"Sheep of Other Folds",
August 24, 2008
These Summer Olympics have shown us again what a small world we live in, and that we must understand and live with people who are different from ourselves. The alternative is fear, mistrust, hate and war.
First of all, I want to take issue with the saying that religion is the cause of most wars. Scholars in world history often point to turf battles and power struggles; where is the boundary line, and who will rule? We see that in the hostilities between Russia and Georgia, Pakistan and India, Israel and Palestine, to mention a few.
Religion is often used as a weapon to justify war. There are parts of religions and holy scriptures which seem to justify war, but these scriptures must always be read in historical context. There is often a context of "new kid on the block" or a minority experience of discrimination, which then is often sadly repeated if the minority group becomes the majority group. The Jews were persecuted by the "nations" around them, the first Christians were persecuted by the Romans (and some leading Jews who kicked them out of synagogues), Muhammed and his followers were persecuted by the leading Meccans, and later were accused of ruthless expansion themselves as they gained power. Sikhs (an offshoot of Hindu faith) in my home town claim discrimination in job market, prejudice that may arise from the wearing of turbans. The minority group often needs to stand firm, to hold fast to their God and faith practices.
Again, I don't think it is the actual beliefs and creeds that fuel hostilities, but more the turf and leadership battles. For the IDEALS of the major religions are really very similar: peace, love of neighbor, justice toward the neighbor at the very least! All the religions have some form of the Golden Rule! (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and the counterpart: Don't do to others what you would not want done to you). One principle of good dialogue is to compare ideals to ideals and practices to practices. It is not fair to compare the horrific practices of Christian Crusaders with the ideals of the Jewish or Islamic faith for example.
Moving on to Christian ideals... in John 10:16, Jesus is talking about the ultimate vision of one fold, and one shepherd by saying that he has sheep not of this fold. It seems that the Roman Catholic church has, at least in the past, interpreted the "one fold" as one church with one set of practices that all must follow. The ecumenical and interfaith interpretation is that Jesus is talking more about One Shepherd, One God, One Way, and people with one loyalty, one attitude of humility, all seeking ... and it follows that people may seek and worship in different ways and different styles! ( I once was criticized by a fellow pastor for a prayer I wrote, in which the "You's" referred first to God the Creator, and then immediately to the Risen Christ. That may be confusing to some, but in my theology, since God and Christ are One in communion with each other, when I commune with God, I also commune with Christ!) Of course we have different language, and different emphases in our worship and prayer; we are each unique!
Jesus' "sheep of other folds" would obviously be of some other culture, other language, other faith background.
Jesus was the one who started the Gentile mission (mission to the non-Jewish nations,) to those others called Samaritans; Jesus was bold to cross boundaries and cultures and talk to the Samaritan woman at the well. He also lifts up the truly spiritual neighbor in the story of the Good Samaritan.
Speaking of the woman at the well, we remember Jesus saying the time will come when we will worship not in any particular city or mountain, but worship "in spirit and in truth." He mentions again the "Sprit of Truth" in this morning's second reading (John 16:12) as that Spirit that will lead us into all truth. William Barclay, that highly respected New Testament scholar from Scotland, reflects on this passage as follows: 1. that revelation is a progressive process (with children, we always start with basics, and add more nuances only as they are able to receive) and 2. that there is no end to revelation, that God's revelation is surely not limited solely to the Bible. Would God cease to speak in A.D. 120 when Bible was finished? Thank God our United Church of Christ talks about a "still speaking God." I also enjoy some tapes from time to time from "Sounds True" publishers. Cannot the Holy Spirit speak to us through our own intuition, experience and intellect also?
So we "dialogue" with our neighbors. Many Christian seminaries now offer courses in interfaith dialogue. Andover Newton now shares grounds and buildings with the Hebrew College and they teach a joint course every semester (one rabbi and one Christian professor). Rabbi Rose, Associate Dean at Hebrew College has said that what we need is humility. For "God is greater than any one tradition." A rabbi at a New York Seminary said recently: "Living in multi faith world is no longer the exception; it's the rule.... We need a theology of difference." And the late Krister Stendahl of Harvard Divinity School coined the phrase "Holy Envy" to speak of a helpful interfaith attitude.
Holy Envy goes beyond mere "tolerance." We speak so much today of diversity and tolerance (I'm on that city commission), yet tolerance can mean simply "putting up with!" Holy Envy means admiration, respect, even love of the other and learning from the other. Another scholar has coined a term for these times: Allophilia (from allo-other and philia-love). Too often we have allophobia, fear of the other.
Let me offer a few examples of Holy Envy, staring with our own faith (sometimes the severest criticisms are saved for those of our own faith, a form of sibling rivalry or intra-faith competition). Our Pentecostal Latin American friends have a Joy to their worship that is indeed enviable. Those trumpets and tambourines, and people singing and dancing with enthusiasm is amazing! Our Catholic and Orthodox friends, with images and icons (no, not idols, as we are tempted to say) allow the visual beauty of their statues and icons to draw the viewer into the deeper beauty and mystery of God! I admire and envy the silence of Quaker worship (and sneak at least 30 seconds of silence in our own!).
With regard to Judaism, we can marvel at their practices of feasts, the attunement to nature and the harvests. We can also envy the steadfast commitment to mitzvot, to the deeds of one's faith, to deeds that may be more important than creeds held (indeed the freedom to study, argue and debate about interpretations is a wonderful quality of synagogue experience.) You all can add more things you admire or envy about Jewish neighbors.
On briefly to the real "new kid on the block," Islam. At our summer interfaith workshop on Star Island, I found myself envious of the pastor who recalled her graduate school days, when she had Muslim friends, housemates, who were the "most loving, peaceful people" one could want to meet. I can envy the fact that most Muslims commit large portions of the Koran to memory; many can recite all of it! We have trouble getting our Sunday School to memorize 3-4 famous scriptures of the Bible. And let me share this wonderful teaching from the Koran (not sure we have anything quite so explicit): Let there be no compulsion in religion (2:257). To everyone have We given a law and a way... and if God had pleased, he would have made people of one religion. But he hath done otherwise... Unto God ye shall return, and he will tell you that concerning which ye disagree. (5:48)
In conclusion, like with the Summer Olympics we are watching, let us celebrate the things we have in common: aspirations of hope and courage, the striving for ideals. And then in our multi-cultural, multi-faith world which has sheep "from other folds," let us approach our neighbors with humility, with respectful dialogue. Valuing pluralism, we can hold onto our core essentials, our ultimate truth claims, as we dialogue with others. We can dig and seek deep in our own wells, while having some thirst quenched from the wells of others, and we can allow our own true colors to shine, while appreciating the beauty of the hues of others.
That is what sharing "testimony" is all about... not compulsion for you to have the same testimony, but what is my experience of God; what is yours? What is the gospel of Jesus Christ according to Ross, according to James, according to Michael, according to Susan, according to Joan, etc.
May we all learn from each other indeed as we share our experiences of God and Truth. Jesus said he had more to tell the disciples, but they could not bear it then. May the Holy Spirit, the "Spirit of Truth," indeed guide us all into the way of Truth. Amen.