September 08 - "Unity ≠ Uniformity''

Readings: Ephesians 4:1-65 & John 17: 20-26

This week, in particular, I am giving thanks for educators. We attended Curriculum Nights at both Washington Elementary School and Lincoln Middle School, and on both occasions, we got to hear directly from those who would be shaping our children this year about their strategies for the year ahead. They would begin the year at this point, helping them gain the skills to ask questions and understand these methods, creating categories of understanding and basics so that by the end of the year, they can be at this point and able to do things on their own, utilizing the tools, skills, and categories that were established earlier in the year. This was true in second grade where my kids will work on being stronger readers and using math concepts to the Life science and PE and guitar class in 7th grade.

Be sure to stop by and meet the Sunday School teachers this morning, because they are preparing for similar journeys, helping nurture our children’s understanding of God, by teaching them stories of our faith, showing them practices of relating to God, and giving them opportunities to put that faith into action.

Faith is a gift. Each of you have your own stories of how you ended up in church generally, and in this church specifically. Usually someone takes you - your parents or grandparents, or later your children, or perhaps a friend. In Confirmation, we attempt to teach the fundamental pieces of what being a Christian means and looks like and give the 8th graders who’ve been on that intentional journey for a few years the chance to publicly make a decision about their faith walk.

I’m thankful for my faith, which has been learned not only through the categories established in Sunday School and Bible study, but through walking with my great-grandmother in the Mountains of New Hampshire, in honest conversations with youth leaders when I was a kid about why bad things happen, listening to others’ faith in how God was helping them, finding power in prayer, reading books about other people’s journeys.

I know Christian songs - songs of my heart like How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace, Great is Thy Faithfulness and It is Well with my soul, which have all come out of my mouth and heart when I’m at church but more often when I’m on my own and needing to connect with God. I worship in sanctuaries with pillars and plaster, but have found my heart worshiping while changing diapers or walking the dog too. I celebrate the gift of faith that has grown and continues to grow, form, and be reformed, alongside you.

We are beginning a faith experiment here at PRCC. Over the next several weeks, we are all - and I mean all ages - invited to learn about different faith traditions - Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, Judaism, Islam, Orthodox, and Bahai’.

This is not an attempt to convert any of us to another faith, any more than learning Spanish would worsen our understanding of English. Similarly to the study of language, learning about the particularities of another tradition can help us to better understand our own. I hope that in learning about other religious traditions we can understand people better who are our neighbors, doctors, spouses, friends, and fellow citizens on this planet. Perhaps we might even find practices in other traditions that we admire or want to emulate within our own, and ultimately understanding might lead to unity and the ways of peace.

In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite theologians, “Religions are treasure chests of stories, songs, rituals, and ways of life that have been handed down for millennia.” We know much of what is in our treasure chest, but we just might be blessed by seeing and learning the stories and rituals in others’ treasure chests.

We might also learn a little more about God. This is not to say that all religions are the same. Watering down each tradition so that we are just all the same would be an injustice to the richness of diversity that exists. However, there are some similar teachings, similar emphases on demonstrating compassion, love, and community, and noting those commonalities seems worthwhile. I do believe that people in different traditions have found ways of understanding the Divine, have found different answers to questions I’ve asked, and have perspectives and experiences that can be illuminating. I will do my best to present information that I’ve learned and gleaned, but my area of expertise is Protestant Christianity - that’s my language, my training, my experience, where my heart finds a spiritual home. So I am a fellow learner with you on this adventure.

But, I am also interested as one of your pastors at Park Ridge Community Church, in helping us create new categories of understanding the broader faith community so that as news comes out or a new neighbor moves in, we are able to be faithful and respectful of someone who is different. Unity does not mean uniformity. We are not all expected to be the same - how boring would that be!? The Christian faith that has nurtured me and is my spiritual home has not always been open to learning about difference. We have more often been consumed by being RIGHT, having a monopoly on the one true way, and being certain that other religious traditions have been WRONG and that’s all we need to know.

This spiritual tunnel vision, or exclusivism, has been harmful - to those inside our faith (many of whom have decided to leave), to those of other faith traditions (who have felt our hate and distrust), and those who are seeking God (and don’t feel like access to God should require loathing someone who has a different perspective). Christian people, blinded by religious fervor, have been perpetrators of horrendous acts of terror and violence, ranging from Crusades to colonialism, to rape and pillage, to blowing up abortion clinics and mass shootings and running people over, to protesting Pride parades all under the guise of being Christian. These actions do not reflect the ethic of love I feel was taught by Jesus of Nazareth.

Furthermore, I believe we have an ethical, moral, and spiritual responsibility to learn about other religious perspectives so we can engage in the conversation, decry evil as evil, and speak as informed individuals about how to participate with in a world with such beautiful diversity without expecting uniformity.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Holy Envy, she tells about “An old story of Rabia of Basra, an eighth-century Sufi mystic who was seen running through the streets of her city one day carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she said she wanted to burn down the rewards of paradise with the torch and put out the fires of hell with the water, because both blocked the way to God, 'O, Allah,' Rabia prayed, 'if I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.'

In Christian tradition this comes under the heading of unconditional love, though it is usually understood as the kind of love God exercises toward humans instead of the other way around. Taylor writes, “Now, thanks to a Muslim mystic from Iraq, I have a new way of understanding what it means to love God unconditionally. Whenever I am tempted to act from fear of divine punishment or hope of divine reward, Rabia leans over from her religion into mine and empties a bucket of water on my head.”

I hope and pray that our journey in the next few weeks, whether sitting with Muslim friends hearing about their prayers, wandering the grounds of the Bahai Temple, realizing the meaning in the rituals of Jewish and Catholic faiths, or finding peace in Buddhist transcendence, will open our hearts and eyes to meet God more fully. I hope that our journey will help us find ways of working together for the betterment of the world, that we might live into Jesus’ words in John that just as God was in him and he is in us, that so too might the followers be so filled with faith that we can’t help but model a way of life grounded in love.

May that love be informed by our differences, not ignoring or erasing them. Richard Rohr writes, “We are all pointing to the same moon, but we keep insisting on who has the best finger.” Let us stop competing for who’s right and simply spend some time gazing at the moon, reaching for the stars and appreciate that others share that same moon and stars.

May the journey prepare us to be more faithful, demonstrate more compassion, and find unity in the One Creator of the universe. Amen.

Resources: Bulletin Sermon Audio

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