I had the wonderful experience of preaching last night at an interfaith service at a local retirement community called Sedgebrook. The group of 45-50 people was made up of Jews, Christians, and at least one Daoist. I’d never preached in this kind of setting and I was nervous about both holding true to my identity as a Christian and respecting the lived experiences and beliefs of the congregation. I hope I was able to do both.
The readings were from Genesis (part of the Joseph story), Psalm 133, Paul’s words about not judging others, and a Daoist reading. I hope to do it again soon. Here’s the sermon:
I want to thank Janna (Larsen, the Pastoral Ministries Manager at Sedgebrook) for inviting me to be a part of this worship service tonight, and to thank all of you for welcoming me into your house this evening. I have not preached at an interfaith service before, so this is exciting for me. When Janna and I were talking last week about what I might share tonight, she said it might be interesting to begin by answering the question, “Why would a Christian minister want to preach at an interfaith service?”
That’s actually a very good question, so I would start by answering it this way, which is also a bit of a disclaimer. I’m not here tonight as a Christian minister. That’s what I am, of course, but that’s not necessarily what defines me tonight. I teach a public speaking class at CLC, and on the first night of class I tell my students what I do for a living. If they weren’t nervous before, they sure are when I do that. So to set their mind at ease, I tell them, “Just because I’m a minister doesn’t mean you have to worry. I’m not trying to convert you and if you fail a speech you won’t go to Hell.”
I want to say something similar to you as a way of entering into our time together. I’m not here to convert anyone. Christians have done enough damage down through history in the name of faith; I don’t want to add to that ugly legacy. And the way I see it, if I should be trying to bring anyone into a life of faith, it shouldn’t be somebody who already has one. There are enough people out there who have no faith to keep all of us busy for awhile without going after each other. So I’m not here as a Christian minister; instead, I’m here as a child of God, the Creator, the Divine, looking to have a conversation with other children. I may not have any answers, but I sure do have a lot of questions, so maybe we can ask our questions together and see where that leads us.
I also need to give you some autobiographical data to help you understand where I’m coming from tonight and why being with you is exciting for me. I grew up in the Louisville, Ky., area, actually across the Ohio River in Southern Indiana. It’s an area know as “Kentuckiana,” which sounds a lot better than “Indyucky.” It pains me to let you know that organizations like the Ku Klux Klan are still alive and well in the area where I grew up, so you can imagine the kind of diversity that existed in my hometown. An interfaith marriage meant that the husband rooted for the University of Kentucky and the wife rooted for Indiana University. As far as I can remember there were no temples, no mosques, and anyone who wasn’t Caucasian and Christian kept a low profile.
So didn’t grow up with much of an understanding of other faiths. I went to seminary in Indianapolis and my horizons were broadened a little, but it wasn’t until I moved to this area that I truly began to understand the diversity of God’s creation. Talk about Joseph in Egypt! I came from a place where everyone pretty much looked and thought the same to North Shore Chicago, where within in our church family we have African-American, Chinese, Russian and Indian families, not to mention several interfaith marriages.
To paraphrase Joseph, I believe God sent me here. I’m still figuring out all the details, but I’m convinced that my being here is a part of God’s plan for me, and a part of that plan is to expanding my understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. Tonight’s Daoist reading is the first one I’ve ever heard, and it was beautiful – and, dare I say, had a lot in common with some things you would read in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. “Amidst the rush of worldly comings and goings, observe how endings become beginnings.” God says through the prophet Isaiah to the Israelites who were experiencing difficult endings, “Behold, I am doing a new thing!” As a Christian, my whole faith is based on an ending on a cross that became a beginning at the empty tomb.
There is so much more that unites us than there is that divides us, isn’t there? Through the clergy association I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a few local rabbis and to break bread with them on a few occasions. And you know what I discovered? They’re just like me, only Jewish! They struggle with raising their kids and leading their congregations and eating healthy in a hectic vocation. So many times our world wants to label people and lump them into a group so they can be demonized or ostracized. But when we connect with each other on a human level. We realize that we were created to be together, not apart.
That became clearer to me when I was thinking back on my seminary experience. One of the things I learned in seminary was how much of our Christian heritage is based upon Jewish understand. I mean, the first half of our primary textbook is Jewish! Unfortunately we tend to call it the “Old Testament,” as if it no longer has anything to contribute. But I think we could make the argument that just because something is “old” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to contribute.
I need to inject a bit more autobiography here for the direction I’m going to make sense. My original training was as a journalist and I developed both a love for language and a stubbornness for its correct use. I’m a card-carrying member of the grammar police. Most people have their favorite sports team or restaurant; I have my favorite punctuation mark (the semicolon). When I’m driving and I see a sign that says “Homegrown apple’s for sale,” with “apples” spelled “a-p-p-l-e-‘-s” I about run off the road. I could see someone emailing me, “Your sermons are the work of a two bit shyster,” and me responding, “How dare you write such a thing!! Don’t you know ‘two-bit’ should be hyphenated!?!”
The punctuation we choose to use is important. A panda walks into a restaurant, sits down and orders a sandwich. After he finishes eating the sandwich, the panda pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter, and then stands up to go. “Hey!” shouts the manager. “Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your sandwich!” The panda yells back at the manager, “Hey man, I am a PANDA! Look it up!” The manager opens his dictionary and sees the following definition for panda: “A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterized by distinct black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.”
How we choose to use our punctuation is important, and here’s where I’m going with this. In our seminary history classes, when talking about the development of our faith, we would refer to our “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Notice the very important punctuation mark here. The hyphen. That little slice of grammar heaven that holds things together. You may never think about this, but we if we called it our “Judeo/Christian heritage”? The slash divides and separates, the hyphen links and joins. It works for other alliances, like “Daoist-Christian” or “Islamic-Judaic.” It works for ethnicities, like “Italian-American.” Even married folks looking to hold onto both aspects of their identity do so by hyphenating their names.
So here’s the point I’d like to throw out to you. Whether or not you believe in the Devil, I’m going to use that name as a personification of evil and ask that you bear with me. The Devil is in the slash, but God is in the hyphen. There are folks, and some of them are religious folks, who want to put a slash between Jews and Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Daoists and everyone else who doesn’t believe what they believe. But didn’t our Christian scripture tonight say, “You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others.” God is not in the slash.
God is in the hyphen, and we are called to live in the hyphen. We are called to live in that place that holds us together. We don’t lose sight of who we are; the Italian-American is still Italian. But we also acknowledge that there are other ways of living and believing that connect us to each other, regardless of what we bring to the table. And even if I don’t believe what they believe, I respect them as believers.
Of course, this extends well beyond our religious connections. We were created as unique beings, and sometimes we get so caught up in that fact that we lose sight of our similarities. We divide along the lines of age, socioeconomic class, vocation, geographical location, and on and on. I dare say that if we looked at each other and first saw what unites us instead of what divides us, this world would be far different place, and one in which I’d feel a lot better about leaving to my children and their children.
The psalmist says, “Oh how good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity, for there the Lord has ordained the blessing.” That’s living in the hyphen, the blessed place of God. Amen.