Thanks to the internet, images of atrocities committed in the name of religion are becoming common-place–the picture of Kayla Mueller; the rallies in Paris and Copenhagen to honor those killed by radicalized militants; the arraignment of the man in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the shooting deaths of 3 Muslim neighbors; 21 orange-clad Coptic Christians escorted by armed, masked militants along a beach in Libya…. reports of their beheadings…
So many violent images seared into our psyches. Human beings are wired for only so much trauma. Once our capacity for horror is reached, we shut down. We have to. It’s the only way we—the only way our humanity–can survive.
With the emergence of terrorists who call themselves the Islamic State, our world-wide human community seems to have taken a sharp turn for the inhumane. The utter and complete disregard for the dignity of human life — I. Do. Not. Get. It. The actions of ISIS have moved so far beyond other acts of terror… How can the international community respond? How can countries with Muslim majorities respond? How can people of faith—of any faith—respond?
I’m not in a position to answer the first two questions. I have no expertise in international diplomacy. And I certainly don’t have expertise in the workings of countries with Muslim majorities. But as a Christian minister, I do have some thoughts about how people of faith might respond to the horrors being perpetrated these days in the name of religion…
…those thoughts, in part, grow out of the scene in today’s Scripture story. Genesis 17 relates the fourth time God makes a covenant with Abraham, the ancestor formerly known as Abram. The first time, God calls Abram “to go from his country and his kindred to a land God will show him.” I think the lady in my phone would be cross if I asked her to take me “to the land God will show me.” J God also says, “I will make of you a great nation.”
Time passes, things happen…and Abram’s confidence in the covenant must flag, because God makes the promise a second time. “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth.” Some more things happen, then God again promises Abram a great reward.
Three times now God has promised Abram a great reward, lots of descendants. Abram, understandably, is getting impatient. He has no descendants. And he and Sarai aren’t getting any younger. How in the world is he supposed to be the father of many nations when he hasn’t even become the father of one person? He suggests to God that maybe his slave will be his heir. God says, No. Your descendant will be your own flesh and blood.
Anxious to get the whole many-descendants thing going, Sarai comes up with a plan. She offers her servant, Hagar, to Abram so he can have a child by her. Because it was common practice in their culture, Abram does what Sarai suggests. Ishmael is born. Then Sarai promptly instructs Abram to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the community.
It’s after all this has happened that God comes to Abram the 4th time. By now, Abram is 99 years old. Again, God makes covenant with Abram—“I will make you exceedingly numerous. You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Then God changes Abram’s name to Abraham—father of nations. “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
What might all this covenant-making between God and Abraham suggest for people of faith as we try to respond to what’s happening in our world today in the name of religion? The first thing is to remember that Abraham is an ancestor for many faiths, including the “big three”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The story of God’s promises to Abraham isn’t just ours. It’s a story we share with people of other faiths.
Abraham isn’t all we share with people of other faiths. I’m part of a group called the Cobb Interfaith Spiritual Leaders. Once a month, we gather to share a meal and talk together. At our last meeting, each of us related what our faith means to us. It was evident in our sharing that each of us takes our faith very seriously. That’s one thing we have in common—our strong commitment to our respective faith traditions.
Another thing faiths have in common—both good and evil have been committed in the name of all religions. ISIS. The Crusades. Buddhists in Myanmar. We all have our dirty laundry, the crazies who co-opt the faith and turn it into something it was never meant to be. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has an important reminder for us: “We must not make the mistake of judging other faiths by their least attractive features or adherents.” “We should want to deal with other faiths at their best and highest, as they define themselves, and not shoot down the caricatures that we want to put up.” (16) A helpful word in this time of religious radicalism.
Another thing faiths have in common: all religions respect the dignity of creation, a respect that leads to compassionate action in the world. The Golden Rule graphic on your bulletins as it is represented in many faiths, illustrates that commitment well. That’s copied from a poster given to me by one of my Cobb Interfaith colleagues, a person from the Ba’hai faith.
So, the fact that Abraham is an ancestor for more than one faith reminds us of just how much people of different faiths have in common.
At the same time, the story of Abraham’s covenant with God also reminds us that each faith is unique.
I remember visiting the Dome of the Rock on my first trip to Jerusalem in 1992. That’s the gold-domed building on the Temple Mount you’ve no doubt seen pictures of. Under that beautiful golden dome lies a large flat stone called the Foundation Stone. Islam and Judaism (and, therefore, Christianity) associate many of their faith’s stories with that rock. For Jews it’s where creation began. (It’s sometimes called “the navel of the world.”) It’s also where Cain, Abel, and Noah worshiped God, where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, where Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending a ladder. For Muslims, it’s thought to be the place to which the prophet Muhammad traveled in the Night Journey.
When I saw that stone, I was struck by how a single place, a single object could hold such devotion for people of different faiths, but for completely different reasons. As a Christian, it meant something different to me than it did to Jews or Muslims who visit the site.
Here’s what I’ve come to believe about religions. All of them—including Christianity—are flawed. Yet all of them try—through rituals, sacred writings, and acts of compassion—to connect with God and with other people. God is so much more than any one religion. It’s not possible for one religion to get it all right. We need each other to help us see God more fully, we need each other to understand the world and its inhabitants more wholly.
No one of us has a corner on the God-market. But in our sharing together, when we hear from Jews about their understanding of God and from Muslims about Allah and from Hindus about all their gods and from Buddhists about their sacred practices and from B’ahai about their faith and Sikhs and Jains and Native Americans and Pagans… When we learn about all these other faiths from the people who practice them, our picture of God will be more complete. And, though it seems counterintuitive, our own Christian faith will be strengthened.
After making covenant with Abraham, God tells him Sarah will conceive and bear a son. Abraham’s response to this news? He falls “on his face laughing and says, ‘Can a child be born to man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is 90 years old, bear a child?’”
If you keep reading, you’ll see that—Yes. Though it seemed impossible, laughable, even, a 100 year old man and a 90 year old woman can have a child together. And, because no faith should take itself too seriously, when that child is born, you’ll name him Isaac, which means “laughter.”
That’s the third lesson from today’s story—when the way forward seems laughable, a fool’s folly…If we keep working at it, eventually, the promise just might be fulfilled.
…even the promise of peace in a world torn by violence. It’s easy to feel helpless or angry or vengeful when we hear of yet another mass shooting or beheading…but if we can respond to even the most inhuman acts with bold humanity, if our response to every new report of violence can be an act of compassion, if all the world’s religions will live out their belief in the dignity of all human beings… I know. It seems laughable…but then, just maybe, we could fulfill God’s dream of harmony in all creation.
The song I sang earlier—“One Grain of Sand”…it reminds us that we’re all part of the puzzle—all people, all faiths. Each of us can only do our part…but if each of us does do our part, if each of us brings our one grain of sand, eventually—I know. It seems laughable!—but eventually, the beach will be built….a beach where people of all faiths will play and talk and share stories and hopes and dreams for the world. A place where we will always and only act each other into well-being. A place where we will plan and work together on repairing the world.
“One Grain of Sand”
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,
4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”