“Our Common Ground.”Posted in Democracy, Religion, Sermons, Speeches
Delivered on the Occasion of the Governor of The State of Michigan’s First Annual Interfaith Service
January 10, 2002
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43: 18-19 I first want to congratulate Governor Jennifer Granholm for a well deserved victory as the new Governor of the State of Michigan. She has worked very hard and proven herself to be a caring and committed public servant. She is a woman of great gifts and noble character who brings a whole wealth of concern for all of the people of the great state of Michigan. We wish her well in her tenure as Governor and pray her strength as she serves.
I also commend Governor Granholm, her staff and members of the interfaith committee for having the vision to call the first interfaith worship service for people of all religious faiths in the State of Michigan. It is time for us to come together; to cement the things that unite us and surmount the things that divide us. Her theme of one people and one Michigan underscores the need for our coming together as one people. I want to thank Reverend Everett Jennings for hosting us today. I am especially humbled that you would invite a little known United Methodist minister like me to preach this service, especially when there are so many great and gifted men and women preachers in this state who are deserving of this honor.
The scripture for today’s sermon, found in the book of the great Prophet Isaiah shares a new vision rooted in the promises of God. It is a vision of a new Exodus. The prophet heralds a time of new beginnings where God is calling his people to new spiritual possibilities and responsibilities. Behold I will do something new. I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.
The Exodus tradition highlights the power of God to deliver his people from slavery to freedom; it is a tradition that delineates not only the sovereignty and mercy, compassion and justice of God for the oppressed, and in a larger metaphorical sense those living in various forms of spiritual, psychological and physical bondage, but it also accentuates the various pathways that God has chosen for their journey. They are pathways that he has chosen for them as their God; pathways where he has lead them and kept them and brought deliverance to them. They are not easy places; but roads that test us and try us and ultimately bring out the best in us as people of God. In the Exodus tradition, our sights are usually focused on the destination which is freedom, but even more important is the path taken to get there.
The prophet Isaiah, harking back to this great tradition, is well aware of these former pathways from bondage. God chartered one path through water from Egypt through the Red Sea. God chartered another path through the dry land of wilderness to the Promised Land and now a new path is revealed in this text; the desert. Through water and the Wilderness he has brought them and now through the desert he will bring them. Two different pathways; part of one long arduous Exodus journey through water; through wilderness and now a third way through the desert. Each path demands and exacts something different from its travelers. Each path is unique with its own set of challenges and opportunities. Each path is designed to bring the people out of themselves into a new awareness of God and thus themselves.
The prophet Isaiah who in his discourse uses both the framework and language of that exodus tradition, calls attention to this new pathway; this new corridor; this new thoroughfare through which God will lead his people and do a new thing and an even greater thing than before. “Forget the former things… behold I am doing a new thing… 1 am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” Will you not know it? Will you not be a part of it?”
The significance of this passage and the Exodus tradition lies not simply in the fact that God in his infinite power and capacity is able to sovereignly choose the pathways of deliverance for his people, but that each passageway, each journey gives the people of God a new opportunity to unite across boundaries and divisions that in the past have separated them and diffused their true strength. Sometimes God puts us out of one place into a new place so that in journeying we can discover the value of those with whom we travel.
It is there in the Exodus moment that they discover something greater about themselves and the God who orders their steps.
The journey is significant also because of the common ground that the people of God share with God and others as they journey. It is new ground. It is solid ground; it is desert ground filled with the gusting winds of unfamiliarity. It is strange ground, where fresh streams run through wastelands, where the unexpected and impossible can occur.
This journey; this new exodus onto new ground is significant for us because we are compelled to journey with those with whom we are familiar and those with whom we are estranged, and those that we do not really know and we journey under conditions of adversity, uncertainty, hardship and duress but also with hope and faith and raised expectations of what God will do for us as we travel this way.
It is a new way; a new thing; this way through the desert, holding infinite and magnanimous possibilities. It is God’s thing. It is new territory where God calls us to go where we would not otherwise go. It is beyond our comfort zones; beyond our sensibilities and sensitivities; beyond the tight little boxes we have created for ourselves. We are too narrow to chart it for ourselves so God must charter it for us.
The Exodus journey is a metaphor representing the opportunity to heighten our awareness of God’s power in our lives and to be shaped anew into something different. And as we are thus shaped we have the capacity to do something new in this world of ours.
It is in this context, of the journey, of the new pathway; of a new exodus through the desert where streams run through wastelands that I wish to speak to you today. It is a journey to which God beckons and calls us all as various faith communities. It is strange, mysterious, unchartered terrain; filled with the usual angst of a people unfamiliar and suspicious who are called out of themselves to do something new.
Thus I have not come today in this interfaith and intrafaith service to tread over ground that has been worn out through our often reckless and repeated treading. I have not come to argue doctrinal differences or to cite the peculiar theological, ideological or ethical nuances of our various religious faiths. I am not here to engage in long diatribes on the efficacy or viability of one religious viewpoint over another. I am not come here to recite the long and turbulent histories of clashes, conflicts and misunderstandings between our various religious traditions or to continue long standing and useless quarrels about the relevancy, verity or credence of one man’s religion over another’s. I am not here to defend my religion, offend others in the practice of their religion or to qualify, verify, justify my Christian viewpoint. I am not here to convert people of other faiths to my particular faith viewpoint. I am here as a messenger, heralding a la the prophet a new opportunity to go into new directions as religious leaders in our community and world.
I am here today to talk about forging a new path in the wasteland of the desert; the desert of hopeless, despair, and disunity; the desert of ignorance, bigotry and apathy; the desert of bickering, petty jealousy and envy; the desert of small mindedness and selfishness. God is calling us as faith communities to do something new, to forge new vistas through deserts and wastelands that require something more of us than what we have given in the past. We cannot do this new thing that God requires of us until we understand the things that we hold in common.
Today I want to talk about our common ground; the things we have in common; the things that unite us in a single garment of destiny as we face common problems in a world that we share in common.
The psalmist says, how wonderful it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity.
As members of various religious communities we have much in common. I wish to share twelve things and this list is not complete.
First, we are all people created by God. We are all human beings. We are all members of one race; the human race. We all laugh. We all cry. We all suffer and we all die. We breathe the same air and inhabit the same planet. We all have primary needs and wants. We all have the same biological functions. We all have the same morphology. We all have red blood, eyes, noses, mouths, hands and feet. We all put our pants, shoes and dresses on the same way, and in the words of John F. Kennedy, “We all cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal.”
We are human beings of different hues, backgrounds and religious persuasions. We have this in common. We can thank God for his great creative imagination in shaping and molding us all in his image. That God used a different color to paint on the canvass of creation my brothers and sisters who are black, white, brown, red or tan, is the creative gift and genius of God. He made us the same but chose different colors. If we are all made in the image of God and then I hate my brother or sister because he or she is white or brown or beige or black means that I hate God. I cannot say that I love God and hate what he has created especially when what he has created is in his image. I cannot say I love the creator and hate what he has created. The same is true for religions and cultures that are different. We are all part of one family; the human family whether some of us like it or not. The truth remains. Our differentiation in the scheme of creation is not between ourselves but from other aspects of creation. The Poet Tennyson says, “I am part of all that I have met.”
Second, we all believe in a higher, transcendent, divine reality, deity or over soul called God. We have many names for this Supreme Being and reality. His is known as Yahweh, Jehovah, Andonai, Elohim, Allah, Prajapati, God the Father, God the Son, Jesus, God the Holy Ghost. We believe in a sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God, supreme, divine reality who is Lord of the Universe. Buddhism affirms this higher reality as Nirvana while not confirming a specific deity. The great religions of the west, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are monotheistic, while some eastern religions are polytheistic. Whether it is one God or many Gods it is still God in the minds who practice their religion. Even in polytheistic systems there is usually a head god, one God; a chief God over the other Gods. Whatever the case, there is divine reality, higher, ethereal, sublime reality that is greater than man that under girds and informs mans our understanding of ourselves.
Third, we all use sacred Scriptures to interpret and instruct us in the ways of religion. The Torah, The Tankh, The Koran, The Bible, The Bhagavad Gitai The Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Atharva Vedai the Buddhist Dhammapada and so on. Most of us affirm the power and providence of the Theologos in the practice of our various religious belief systems. There may be variation in Buddhist thought but their scriptures nevertheless point to a higher way and existence.
Fourth, we all believe in the power and practice of prayer. Prayer changes things. We are called to engage in the discipline and exercise of prayer to heighten our spiritual awareness and to invoke the presence and power of God.
Fifth, we all identify ourselves as members of a faith community. The realization of the extant truths of our faith belief systems are actualized within community. Koinonia, Umma. There is power in communal solidarity; in the corporate realization and celebration of God. We are faith communities.
Sixth, we all observe and practice rituals, ceremonies and rites of worship. We all have holy days and other seasonal observances.
Seventh, we all have as part of our religious histories, messengers and teachers such as priests, prophets, rabbis, Imams, elders, sangas who proclaim and teach the central axioms of faith.
Eighth, we all have formed institutions that preserve the practice and integrity of our religious traditions; the synagogue, mosque, temple and church.
Ninth, we all believe in the practice of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and other acts of personal oblation and submission.
Tenth, we all have concerns for the poor and oppressed.
Eleventh, we all believe in moral goodness and a higher way. We all have ethical systems that guide our actions and beliefs.
Twelfth, we all have religious precepts and principles that are positive forces for self, communal and social and empowerment and transformation. Our religious faith is used to for the betterment of self and society.
These are simply a few of the things that we have in common as faith communities. These practices give particularity to our individual expressions of faiths but this new thing; this new path through the desert now compels our transcendence of them. There are things that we do and share in common that point to divine reality and connect us with each other. Our individual faiths are part of a larger faith conglomerate. Whatever our individual faiths say about God, God is still much greater than the sum of those individual expressions.
Moreover, the content of our religious belief systems have parallels and similarities. Christianity has traits of its parent Judaism. Pentecost, Baptism, the Ruach and Puema are closely akin; the Ruach Hakodesh in Messianic Judaism is equivalent to the Holy Spirit in Christian belief and practice. The Buddhist Eight Fold path has similarities to the Bea Attitudes of Jesus and the ten precepts of Buddhism are reminiscent of the Judaic Ten Commandments. Compare the teachings of Jesus who was a Jew to the teachings of the prophets and even some of the sayings of Muhammad. Is not Jesus recognized in Islam as a prophet? Aren’t Moses and Abraham cited in the Koran? Is not the name of Jesus mentioned more times in the Koran than Muhammad himself? Who do Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagahvad Gita resemble in the bible? Examine the content of these various religious faiths and you will see close parallels. Did not Mohandas K. Gandhi a Hindu use the teachings of Jesus as basis of his Satyagraha philosophy of non violence? Know that I am arguing for a consolidation of all these faiths where there are not distinctions. Invariably, there will be those who will misinterpret and misrepresent what I have said here. We can see and appreciate our common ground and celebrate are differences.
The tragedy has been that in our effort to preserve the beliefs and practices that have distinguished us as religious communities, we have virtually extinguished the bonds that really unite us. Thankfully, there are sojourners in this new Exodus from shame and ignorance who are making pathways in this desert by shattering the religious stereotypes and prejudices and uniting across lines of faith to unite.
For those who understand our common ground, we are appalled when media commentators ascribe exclusively the violence of terrorism to Islam. We know that in any faith there are extremists who perpetrate violence in the name of religion but the whole religion is not to blame. Anyone can use any religion for any purpose and claim membership but because they can claim it and name it does not mean they are what they profess to be. Rather than besmirching the entire religion of Islam, should we not help people to understand its true meaning? This is what builds unity and common ground.
Behold I will do something new. Will you not see it? Will you not know it? Will you not participate in it? Now is the time for something new in our land; the awakening of a new consciousness. Now is the time to travel new paths in the desert and make streams in our spiritual wasteland and recognize and celebrate our common ground as people of God.
The world cannot get better unless we come together. We must address not only the obstacles to interfaith unity and solidarity which exists between various religions but also intra faith divisions that keep the religions themselves polarized and divided; Protestant and Catholic, Baptist and Methodist; Orthodox and neo Orthodox; fundamental and progressive; traditional and charismatic; Pentecostal and Presbyterian; divisions that remind us of the things that we don’t have in common rather than the things that we do have in common.
As practitioners of our various religious faiths we have been taught that there are two primary ways of looking and seeing. We can look within ourselves and we can look beyond ourselves; beyond the immediacy and particularities of our local condition. Beyond the “me, my, I and here.” As practitioners of faith we should master the art of seeing things not as we are but as they are. We have been taught, some of us, to look beyond ourselves to God; to a higher reality; to develop a spiritual consciousness that compels us to see and surmount; to extend ourselves far beyond our little postage stamp corner of the world. We have been trained to look into the eternal; to grasp the impossible; to put on the mind of God, the lenses of God and to glimpse eternity. We are to do the improbable, believer the impossible and to go and to do the things that few would dare us to do.
As practitioners of our various religious faiths we have been spiritually trained and taught to see and expect and do what others cannot do. Have we lost sight of those traditions; those core beliefs that teach us to abide tradition and convention but also to transcend those aspects that cloud our seeing those with whom we truly have in common? When, then, having been so taught and trained can we not look with appreciation beyond our own places to see others in theirs?
We have traditions that make sense out of no sense; that make rough places plain and crooked paths straight. Strange, mind boggling, logic defying faith that affirms wealth in midst of scarcity, hope in the midst of hopelessness, joy in the midst of sorrow; beliefs which affirm the God of possibilities amid our human disabilities. The mandates and sacrandas the larger society have never given the final word on what is to be because we are a people of faith. We are faith communities. We walk by faith and not by sight. When the world is reeling in hell we hold out the possibilities of heaven and we should begin with ourselves, where we are.
We must recognize and build on our common ground. Where are the voices of interfaith? The world watches us as we engage in our various forms of religious narcissism, our pietistic holier than “thou ness” and the” I am better than you ness” and isolate ourselves into various camps. While we argue over our differences the world is going to hell. When we isolate and insulate ourselves from each other and engage in petty accusations and recriminations, we allow the real enemy who is the evil one to have his way. Our struggle should not be for religious hegemony, but to give God glory and honor as God gives us love and power and to serve his people with gladness, hope and dignity.
Do we inspire unity in the world through our religious isolationism? Do we not know who the real enemy is? Do we know that evil is not endemic to a particular place? We all fight against the same evil, but it is the evil within that is hard to fight. It is time for us to come together to affirm our common ground as people of God everywhere and to confirm our common aims as faith communities united. When we heal our divisions, all walls can be laid down and made into bridges. Behold I will do something new!
Can’t I respect and love you and affirm you even if you are a Jew, A Muslim, A Hindu, A Sikh, A Buddhist, a Taoist, A Confucianist, A Shintoist or practice native spirituality or African Traditional Religions or even a theistic? Can I dwell with you in unity even if you don’t believe that Jesus is Lord? And can’t you love respect and affirm me even though I am Christian? Can we respect our viewpoints and appreciate our viewpoints and hear our viewpoints and learn from our viewpoints, and celebrate our viewpoints because they are so beautifully similar and wonderfully different?
Can we not be comfortable enough and confident enough in our own points of view that we do not have to cast aspersions on others because they believe differently? Can I co-exist with someone with a different religion without being compelled to convert him to my viewpoint or devalue or denigrate him as unworthy of the love and grace of God? Have I not matured in my own religious beliefs to the point where I can appreciate others with different points of view without having my own religious world rocked to shambles?
Do I not have enough confidence in the God that I serve that I can go anywhere at anytime with anyone without feeling threatened that I will lose my God? But how can I accept your faith when I cannot accept the “you” who is a person; the “you” who was before your faith; the “you’ who is simply a child of God?
In a world that is reeling and racked with anxiety, trouble, hardship, bloodshed and the madness of internecine violence and war, where the venom of hatred is poured out like so many gallons on milk, where people go hungry and children are turned away from soup kitchens at the tune of 84,000 during the thanksgiving season in New York alone, we cannot afford to travel the same paths of isolation and indifference. We cannot afford to sequester ourselves. We live in a global community. The vision of the world is transnational, exceeding our local boundaries. Why can’t we do the same in our sharing of faith with each other? We must speak and stand not only as individual faith communities but as collective faith communities, with one mind, one heart and one voice.
Behold 1 am will do something new. Now it springs up. Will you not know it? Will you not perceive it? Will you not participate in it? 1 will make a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.
I will make a new path for you to travel oh my people. I will make new streams through the wasteland; the wasteland of indifference, and complacency; the wasteland of apathy and antipathy; the wasteland where hope seldom springs at all let alone eternal. I am making a new way for people of all faiths through the waste land; the wasteland of war and hatred, bloodshed and strife; the wasteland of religious intolerance and bigotry; the wasteland of narrow mindedness and lukewarmness; the wasteland of racism, sexism, ageism and other “isms.”
I will make a new way says our God; the God who is within our faith and beyond that faith. God says you are either on my way or in my way. Look beyond yourself, look around yourself and see what I am doing and join me in this new Exodus.
We are a common people who share common ground and our common aim should be to use our individual faith expressions as a witness to God’s hope and to use our faiths as an instrument for peace and justice in our world. It is not enough to contemplate the stars when our world is going to hell. It is not enough to shelter ourselves from each other because the content and practices of our religions differ. It is not enough to lament our condition without doing something about it.
We have religious faiths that have common ground. We have more in common than we do in difference. The memories of our conflicts with each other must be put aside. We need rapprochement, repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness. We are all God’s people sharing a common earth. We must do all that we can to come together to make the world a better place. If we don’t model unity and peace with one another how can the world expect unity and peace God’s way?
We must not only recognize and celebrate our common ground but develop common aims where we establish more opportunities for interfaith and intra-faith dialogue. Such dialogue will help us to understand and know each other better. Some groups have been doing this for years. We affirm our common ground by establishing unity conferences in which we deal with critical issues of ultimate concern.
We affirm our common ground by engaging in projects of an interfaith nature that will help make us and the world a better place in which to live.
We affirm our common ground by recognizing the right of other religions to exist and to move beyond our differences to make our communities better communities, our state a better state and our nation and world better places in which to live.
God is calling us to this new exodus. Behold I will do something new. We must be part of the new Exodus; the new journey into something new and greater. Behold I will do something new. Now it springs up will you not know it? Will you not perceive it? Will you not allow it? Will you not participate in it? Will you not support it? Will you not endorse it? Will you not affirm it?
I will make streams in the desert. …. I will bring gain out of loss, victory out of defeat. I will create a new heaven and a new earth. Behold I will do something new. Now is the time for something new. Now is the time. Let us celebrate and affirm our common ground as a common people of God!
I once met a man who asked, “What religion are you?”
I said, “Christian.” He said, “Me too!”
He said, “What branch?” I said, “Protestant.” He said, “Me too! “
He said, “What denomination?” I said, “Methodist.” He said, “Me too.”
He said, “What type?” I said, “United.” He said, “Me too.”
He said, “What school?” I said, “Wesleyan.” He said, “Me too. “
He said, “What news?” I said, “Good News.” He said, “Me too. “
He said, “What Ghost? I said, “Holy Ghost.” He said, “Me too. “
He said, “What Jurisdiction?” I said, “North Central.” He said,
He said, “What state?” I said, “Michigan.” He said, “Me too.”
He said, “What conference?” I said, “Detroit.” He said, “Get away from me you heretic!”