Presbyterians and other believers--we are not alone

Psalm 47:5-9, Acts 10:36-45, June 14, 2015

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination is about to take a significant, but little-noticed, step. We are about to adopt an amendment to the Book of Order called “Interreligious Stance.” Last month at the Presbytery meeting in Wisconsin Dells, we endorsed this statement unanimously: “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at all levels will be open to and will seek opportunities for respectful dialogue and mutual relationships with entities and persons from other religious traditions.”

I admit this statement doesn’t sound exciting, but it is very, very significant for Presbyterians and people of all faiths. In the United States society as a whole is becoming less religiously observant. Fewer people attend worship or practice a faith of any kind that informs their everyday life. And this trend is strongest among the youngest generations. We see this in our own congregation—the Sunday school is smaller than it was a decade ago, and families are stretched by activities that compete with faith practice more than ever before.

Coinciding with the decline on practice of faith is an increase in racial, ethnic and religious diversity, again, this is more pronounced among the younger generations.

These are facts that are changing Protestant congregations everywhere. We are living in a culture that is different from the one following World War II when congregations like this one we at their largest.

I need to be clear about this. There has always been religious diversity. I mean always. If you’ve ever been the lay reader on Pentecost, you know about religious diversity when the Christian church started—all those hard words “Cyrene, Cappadocia, Phrygia, Mesopotamia, Pamphylia—reflect the huge diversity of nation groups in first century Jerusalem.

And in the Old Testament, much of the action involves how Israel interacted with other nations, who followed other religions. Sometimes this interaction was war or exile; and sometimes Israel suffered enormously or individual Israelites suffered enormously for maintaining their faith.

Throughout history, believers of all kinds, have had to find ways to co-exist. This is nothing new.

And, when we consider the roots of our faith, roots we find in Judaism and what we refer to as “The Old Testament,” we find that we have always believed that there is one God who is Lord, or King, or Master, or Creator, of all things and nations. That’s what Psalm 47 says this morning. And there are lots and lots of other passages that point to one God, creator of the universe.

And there is another narrative going on, as well. This one God who created everything and everybody, also chose a particular nation, marking it as distinct, set apart, different. This kind of tension gets expressed today when religious intolerance often leads to confusion and even violence. Again, this is nothing new.

In this morning’s New Testament lesson Peter is giving one of the first sermons in Christian history, and to his and his fellow travelers surprise, the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured into Gentiles! God gave this gift to people we could not imagine receiving this gift. Peter and the other Christians were astounded! That’s a strong word. They were astounded that God’s love included people that they had kept themselves separated from. They were astounded that God’s love accepted, included and embraced people who were not like them!

The Presbyterian Church, in our thoughtful, thorough, reasoned tradition has produced a 9 page, with very small type statement on this topic. I’ll only hit some of the highlights this morning. I believe these highlights will offer guidance for all of us as we encounter an increasing number of believers of other faith traditions in our community.

First of all, we need to approach all people with an attitude of respect. We have not always respected people of other faiths. In the past our theology, the statement reminds us, has been self-serving. In the past we’ve looked at contact with believers of other faiths as ways to increase of numbers by winning converts, gaining new members, or to put it most crassly, getting more “giving units” to our budgets. Finally, we need to put aside what the document calls “triumphalist attitudes.” That is, we must not bring to our encounters with members of other faiths a presumption that Christianity is superior to other faiths. We need to be modest about our own beliefs.

Here’s how I understand that. I am 51 years old. As long as I can remember I have been Presbyterian. This faith tradition shapes my life, gives me meaning, purpose and direction. If that were not so, I would find a faith tradition that did provide me with those things. To put it simply, being Presbyterian works for me. And I have never been part of a different faith community.

When I meet believers of other faiths I find that they also participate in their faith in ways that enrich their lives and give them meaning, purpose and direction. Our respective traditions have many things in common, but they are different. Most of the believers I meet who proclaim other faiths have also been Jewish or Muslim or Quaker or BaHai’ all their lives. They have traditions that work for them.

Many of you know that I organize the annual Interfaith Festival of Gratitude. For the last five years on the night before Thanksgiving, as many as dozen faith traditions take the stage at the Grand Opera House and present something about themselves, and how they understand and express gratitude. It’s fascinating, rewarding and humbling to pull this event together. But I need to tell a story about how it has changed me.

After the first Interfaith Festival of Gratitude, I received a letter from a woman who is now a dear friend, Connie Schultz. She mailed a letter to me here at church, indicating that she had attended the festival and hoped that her tradition could be included in the future. I had never heard of her faith, which is called Eckankar. After the first of the year I met Connie for coffee.

Connie described her faith, which was completely unknown to me. She brought some literature and even a CD with information about her faith. And she shared that she had been Presbyterian, but found that her faith and her faith community had not been especially helpful when she was going through a very difficult time in her life. She found Eckankar, or Eckankar found her, and it really made a profound difference in her life. I could see the joy and peace in her face as she described her religion. It was beautiful, and I remember saying, spontaneously, “Praise God.” Now, as the only Presbyterian minister in town I was disappointed, but I was delighted for my friend. And yes, by our second cup of coffee we were friends.

After Connie and I became friends, I started hosting a monthly coffee meeting for faith leaders. One of the ways Presbyterians believe we build interfaith dialogue is by simply building relationships with other people. Often at the coffee meetings there will be six or seven different religions represented. Let me stress, that these are different religions. I count Lutherans, Methodist, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians as all part of one religions: Christianity. And what we share over coffee are common concerns and struggles and mutual hopes for the strength and stability of our community. Quakers want good schools as much as Muslims do, for example.

I have a colleague, the pastor of a Christian church in Oshkosh, who has never, and probably will never come to interfaith coffee. I asked him once when I met him in the grocery story. He asked, “What if they try to convert me?” and I replied, “That would be rude.” And then I thought for a moment and said, “And you shouldn’t try to convert them. Could you just drink coffee with some new people?”

He couldn’t.

Another part of the denomination’s statement says we should reject harmful stereotypes. Let me tell you where I encounter the most harmful stereotypes: email. I’ve got one email contact in particular who regularly forwards biased, mean, inaccurate and provocative messages about religions other than Christianity. Maybe you’ve got a “friend” like this too. Usually it’s best to ignore this sort of thing, but ignoring hate and ignorance is not very satisfying to me. So here’s what I’ve started to do, and you can do it too. I hit “reply” and write, “None of the ____ I know act like that.” Most often I fill that blank in with “Muslims” but it’s a generic response that you can use for “Viking fans” or “residents of Illinois” or “left-handed people.” I like this response because it does two things. First, it denies the stated message, and second, it implies that the sender really has no basis for making this hate-filled, slanderous claim in the first place.

Finally, the statement suggests some ways we can engage with other faiths in shared projects. In the same way Quakers and Muslims both want good schools; Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israel have a shared need to safe, potable water. And these groups live side-by-side, in a desert. I need to mention water this morning, because water is really, really important to Christians because of baptism. And you can think that all people have a common ancestor in Noah. [I needed to mention the Bible’s Noah, to see whether Mike & Nancy Noah’s is paying attention.]

Another shared project that has been in the news in the past year is the recognition that people of all faiths have a stake in and a history of, standing against violence and conflict. I am so proud when I see faith leaders of all kinds, at public demonstrations that we have seen in the past year in response to police conduct. This is societal issue, and as leaders in wanting to build a civil, orderly, safe society, church leaders need to stand together in addressing these problems.

The statement that the Presbytery endorsed unanimously last month concludes with these words:

We believe the Bible proclaims God’s love for all people, that Christ’s Great Commandment sets the standard for all of our relationships: “… ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, “… ‘love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt. 22:37, 39).

I believe that. And I expect you do too. Am