“One God, Three Faiths” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, June 25, 2017 titled “One God, Three Faiths” by the Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.

So much violence in the name of God.  People want to blame religion and say we would be better off without any, but God is not to blame for the ills of this world.  It is a classic case of taking God’s name in vain.  And today’s text shows us how and why.

One of the most ancient Christian communities, the Coptic people of Egypt have been under attack by Islamic extremists who want all Christians out of Egypt.  The Copts date back to the first century and comprise about 10% of the population.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-semitic incidents in the United States, including vandalism, bomb threats, and even physical assault, rose by more than 86% between 2015 and 2016.  College campuses are especially a hotbed of such activity.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a 44% rise in anti-Muslim attacks between 2015 and 2016, and the rate continues to climb.  At particular risk are Muslim women who wear the hijab in public.

All over the world violence is perpetrated in the name of Allah, most of it towards other Muslims.

As usual, Baptists disagree about the relationship between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  You will hear some terrible anti-semitic slander against Jews and Muslims from Baptist people.  But it may surprise you that the majority of Baptists – even conservative Baptists – insist on respecting the religious liberty of Jews and Muslims and protecting their civil liberties.  That’s because Baptists believe faith must be freely pursued to be genuine faith.  And Baptists remember a time when we were a persecuted religious minority in England and its American colonies.

And of course Baptists disagree with each other.  That’s what Baptists do because we honor dissent as an act of conscience.  Sometimes that leads to splits within churches or within denominations.  Theology matters.  What we believe about God affects the way we behave towards one another.  But Baptists are not the only religious group who disagree with one another and divide into various groups.  Every religion, every major group in every religion, is subdivided into arguing factions.  That’s what people do.

From time to time I am invited to represent what Christians believe in interreligious dialogue events.  It’s impossible, of course, because all Christians agree on almost nothing. That’s true of Jews and Muslims, too, who are divided into almost as many different groups as Christians.  That means one Muslim group does not represent all Muslims any more than the President of the Southern Baptist convention represents us.  Blaming all Christians or all Jews or all Muslims for the beliefs and actions of a fundamentalist few is not only ignorant, but dangerous, and a betrayal of our Baptist ideals.

I’m not an expert on every iteration of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, but I do know in all three faiths, violence in the name of God is a betrayal of core values.  We are the three monotheistic human traditions.  We stem from a common spiritual ancestor.  How did we get to this place of such deep enmity towards one another?

It all begins with this story we are hearing from Genesis today.  Christians and Jews share this sacred story.  It doesn’t appear in the Koran, but different versions are known in other ancient Islamic writings.  All these stories are surprisingly honest about the flaws of our ancestors, but this story reads like some kind of modern soap opera.

Sarah is childless, a humiliation in that day always blamed on the woman.  Sarah has an Egyptian slave named Hagar. The Islamic telling identifies her as an Egyptian princess.

To save face and start a family, in Genesis 16 Sarah brings Hagar to Abraham as a kind of surrogate mother.  Hagar’s child can be raised as Abraham and Sarah’s heir.  It’s Sarah’s idea!  Abraham adds Hagar to his wives, and she gets pregnant, which leads her to smirk at Sarah, who gets jealous and beats Hagar.  Hagar runs away, but an angel of the Lord calls her back, promising she will be the mother of a great people.

‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
(“The Lord Hears”)
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin
(Gen 16:11-12).

This is a Hebrew commentary on the Arab people, which nevertheless admits their founding as a great people is the work of the Lord.

Ishmael is fourteen when Isaac is born.  They grow up together.  Ishmael is Isaac’s big brother, and Abraham loves them both.

But Sarah is still jealous of Hagar, and when she overhears Ishmael laughing at Isaac, she fears for her child’s place and power and insists Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael.

Abraham is reluctant, but honors Sarah’s wishes, excusing his behavior by saying “God will take care of them.”  According to the Islamic version, Abraham takes them to Mecca.

And indeed, both the Bible and Islamic texts say God provides for them in the wilderness.  When their water runs out, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a tree and walks away, unable to bear seeing her son die.

In the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, worshippers march between two hilltops imitating Hagar’s desperate search for water.  Then they stop at the ancient well of ZimZam, where it’s said Ishmael dug the ground with his heel and the spring gushed forth, saving their lives. Again the sacred stories agree, God delivered Hagar and Ishmael in their distress and made a great people of them.

There are differences, of course.  These origin stories reflect the later experiences and relationships between these peoples.  The Bible insists God’s primary covenant is with Isaac.  Jewish traditions blame Hagar and Ishmael’s behavior for Abraham’s decision to exile them.  Islamic texts emphasize the cruelty of Sarah and the faithful obedience of Hagar and Ishmael.

The Islamic tradition even says Ishmael rather than Isaac was almost sacrificed by Abraham, emphasizing the obedience of both.  We’ll hear that story next week.

What do these ancient stories tell us of our three historic faiths and the relationship between them today?

First, they remind us we are all one family with common ancestors.  The Jews and Muslims are our brothers and sisters.  We stem from the loving care of one God.  We are one extended tribe.

Second they remind us that the problems between us are of our own making, and should not be blamed on God.  For all the inspired interpretation of these characters as models of spiritual perfection, they are a dysfunctional family.  They all behave badly!  We recognize the human fears, jealousies, competition for power, and intrigue, whether its in the blended family or the larger context of peoples, cultures, and nations.

We have evolved into many different peoples, cultures, and religious expressions.  All look to God, and use God to justify their actions, but God does not initiate the violence and division; people do.

Third, the stories, even in the biased sectarian forms we now have them, honestly admit that the one merciful God hears the prayers and cares for all the people involved in the story – and their descendants.  To put it sharply: division and hostility comes from people behaving badly.  Justice, peace, and coexistence comes from God.  Whose way should we follow?

Mainstream leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths have recognized the danger of this moment.  Hate and violence in the name of God is on the rise, but this is not from God.  The work of peace, of mutual understanding and mercy is the call of all three faiths, including ours.

That is why we seek good friendship with our neighbors at Hillel and the Nueces mosque.  That is why we hang a banner that says “We stand with our Muslim neighbors.”  That is why we participate in interfaith work with the synagogues and mosques of Austin.  That is why we oppose hate speech, laws targeting religious groups, and any form of violence against our Jewish and Islamic kin.  We are all part of one family, and we worship a God who cares for us all.

Can these three great faiths coexist?  Well, that is up to us.  We have to work within our own faith traditions to address the voices of fear and jealousy and rivalry for power.  We have to be intentional about forming friendship and living together in peace.  But you know it’s what God wants.

So let us begin by celebrating the grace we have received to be included as spiritual heirs of Abraham and Sarah, and reach out to our ancient family in Hagar and Ishmael.  And let us trust God to help us with our human flaws and grant help and mercy in our time of need.  Amen.  May we pray?

God of all, teach us to love as you love.  In a day of fear and hate and violence taking your name in vain, show us ways to take your name in peace and justice, to correct the misguided in our own Christian household and to build bonds of friendship with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors.  May the prince of Peace be our guide as we live and pray in the name of Christ.  Amen.


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