Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Place for Skeptics and Believers (1/25/09)

A Place for Skeptics and Believers
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 25, 2009

Whoever is not against us is for us.
--Jesus Mark 9:40

There is an interesting scene in the Gospel of Mark.

One of the disciples, John, says to Jesus:

‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’

But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.

Whoever is not against us is for us.

I chose that passage for reflection as today we welcome new members into our congregation. People ask me about the requirements to become a member, whether they have to believe certain things or behave in certain ways.

Anyone is welcome is my response. Just come join. If you are not against us, you are for us.

The disciple, John, thought it should be the other way around.

For John the circle was small. If you are not with us you are against us.

For Jesus, the circle was large and ever-expanding.

Throughout its history the church has struggled with boundaries. Who is in and who is out. So often it has been so worried about its boundaries and about making sure folks are followers, however that is defined, that it forgets its larger more important work.

What is that work? According to Mark’s gospel, the work is casting out demons.

I should probably say a few words about that. In a pre-scientific society such as that in which Jesus lived, demon possession explained the unexplainable. Spiritual beings both good and evil were seen to be active in the world and influencing events. They were understood to be the cause of physical and mental illness. What we might treat today with medicine or psychological therapy, was treated then with exorcism.

Someone who had power over these demons would be a valuable person. There were many, including Jesus, who had power to calm the troubled mind. I don’t know how casting out demons worked, but it must have worked at least some of the time.

One of my professors at Princeton Seminary, Donald Capps, has written a book entitled, Jesus the Village Psychiatrist. Capps looks at a number of the miracle stories of Jesus and sees that many of them are psychologically based. Capps sees that one of the main purposes of the ministry of Jesus was to heal people from mental illness. These mental illnesses could manifest themselves in blindness, paralysis, and other disorders.

According to Capps,
“the persons whom Jesus healed were largely suffering from psychosomatic illnesses, that Jesus recognized this fact, and that he used healing methods that took this fact into account. He was more skilled than the physicians of his day because his healing methods were more effective, and they were more effective because he had a deeper understanding of how psychosomatic illnesses work and how they affect the person who suffers from them.” P. xiv.
Jesus was able to heal because he had compassion. He was able to listen and through his listening find the cause of others’ distress. That was the kind of thing he tried to teach his disciples, that is, how to be healers.

While the language of the gospels might appear that Jesus used supernatural powers to cure illness, cast out demons, and so forth, much of it can be explained by understanding how healers healed in the first century as well as understanding the causes of illness. According to Capps, the mental and physical illnesses may have resulted from social stress. The people in the villages were an occupied people struggling to survive.

Of course, the gospel writers had other things to say about Jesus. They attributed other miracle stories to him, such as raising people from the dead, walking on water and so forth. I would attribute those stories to creative license on the part of the storytellers. As stories developed about Jesus the miracles grew and became more fantastic, drawing from similar tales of other holy men.

But it appears plausible, even probable, that the historical Jesus was a healer. His ability to heal was not because of supernatural power, but because he had compassion, skill, and understanding. This he tried to teach to his disciples with mixed success.

Apparently, according to the story in Mark, there were others, who were not in Jesus’ inner circle who were able to heal as Jesus healed. Perhaps they were quicker studies than his disciples and learned his technique.

The disciples are upset that these others are using this technique, or as the text says: “casting out demons in your name.” Jesus is not upset. This is a good thing. Healing is happening.

Every now and then I wonder what it is we are to be about in this life. Either as human beings or more specifically as part of a faith community. It is good to revisit one’s mission statement now and again.

I think we are to make that circle ever larger and to be about the ministry of healing. It seems to me less important regarding what we believe or what metaphysical theories we hold.

We are one human family. We have one home. As much as we like to think it is the case, there really is no “us and them.” We are all we. We need each other.

We need to be about bringing healing, comfort, and peace to a troubled world. Making the burdens lighter for others, extending hospitality and welcome, lightening the heart, taking the time to listen, and offering comfort are the kinds of things that are truly important and needed.

Whether we do this because we are conventional Christians or questioning skeptics, it is all the same to me. In the words of Jesus:

Whoever is not against us is for us.

I do like this fourth point of the eight points of progressive Christianity.

By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we…

Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable (including but not limited to):

believers and agnostics,
conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
women and men,
those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
those of all races and cultures,
those of all classes and abilities,
those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope.

To our new members, welcome.
  • I hope that you will find strength here for your journey.
  • I hope you will find the freedom to question, to learn, and to grow.
  • I hope you will find the healing you need for your own brokenness, whether that be in body or in spirit.
  • May you find a friend to lean upon, in fact many friends.
  • May you in turn, be a welcoming presence for others, a soothing balm, and a source of healing and hope.
In that spirit, I will close with this poem from Edwin Markham. It is just four lines. It is entitled, “Outwitted."

He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied (1/18/09 Martin Luther King)

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 18th, 2009
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant “Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
--Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
--Amos 5:21-24

In his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Harvard University’s Peter Gomes writes:
One of the invitations I least welcome is an invitation to speak to some college campus in the month of January at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service. It is not that I lack regard for Martin Luther King Jr. If Protestants had saints he would be one of them, and I am convinced that he saved America from itself and allowed it to begin to live out the full implications of its own demanding creed. I am second to no one in my regard for Dr. King’s heroic accomplishments, of which I and all other Americans are beneficiaries. Having said that, however, I still find the day, with its celebrations, problematic.
Peter Gomes goes on to wonder “if what we thought was a movement turn[s] out to be only a moment.”

He writes that
“the problem is not with the civil rights movement…but that we are reminded of how far removed we are from those great events. How much remains to be done, and how little will there is to do it.”
He continues:
“How na├»ve it seems now, to imagine that there was a moment within the lifetimes of many of us today when it was possible to think of redeeming social sin by moral courage, and to do so under the leadership of a Christian minister who believed that the gospel of Jesus Christ had social, moral, and political implications.”
For King, the
“end was not only the end of legal discrimination, but nothing less than the bringing of the principles of the kingdom of God into play in the life of America.” Pp. 161-163.
I tend to resonate with what Gomes is saying in his book while keeping in mind that in 48 hours America and the world will taste the fruit of the civil rights movement. We will witness the inauguration of the first African-American president. We need to enjoy and savor that precious fruit. It isn’t everyday we get to taste of it.

When King wrote his letter to white clergymen in 1963 from a Birmingham, Alabama jail, there were signs in restaurants and businesses that refused service to blacks. Blacks were denied the right to vote. Colored children were not welcome to newly constructed amusement parks. Segregation was the rule of the day and the church was silent. The church was offended by the demonstrations for equality. The church said it isn’t time yet.

It is hard to imagine that the church could have been so complacent in the face of such obvious injustice. Of course there were exceptions. There were congregations and clergy who marched. There were people of faith who took great risks and who handed over their own bodies for the bodies of others. But the exceptions proved the rule. Churches were largely indifferent or offended that their peace was disturbed.

It is hard to imagine the complacency of the church until we see that little has changed. Many folks today, that is white folks, are happy to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as long as we keep it to issues that are already settled. Few people openly advocate today for segregation in schools or that African-Americans should ride in the rear of buses. Those issues are yesterday’s issues.

If King’s birthday, and that for which he stood, is going to be acknowledged today, then we would do well to acknowledge the work that remains to be done. King and the gospel he proclaimed included civil rights but it didn’t end there.

He spoke and acted for economic justice.
He spoke and acted for peace and against the military industrial complex.
He spoke and acted against the wars we wage and the lies we invoke to wage them.
He spoke and acted for the rights of workers and for access to education and health care.
He spoke and acted against corporate greed that exploits our resources and wastes our planet for the profit of a few at the expense of the many.
He spoke and acted for the kingdom of God.

He didn’t invent this. He spoke and acted by drawing from the resources of our most cherished scriptural texts. He reminded good church folks that the Bibles they carry to worship and place prominently on their coffee tables contain both indictment and promise.

Our scriptural texts indict us, if we dare read them, for our complacency with injustice and our lack of moral courage and will. They promise us, if we dare hear it, with a way of life in which justice flows down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Justice not for some of us—but for all of us.

When King spoke and acted this way he was accused of meddling. He was accused of bringing politics into the pulpit. He was accused of being an extremist. In his letter from Birmingham Jail, he answered these accusations:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ."

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
It was extreme when King told America:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
In 48 hours we will taste that fruit of creative extremism. 50 years ago, the skin color of our nation’s new first family would have kept them from sleeping in motels. This week they will enjoy their first night in the White House.

We must not delude ourselves into thinking it was simply the passage of time that made for this new situation. It was due to the hard work of consciousness raising, of organization, of refusing to obey unjust laws, and thereby changing those laws, of speaking out, and of renouncing privilege.

King responded to his fellow clergy who told him it wasn’t time yet for justice. He was told he should wait for a better time. Justice will come in time, they told him. Be patient. King wrote:
Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
That was Martin Luther King writing to his fellow clergy from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.

I find myself amazed but not surprised how consistently those who are in positions of privilege have the nerve to tell those who are fighting for their rights and for their lives that they need to wait and to be patient. If those advocating patience had their rights denied and their lives threatened I doubt they would be offering the same platitudes.

This past week in Nashville, a hotel employee was fired for being gay. This happens all too often. Thirty states including Tennessee have no laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Usually this type of discrimination isn’t quite so blatant. Usually, some other reason is given. But in this case the owner stated clearly why this employee was losing his job. He didn’t do anything wrong. He was gay. That was enough.

Where is the church in all of this? With a few exceptions the church either encourages this kind of discrimination through a warped reading of the Bible or it is complicit in its silence. 

Don’t trouble us with those issues
 it says. Be patient.

Six years ago President Bush told America that he would put his best efforts to work for a just peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. But just let me take care of this little business in Iraq first. Be patient.

Time has not improved this situation. Patience has not been a virtue.

What time is it for sexual and gender minorities?
What time is it for all of the children of Abraham in the Middle East?
What time is it for the poorest in our country?
What time is it for our planet that is entrusted to our care?

I am hopeful about this new administration. It certainly is time for a new direction. But I am concerned for our new president. He has a long to-do list. If we do nothing but leave this list on his desk and ask him to take care of things for us, we will be in for some grave disappointments. His to-do list is our to-do list.

I am also concerned that the economic changes we are facing may cause us to put issues of social and environmental justice on the back burner. Bailing out the status quo will not move us toward a sustainable future. Now more than ever do we need creativity and collaboration. The lives of our great-great grandchildren not yet born are counting on us.

Martin Luther King’s vision was not limited to one issue. He proclaimed boldly a new vision for America and for humanity. White, black, gay, straight, Palestinian, Israeli, Christian, Muslim, religious, secularist, female, and male all make up what he called a beloved community.

It is false to think that we need to pit issues of justice against each other or that one has to wait for another. They all work together and must work together. I will give Martin Luther King the last word:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What Is Progressive Christianity? (1/11/09 Baptism of Lord)

What Is Progressive Christianity?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennesssee

January 11th, 2009
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Mark 1:4-11

Someone wrote on my blog this past week that she was going to be baptized this Sunday. I told her it was dangerous business. Look what happened to Jesus. I am serious. I told her that once you are baptized, truth, justice, compassion, peace (Jesus kind of stuff) will make demands on you and gnaw at your conscience until you are dead.

This is point eight of the eight points of progressive Christianity:

Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

That to me is a pretty good definition of baptism. You may have been baptized as a baby or as a teenager or even an adult. You can even join a community, and never think a thing about it.

That is until one day you are reminded that baptism has something to do with how you will live your life. It is just a sprinkle of water on the head. There is no compulsion.

But, you know.

When there is injustice in the world and you want to turn and look the other way, you know that you have been baptized.

When you are given the choice between deception and truth, you can choose the deception, but you will know.

Baptism is a reminder that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

There is a liturgical tradition that I haven’t had much luck in implementing. I think the flower industry is too powerful. This tradition relates to funerals. It involves placing a white pall over the casket and nothing else. No flowers, pictures, ribbons, or bows. The white pall is a symbol that one’s baptism is complete in death.

I realize that I won’t have much say in the matter. But if any of you are around when I am dead, and my remains are placed in some box, just drape it if you would with a white sheet. It will signify that I have finished making trouble, and that my baptism is complete.

I wanted to do a sermon today about progressive Christianity. However, the topic is too big. So I am going to break it up into a series of sermons. I want to talk about point eight of the eight points of progressive Christianity and how that relates to baptism.

On the bulletin you see that we are a Progressive Christian Community.

What does that mean? Progressive Christianity is gaining momentum. More and more communities are self-identifying as progressive. Hal Taussig, of the Jesus Seminar visited with us this past year. He wrote a book called A New Spiritual HomeProgressive Christianity at the Grass Roots. This book was the result of his quest to identify and describe progressive spiritual communities and their characteristics.

He found over 1000 in the United States. He found that these communities have five emphases. Not each community has all of them, but these five consistently surfaced. Here are the five:

1) Creative, expressive worship. This includes worship that is becoming less clergy focused and includes more congregational participation. This may include guided meditations, extended periods of silence, dance, sharing of joys and concerns, a variety of rituals and readings from other traditions including marginalized aspects of Christianity.

2) Intellectual curiosity. Progressive Christianity demonstrates an openness to new ideas and to scholarly research. You will find progressive congregations hosting book studies on the historical Jesus, feminist theology, early Christian communities, and so forth. These insights are used to inform worship and practice.

3) Gender-bended. Progressive congregations are specifically open and affirming to all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender-identity and proud that they have taken that step. They are also fully supportive of women in the full life of the church and include insights from the various feminist theologies including inclusive language for God.

4) Deep Ecumenicity. Progressive congregations do not view other religions as false. You will find in these churches study groups to learn and appreciate the insights of other religions, incorporating some of their prayers and rituals into worship. Some, for example, may include yoga meditation as a ministry of the congregation.

5) An emphasis on social justice, particularly, eco-justice. Progressive congregations have a deep concern for the environment as well as other social justice issues, speak of them, and advocate for changes in public policy.

One of the marks of progressive Christianity is that it is always in the process of discovering and rediscovering new and ancient ways of being in community. This can include taking traditional symbols and rituals, such as baptism, and finding in them contemporary meaning.

In two weeks, on the 25th, we will welcome new members into our community. On that Sunday, we will welcome two people through baptism. Others will join by reaffirmation of their baptism. They are at the point in their lives where they want to take this step on their journey.

If you are thinking about joining this community, let me know. I would be thrilled to meet with you and talk with you about this community and progressive Christianity in general.

In February, we will begin a confirmation class for youth who have been baptized as children or perhaps not yet baptized but are at the point of taking ownership for this baptism. At the end of this time of preparation, study, and fun, they will be able to make the choice to confirm their baptism and join this community as full members.

But I tell you, baptism is dangerous business.

It is not about assenting to creeds or to some sort of metaphysical philosophy. It is not a ticket to the afterlife or an expression of Christian superiority. None of that.

Baptism is first a sign that we are embraced and loved by God without conditions. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less. It is a sign of radical grace. The Divine Mystery that pervades the universe is within each of us. It is the humble recognition that before we know ourselves, we are known.

All religious traditions have a way of expressing that truth in some form. Baptism is the Christian way. It is not a symbol that separates us from other human beings, but connects us.    It is the Christian way of saying we all belong. We all belong to each other, regardless of our religion, ethnicity, politics, status, whatever. When I remember my baptism I remember that I am a brother to every human being. Likewise, every human being is my brother or sister.

Secondly, it is a sign to live into that radical grace. As the eighth point of progressive Christianity states, “…being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.”

As I noted on my blog to the woman who was being baptized this Sunday that once you are baptized, truth, justice, compassion, peace (Jesus kind of stuff) will make demands on you and gnaw at your conscience until you are dead.

Because of my baptism, I cannot look at the situation in Gaza and say it is not my problem. My baptism will not allow me to excuse myself from the violence by saying they are always fighting over there. I can’t get away with trite analogies or lame explanations that lay the blame on someone else. My baptism requires that I look into my own complicity. I have to ask to what extent do I as a citizen of the United States contribute to this situation of apartheid and the violence and injustice that apartheid inevitably produces? I must ask to what extent this apartheid contributes to my privilege.

While I cannot claim that my baptism gives me the answers, it compels me to ask the hard questions. My baptism calls me to seek and to speak the truth. More importantly, it calls me to hear the truth when I would rather find comfort in my illusions. Ultimately, it is a call to action. It is a call to incarnate in our own lives compassion, justice, peace, and love.

The Gospel of Mark reports an interesting exchange between Jesus and two of his disciples.  James and John thought that following Jesus meant big rewards in heaven. Here is the story:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

In the end we all follow our own path. Baptism is the invitation to travel lightly and to live authentically. It is a journey that we spend our lives taking and conclude at our death. We don’t take it for the promise of reward or for fear of punishment. We take it for love alone.

There is a wonderful story in the Muslim tradition about Rabi’a. Rabi’a was a Sufi mystic and poet and she lived about 100 years after Muhammad. She spoke against engaging in the spiritual quest out of either fear of punishment or promise of reward. According to one legend, she was walking with a vessel containing water in one hand and a vessel containing fire in the other. When asked why she was carrying fire and water she said: “With the fire I am going to burn paradise and with the water I am going to quench the fires of hell so that never again would anyone act out of anything other than pure love of God.”

That is what I think baptism is about. It is the sign of our life’s journey into God. I will close with one of her prayers. Let us pray:

"O God! 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.”

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Sympathetic Reading (1/4/09 Qur'an Sunday)

We are reading the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009. This is my first sermon of the new year that outlines the quest.

A Sympathetic Reading
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 4th, 2009

In the creation of the heavens and the earth,
In the cycle of night and day,
In ships that plough the sea, to humanity’s benefit,
In what God causes to descend from the sky of water,
Giving life to Earth, hitherto dead,
And peopling it with all manner of crawling creatures,
In varying the winds and clouds, which run their course
between sky and Earth—
In these are signs for people who reflect.
Qur’an 2:164

Last year, we read the Bible, cover to cover. This year, we are going to read the Qur’an. Actually, we are going to read interpretations of the Qur’an. For Muslims, the Qur’an is only the Qur’an when it is read in Arabic. We are going to read interpretations or meanings of the Qur’an.

Why? What is the purpose of this exercise?

It is what this congregation does. This is from our mission statement:

Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.

I have some of my own reasons.

First, I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding Muslim people, their religion, and their holy book. Islam, like Christianity, is being co-opted by extremists. The extreme voices in religion have become loud, shrill, oppressive, and in some cases, violent.

The extreme voices in religion advocate against science, against human rights, and for superstition.

Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. We also need to rescue the Qur’an from fundamentalism, both Christian and Islamic.

Hopefully, by becoming familiar with this text, we can better understand the complexity of this 14 hundred year old religion that has over one billion adherents worldwide, including adherents in our own neighborhood.

That brings me to the next reason. I am advocating becoming familiar with the Qur’an for the sake of being neighborly. The Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee has a mosque in Johnson City. I have had some e-mail exchanges with the leader of the mosque. I am looking forward to having our two faith communities have some kind of fellowship in the coming year.

Third, I am curious. I don’t know too much about Islam or the Qur’an. I took a course in seminary, but have forgotten much of what I learned. I have certainly studied the Bible enough, but not this book that has a close relationship to the Bible. Many of the characters are the same. There is more about Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Qur’an than in the New Testament.

Also, I am curious from a literary point of view. The Qur’an is a spiritual classic and that alone is reason to be familiar with it.

Fourth, I believe that the way to peace requires us to be sympathetic. I titled my sermon “A Sympathetic Reading.” That means a couple of things for me. To be sympathetic literally means to have a similar passion. When I read sympathetically, I am on the same side of what I am reading.

That is true whether I am reading a text or the story of a person’s life. To read sympathetically is to make the effort of appreciation, of honor, and of respect. That does not mean I agree with everything or that I do not read critically, but it means I read with an openness to hear something.

A sympathetic reading is one that expects that what I am reading will have something to say to me. In Chapter 7 verse 204 of the Qur’an, we find this verse:

"When the Qur'an is recited, listen to it and remain silent; perhaps you will be shown mercy." 7:204

Perhaps if we read with an open spirit and an open mind we may be blessed. The Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be the recitation of God to the prophet, Muhammed. If God has any realism for us, then to read the Qur’an sympathetically means to listen for the voice of God.

There is no reason to dismiss or accept the claim that the Qur’an is the Word of God any more than there is a reason to dismiss or accept the claim that the Bible or Jesus Christ is the Word of God. You can’t prove it either way. The reason we are gathered in a Christian church today is more than likely sociological than theological. If we were living in Indonesia, we would probably be Muslim.

The course I took in seminary was entitled “Christians and the Call to Islam” and it was about Christian-Muslim dialogue. The course was an introduction to Islam. But it was more than that. We learned about the history of the interaction between Muslims and Christians.

One of the figures I remembered from that study was Louis Massignon. He wanted Christians to read the Qur’an devotionally. His central concern was how Christians could appreciate Muhammed. Massignon was a mystic who had an “erotic love for the Divine.” He devoted his life to helping Christians discover Islam from within.

He was a fully Christian person--he became a priest in fact—yet he was completely at home with Islam. He died thinking he was a failure who no one understood. Yet his life experience and his commitment to understanding Muslims sympathetically influenced Vatican II and its openness toward Muslims.

His is the model I would like to follow. I am not interested in debating theology, nor in converting people. I am interested in the spirituality of it all and in finding ways to connect at that level. And I am interested in finding things we can do to work together for peace.

That is the sense in which I wish to give the Qur’an and my Muslim neighbors a sympathetic reading.

What about the Qur’an? To get us started. The Qur’an contains 114 chapters or surahs. They are ordered by length, longest to shortest. They are not chronological. They are not in the form of narratives like the gospels or the narrative portions of the Hebrew scriptures. They don’t tell about Muhammed’s life. They are similar in style to the Old Testament prophets. If you sit down and read Amos, you will find that God is pretty serious. That is kind of like the Qur’an.

You will find in there familiar characters from the Hebrew scriptures as well as Jesus. Muslims have a high regard for Jesus as a prophet but they believe that Christians exaggerated him. They have a point. It is an equally valid point to say that Muslims exaggerate the Qur’an.

That is what religion is, really, exaggeration—or a better word--metaphor. You have heard me preach now for three years. Probably you have recognized that my approach is metaphorical. A metaphor takes two things (one familiar and one unfamiliar) and links them.

God is Father is a metaphor. God is unfamiliar, father is familiar. God is mother. The earth is God’s body. Jesus is the word of God. The Qur’an is the word of God. Those are metaphors not descriptors. They say what is and at the same time say it is not. God is and is not father, and so on.

Metaphors evoke. Like a lightning strike, they offer a flash of insight, then are gone. A metaphor is not descriptive. Much of the frustration I have had with much of religion is when it hardens metaphors and parables into descriptions. Metaphors morph into dogmas and creeds and soon you are burning heretics and infidels at the stake.

I have no problem saying the Qur’an is the word of God and taking that quite seriously as a metaphor. I also have no problem saying Jesus is the second person of the Trinity as a metaphor. Metaphorical theology allows for contradictions, surprises, and odd combinations. The purpose is to open our senses to new relationships.

In the Qur’an, you will run across the phrase, “The People of the Book” that refers to Jews and to Christians. There is a guarded approach to the people of the book. They are both right and wrong from the Qur’an’s perspective. But the Qur’an regards them as brothers and sisters. There is a benefit of the doubt extended to Jews and to Christians that is not often expressed in the media.

The Qur’an is complex and ambiguous on many points. There is allowed great freedom of interpretation. As with the Bible, the rigidity comes from its interpreters.

The Qur’an is in the first person for the most part. God is speaking and often uses the royal we. It is repetitive and at times a little hard to read. God is pretty serious. But if you can read it sympathetically, you can find there some very important things.

Islam means among many things "to submit." It is an infinitive. One who submits to God is a Muslim. If you submit to God, you are a Muslim. Abraham is the first Muslim. According to the Qur’an, Abraham and his son Ismail set up the holy shrine at Mecca. You will read about this in the second surah or chapter. You will read about Ramadan, the importance of daily prayer facing Mecca, almsgiving, and making the hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime if you are able.

The Qur’an is all about monotheism. One God. It does not view polytheism favorably, nor what it refers to as the worship of idols. And of course, the Trinity makes no sense. It is an exaggeration.

When you read it, consider reading it out loud. There are websites that recite the Qur’an in Arabic. It would be good to memorize a few verses, perhaps the first chapter. This is recited five times a day when Muslims face Mecca to pray.

The sound is as much the message as the words. That is not an exaggeration. The sound itself conveys meaning. That is one reason why you only really can hear the Qur’an when you hear it in Arabic.

Guides to help in your quest. There are several English translations. I have about seven of them. I am taking this seriously! The most enjoyable is by Tarif Khalidi. It is called The Qur’an: A New Translation. Khalidi is a professor of Arabic at American University in Beirut. His translation is contemporary, lyrical, and from the reviews I have read, faithful to the content and the poetry of the Arabic.

A helpful book to go with it is The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson. Prof. Mattson teaches at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. She describes herself as “a Western academic who is also trying to live as a faithful Muslim.” Those two books would be a good start. You can find them on my blog, Qur’an and Jive.

On the blog and in the newsletter, I will post the readings for the month, different resources, and because I am just weird that way, a quiz for each month. We should try to make it fun.

I am going to close by being a bit philosophical.

I am not sure how or to what extent religion brings out the better natures of humankind or how or to what extent religion leads to violence and destruction. It has done both.

It seems to me that a sympathetic reading can go a long way toward peaceful relations. In the end we human beings are on the same side. We operate with different metaphors toward the mystery of life. If we can relate sympathetically with each other’s metaphors and stories perhaps we will see in one another a flash of insight to the truth and beauty of the universe that we may not have known without this encounter.

Let us read each others’ texts and stories and metaphors with a similar passion, with sympathy. In so doing let us give ourselves to the task of glimpsing the divine presence –or as the Qur’an invites us—to sell our soul for the pleasure of God.

“Among people is one who sells his soul seeking the pleasure of God. God is tender towards his worshippers.” 2:206

May it be so.