I want today to be a celebration of something truly special and remarkable. Today concludes six wonderful years together as the Living Interfaith Church. In September we will come together to begin our seventh year. But while today will still very much be a celebration, the truth of it is – we don’t live in a bubble. Much has happened over the last few weeks and months. We cannot, should not and must not ignore it. So before we begin to celebrate, I’d like to share with you some thoughts.
It’s often said, and the saying attributed to any number of people from Confucius to Eleanor Roosevelt, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. But too often, I feel this is misinterpreted to mean don’t curse the darkness: ignore it. Pretend it’s not there. Lighting a candle, actually lighting a candle involves more than intent. It involves action. It requires follow through. I believe that to refrain from cursing the darkness is not enough. We are called to action. We are called to light a candle. That, for me, is a big part of what we’re about. Candle lighting: both literally and metaphorically.
There is so much wrong in the world … yet here we are. There is so much darkness that the path ahead is truly daunting … yet here we are. So yes, today … even as we recognize so much hurt, we will celebrate. We celebrate that we have chosen to come together. We celebrate that we refuse simply to curse the darkness. We are Interfaithers. We light candles.
While there is much we could talk about, you should see earlier drafts of this sermon, as an Interfaither what I’d most like us to consider this morning before we settle down to celebrate is how the murderer in Orlando has been described. I am no longer surprised, but still am deeply saddened and disturbed by the way so many in politics and the media and even from the pulpit have sought and still seek to characterize the slaughter of forty-nine human beings. “Radical Islam.” I thank the president for not using those words. But too many others have.
What I’d like us to ponder this morning is how effortlessly our country’s fear of “other” has taken hold of so many. Intriguingly, our irrational fear of the LGBTQ community took a back seat. They became “us”, and our fear of that community subordinate, however briefly, to our irrational fear of Islam. “Radical” Islam.
Let’s light a candle to see just how irrational this is. Let us examine, if we would wish to use today’s language, the very successful attempt to establish not that long ago Christian “caliphates,” if you will, within the United States – particularly but not exclusively in the South. Governors, state legislatures, mayors, city councils and chiefs of police in so many places were members of the KKK – a racist, white supremacist group that claimed to draw its legitimacy as a Christian organization. They, with their burning crosses and horrific lynchings, were the upholders, or so they believed, of “true” Christian ideals. Yet even as the country roused itself to fight the KKK, no one, to my knowledge, ever claimed that they were “radicalized Christians” – that any Christian, anywhere, might be radicalized and become a cross-burning, African-American lynching racist. No one suggested that we needed to watch the entirety of the Christian community for signs of radicalization.
And to be clear, there was no reason to. I don’t think members of the KKK were or are radicalized Christians any more than the bigoted, desperately alienated followers of those who call themselves “Islamic State” are radicalized Muslims – despite their waving a Bible or the Qur’an when spouting their hatred.
Today, the KKK is far less powerful. But it hasn’t disappeared – nor has Christian Identity, an organizations of white Christian racists. Yet to my knowledge, no one has, as another example, referred to the mass murderer in Charleston last year as a radicalized Christian – but rather, and rightly so, a mentally unbalanced racist. Nor was he the first. I was reminded of this especially this last Tuesday, which marked the anniversary of three civil rights workers murdered by a city if not state run by the KKK in the name of Christian purity. I still remember the horrible day I learned that the bodies of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were at last discovered, confirming the nightmare I so many others had feared.
So what’s my point? What I hope we can take from this morning are a few candles we can use to light the way for others see that the term “radical Islam” to explain terrorist acts is as intolerant and intolerable as using “radical Christianity” to explain terrorist acts.
But enough about darkness. Let us together celebrate some light. Indeed, let us celebrate six glorious years of light.
Literally just the other day I had the joy of explaining what we’re about. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i, Pagan, Secular Humanist, New Age, Interested but Doubting … all coming together not to convert or convince, but to share. Here we create safe sacred space, without fearing we will need to defend our beliefs, and without attacking someone else’s beliefs. We share, to learn from each other about the multitude of paths that can, can lead us to lives of love and compassion. We when say all of good will are welcome we do not mean “tolerated.” We mean welcome and respected.
There’s that old saying, I’m sure you’ve heard it at least 4628 times, “Can’t see the forest for the trees. There’s a reason we hear it so often. It’s because it’s so true. But as I’ve been pondering it lately, I think the opposite is also true: “Can’t see the trees for the forest.”
Humanity nourishes a great forest of spiritual trees. Some shoot straight up into the sky. Some are hugely broad. Some trees provide fruit. Some trees provide nuts. But you can’t stop there, because pear trees will not produce oranges. Pecan trees will not produce walnuts. Maples do not produce fruit or nuts, but where would our waffles be without them?! So when we can’t see the individual trees for the forest, think of how much we miss.
And even more so from an Interfaith perspective, think of what we miss when can’t see the branches of the tree.
Today, it is most particularly obvious when it comes to Islam. And it’s hardly an intellectual exercise. Think of how much damage U.S. policy has wrought in the Middle East because our leaders had no clue about two of the largest branches of the tree of Islam: the Sunni and Shia branches – nor are they the only branches. And, of course, it’s not just Islam.
When I was a kid, I was well aware of the many branches that comprised the tree of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox. But still, it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I learned of another branch of my own spiritual tree – the branch of the Reconstructionist.
And yet, uh … hate to admit this … despite knowing of so many differing branches of Judaism, and shaking my head when people talked of “the Jews” as if we were all the same, I was a sheltered kid and even when I was in college and meeting for the first time lots and lots of Christians, I simply thought of them as Christians. I couldn’t see the branches for the tree. I didn’t begin to see them until I had graduated.
One of the things we do here, and I hope will do it more and more in our seventh year, is share not only the differing trees of our wonderfully diverse spiritual forest, but also look at some of the branches. They’re different! They grow differently! And as we do this, I hope and trust we will always be able to keep in mind that there is no one “right” branch to a tree!! Just as there is no one “right” tree in the forest.
Perhaps, in the future, we will think of our varying services as “nature walks”. What Interfaith invites of us is to take frequent strolls through our diverse spiritual forest, without pausing to exclaim, “Oh! That’s the right tree cut all the others down.” And without exclaiming as we look at a particular tree that attracts us, “Oh! That’s the right branch, hack all the others off!”
Now that doesn’t mean we won’t find a favorite tree. That’s fine. That’s reasonable. That’s … human. But may we always remember that however much we like a particular tree, a healthy forest has a diversity of trees. And the branches grow as they will.
So today, as we celebrate six glorious years, and at this moment as we sing our final hymn “We Would Be One,” may we always remember that we seek to be one not in the sense of all alike. We would be one in recognizing, respecting and celebrating our diversity. We are one, even as we are men and women. We are one, even as we are gay and straight. We are one, even as our colors differ, even as our spiritual trees come from different parts of the forest, even as our branches are from differing parts of the self-same tree. Still, we would be one. … Indeed, we are one. That, my dear friends, is worth celebrating. And there are goodies for that purpose just outside the door.