red banner with the words: “Welcome to the Neighborhood Memphis Islamic Center.” The sign had hardly been up three days when leaders at the Islamic Center called Stone to ask if they could use the Heartsong Church during Ramadan because the construction on their facility wouldn’t be completed by the time the religious observance began. Immediately, Stone and the congregation welcomed the members of the mosque inside their church with open arms.
From that simple act of goodwill, a new and vibrant relationship has emerged, breaking down walls between the two religions, and fostering a lot of peace, love and understanding about the other congregation’s faith. The bond is so strong in the Cordova community that there hasn’t been a single complaint, protest or act of violence or vandalism since the Christians put out the welcome mat for the Muslims.
The absence of such vitriol is likely due in part to the advice Stone gave the Heartsong congregation on how to respond to potential naysayers: “They ask you why in the world you’re doing that, get a puzzled look on your face and say, ‘We’re loving our neighbors.’”