Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

You Are the Light of the World

Preached by The Rev. Christine Whittaker

Matthew 5:13-16

The Reverend Christine Whittaker, Rector of St. Michael’s Church, Holliston, and a regular participant in the Muslim-Christian Dialogue sponsored by the Massachusetts Council of Churches and the Islamic Council of New England. She has recently returned from a three-month sabbatical focused on Muslim-Christian relations, which included worshiping at the Islamic Center in Wayland and travel in Ethiopia and Iran Her sermon will reflect on her experience as a professing Christian in a context where Islam and Christianity are often seen in conflict.

“You are the light of the world.”

Two images of light come to mind. The first is from my time in Ethiopia in March. It was five o’clock in the morning, the stars were still bright in the night sky, and I was standing at the women’s prayer place outside the gates of St. Mary of Tsion in the city of Aksum, birthplace of Ethiopian Christianity in the fourth century and site of what the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes is the Ark of the Covenant. The sound of chanting wafted through the darkness and all around me figures robed in white shammas began to move. I pulled my own shamma tight and lit the wax taper offered by my Ethiopian companion. The gates of the churchyard opened and the procession emerged – deacons and priests in gorgeously colored vestments, some carrying brocade parasols, others swinging sistrums and thuribles, and then the priest with the tabot, a replica of the ark, carried on his head. Everyone joined the procession and for an hour we walked the city’s streets, each carrying a candle and singing antiphonally the hymns written in the 6th century by Saint Yared. When the procession ended in the main square for readings and a sermon, there were close to a thousand people. The memory of that morning was with me in April when I gathered with some of you before dawn in the guest house garden and each of us, carrying a lit candle, joined the procession into this chapel for the Easter Vigil.

The other image is from Iran, which I also visited during my recent sabbatical. I was standing in the Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd, the desert city in central Iran that has been home to this ancient monotheistic faith for more than 2500 years. I watched as two magi in the inner sanctuary placed wood on the sacred fire and chanted ancient hymns. And my mind returned to the Easter vigil and the kindling of the new fire.

The focus of my sabbatical was Muslim-Christian relations, an interest that began with my first visit to the Middle East 25 years ago and increased with more visits during the last dozen years. I chose to visit Ethiopia because of its checkered history of relations between Christianity and Islam. When Muhammed’s followers suffered persecution in Mecca in the early days of Islam, the Ethiopian ruler provided safe haven to more than 80 Muslims, including members of Muhammed’s own family even though Muslim beliefs were regarded as heresy by Ethiopian Christians. Yet during many succeeding centuries, Christians and Muslims were engaged in bloody conflict in Ethiopia.

Iran was my other destination because I had previously visited only Sunni countries and had not seen much of Shi’ite Islam. In both Ethiopia and Iran, I found that I was meeting my own spiritual ancestors. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was well established before my Scottish forebears ever heard of Christ. It broke away from the rest of the church before Chalcedon and in many ways it probably demonstrates better than any other branch of the church the character of early Christianity – including the strong influence of Jewish worship, with singing and dancing before the ark, and worship on Saturday as well as Sunday. Traveling in Ethiopia I felt as though I was able to step through time barriers and experience our tradition anew. In the same way in Yazd, the liturgy at the fire temple reminded me of all that both Christianity and Islam have drawn from that early monotheistic faith.

Again and again in my sabbatical, there were moments of connection between Christianity and Islam. The gender separation that we in the West so often think of as peculiar to Islam is present in the Ethiopian Church. The white shammas worn by Ethiopian Christians reminded me not only of our unity in baptism but also of the homespun garments worn by every pilgrim making the hajj to Mecca . I was in Ethiopia during Lent and discovered that Lenten fasting in Ethiopia is more than our custom of giving up chocolate or coffee. Most Ethiopian Christians will not eat meat, fish, cheese or eggs during their 55 days of Lent. We ate a lot of vegetables! Even children take fasting seriously. When some children gathered around us as we ate a picnic lunch and we offered them some, they politely declined the cheese and eggs we had that day. The seriousness of this fasting brought to mind the Muslim fast of Ramadan. Another flash of connection came here at the monastery on Good Friday, as I made the prostrations in venerating the cross and realized that this was the same prostration I made to God at Friday prayers at the Islamic Center in Wayland, where I worshiped during the time I was at home during this sabbatical. In seeing and participating in these various aspects of Christian and Muslim observance, I understood more deeply that, as children of a common ancestor, Christians and Muslims are siblings; no wonder that the fights are so intense for it is a family quarrel.

The moments of connection, however, are only the first step in a journey to deeper understanding of how I as a professing Christian can relate to my Muslim sisters and brothers. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently said, interfaith dialogue should not be condemned to the “sterile and abstract task of … identifying a common core of beliefs” but should be about “finding the appropriate language in which difference can be talked about rather than used as an excuse for violent separation.” Nor is there real dialogue when the relation between the faiths is seen as one between a set of correct answers and several sets of incorrect ones.

What did I learn during my sabbatical? Like Elijah traveling to Sidon, I felt that God was calling me to go beyond the limits of my faith and culture to receive at the hands of foreigners. On many different occasions, I was touched by how warmly I was welcomed and included by people from whom I was separated by culture, race, economic resources and faith. In particular, I saw a very different aspect of Islam than the resurgent Islam that is so often the focus of attention in the Western media. My husband and I were welcomed at Mashad and Qom, the holiest Shi’ite shrines in Iran, and able to watch the astonishing outpouring of devotion from the thousands of pilgrims who visit there. Even at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, the young woman responsible for screening all visitors, when she heard I was from America, smiled broadly and said, “Welcome to our country!” Here at home, I was moved by Friday sermons at the Wayland mosque, with their recurring emphasis on respect for people of all faiths. I was impressed by the graciousness with which I was received as a visitor to the mosque and only hope that Muslim visitors to my parish would be received in as kindly a manner.

There were, in fact, times when I was embarrassed to be a Christian. On the way to an ancient monastery outside Aksum, we passed a church under construction which, like my own parish, was dedicated to St. Michael. I asked our guide about it. He told me that the site had been intended for a mosque but that local people had burned it down before completion and then the church had taken over the site. When I asked what had happened to plans for the mosque, he said that Muslims could worship in their homes.

In Iran, our itinerary in the city of Shiraz included a visit to the Episcopal Church noted for its Persian-style architecture. As we approached, our guide, a highly educated young woman, told us that whenever she had visited previously the sexton had insisted that as a Muslim she must remain outside. I was rendered speechless and was grateful to my husband for saying that if she was not welcome, then we did not wish to enter.

Aside from incidents such as these, what made the greatest impression on me was the way in which faith pervaded life in both Ethiopia and Iran. In contrast to the secularism of most of western Europe and some of the United States, people seemed to take their faith seriously. The traditions are different but each seeks the mystery of transcendence, the truth beyond the rituals and devotions. I say this with full awareness that much of the institutional support for Islam in Iran comes from the government, which uses it for obvious political purposes. I have never thought theocracy good for government or religion and what I saw strongly confirmed this opinion. But many Iranians seem able to distinguish between their own faith and the rule of the mullahs. The ayatollahs’ control over so many aspects of life is not appealing. But neither was the theocracy John Winthrop and his Puritan ministers established over their city set on a hill.

Which brings me to the challenge of today’s gospel. How can we, as Christians, be salt for the earth, giving flavor to and preserving a world which is so very disparate? What does it mean to be the light of the world when the majority of people on the planet do not recognize the light of Christ?

As I have reflected on these questions, three avenues of response seem critical. First, the church urgently needs to examine its christology in the context of a religiously plural world. For centuries, many in the church have taken the position of the English cleric described by Hazlitt who said, “The Universalists believe that all men shall be saved, but we hope for better things.” I am not a systematic theologian and will leave it to others better qualified to do this work. But I believe that the Indian theologian S.J. Samartha was right when he wrote: “Opening the gates of hospitality to neighbours of other faiths is far more important than strengthening the fences that separate religious communities from each other in a multi-religious community. There can be no true community unless strangers become friends and travellers become fellow pilgrims on the road to the city of God.”

Second, we need to engage more in dialogue and at a deeper level. When I talk about my travel and experience of Islam, I find that many people are eager for knowledge but there are vast barriers of misinformation and prejudice to be overcome. Dialogue is particularly important for Christians and Muslims because of the exclusive claims of both faiths. In my own relatively small parish, we have taken some initial steps, including a series on Abraham with participation by local Jewish and Muslim leaders. There is much that can be done at the local level and that is just as important as relationships between church leaders.

Finally, dialogue is not just “a matter of discussing religious ideas with neighbours of other faiths. It includes working together in society.” Jesus said that we would bring light to the world by our good works. It is in our work for justice and peace that barriers are broken down and others can most clearly see the light of Christ. It takes very little time in the developing world to see the need. But most Americans believe that the United States gives much more development assistance than it actually does. US aid, at 0.1 percent of gross national income, is last among the 20 richest industrialized nations. Even in the church, I have often heard people suggest that we should respond to local needs before considering overseas development. But we are called to bring light to the whole world, not just our own people or nation. If every Episcopalian responded to the United Nations’ Millennium Development challenge and gave 0.7 percent of income to overseas development, it would raise $354 million annually.

In Iran, the interior of the great shrines of Shi’ite saints are entirely covered with small, multi-faceted pieces of glass that form mirrors reflecting and intensifying light in every direction so that the shrines become dazzlingly beautiful. So may God’s light be reflected by us and by many peoples in a diverse world.

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