I was fortunate to spend two weeks in Israel in 2013. One day in Galilee, Leroy and I drove into the Golan Heights because we were told it was an excellent region for wine-tasting. We found the Golan Heights Winery and were given a touring map to find other wineries scattered over the hills to the north. We drove and drove and got seriously lost and never did see another winery. What we did find was an enormous military installation and the remains of empty, bullet-riddled houses left from the 1967 Six Day War. We unexpectedly found ourselves at the border of Syria and Lebanon. Teenaged soldiers – young men and women – were crouched on the tops of military vehicles while holding binoculars and Uzis. Leroy looked really nervous and wanted to turn around immediately. I was fascinated and wanted to keep going. He won the argument that resulted and a soldier directed us to the fastest route out of the region. It took us down a mountain to the ancient biblical site known as Caesarea Philippi. Right next to the place where Simon Peter is said to have uttered the words “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” is Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in Israel. Many believe that right after Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus climbed that mountain with Peter, James, and John for the event we know as the Transfiguration.
On Transfiguration Sunday, today, we recall the story of Jesus’ appearance changing and his clothing shining white as light as two Old Testament figures appeared at each side. Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets flanked Jesus as God’s voice was heard from a cloud, saying “This is my son, who I have chosen. Listen to him!” Peter scurried about, trying to build a shrine or something, and then it was all over and they went back to work. It’s a turning point in the gospels, and from then on it’s clear that Jesus is on his way to the cross.
Mt. Hermon still looms over the site where Israelis and Syrians eye one another uneasily. Much blood has been shed on the nearby hillsides and distant plains in the ongoing struggle between Jews and Muslims.
Today, this sermon is sponsored by the CUCC Men’s Group. At the annual auction, they bid on and bought the right to choose a preaching theme. You need to know that in congregational system, the pastor retains what is known as “freedom of the pulpit.” In other words, the Men’s Group can’t make me say anything I don’t want to say! They did suggest, though, that a sermon addressing recent national religious conversation about whether God is the God of multiple faiths or just our own faith would be welcome.
You have likely heard of political science professor Larycia Hawkins. She is the first and only tenured African American woman to serve on the faculty of Wheaton College, an influential liberal arts college in the evangelical tradition. Following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Dr. Hawkins wore a hijab in solidarity with the local Muslim community in Chicago. She posted a photo of herself on Facebook, with the caption, “As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” She was immediately removed from her teaching position. There are many aspects to the controversy that erupted at Wheaton, but the stated reason for putting Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave and seeking to fire her is her assertion that Muslims and Christians have the same God.
Why is that so difficult for people to accept? I’ve been amazed at the people who have lined up to shout in print or online that Muslims do not worship the God of Christians and Jews. My question is: If it’s not the same God, what God is it? We are monotheists, so we can’t say that there is another God out there for Muslims. So that must mean that Muslims have a false god and therefore have no god at all.
This past week, our president made the first visit of his administration to an Islamic mosque. In his speech there, he affirmed the place of Muslim Americans in our society. The backlash was swift and harsh. One presidential candidate said he was sick of Obama’s divisive language, pitting Americans against one another. It made me wonder if we had read the same speech.
The next day, the National Prayer Breakfast was held in Washington. This annual tradition is largely attended by evangelical Christian politicians. Following last year’s event, President Obama was strongly criticized for these remarks: “We have to speak up against those who would misuse God’s name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.” The criticism reflected the discomfort that we could be among those who oppress or take innocent lives.
Why is it that so much hatred and terror and oppression happen in the name of God?
A recent book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is titled “Not in God’s Name.” Rabbi Sacks attempts to analyze why religious fervor so often results in violence. He starts with the premise that so many hold; namely, the idea that “my religion is right and yours is wrong.” By exalting one’s own belief and dismissing the beliefs of others, people set up what is needed for injustice and violence to flourish. After all, if someone doesn’t pass muster in adhering to our religious beliefs, they most often are consigned to a dark and hot place called hell. And if they are going to be annihilated or caused to suffer eternally anyway, it’s a short distance to believing that what happens to them in this life doesn’t really matter. They are no longer human beings with innate value.
I’ve noticed a conversation taking place in social media among Christians about the term “Child of God.” The voice from the cloud above the mountain said “This is my Son, who I have chosen.” The same voice is attributed with uttering the same words at Jesus’ baptism. Traditional Christian doctrine asserts that Jesus is God’s Son – God’s own child – in a unique way. But what about the rest of us? Are we God’s children, too? As Christians, we have no problem inserting ourselves into the river or onto the mountaintop and hearing the words affirming that we, too are God’s children. But what about Muslims? Or Jews? Or anyone else? Recently I’ve read the words of numerous Christians claiming that only those who believe and are baptized are God’s children. The rest can be more properly called “God’s creatures.” My thought is that such arrogant labeling makes it easier to oppress those who are not as special to God as we are.
The Men’s Group also told me that I have to say something in my sermon about football. I am admittedly not a big follower of the game, though I did become a fair weather fan in Buffalo during the four consecutive years when the Bills went to the Superbowl. A member of the team was in my congregation which meant that I had to watch games as a pastoral duty. Today I am proudly rooting for the Broncos, though I don’t really deserve to do so, based on my viewing record. As a pastor, one of the uncomfortable things I have endured over the years is having people ask me to pray on game days that their team will win. That sort of assumes that God favors our own team and that the pleas of the other team will be ignored. That’s human nature, right? I don’t think it’s too different than assuming that the version of God we follow is correct and therefore God favors us over others.
Rabbi Sacks points out in his book that the move toward dualism in Christianity and other religions has increased the possibility for violence. If we look at the world in sharply defined terms of good and evil, then we are prone toward using any means to obliterate what is regarded as evil. Extremism is hell-bent on destroying evil, regardless of what we call our religion. It also tends to scapegoat others in ways that relieve us of blame and make others a target of both aggression and oppression. I believe that a more helpful and realistic approach to life and humanity is to embrace ambiguity and understand that we all have potential for good and for harm. Choosing to see God in everyone, not just ourselves or those like us, is a move toward living peacefully with others.
One of the cornerstones of progressive Christianity is the belief that we have found a path to God through the life and message of Jesus. A close corollary is that we recognize that other people have other paths that are equally as meaningful to them as the path of Jesus is for us. We can’t demand that others have the same belief, although people try to do that. Instead, we can contribute to peace by respecting and actually valuing the religious convictions of others.
I wonder sometimes what the human need is that is fulfilled through creating a God that can only be known by some? I believe that God is too big to be contained in any one system of doctrine or within the religious writings of any one people. God is mystery, and God exists beyond the words and ideas that we with our human limitations are able to form. Most certainly, I don’t believe that I have the power or insight to judge another person’s relationship with God as inadequate.
We see plenty of examples in the history of the great monotheistic religions of the world where belief has morphed into violence. Using God to justify our quest for power rather than to humble us for service is not limited to the “other.” There is much fear in our world right now due to terrorism, and fear can cause us to react in ways that further oppression and injustice. I believe the God we worship calls us to reject the urge to divide all of creation into good and evil. I believe God has chosen us, as God also chose Jesus, to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. And just as loving those who are difficult to love is a choice, I believe it is imperative that we actively choose not to hate in order that we may find common ground with all of humanity. Getting to know our neighbors of different faiths is a good way to start.
God is the God of all creation and has made each of us, regardless of our spiritual path, as God’s own beloved child with inherent value. Thanks be to God. Amen.