Fourth of July Sermon @ St. Timothy’s Chapel

St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel, Southern Cross, Montana, July 3, 2004.

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight. It was full of violence,” wrote the Genesis writer. “The LORD was grieved that he had made man and His heart was full of pain.” (Genesis 6, the story of Noah and the flood)

The question this morning is: “Do we share God’s grief and heartbreak over the violence of our time?”

Elie Wiesel, the great novelist survivor of the Holocaust, who died yesterday, was familiar with God’s anguish. In his book Four Hasidic Masters, he wrote a tribute to a famous Hassidic Jewish rabbi known affectionately as Rebbe Barukh:

The beauty of Rebbe Barukh is that he
could speak of faith not as opposed to
anguish but as part of it. “Faith and the
abyss are next to one another,” he told
his disciple. “I would even say: one
within the other. True faith lies beyond
questions; true faith comes after it has
been challenged.
[Elie Wiesel]

Today across the world there is more than enough anguish to go around to challenge faith. But only faith that has faced the questions, only a faith that understands that it is not apart from the anguish is truly faith.

This Fourth of July weekend is one of those times to reflect on who we are as Christians and Americans in a world that teeters next to the abyss of violence and nothingness.

One month ago today, June 3rd, Kay and I arrived in Paris. When we arrived at the apartment we’d rented through Vacation Rental by Owners, we were struck immediately by the bookcases lining the long hallway, the living room, dining room and bedroom walls. Some of the books stood out as particularly beautiful — whole sections of beautiful red leather-bound volumes with gold Arabic calligraphy on the bindings.

Among the books was tucked away an award recognition from the University of the Philippines in recognition of Abdelwahab Meddeb, Professsor, University of Paris, for his wise counsel and assistance in creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and peaceful discourse among the different religions of the people of the Philippines.

Little did we know when we had rented the apartment that we would be staying in the apartment of the Tunisian-born Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Paris and former Visiting Professor at Yale — a Sufi poet and novelist who had published 20 books in French, two of which had been translated into English: The Malady of Islam and Islam and the Challenge of Civilization.

We learned from his daughter that Professor Meddeb had died in March, 2014, two months after being diagnosed with stage four cancer, but his wisdom was everywhere in that lovely apartment. After 9/11 he had devoted his writing and lecturing to a Koranic critique of Islamist extremism and the violence rooted in a flawed reading of the Koran.

In a book published by his friends and colleagues following his death, a professor from the University of Albany wrote that Meddeb’s “moral stance was best expressed by the words of Ibn ‘Arabi:

“I believe in the religion of love; whatever direction its caravan may take — for love is my religion and faith.”

Back in the States, my friend Steve Shoemaker put me in touch with Jane Kuntz, Meddeb’s English translator for Islam and the Challenge of Civilization. Steve had interviewed her on “Keepin’ the Faith,” his weekly radio interview program on the University of Illinois Public Radio station. It’s a very small world!

His translator wrote to say how glad she was that we had been introduced to Abdelwahab, albeit too late, but that in one way it was perhaps a blessing that he had died before the ISIL attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris night club. “They would have broken his heart,” she said.”

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight. It was full of violence,” wrote the Genesis writer. “The LORD was grieved that he had made man and His heart was full of pain.”

________

Shift now to our first Saturday morning in Paris. We step outside the Meddebs’ apartment building to wait for an Uber.

Two French soldiers with machine guns across their chests are guarding the building next door. We wonder why they’re there — next to the professor’s apartment building.

I ask one of the soldiers. “Terrorism?” “Qui,” he says. “Jews.”

They’re guarding the synagogue.

A man walks by, ignoring us and talking loudly into the air. “Crazy man,” says the soldier. He points to the taser he will use on the crazy man if he becomes a nuisance or threat. It occurs to me that the whole world is no less crazy than the crazy man.

The French soldier’s English is much better than my French. He asks where I’m from. I tell him I’m from the United States. He asks where. I tell him Minnesota. He knows where Minnesota is in the U.S. “I like the U.S.A.,” he says, “Patriotic!”

I wonder what he has in mind. I wonder how a 20-something-year-old French soldier guarding a Jewish synagogue against a Islamist extremist terrorist attack in Paris next to the Islamic French professor’s home defines patriotism.

My mind flashes back home to my grandchildren in the U.S., wondering what kind of people they will become.

I wonder whether Jack, Mimi, and Ruby are they learning the faith that participates in the grief and pain of God over the world’s violence? Is their young faith the kind that is not opposed to anguish, but part of it? Does it sit next to the abyss? Will they grow into a faith that is mature because it has been challenged?

That likelihood is challenged by a fundamentalist alternative to that kind of faith near where they live in Kentucky.

A new theme park called Ark Encounter opens its gates to the public this Thursday, July 7.

Ark Encounter was developed by Answers in Genesis, the same faith-based for-profit corporation that developed The Creation Museum showing humans and dinosaurs living together on a planet that’s 6,000 years old, a kind of Disneyland for the biblically and scientifically illiterate. Answers in Genesis willfully disregards the Cro Magnon caves in France Kay and I visited — magnificent paintings by our human ancestors that date back 17,000 years — 11,000 years before Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum claim the planet was created.

If Jack, Mimi, and Ruby go the literalist routs of The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter, they might find himself like the little boy who asked whether Noah did a lot of fishing on the ark.

“No,” he said, “because they only had two worms!”

While my grandchildren’s friends are being bussed to see the young giraffes in Noah’s ark — “We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile-sized animals that weren’t fully grown yet,” said the head of the Ark Encounter project, “so there would be plenty of room.” I hope Jack, Mimi, and Ruby stay off the busses and learn to read the Bible literately, not literally.

More than one person’s faith has been destroyed by encounters that pit faith against reason.

Of equal concern on this Fourth of July weekend is the relation of church and state. The State of Kentucky has granted $18 million dollars in tax breaks to a religious theme park, a case still in the federal courts. Meanwhile, the State of Kentucky has already spent millions of tax-payers money expanding the entrance and exit ramps from the interstate to and from Ark Encounter.

The value of a secular republic here in the United States and in France where religious freedom is guarded by Constitutional guarantees against the establishment of any one religion over is in danger. The French soldiers were protecting a vulnerable religious minority as a way of exercising the French constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom.

The issue is not only in Paris, Kentucky, Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. It’s everywhere people read their sacred literature literally, calling for their own versions of jihad in God’s name instead of reading them the way they are meant to be read: literately. The text may be sacred literature but it is literature. It does not substitute for thoughtful inquiry that challenges it.
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight. It was full of violence,” wrote the Genesis writer. “The LORD was grieved that he had made man and His heart was full of pain.”

The question this morning is whether we share God’s grief and heartbreak over the violence of our time. Will we shrink faith to the size of certainty apart from God’s anguish, swallowing the camel of violence while straining a gnat, or will we join Jesus and the Professor from Paris in affirming the generosity and kindness which is true religion?

“I believe in the religion of love; whatever direction its caravan may take — for love is my religion and faith.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Guest Minister-in-Residence, St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel, Southern Cross, MT, July 3, 2016

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