That shall be the path of my faith. These words are a poetic expression of prayer from Muhammad Ibn Arabi, 12th century Sufi mystic, philosopher and spiritual teacher who has had enormous impact throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
To be sure, the path of my faith today takes me to no other alternative, considering yesterday’s 9th anniversary of September 11, but to address the anti-Muslim frenzy that has been generated over the past few weeks in response to plans to build an Islamic Community Center (referred to as the Cordoba House Initiative) at Park 51 two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.
And I am well aware, as certainly are you, that the hallowed ground there, where nearly 3,000 innocent lives were cruelly ended on 9/11, 2001, remains an open wound in our country, especially for so many who lost cherished loved ones as a result of unconscionable and deliberate acts. It is a time and a memory that still brings acute, emotionally raw feelings to the surface and landscape of our collective lives.
In the ten years that I have had the privilege and humble honor to ascend the steps of this pulpit, many of you know that on whatever Sunday at Memorial Church I am fortunate to do so, I do not take that responsibility lightly. This morning is no exception. Silence is not an option.
Today in particular it would also be completely irresponsible of me, as a preacher, clergywoman, American citizen, lifelong identified Christian, educator – more importantly to many of you here and in this university your chaplain, priest, pastor - indeed irresponsible to skirt around what I consider to be the despicable, egregious and inexcusable religious bigotry that has emerged in these recent days, from the bitter opposition to the Community Center near Ground Zero, to the threatened burning of the Qur’an in Gainesville, Florida, from the arson at the construction site for a future mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to the hateful comments from a prominent pulpit in Dallas, Texas. The counterproductive cultural wave that has washed around the world has created very disturbing consequences with more likely to come. This new surge of anti-Muslim rhetoric breaking across our country in particular is very serious indeed. The situation is considered so serious that the Islamic Society of North America felt that it needed to host an emergency interfaith summit recently and convened a group of American religious leaders, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and others to respond immediately to this recent surge of anti-Muslim rhetoric and Islamophobia in the United States. That meeting resulted in the drafting and adopting of a statement named Beyond Park 51: Religious Leaders Denounce Anti-Muslim Bigotry and Call for Respect for America’s Tradition of Religious Liberty. They came together in our nation’s capital to announce a new era of interfaith cooperation and denounce categorically the derision, bigotry and misinformation being directed at America’s Muslim community. I highly recommend that you read this entire statement – it is indeed wise, profound and powerful.
I share with you one brief excerpt from it, as it in my mind elucidates and further illuminates the teaching and meaning behind the two sacred texts we heard this morning: Psalm 14 and Luke’s gospel, chapter 15.
From the Beyond Park 51 statements:
…On the basis of our shared reflection, we insist that no religion should be judged on the words or actions of those who seek to pervert it through acts of violence; that politicians and members of the media are never justified in exploiting religious differences as a wedge to advance political agendas or ideologies; that bearing false witness against the neighbor – something condemned by all three of our religious traditions – is inflicting particular harm on the followers of Islam…
We work together on the basis of deeply held and widely shared values, each supported by the sacred texts of our respective traditions. We acknowledge with gratitude the dialogues between our scholars and religious authorities that have helped us to identify a common understanding of the divine command to love one’s neighbor. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all see an intimate link between faithfulness to God and love of neighbor; a neighbor who in many instances is the stranger in our midst. We are united in our conviction that by witnessing together in celebration of human dignity and religious freedom; by working together for interfaith understanding across communities and generations; and by cooperating with each other in works of justice and mercy for the benefit of society, all of us will demonstrate our faithfulness to our deepest spiritual commitments….only by taking this stand, can spiritual leaders fulfill the highest calling of our respective faiths, and thereby help to create a safer and stronger America for all of our people.
Psalm 14 that Richard read for us has at its core a more primary interpretive and pastoral concern that often gets overlooked. That is, the shift from intellectual debates about God’s existence to real-life questions of oppression and resistance. Scholars assert that the chief theological question in this text is “justice, not belief, the chief error is oppression, not secularism” and the folly the psalmist attacks is “the folly of the social injustice that cuts the oppressor off from God.” Willingness to confront injustice and oppression is a prominent dimension of not only Christianity, but indeed of Judaism and Islam as well. Ministries of care work with all people and communities to change exploitive behavior; to effect healing, restoration and reconciliation; and even to demand restitution when appropriate. Further, moral foolishness is the overarching concern of the psalmist today, foolishness that impacts whole groups of people, even nations, in negative ways.
Feisal Abdul Rauf, Imam and chairman of the Cordoba House Initiative, the collective effort to construct the community center at Park 51 in Lower Manhattan, has spent his life’s work focused on building bridges between religious groups. He recently returned to America and to his home in New York City after speaking abroad for two months about cooperation among people from different religions. Cordoba House Initiative was inspired by the city of the same name in Spain where Muslims, Jews and Christians co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims. Thus, the Cordoba House Initiative is intended to cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures. Its broader mission, according to Rauf’s recent editorial in the New York Times, is to not only strengthen relations between the Western and Muslim worlds and to help counter radical ideology, but to confront the issues that have polarized relations within the Muslim world and between non-Muslims and Muslims. Feisel Rauf sees this as a critical and urgent joint multifaith, multinational effort. That effort will include as well the families of victims of 9/11 as the ultimate plans of the center itself are considered and the objective of unification and healing are kept at the forefront. Rauf envisions a shared space for community activities, classrooms and a play space for children. There will be separate prayers spaces for Muslims, Christians and Jews, men and women of other faiths. The center will also include a multifaith memorial dedicated to victims of the September 11 attacks. It is a place that will seek to foster not only a culture of worship authentic to respective religious traditions, but also a culture of forging personal bonds across religious traditions.
The gospel reading from Luke today includes two parables of Jesus. Two images of recovery are used: a lost sheep recovered and a lost coin found. In both cases, the recovery leads to an invitational imperative – rejoice with me. The presenting problem is that Jesus clearly violates social custom with reference to rigid rules about eating. His transgression of social expectation evokes great hostility. These stories are about more than a shepherd or a woman. They are about the welcoming posture of God who accepts those whom an exclusionary society will not accept.
If we are really paying attention here, we may be surprised as to how God exposes us with our proverbial “possessions” – for example, in this present day controversy in Manhattan with our objectification of fear, and the need for our own recovery of understanding and knowledge as it relates to the essential and fundamental teachings of our religious traditions, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim: to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Meeting one aspect of religious extremism with another is what some have coined these past weeks as religious stupidity, not wisdom. Threats to burn the Qur’an, a holy text at the Dove World Outreach Center makes a mockery of the teachings of Jesus. Has anyone bothered, incidentally, to explain to Pastor Terry Jones what a dove symbolizes?
More so, God exposes our preponderance toward staking our claim as religious insiders. Jesus also exposes this clearly in this gospel text today in the very first verse: the tax collectors and sinners were coming near. The threat of coming near, approaching the inner circle and thereby usurping the place of the religious insiders can somehow make that perceived power feel diminished and threatened. Religious insiders can still be easily threatened in the sharing of anything. This is not lost on Jesus who demonstrates that the intimacy of breaking bread is simply a tangible act of this nearness. How do we react when our nearness is threatened? The welcoming posture of God establishes a clear difference about the long, loving reach of God toward all of us, our Jewish, Muslim and Christian neighbors, our secular, agnostic, and atheist neighbors. Unfortunately, religious insiders are often more comfortable with saving the lost than welcoming those whom they perceive as lost. Saving is about power, welcoming is about intimacy. Saving is primarily focused on the individual, welcoming is focused on the community.
Finally, I have two questions, one of which shaped my sermon title this morning and is asked by the psalmist today.
Are there any who are wise? I am convinced that Imam Feisel Rauf and his collective collaborators, Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America, and the numerous religious leaders she gathered in Washington D.C. are indeed wise. They recognize that there is a global desire to build a movement that will heal relations and bring peace. That the fundamental common impulses of our religious traditions put before us challenges and responsibilities that might otherwise elude us and certainly are not of easy resolution. General David Petraeus is also wise to remind us about the reality of outrageous actions that will be used by extremists in Afghanistan – and around the world – to inflame public opinion and incite violence. They are all challenging us in their own way to a paradigm that must shift. The clash between the West and Muslim world has existed at too terrible a cost, and the call to rise to that difficult challenge is yet resounding and clearly still present today.
My second question is:
Can we, will we indeed rise to the challenges and possibilities that remain before us? To be sure, if we look back through the last nine years, we can say there has been some rising to the challenge indeed. The partnerships that developed between synagogues and churches, mosques and synagogues, and churches and mosques have provided a strong foundation for new forms of collaboration in interfaith education, dialogue, and service. Here on this campus, we have witnessed the establishment of the Abbasi Program for Islamic Studies, under the tireless and exemplary leadership of Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies and former Dean for Religious Life Robert Gregg, and others. It is clear from these examples of goodwill that what we can accomplish together is significantly more than what we could achieve working in isolation from one another. This is the trajectory we must and I believe can remain on in order to move forward to rise to love rather than fear in the healing and building for the cause of peace, for the recovery of love, and for the wisdom of community.
While there has been rising, I would be remiss to acknowledge that there is yet regressing as well. I was mystified recently, and troubled, to learn from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that favorable opinions of Islam have declined since 2005 in America and that most Americans say they know little about Islam. There has been little change in the percentage of Americans who say they know someone who is Muslim. All of this despite the heroic and concerted efforts, over the past 9 years of American Muslims to build relationships with non-Muslims, to make it clear they abhor terrorism, tirelessly educate people about Islam and participate in countless interfaith service projects. Despite all of this, Muslims do worry if they will ever be accepted in American society. We cannot forget they are indeed our neighbors, our colleagues, our doctors, and our classmates.
I have the distinct advantage and privilege of working with and knowing some exceptionally wonderful Muslim students here at Stanford. Working in an academic institution, and in an Office for Religious Life that remains unequivocally committed to interreligious dialogue and understanding I have the opportunity to learn more about a variety of religious traditions, including Islam. It has had a tremendous impact on me and my understanding of Muslim people and their practices. My life has been deeply enriched as a result. Though I recognize that this is the exception rather than the rule, influenced too by geography and demographics, I am convinced that this is some of what constitutes the way forward. We each possess a personal responsibility in the process. To work toward forging personal bonds, as well as deeper understanding.
Needless to say, I will ask all of us whether or not we have felt compelled in the last nine years to learn more about Islam in particular and whether or not you know any one who is Muslim? I ask because I am convinced that this gets at the heart of what I think the conflict of faith and nearness is all about. It is so easy to be fearful of something you know little about, to scapegoat or assume, to be indifferent, to not have the benefit of a human face or relationship to deepen our understanding of others, to embrace a path of faith that has at its core a caravan of love that will not promote fear and hate.
In his exceptional work, The Future of Islam, John Esposito, University Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University, writes this: “Despite the rhetoric and actions of Muslim extremists and terrorists, and religious and cultural differences, the peoples of America, Europe, and the Muslim world have many shared values, dreams and aspirations. The future of Islam and Muslims is inextricably linked to all of humanity. All of our futures will depend on working together for good governance, for freedom of religion, speech and assembly, and for economic and educational advancement. Together we can contain and eliminate our preachers of hate and terrorists who threaten the safety, security and prosperity of our families and societies.”
While there will always be people with hate-filled agendas, let’s not take for granted that we must be about the good and essential work of our common humanity and call upon the sanity, courage and deep spiritual insights of our faith. On this serious and important anniversary of memory in our history, I hope you will join me and many others in committing to raising up your voice in some way in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters. Perhaps a first step might to get to know a Muslim neighbor, colleague or classmate. Attend Friday prayers on campus with others or me. Read, learn, and engage with scholarship about Islam. And for those of us who identify as Christian, speak up and be clear that the version of Christian faith espoused by conservative pundits, or extremists is not at all one that you recognize or give any credibility to. Deepen your own theological understanding of what it means to be a follower of the religious identity you claim.
I know that September 11 will always be a date etched in our lives, in our history in this country that crowds our hearts and minds with questions. Where will this yet all take us as a nation and as a people? Is there a word from God in the midst of the fears and fury that still appear to linger? Perhaps it is too another opening, another way forward in which to recover the better angels of our nature. This is not an option. It is an imperative.
Some words From Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney (Shay-mus Hee-nee)
Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
History says, don’t hope