The following is the complete text of the sermon I preached at the 11:11 service at First Rowlett United Methodist Church this morning:
A few weeks ago, I decided to observe Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, and blog about it.
I did this for two reasons initially. One, I wanted to explore the discipline of fasting for myself. I have always been intrigued by the practice, and have tried it myself occasionally. I usually give something up for Lent. In the last year, I’ve tried fasting one day a week, following the evening dinner on Thursday night until 3 pm on Friday.
I had some limited success with fasting, but never felt as if I had really gone as deep as I might be able. Ramadan, on the other hand, is a serious fast – no food or drink from dawn to sundown for thirty days. I took it as a spiritual challenge. I had felt some soul lethargy, and I hoped this fast would shake me loose.
My other reason for observing Ramadan had to do with my Muslim friends. Over the last few months, our New Day gathering on Sunday nights has included a growing number of Muslim refugees, from Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq. They have been extraordinarily gracious and willing to attend our worship. They have even gotten into the habit of taking Communion with us.
I also have a personal friendship with a Plano Imam, Yaseen Shaikh. (Imam is the name for a Muslim spiritual leader, similar to a pastor.) Yaseen leads the Islamic Association of Collin County. He’s a young man from Great Britain originally, and when we get together he likes talking about English soccer and the fact that his wife is due to give birth to twin daughters next month. I met him a few years ago, around the time a Florida pastor was threatening to publicly burn the Quran. I remember telling Yaseen that I wanted to stand by him, and support him.
I still do. Things have improved a little since 9/11, but there is still a lot of misinformation, ignorance, and hatred about Islam. I believe it is important that I use my position as a Christian pastor to publicly and willingly stand with Muslims.
And so, shortly before Ramadan began, I met with Yaseen and asked him what it was like to observe the fast. His first reply was, “It’s intense.”
And indeed, it is. Today is the 24th day – only six more to go.
But these are not the only reasons I did this. I must admit that there is one more, very important reason.
It is because I am trying my best to follow Jesus Christ. I take seriously his invitation to the disciples, “Follow me.” I know that I am not always faithful in doing this. I often fail to follow him exactly the way I should. Sometimes I don’t see the way clearly, or I veer off the path. But as soon as I can, I try to get back in line behind him, to follow in his footsteps.
I believe that standing in solidarity with Muslims is something that Jesus would do.
I believe that I must do unto others as I would have them do unto me, as Jesus said. And I would want people of other faiths to stand alongside me if my own faith tradition were maligned.
In other words, I am observing Ramadan BECAUSE I am a follower of Christ, BECAUSE I am a Christian, not because I am secretly harboring doubts about my faith, nor because I am thinking about converting to Islam.
There are no Bible verses which I can point to that prove that this is something Jesus would have approved. There are lots of things that can’t be proved by Scripture. Instead, I recommend that we look at Jesus’ overall behavior, at his distinctive manner, his intentions and motivations.
It should be clear that Jesus loved everyone he came into contact with. He reached out to all sorts of outcasts; he interacted with people he wasn’t supposed to interact with; and he spent time with those with power and wealth. He was an equal opportunity lover of humanity.
That’s the picture we get of Jesus. And it’s this picture that we are supposed to imitate.
Regardless of what Muslims believe, or don’t believe, we are to love them. It’s as simple as that.
But, in particular, I believe that we are called to love especially those who are on the edge, those who are marginalized by society, those who are viewed as “foreign” or “stranger.” Again, Jesus gives us the model to imitate – he befriended and loved women, tax collectors, children, Samaritans, Gentiles, centurions, Romans, prostitutes, lepers, and the demon-possessed.
I am persuaded that Muslims are a people on the edge in America. They are viewed with suspicion since 9/11. They are a largely misunderstood faith.
This past week, a prominent politician said in a town hall meeting, “I’m looking for some godly men and women in the Senate who will stand in the face of the danger of Islam in America without political correctness. Islam is not the peaceful, loving religion we hear about.”
This past week, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground by an act of arson, only a month after an arsonist first tried to burn it down.
It seems that this is a moment of opportunity for Christians to act like Jesus, and to stand beside Muslims to let them know that we are not enemies, we are not suspicious, we are not filled with resentment or hatred.
We don’t need a deep theological reason to do this. This is plain common morality. It is the right thing to do.
However, there is one short passage in the Gospel of Luke which strikes me as pertinent to the issue of our relations to people of other faiths.
“John said, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’” (Luke 9:49-50)
In this brief incident, we get a quick look into Jesus’ attitude towards those who have unknown religious affiliations. John is concerned; he doesn’t like the idea that there is someone out there, whom nobody knows, who isn’t one of the official followers of Jesus, who is attempting to do things in the name of Jesus. In other words, this stranger is an “unknown,” an “outsider.”
Nobody knows what this stranger really thinks about Jesus. Does he believe that Jesus is the Messiah? What does he believe about the authority of Scripture? Has he been baptized? Did he go through confirmation? How does he pray – and who does he pray to?
Jesus doesn’t seem to be very concerned about all these questions. He tells John, “Don’t stop him. If he’s not against us, he’s for us.”
We can learn a lot about how to interact with people of other faith from Jesus’ attitude in these two verses, particularly with Muslims.
Simply observe Jesus; notice that he does not seem to be worried about how orthodox this stranger’s beliefs are. He doesn’t know anything about what the stranger believes, in fact.
Instead, he focuses on what the man is doing. The stranger is casting out demons in his name. He is doing something good. He is fighting evil. This stranger is doing something which actually advances the kingdom of God.
Jesus says, “There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t stop him. Let him be. If he’s not actively resisting what we are all about, then why try to stop him?”
And then Jesus is on his way. It’s as simple as that.
Like Jesus, we must learn to focus on the similarities between us and those of other faiths, rather than on our differences. We ought to be looking for the common themes and strains within our traditions, for the ways in which our missions converge, for things that we can do together, rather than on the things which separate us.
Our similarities with Muslims especially are too great to ignore.
For one, Muslims are a branch of the great tree that grew out of Judaism and flowered into Christianity. Their fundamental belief is a conviction that there is only one God, and that this one God alone is worthy of honor, praise, and adoration.
When Channel 8 aired their news report of my story, I am quoted as saying, “I have no doubt that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.” This one quote has proved to be the most controversial thing I have said or written – but only for Christians.
Muslims agree with this statement one-hundred percent. They remind me constantly that they believe in the God of Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Moses, and Jesus. That God is our God, is it not?
Christians, on the other hand, have reacted with concern at this statement. Some have said that, as long as they don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, God incarnate, then Muslims cannot possibly be worshiping the same God. Some have suggested that Muslims worship a moon god, or a false idol. Others have simply said that the Muslim God is so different from the Christian God that we can’t possibly be talking about the same divine being.
I disagree. I believe that there are significant similarities, enough to affirm that when Muslims address God, they are addressing the God whom we know revealed in Jesus Christ. That God is One, Creator, All-Merciful, Good, and commands us to love God and our neighbors.
There are other similarities as well. Muslims and Christians both recognize the same line of prophets and messengers, with the exception of Mohammed. I am frequently told stories about Abraham and Moses when I visit mosques. Muslims are familiar with the stories of the Bible, as well as with Jesus. This is common ground; this is a platform upon which to share our common beliefs and understandings.
Muslims and Christians also have similar spiritual disciplines. We both pray – though faithful Muslims probably outdo us on that count. We both fast – though, again, faithful Muslims outdo us there, too! We both value the reading of sacred Scriptures. We both affirm the necessity of giving generously to God of our money.
This is not to make light of our differences, of course. In fact, our differences with Muslims are significant. We do not set aside our own convictions merely to make ourselves more acceptable to Muslims, just as we do not expect Muslims to compromise their own beliefs simply to make us more comfortable.
If there are to be any healthy relationships between peoples of any faith, the key is to celebrate similarities and common ground, while respecting differences.
That’s what Jesus modeled when he said of the strange exorcist, “Don’t stop him just because he’s not in our little band. He’s doing something good. He’s not against us.”
Somebody left a comment on my blog this week. Rachel asked, “Do you think that you will carry anything you’ve taken from your Ramadan experience into your church and congregation? What would you encourage your church to take away from your experience?”
In the rest of this sermon, I want to answer that question.
I believe that what we Christians are called to at this particular time is to exercise neighborly respect for Muslims, and to do it publicly.
What do I mean by “neighborly respect”?
First, let me say what it is NOT.
Neighborly respect does NOT generalize about Islam. There are one and a half billion Muslims in the world. There is no way one can generalize about one and a half billion people of any religion.
A few days ago, a Muslim woman shared with me that there are 72 different sects, or types, of Islamic belief. This means there is incredible variety within Islam, just as there is variety within Christianity. We know that there are hundreds of different Christian denominations around the world, each with their own distinctive practices, ethos, and doctrines.
It’s very hard to make broad, sweeping statements about “all Christians,” isn’t it? Can Methodists really be lumped in with Russian Orthodox Christians, or Westboro Baptist Church, or Mormons? Of course not.
The same is true of Islam.
Jesus refused to make generalizations, too. In fact, in the chapter in Luke which I read earlier, there is a fascinating story about Jesus which takes place immediately after the story about the unknown exorcist. Jesus sent his disciples into a village of the Samaritans, who had significant theological differences with the Jews. Samaritans and Jews considered each other heretics and were hostile toward each other; in many ways, the relationship between Samaritans and Jews mirrors the current relationship between Christians and Muslims.
The Samaritans did not receive the disciples with hospitality; it appears that the disciples couldn’t find a place to stay. When they came back to Jesus, James and John were furious. They said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and burn them all up?”
We’re not told what Jesus said; all we know is that “he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.”
It seems to me that James and John made a sweeping generalization about the Samaritans – “They’re all wicked and refused us hospitality!” they argued. “Let’s burn them all up!”
Jesus rebuked James and John, which is another way of saying, “he told them off.” Jesus refused to make a sweeping generalization about the Samaritans; in fact, we know that later, he told a parable about a good Samaritan.
Neighborly respect does not make generalizations about Muslims.
Neighborly respect does NOT assume the worst about Islam. Most of us are terribly uninformed about Islam, and so when we look at women who have their heads covered, and men with strange beards, and imams with prayer caps and beads and flowing clothes, a string of negative associations flood into our mind. Most of these images come from the media, in which we get a flood of negative stories about terrorism, jihad, thieves getting their hands cut off, and honor killings.
These negative images tempt us to assume the worst about Muslims. Deep in our souls, we remain tentative, cautious, and suspicious of Muslims.
The problem is that suspicion makes it hard to show neighborly respect. Suspicion has a way of constricting conversation, of hindering relationships and friendships.
Again, let me point to the example of Jesus. The disciple named John was suspicious of the man who was casting out demons. He thought there was something nefarious going on, and he wanted to stop him. Jesus, on the other hand, showed no such caution. He didn’t assume the worst.
Neighborly respect does not assume the worst about Muslims.
Now let me suggest what neighborly respect DOES:
First, neighborly respect listens to Muslims. If I could encourage you to do anything, it would be to take the time to befriend a Muslim, get to know him or her, and spend the time listening to what he or she has to say. Ask questions. Patiently listen without attempting to make a judgment on their answers.
Last night, Leah and I ate with a Muslim family at a restaurant. We found ourselves asking lots of questions – What does wearing the head scarf mean? What is it like for your children in public school? How do you celebrate Eid?
And they showed us neighborly respect by asking us lots of questions, too – What are your church services like? How do you celebrate your religious traditions? What does your congregation think of your fast?
Taking the time to truly listen to someone else, to hear them tell their story without interruption or comment … is a true act of love.
But here I must add a caveat – neighborly respect listens to Muslims without a hidden agenda. We do not listen to Muslims in order to construct an argument against them, or to try to convince them of how wrong they are, or even to try to convert them to our way of thinking.
We listen because we want to understand their viewpoint. We listen because we want to wear their shoes for a little while, and become sympathetic to their perspective. We listen with an open, honest heart.
The surprising thing is that we find ourselves slowly being converted – not to a religion, but to a broader, bigger way of being alive to God in this world. We discover that we have too often kept God in a box, in a small, confined space limited by our expectations and experiences. God is always so much more than what we think or feel. God is always bigger than what we make Him out to be.
Neighborly respect listens to Muslims, without a hidden agenda.
Neighborly respect looks for the true and the good in Islam. St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the church’s early theologians and fathers, wrote, “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.”
In other words, all truth is God’s truth, no matter where we find it. When we find truth in Islam, it is God’s truth. When we find truth in Christianity, it is God’s truth. When we find truth in Judaism, it is God’s truth.
All beauty is God’s beauty, as well. The beauty found in nature, in art, in relationship, is all a reflection of God’s beauty, and can be traced back to divine sources.
Neighborly respect then looks constantly for the true and the good in Muslims. It’s not hard to find, unless you’re looking for something else. If you’re looking for the false and the ugly, then you have already poisoned the relationship. There is no way to show neighborly respect to someone in whom you are looking for lies and evil; instead, you will be mean, suspicious and stand-offish.
Again, observe Jesus. He saw the good in the stranger who was casting out demons. He chose to focus on those acts of good will, of mercy and kindness, rather than upon the fact that the stranger was not “one of them.”
All I’m asking of you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is to show neighborly respect to Muslims. This is the day, this is the time, in which we must show our true colors as Christians.
Love is our true color.
Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples – IF you have love for one another.”