The Christian blogosphere has been all atwitter lately over the National Cathedral’s welcome of an Islamic prayer service into their sacred space. Living here in DC as I do, I can say that Muslims praying in the cathedral will be neither the first non-Christian activity on the cathedral’s schedule nor will it be as a-religious as much of the silliness which transpires there (seriously, I was once forced to take a ‘Laughter Yoga’ class there).
True to form, my mentor and partner-in-crime, Dennis Perry, was well-ahead of the curve in showing Christian hospitality to our Muslim neighbors when their mosque was under renovation. Fidelity to Jesus, Dennis points out, involves much more than tribal allegiance to him. It requires us to embody his life and ministry, and when it comes how we should offer hospitality to our despised, feared neighbors Jesus even gives us a handy-dandy, black-and-white parable to abide: the
Our church welcomed our Muslim neighbors 4 years ago. It was not without controversy. Many church members got angry. Others left. Only one ever actually came to me to tell me they were upset.
In the end, in a denomination whose highest value is most often making members happy, we’re a stronger congregation for welcoming the stranger.
Here’s the sermon I wrote 4 years ago, the Sunday after the Friday we first welcomed our local mosque into our sacred multipurpose room. I preached that Sunday while Dennis sat in the middle of a firing line of questions between services.
As luck would have it, it’s this coming Sunday’s lectionary text.
Also, just for shits and giggle, here’s a bit the Daily Show did about our hospitality.
The Form of God’s Shalom – Matthew 25
A few years ago, before she graduated, I went with my wife, Ali, to a law school party. I hate parties. I avoid them. I go only begrudgingly and when I’m in them I’m tempted, like George Castanza from Seinfeld, to pretend I’m anything other than a minister- a marine biologist, say, or an architect. Nothing stops party conversations in their tracks like saying you’re a minister, and nothing provokes unwanted conversations like saying you’re a minister.
So, there I was at this party full of wannabe lawyers, gnawing like a beaver on celery sticks, desperately trying to keep conversation to superficial things when this Urban-Outfitted guy asked me what I did for a living. And because my wife was nearby I told him the truth.
Sure enough, the first thing he did was discretely move his wine glass behind his back. Then he copped an elitist air and said:
‘Well, I’m not religious, of course, but I do try to live a good life and help people when I can. Isn’t that what Christianity’s really all about?’
And I thought: ‘Wow, that’s really deep. Is that the fruit of years of philosophical searching? I should write that down. I don’t want to forget it. I might be able to use that in a sermon some day.’
Today’s scripture text from Matthew 25 seems like the perfect example of such do-good moralism.
One of the most obvious features of this judgment scene is what’s missing from it. When it comes to the sheep and the goats, there’s no mention of a confession of faith. There’s no mention of justification. Nothing is said here about forgiveness of sins or grace.
There’s nothing here about what we say or believe about Jesus. Many conclude from this text then that our beliefs, our doctrine, our faith are all incidental when compared to our deeds, that this parable shows us that what really matters is what we do, that one day we will be judged not on the strength or sincerity of our faith but on the presence of our good deeds to others.
The only problem with such an interpretation is that its an interpretation that doesn’t require Jesus; in fact, you can forget Jesus is the one telling the parable.
The suggestion that ‘doing good to others is really what it’s all about’ is hardly a novel concept. It’s not specifically Christian or even particularly religious.
There has to be more going on here.
Jesus and the disciples have just left the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus preached a series of woes against the faithless city. It was while they were there that the disciples couldn’t help but marvel over the impressive architecture of Herod’s temple mount.
And hearing their amazement, Jesus responds by predicting the complete destruction of every building they see, stone for stone.
Then Jesus leads them up to the Mt of Olives. When they get there, the disciples ask Jesus: When will temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of the coming age?
Rather then answer them directly, Jesus responds with a series of parables about what kind of people his People should be in order to anticipate the coming age.
And the setting for all of this is the Mt of Olives, the place where Jews believed God would begin to usher in the new age (Zechariah 14.1-5). Jesus predicts destruction, he takes them up to this mountain that’s loaded with symbolism- so why wouldn’t the disciples ask: ‘What will be the sign?’ That this is the setting for today’s scripture is key to understanding Jesus’ parable.
Because the setting is the place where Jews believed God would end this age, to read this parable rightly you have to go all the way back to the very beginning of scripture.
Every year I spend the first three weeks of our confirmation program drilling into the confirmands’ heads that harmony was God’s intention from the very beginning. Harmony with creation, with one another, with Father, Son and Spirit.
Sometimes we spend so much time praising God for dying for our sins we forget that Sin was not in the first draft of God’s story. We forget that harmony was God’s original design, and we forget that harmony is God’s promise for a
The Hebrew word for that harmony is ‘shalom,’ a word the New Testament translates as ‘peace.’ But it’s not just a sentiment or a feeling of tranquility. It’s restoration. Throughout scripture God’s judgment is against those who work against shalom.
Shalom is not just an abstract theme of scripture; it takes tangible form in the Torah where God lays out Israel’s special charge to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the poor- whether they’re on the inside of community or the outside of the community because, as Leviticus says, ‘they’re just like you’ (19).
Implied in the Jewish Law is the reality that the stranger and the widow and the orphan and the poor lack an advocate in this world. They are a sign of what’s broken in creation; therefore, God intervenes for them by calling Israel to labor with him in establishing God’s shalom.
This partnership between God and God’s People- this is how God puts creation back together again. This is what the Old Testament is about. Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to model shalom for us. Until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the shalom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.
The works of mercy listed in Jesus’ parable- they’re not just a simple list of good deeds.
It’s a summary of what God’s shalom looks like.
This parable isn’t a superficial reminder to do good to others. It’s a description of Israel’s vocation, a vocation taken on by and made flesh in Jesus Christ.
This parable is Jesus’ final teaching moment before his passion begins. By telling this parable here the Shepherd is passing his vocation on to his sheep. It’s the equivalent of the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says: ‘My shalom I give you.’
The point of this parable is not that we will be judged according to our good deeds per se. The point is that we will be judged by the extent to which we embody Christ’s life.
The point of this parable is not that our faith or beliefs in Jesus have nothing to do with how we will be judged. The point is we will be judged by the extent to which our faith in Christ has allowed us to conform our lives to his way of life which is the life God desired for all of us before Sin entered the world.
Ask yourself: who is it that welcomes the stranger, loves their enemy, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, brings good news to the prisoner?
This is a description of Jesus’ life.
The sheep are saved not because of their good deeds. The sheep are saved because they’ve dared to live the life that redeems the world. The sign of the new age that the disciples were asking about? The sign of that new age are a people bold enough to embody the life of Christ. That’s why Jesus tells this story.
Earlier this week a member of the congregation came to me, quite upset, and told me they couldn’t understand why we would allow for an Islamic congregation to hold their Friday Jummah prayer services here in our building.
‘How can we ask our youth to give their lives to Christ when we’re condoning the practice of another religion in our fellowship hall?’
It was an honest question. I don’t doubt the sincerity of it, and it was just one of many such questions I’ve received in the last few weeks.
Implicit in the question is the suggestion that by welcoming the Islamic congregation we are watering down our beliefs in Jesus when in fact I think it’s the opposite.
I believe Jesus Christ is God incarnate. I believe he’s the savior of the world. And because I believe that, I believe his way of life is the form of God’s shalom. And there is no better description of Jesus’ life than as the One who welcomes the stranger, love his enemies, cares for the outcast, heals the sick, and brings good news to the captives.
Do I believe the worlds’ religions are all just different paths to the same destination? No.
Do I believe Islam rightly understands the God of Abraham? No.
Do I believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father? Yes.
But when we say that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we don’t just mean our belief in Jesus is the only way to the Father.
We also mean Jesus’ way of life is the only way we get to the Father’s love.
That we would welcome Muslim strangers into our sacred space with no strings attached is not a reduction of what we believe about Jesus (or a betrayal); it is, I think, the fullest possible expression of what we believe about Jesus.
This isn’t just a relevant question for our congregation. As globalism and secularism spread, the question for the Church in the future is: how do we as Christians engage the stranger?
We do so as Christ, who regarded the stranger as neither darkness nor danger.
Today’s scripture is Jesus‘ final teaching moment before the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel- where Jesus sends out the apostles to make disciples of all nations. What that means, I think, is that the necessary condition for evangelism, the necessary condition for sharing our faith, is the presence of a People who embody the life of the One whom we wish to share with others.
Fundamentally, you can’t share a message about the One who welcomed strangers and loved enemies and forgave sin and conquered the power of Death in a hostile, suspicious or fearful way.
The manner in which we share our faith has to match the content of our message. Otherwise we’re practicing an ideology and not the ministry of Jesus.
There are irreconcilable differences with how Christians, Muslims, and Jews worship the God of Abraham. Secular culture tries to tell us that those differences don’t really matter. Extremists try to tell us that those differences are worth killing over.
I believe what the Church has to offer the world right now is a gift we’ve already been given by Jesus. What we have to offer the world is a ministry that welcomes the stranger. What we have to offer the world is a community where there is no danger in the Other’s difference because welcome of the stranger is an attribute of God’s own life.
Let me make it plain:
Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant.
Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.
Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us.
Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one.
We do this because this is the form of God’s shalom. This is the labor Christ has given us. I recognize such labor at times can be painful, uncomfortable and difficult. But ask any mother- labor pains always come before new life.