Why Church? Summer Series
What About Other Religions?
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
July 23, 2023
Isaiah 58:6-12; John 4 (selected verses)
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
John 4 (selected verses)
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
One of my metaphors for God is that of a tremendous mountain. I like this metaphor because I am in awe of mountains in general, and because I personally feel at home anytime that I am on a wilderness trail.
I love hiking the tree covered mountains of North Georgia,and the rocky, scree-covered trails of the West. I enjoyed the Tuckerman Ravine trail up Mount Washington in New Hampshire, and the Wheeler Peak in New Mexico that departs from the Taos ski resort. Whether Stone Mountain or Kennesaw Mountain or the Grand Teton in Wyoming, mountains move me; they fascinate me; they challenge me; they get my blood pumping, quite literally, as I take one step after another up their slopes.
Though a mountain is an imperfect metaphor for God, I find the comparison helpful. On a mountain, I know my path. I can see the trail in front of me and the ecology around me. Sometimes the path is relatively easy; sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes the walking is smooth; sometimes there are steep hills to climb and boulder fields to cross. Often, there may be several very different paths that approach the same summit from different directions. Those other trails can be quite dissimilar, depending upon the geography.
One path might be up a gently sloping ridgeline, while another might take a more direct route, requiring the hiker to scramble up near vertical climbs. On any given mountain, some persons will venture off the path, seeking to find their own way, and, inevitably, a few will become lost.
Sometimes, you will come across hikers who have settled down for a snack and a nap, only halfway up the hill, content only to traverse so far. If God is like a huge mountain, then I claim to know my path fairly well. I was born onto my path. My trail is the only one I’ve fully experienced.
I realize that others were born on other pathways. They were raised in a very different environment on the other side of the mountain. Though their path is headed to the same summit, their trail is quite different from my own. I can speak with some measure of certainty about my path;
I cannot speak with too much certainty about the path of my distant brothers and sisters, who are walking their own journeys on the other side of the mountain. When it comes to that other person, that other pathway, that other understanding of God, I choose to follow the sage advice of the indomitable Ted Lasso: Be curious, not judgmental.
I am challenged and intrigued by theological conversations regarding the Holy Trinity, especially regarding the breadth of the activity of the Second Person of the Trinity.
John’s gospel begins: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The eternal logos of God, made incarnate, in the flesh, in Jesus of Nazareth was present and involved in creation, along with the Spirit, who moved over the watery chaos, calling forth order and life.
The eternal logos of God, the Word of God, was active long before the birth in Bethlehem. The Second Person of the Trinity was there as God spoke through the prophets of old, encouraging the pursuit of justice and righteousness, warning about the dangers of the worship of false gods and corrupt courts.
The eternal logos of God was there when Moses addressed the Egyptian Pharaoh, and cried out: let my people go!
And perhaps as a surprise to many Jews and Christians, the eternal logos of God was there with and for the Philistines, when they enjoyed their own exodus of sorts, and there with and for the Arameans, when they were delivered from Kir.
Walter Brueggemann enjoyed pulling out certain obscure texts for our consideration in his Old Testament theology class in seminary. Brueggeman reminded us of a number of subtexts within the larger story of Israel, subtexts that speak to God’s providence over all peoples, and not only God’s providence, but God’s compassion, God’s concern for the oppressed, God’s desire to deliver all people from unjust situations.
Amos 9:7 proclaims Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9:7)
The Holy Spirit blows where it will, as the gospel of John reminds us. God has always been at work in the world beyond the tribes of Israel, beyond the borders of the Church.
God delivered the Philistines and the Arameans, just as God delivered the Hebrews in the Exodus from Egypt.
God continues to be at work in those places and among those peoples where the name of Jesus is not known and has never been heard.
The Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal logos, the Word of God, is already present whenever some well-intentioned Christian mission personnel shows up. The Christian Church does not go and take Jesus to some remote shore. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, is already there at work.
Our task as Christians is to recognize the work that God is already doing. My dear friend and community leader, Rev. Dr. James Brewer Calvert, died this week. James served the First Christian Church, the one across from the Post Office on Ponce de Leon, for the past 25 years. He served faithfully and well.
He was beloved by his family, his congregation, and his community. His memorial service will be held on Saturday, August 5 at First Baptist Church, in order to accommodate the expected crowd.
Part of what made James Brewer-Calvert so likable was his big heart and his open mind. In 2011, James helped organize the tenth year of the 9/11 Remembrance. Members of our congregation gathered with nearly 400 other folks from Dekalb County in the convention center in downtown Decatur.
I ended up at a table with several gentlemen wearing large, impressive turbans on their heads. They were Sikhs, adherents to a religion which originated in the Punjab region of India. “Male Sikhs generally have Singh (‘lion’) as their last name… likewise, female Sikhs have Kaur (‘princess’) as their last name.
These unique last names were given to allow Sikhs to stand out and also as an act of defiance to India’s caste system, which the Sikhs always opposed. Sikhs strongly believe in the idea of sarbat da bhala (welfare of all) and are often seen on the frontline to provide humanitarian aid across the world.”
On that occasion, like many other occasions, I was glad for the work of James Brewer-Calvert. I was grateful for his open mind and big heart, for his commitment to gather people together across all potential barriers, to sit down and listen to one another, to learn about our similarities, as well as our differences.
Ben Johnson, former professor of evangelism and church growth at CTS, spent his life as an evangelical preacher and teacher, one who encouraged sharing the good news of Jesus.
Ben taught us that it is not up to Christians to save other people. Salvation is God’s terrain. It is not even up to Christians to convince other people, or to change minds. It is simply the holy and sacred task of Christians to be a witness to their own experience, to share what the love and grace of God has meant to them, to share what the love of fellow church members has meant to them in a troubled time, to share how a hymn or anthem or sermon spoke God’s grace to them in a time of need.
In his later years, Ben engaged more and more in dialogue with genuine people of other faiths, and he became even more curious about the work of God in their lives. In Ben’s retirement, he spent significant time learning about other faiths, and gathering people together in conversations that would build bridges across religions. I am grateful for God’s work in Ben’s life, gradually moving Ben from a more strident faith in his younger years to one fully open to discovering the work of God in other religions.
This is not to say that all religions are equal. This is not to say that the revelation that we have come to know in Jesus of Nazareth or that the Holy Scripture we have received is the same as what other religions have received.
I continue to believe that the incarnation of Jesus is a special, unique revelation of God. I continue to believe that the Old and New Testaments are not to be kept to ourselves, but to be shared throughout the world, for the edification and salvation of all souls. I also continue to believe that Christians and Jews have much to learn from the faith of others.
Some of you have Barbara Brown Taylor’s recent book, Finding God in the Faith of Others. The fault lines between Islam and Christianity in Sudan and South Sudan are dangerous, as witnessed in the split of South Sudan from Sudan just a few years ago.
Our mission coworkers, Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, will be at North Avenue Presbyterian Church this Thursday night, talking about the powder keg that is the nation of Sudan, talking about the powder keg that is present whenever political and military leaders use religion as a way of dividing and turning people against one another.
We need strong and faithful leaders in our world. In our faith communities, in our local politics, in our national conversations, we need leaders who will bring people together, rather than split them apart.
We need leaders who will hold their beliefs strongly, yet humbly, realizing that they only see part of the picture, one path up the mountain.
We need leaders who are genuinely curious about what they have not experienced, rather than judgmental, who will seek first to understand, before seeking to be understood.
Jesus did not automatically avoid or cancel the woman because she was a Samaritan. e engaged the woman in a theological conversation. Jesus did not immediately judge her life experiences, though he seemed to be aware of her circumstances. He did not judge why she came to the well at noon, when all the other women would have come earlier in the day.
Jesus did not see her simply as “that type of woman”, as some have suggested, or as a non-Jew. He saw her first and foremost as a child of God, a worshiper of God, a potential witness for him to her community.
As a result, many came to believe that God was at work in Jesus because of her testimony. In the passage that Phil Hathorn read earlier, the prophet Isaiah speaks about true worship, about the fast that God chooses. God is not necessarily pleased with sackcloth and ashes, nor fasting from foods, nor empty worship. God is interested in the condition of the poor of this world.
God is interested in justice for the oppressed.
God desires that family members not hide from one another, but seek reconciliation.
God desires that heavy burdens be removed from the afflicted, and that false or quick judgments not be allowed.
God is interested in the hungry having something to eat and the homeless having a safe place to sleep.
Whomever in the world is involved in these things, there you will find alignment with the purposes of God, whether or not they call God by the same name or worship God in the same manner.
Whomever has their heart in the right place and their hands engaged in God’s work, then that person is close to the will of God.
Some of you will remember that Mark Twain helped change the way that Americans view politics and religion. Twain was far ahead of his time in terms of issues like race and greed and consumption. Mark Twain was an irreligious sort who spoke often about hypocrisy. In his book, “The Gilded Age,” Twain spoke about the greed and consumption of Americans. What bothered Mark Twain about religion in general and Christianity in particular was the tendency of those in power, those who were standing to profit, to align themselves with corrupt community values that would help them maintain power and influence.
He said that religious people tend to use these values to draw barriers that shut others out who do not follow the same rules. Mark Twain was an encourager of travel, of experiencing different peoples and cultures, of being exposed to different religions and practices. He once wrote:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Jesus was supposed to see the woman at the well as an adversary. Everybody knew that. Everyone knew that Jews and Samaritans don’t get along. They don’t share things in common. Peter was supposed to see Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, as an enemy, as someone to be feared, as someone to be avoided, but Peter saw the Holy Spirit at work in Cornelius.
The Apostle Paul came across Lydia in Philippi, a female dealer in purple cloth, a woman of means, a woman who was in a different social class than many of the potential Christians in Philippi.
Paul didn’t see her as someone to be avoided, someone in a different class from himself. Paul saw her as a church builder and that is exactly what she became. In the desert, Philip came across an Ethiopian eunuch. Philip didn’t see him as someone to be avoided. He didn’t see him as someone disabled by his physical condition or his nationality. Philip saw that God-fearing eunuch as someone with whom to share the gospel, someone who could become a witness to another land.
Martin Luther King, Jr. saw Ghandi not simply as a strange foreigner from a different land. King saw him as someone from whom he could learn. King went to Ghandi and spent significant time with him in order to absorb from Ghandi the path of non-violent resistance. Together, those two men changed the course of history.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
If we want peace in our relationships, then we will seek first to understand, then be understood.
If we desire peace in our nation, we will engage other religions with curiosity, not quick judgments.
If we hope for peace in our world, we will collaborate with the persons of all nations who desire to live faithfully, who desire to seek justice for all.
To God be the glory as we dare to explore the many sides of God’s holy mountain.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church