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Jesus, Model of Interfaith Unity

Sermon - 12/05/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 15:1-13

The theme for this morning, for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, is "Peace Sunday". The lectionary text from the epistles (for this Peace Sunday) comes from Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 15, verses 1 through 13:

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. 3For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ 4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
   and sing praises to your name’;
10and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
11and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
   and let all the peoples praise him’;
12and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
   the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’

13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

[Note:  All photos shown below taken by Dan Bryant]

Friday after Thanksgiving, Mohamed Osman Mohamud dialed a number on his cell phone that was given to him that he thought would ignite the car bomb at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland. As we all know, it was a fake that had been provided to him by a sting operation of the FBI.

Many of you know Doug and Cathy Wirt, our regional ministers for Oregon. What you probably do not know is that their two sons and their girlfriends were present at the courthouse square for that annual lighting of the Christmas tree. A few days later when the media revealed that Mr. Mohamud worshipped at the mosque occasionally in Corvallis, an arsonist set fire to that mosque.

The next day, the Oregonian carried a picture of John Evans, the Pastor of our church in Corvallis (First Christian Church), with his arm around the Imam of that mosque.

And so Advent begins for us this year with all the drama, the tension, the apprehension so familiar elsewhere in the world, hitting much closer to home.

On Friday, chief Pete Kerns from the Eugene Police Department, and John and Debbie Pitney next door from First United Methodist Church, a representative of the Human Rights Commission, a member of the Synagogue, and I, went to the noon prayer service at the mosque here in Eugene. The Imam, a man I had not met before, very articulate and nice young man, gave a homily in Arabic and English, reflecting on these events. And telling the 30 or so members of the mosque there that it is their responsibility as Muslims to help correct the the misunderstandings of Islam and how it is portrayed so often in the media. And so the Imam will be speaking tonight at the Synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, on what he calls "Islam 101". You are all invited to that.

We were there as leaders in the community and from faith groups to let them know that they are not alone. And my message to them was that here in Eugene we stand together as faith communities, and when one house of worship is attacked, all houses of worship are attacked.

And my message to you this morning, as strange as it may sound, is that I believe Jesus is our model for interfaith unity. So let me explain.

Romans 15 is the conclusive summary of Paul's weightiest epistle. He comes to the end of this most important letter written to the church in Rome and in essence says the gospel boils down to two things.

The first is that the strong have a responsibility to lift up the weak, as did Jesus. Who took on the insults, Paul says, or the burdens, of others. Now, as we debate how we're going to fix the growing federal deficit, it is clear to me from the perspective of this gospel, as well as just plain common sense, that those who have benefited most from the good years in our economy are the ones who must now bear the greatest responsibility in these lean years. And sadly, that does not appear to be the prevailing perspective of those directing the current conversations in Congress.

For the past six years, I've served on the Board of Directors of United Way of Lane County. Thursday evening was my final meeting on that Board. Priscilla Gould, Director of United Way, asked me and the other departing members to reflect on a the past six years that we've served on the Board, and what we see as our future challenges. George Russell, the Superintendent of 4J schools, was the other departing member who was present at that meeting and he shared his reflections.

Well, I'm a preacher :). And I know a bully pulpit when I see one. You remember the graphs I used a couple weeks ago to a reflect on the growing income inequality in this country? Well, I used those at that United Way Board meeting. I said to them, as good and as important as the work of United Way is, charity is not enough. It never will be enough. And if those trends of that growing wealth inequality are not reversed, we will become an oligarchy. And that will destroy democracy as we know it in this country. And our all-important charity work will be more of a hindrance than it will be a help.

Afterwards, I had two bank presidents come up to me. And I thought "uh oh" :). The first one with a very stern look on his face put a finger in my chest and said "You need to stay involved in our financial stability partnership". I said "Yes sir, yes sir" :).

The second one said to me: "I have to tell you", (really what it was is a confession), she said recently when asked what she does for a living, "I had to lie". She said because of the bad apples that have given the banking industry such a bad name because of the ways they haven't abused the system to their own advantage, when someone asked her, she said she was a "consultant". She didn't want to be associated with her own business. She said she finds it unacceptable today that so many CEOs are taking hundreds of times what the average salary is of their employees.

Well, one of the results of the growing inequality in this country will be inevitable class warfare. And anyone who knows their history knows that never ends well.

It's fitting therefore, that Paul ends this selection with an appeal for unity. Speaking with the strong and weak in mind, and especially with the responsibility of the strong to the weak, Paul urges those folks in Rome to live in harmony with one another. To not be divided by class, and by race, and by gender, and by nationality, and even, dare I say, by football allegiances :). Speaking of the strong versus the weak (Ducks beat the Beavers on the previous day :).

So that's the first half of Paul's summation of the gospel. Now, the second half is where I want to concentrate on.

Paul says, "welcome one another". But who does Paul have in mind, that is to be welcomed and and to do the welcoming? The citations that follow make it clear that Paul is thinking primarily of Jews and Gentiles. And once again, as in the first case of the strong and the weak, Paul uses Jesus as our model for this ministry of welcoming one another, and especially of welcoming those of different traditions and backgrounds.

Jesus came as a servant of the circumcised, he says (that is, the Jews), in order to show God's faithfulness and God's promises to the Jews. And then Paul cites four texts, two from the Psalms, one from Deuteronomy, and one from Isaiah. In other words, Paul is citing from the Torah, the Psalms, and the Prophets -- the three most important sources of Hebrew Scripture. Each chosen carefully, deliberately, purposefully, to show that the mission of Jesus was to and for not only Jews, but also the Gentiles, the nations, all of us.

To understand the full impact of this welcoming of the Gentiles by the Jews in the context of that world, we need to go to Rome. To see that world in its original context. Have I ever mentioned that I'm doing a pilgrimage tour of the world of Paul? Brochures are available in the back.



I want to take you to the oldest church that I've ever discovered in the world, in continuous use for 1,900 years almost. And that's the Pantheon, which of course was not built as a Christian church, but as a home for the primary Roman Gods. So that all of the major Gods could be included under one roof. It was converted to a church 500 years later, and has been in continuous use as such ever since.

 

If you want to understand one of the major reasons why Rome became such a powerful empire for so long, you need only to picture this building -- not as it is now, but as it was originally, with those various Gods all together under and roof.

 

Built, of course, by the Roman Emperor, who had, in essence, the one 'ring' to rule them all (you get my reference to Lord of the Rings there). And who especially from the time of Augustus onward (and never forget that Jesus was born under the reign of Augustus), who had figured out how to incorporate those foreign Gods of the conquered nations as a means to pacify foreign people. The ultimate political marriage, if you will -- one nation under Gods, with liberty and justice for all.

But there was, of course, one God missing from the Pantheon. And that, of course, was Yahweh.

 

And so the Jews were an anathema to the Roman empire. They never quite fit in. And for Paul and this new group of believers, there was a choice: they could side with the Gods of Caesar and be included in the Pantheon, OR, they could side with the God of Jesus and remain on the outside. Only Paul now invites all those other groups, united under the one house of Caesar, to join them under one house of Jesus. The church, the new Pantheon, where all those other Gods are replaced with just one -- God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And that vision of replacing an empire united by placing all national deities under one roof with a new kind of empire uniting all nations under one God has been enormously successful. And so we celebrate the global unity of the Church with names like World Communion Day, and our own Global Ministries. The great success of the church is precisely that it has brought together people of all nations.

And yet it has also come up short. Religious division and strife is as great today as ever, if not greater. And at times those divisions are literally killing us. And so Catholic theologian Hans Küng has said, as I've often cited, "There will be no peace along the world's people without peace among the world religions".

And so I propose to you that we see Jesus as the one who unites all nations as did Paul. The one who welcomes all people, who calls us to welcome another as did Jesus. We as followers of Jesus must be the peace we want for the world. The peace God wants for this world. To truly welcome all peoples, all nations, even all faiths.

And in today's context of our multiracial, multinational, interfaith world, such a ministry of welcoming one another means accepting each other's faith traditions as valid witnesses to the truth each has come to know through their scriptures, through their traditions, through their prophets, through their story of the divine reality.

And that means as Christians, it is time for us to end the spiritual warfare that has been too often the way that we have been known, the way we have been waging against other religious traditions, seeking to replace all religious beliefs with our own. For we cannot have peace among the world religions while seeking to make our religion the only one of the world, and teaching that our tradition is true and theirs is false.

And that does not mean that we accept all teachings and traditions as equally valid. But that we accept all traditions as legitimate witnesses to the truth each has experienced, even while we continue to proclaim the truth we have experienced and know in Christ Jesus.

Now, as many of you know, in October next year we will be celebrating 100 years of worship in this place, in this building. Doesn't quite compare to the Pantheon :), but it's something. In Eugene, we are the oldest congregation with continuous use of the same building. I find it most appropriate that we will be simultaneously celebrating on October 11th, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the Interface Service of prayer that is held here every month.

Now, I know our forefathers and foremothers, who sacrificed so much to build this beautiful building a hundred years ago, could never have imagined a day when this house of prayer would become a house of prayer for all people in the way that it has. Where Hindus, and Buddhists, and Muslims, and Jews, and Baha'i's, and Native Americans all come together to share together in prayer.

But they have found here a place, as I believe it should be, where they are welcomed in the name of Jesus.

And when we has Christians can also go to the mosque, as some of us did this past Friday, and be welcomed there in the name of Allah, when we can go to the Synagogue (as some will tonight) and he welcomed there in the name of Yahweh, when we can go to the Hindu temple and be welcomed there in the name of Shanti, when we can go to the Buddhist shrine and be welcomed there in the name of Buddha, then we will know God's reign of peace on earth as in heaven is coming indeed.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace and belief, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 


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