Sunday, March 29, 2009

Islamic Call to Prayer

The Silence Beyond Idols: A Sermon

Here is today's sermon:

The Silence Beyond Idols
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
March 29th, 2009
Fifth Sunday In Lent
Surah 6:74-79

One thing I miss about Montana is the sky. It seems to stretch farther there than in most places. As it stretches the blue deepens in the day and the stars brighten at night. The sky stretched to its limits allows more stars to be seen. All of them loom larger and brighter than they do in most places.

I miss the Montana stars. I remember many nights lost in them. I wondered about them. The desire to somehow go to them was so strong that I often felt trapped on Earth. At other times I felt at peace. Amidst all the struggles of life and amidst all our limitations, the unlimited vastness of it all was in a sense, a comfort.

I think that I might have entered a career in theology because of the stars. While astronomy might be a more logical choice for a person who worries about the stars, I knew I couldn’t get there physically. Perhaps through theology I could get there metaphysically.

In any case, I have been acquainted with the night, a star gazer.

So I was delighted to find this story about Abraham contemplating the stars in the Qur’an. It is the story of Abraham’s spiritual awakening.

On one level, the story is a communication to the Prophet regarding the truth of monotheism over against the polytheism of his adversaries. The point of the story seems to be that Abraham, too, discovered the truth of monotheism as opposed to the polytheism of his time. In the Qur’an, Abraham tells his father, “"Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error."

In a similar way, Muhammad saw his father and his people in manifest error.

Monotheistic traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are suspicious of idols. To worship an idol is to mistake the created for the Creator. Theologian Paul Tillich talked about faith as the quest for the “ultimate concern.” In one of his dialogues, Tillich said:
“The object of ultimate concern has many names. And we call all what is not concerned with the truly ultimate — that is something finite but worshiped as ultimate — we call that idolatry.”
Tillich also adds:
“…the decisive thing is that even monotheism can be idolatrous, which means that the God of monotheism, the theistic god…can become an idol.”
We tend to worry about the speck in another’s eye, not seeing the beam in our own. I remember growing up and hearing and believing that Catholics were idol worshipers because they had statues of Mary and the saints and so forth. Likewise the many gods of the Hindu tradition were idols. I later realized that I misunderstood how those icons functioned. They were not idols. They were not ends in themselves but vehicles to the Mystery, the Ultimate Concern, beyond them.

We all make idols. We do this when we insist that our conception of God, our religion, our beliefs and so forth are ultimate. Spiritual awakening is the ongoing process of realizing that what we thought was ultimate is not ultimate. What we thought was permanent is temporary. What we thought was real is an illusion.

The story in the Qur’an of Abraham and the stars is larger than the movement from paganism or polytheism to monotheism, even though that may have been the historical situation in Muhammad’s time.

It is a story of spiritual awakening. It is a delightful story. Abraham is shown the stars and he says, “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, they are not it.” He contemplates the moon. “This is it!” Then he realizes, “No, this is not it.” He feels the warmth of the sun. “This is it!” Then, “No, this is not it.”

Finally, he declares: "For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to Allah."

In other words, he commits himself to the task of “setting his face” toward that which is Ultimate, not temporary. He will not allow himself be satisfied with confusing his temporary conception of God with God. Abraham is thus a hero. The quest of the hero is to discover the Mystery beyond all description of Mystery. Or as Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God.”

This story in the Qur’an echoes another story about Abraham. It is found in the Book of Jubilees which was written about 100 years or so before Jesus and 700 years before Muhammed. In this story, Abraham sits all night watching the stars to see if they can tell him anything about the coming year.

In his intense contemplation, the text says, “a word came into his heart.”

What a wonderful phrase. That is the experience of insight. A word came into his heart and he comes to a realization that he doesn’t need to worry about it. “All are in the hand of the Lord” he concludes.

We aren’t told what that word was that came into his heart. Both the story in Jubilees and the Qur’an are wisely silent about the content. We just read the effects of it upon Abraham. Touched by the Mystery beyond words, addressed by the Sacred Silence beyond all the noise, Abraham submits.

Like Job, who wrestles, questions and demands, and finally, (finally!), the Holy One addresses him from the whirlwind and refuses to answer Job’s questions. But Job, is satisfied.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;

Nothing else is needed. He is given that rare, fleeting, yet searing glimpse of the Mystery. Job, too, submits. “I repent in dust and ashes.”

As I read these stories of the heroes who stay up all night….

Abraham who contemplates the stars until morning...

Job who refuses to be satisfied by conventional answers to suffering…

Jacob who wrestles with the angel and refuses to loosen his grip…

Thomas who demands to see the marks in Jesus’ hands and side…

Muhammad who waits for years in the cave for the word…

Hagar with her son Ishmael, cast out into the wilderness….

Mary, in the stable with her newborn, who ponders all these things in her heart…

All receive a word, but not an answer to their specific questions.

They are confronted ultimately, I think, with the Holy Silence, the presence of Mystery beyond words, beyond answers, and beyond their idols.

They are heroes because they don’t dismiss their questions. They don’t give up in asking.

You and I, too, have many questions. Through our own personal struggles with illness, with uncertainty, with grief, with loneliness, with limitations, with idols…

May we too discover a word that comes into our hearts.

A word that is not an answer, but instead a Presence.

The Presence of the Holy in whom we live and move and have our being.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

April Reading

Tomorrow is Qur'an Sunday. The text will be Surah 6:74-79 where Abraham considers the stars, sun, and moon and realizes that God is beyond them all.

For April, read Surah's 6, 7, and 8. The following summaries are from Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an.

Surah 6 "The Cattle" is from the late Meccan period. "The nature of Allah and the method by which He reveals Himself are first expounded, and the weakness of Paganism is exposed." p. 293 It contains the story of Abraham considering the stars.

Surah 7 "The Heights" is similar to the Surah 6 in terms of chronology and argument, "...but it expounds the doctrine of revelation and man's spiritual history by illustrations from Adam onwards, through various Prophets, and the details of Moses' struggles, to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, in whom Allah's revelation is completed." p. 344

Surah 8 "The Booty" contains the lessons of the Battle of Badr and touches on "(1) the question of war booty; (2) the true virtues necessary for fighting the good fight: (3) victory against odds; (4) clemency and consideration for one's own and for others in the hour of victory." p. 413.

Recommended reading:
The Muslim Next Door: The Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali. (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2008).

Synopsis: "What if you could sit down at a kitchen table with an American Muslim mom and ask anything you wanted about her faith and religious practice? The Muslim Next Door clears away the misconceptions about Islam and why they flourish--media distortion, confusion about what is cultural rather than religious, the language barrier, and the old tall takes that still persist after thirteen centuries."

This is an excellent book that I read over vacation. She addresses the stereotypes, media images, and answers honestly and forthrightly questions that non-Muslims have about Islam. She concludes her book with this:
I live inside my religion because it is sensible, simple, and it teaches good things like forgiveness, generosity, tolerance, and compassion. I live in America because I believe it can be a nation of many faiths. As people of all religions have urged, it is time for genuine understanding and dialogue, not media hysteria and anti-Islamic racism. If we can separate the daily distortions from the reality, perhaps we can break out of that medieval framework of domination and hostility. Instead of working toward a "clash of civilizations," perhaps we can avoid a "clash of ignorances." (p. 247)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Of Plots and Schemes: A Sermon

Here is today's sermon. Jesus in the Qur'an and in the Gospels.

Of Plots and Schemes
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
March 1st, 2009
First Sunday of Lent

Mark 1:9-15
Sura 3:50-55

And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned,
and Allah too planned,
and the best of planners is Allah. Sura 3:54

In the novel, the Life of Pi by Yann Martel, the main character, Pi which is short for Piscene, is a young boy on a religious quest. As a teenager he decides to embrace Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Each of the religious leaders are pleased that he is so devoted to learning and practicing the faith.

Except of course, none of the religious leaders know that he is practicing all of them. Until one day he is found out. All three religious leaders meet Pi and his parents on the street. Here is what happens from Pi’s perspective:
Alas, the sense of community that a common faith brings to a people spelled trouble for me. In time, my religious doings went from the notice of those to whom it didn’t matter and only amused, to that of those to whom it did matter—and they were not amused.

“What is your son doing going to temple?” asked the priest.

“Your son was seen in church crossing himself,” said the imam.

“Your son has gone Muslim,” said the pandit.

Yes, it was all forcefully brought to the attention of my bemused parents. You see, they didn’t know. They didn’t know that I was a practising Hindu, Christian and Muslim.
The conversation that develops represents religion at its most divisive and superficial.
After the “Hellos” and the “Good days”, there was an awkward silence. The priest broke it when he said, with pride in his voice, “Piscine is a good Christian boy. I hope to see him join our choir soon.”

My parents, the pandit and the imam looked surprised.

“You must be mistaken. He’s a good Muslim boy. He comes without fail to Friday prayer, and his knowledge of the Holy Qur’an is coming along nicely.” So said the imam.

My parents, the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.

The pandit spoke. “You’re both wrong. He’s a good Hindu boy. I see him all the time at the temple coming for darshan and performing puja.”

My parents, the imam and the priest looked astounded.

“There is no mistake,” said the priest. “I know this boy. He is Piscine Molitor Patel and he’s a Christian.”

“I know him too, and I tell you he’s a Muslim,” asserted the imam.

“Nonsense!” cried the pandit. “Piscine was born a Hindu, lives a Hindu and will die a Hindu!”

The three wise men stared at each other, breathless and disbelieving.

Lord, avert their eyes from me, I whispered in my soul.

All eyes fell upon me.

“Piscine, can this be true?” asked the imam earnestly. “Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods.”

“And Muslims have many wives,” responded the pandit.

The priest looked askance at both of them. “Piscine,” he nearly whispered, “there is salvation only in Jesus.”

“Balderdash! Christians know nothing about religion,” said the pandit.

“They strayed long ago from God’s path,” said the imam.

“Where’s God in your religion?” snapped the priest. “You don’t have a single miracle to show for it. What kind of religion is that, without miracles?”
And on and on it goes with each religious leader insulting the others’ religion by piling on the stereotypes and simplifications.

According to Pi:
It was hard to tell whose face was more inflamed. It looked as if they might come to blows.
But they all agree on one thing. Pi cannot practice all three religions. He cannot be a Muslim, a Christian, and a Hindu. He must choose. Pi says:
A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.

“Hmmm, Piscine?” Mother nudged me. “How do you feel about the question?”

“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
It is with that mixture of amusement, sympathy, and sadness that we recognize ourselves in the character of Piscene. He just wants to love God. His heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, his idealism for and his embrace of the beauty and truth to which our religions point crashes into the stone wall of intolerance. He meets the real world in which religions represent not a search for truth but instead reveal our fearful tribalism.

Lest we think these religious squabbles occur only in only fiction, I point out a letter in the Kingsport Times-News this past week. It is one of a number of letters regarding the Qur’an and Islam. In it the author, a Christian, writes:
In reference to the letter from Dr K.J. Awan, he states all good things are in Islam, and all evil is rejected by Islam. Re. demanding a woman cover herself from head to toe, just so men will not lust after them or decide to rape them, why don’t men practice self-control? Brainwashing young men and women to murder women and children, even their own people, with the foolishness of getting 72 virgins when they get to heaven. Do the women get 72 male virgins? Forcing Islam on people just because you have control of them. Saying Christ is not the son of God. And anyone that says he is, is committing an unforgivable sin, and also committing the worst crime, even more so than murder, rape, or any crime.

I have read the Koran. I got only fear, indifference, and uncertainty out of it. Jesus Christ said to watch out for false prophets.
The author here could be one of the religious leaders in the Life of Pi.

The letter and others received many comments. Another letter followed, in which the author, presumably a Muslim, wrote:
In reference to columns…and letters…my suggestion to all parties is to take a breather and relax. Let’s act like responsible adults….

….When I discuss Islam with someone, I do not recommend he read the Koran right away. Even some Muslims have interpreted it incorrectly. Therefore, it is unfair to expect a novice to comprehend it accurately.

The Koran is a marvel like no other. Millions study it and find guidance because it is the book of guidance. Others read it and get lost. Intention is extremely important. We find in it what we look for. There is certain etiquette and some prerequisites for receiving guidance from the Koran. Without them, one cannot benefit from it.
I thought that second letter was pretty good. Especially the line,
“Intention is extremely important. We find in it what we look for.”
I know I need to ask myself when I read the Qur’an or the Bible for that matter, what is my intention? Where is my heart? If my intention or my heart is in finding fault, strengthening my prejudice, or demonstrating the text’s inadequacies, I will find plenty there to justify my presuppositions.

But if the intention of my heart, like Piscene’s, is to love God, I may find depth, richness, and an invitation to embrace my better self.

I chose two stories for reflection today, one from the Qur’an and one from the Gospels. Both are stories about Jesus. The Gospel story is the story of the temptation in the wilderness. In it, Jesus’ heart is tested. What will be the intent of his life? He passes each test because he seeks honesty. He seeks purity of heart and a right intention. We can read into this story our own stories.

A pure intention or a pure heart is not easy or obvious. It requires self-examination, self-reflection, and brutal honesty. Biblical scholar, Robert Funk, said that if there is such as thing as original sin it is the innate capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.

We calculate and we plan. We plot and scheme. We justify our actions and we present a mask of ourselves to others. Religion, at its best, invites us to look behind the mask, to examine our heart. This is the heart that only God knows and sees.

This verse from the Qur’an reading caught my eye:
And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah.
The Qur’an reading presents Jesus and his disciples as Muslims. That does not refer to the Muslim religion as such, but to those who submit to God—those with purity of heart, of right intention.

The text shows that those who seek right intention will meet with opposition. This opposition comes from without and from within.

In the novel, Life of Pi, Piscene has right intention, “I just want to love God.” Yet his intention is met with opposition from those who don’t understand, who define religion in terms of cultural practices and narrow religious rules and beliefs. These are the unbelievers. These are the ones who substitute the outward forms of religion for the true heart of religion.

But the “unbelievers” are not only others. We, too, are the unbelievers as well. We, too, plot and plan and deceive, ultimately, ourselves.

In the gospels we find the plea: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Amidst all the planning and the plotting, the hope is that we will discover that right intention and purity of heart is its own reward.

Behind our masks we seek ourselves. There we find the image of God. It takes courage to engage in that search. It takes honesty and trust. The fruit of religion at its most sublime is that the right intention, the purity of heart, is the source of joy and peace.

Amidst our planning, we trust that Allah is planning as well.
And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah.
Piscene will have to find his own path. And we will have to find our own paths. Beyond (or perhaps through) the outward forms of religious belief and practice, may we find its heart and in its heart, ours.

As the hymn says:

Jesus walked this lonesome valley.
He had to walk it by Himself;
O, nobody else could walk it for Him,
He had to walk it by Himself.

We must walk this lonesome valley,
We have to walk it by ourselves;
O, nobody else can walk it for us,
We have to walk it by ourselves