Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
If you have the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, you inevitably experience a great diversity of people – Jews, Muslims, and Christians – all of whom lay claim on the land, and on their own particular narrative of history: what has happened there, down through the centuries, and why. Though there is common ground, there is not a common creed, as we well know… except that all three faith traditions look to the same place and time and person, the first person to be invited into a relationship with God. And this is Abraham and his wife, Sarah, with whom God establishes a covenant, as we heard in our first lesson today from the Book of Genesis.
A covenant is not the same as a contract. A contract is a transaction, but a covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests, but a covenant is about identity. And that is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform. (I am drawing here on the teaching of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who spoke last summer to the Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference.i) In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and the integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant is about relationship, a relationship that invites and presumes a transformative change in both persons, both parties.
The two parties in God’s covenant established with Abraham are, obviously, God and Abraham and his descendants. We could ask, if covenants transform, what does God get out of this covenant, a rather anthropomorphic question? I’m not sure what God does get out of this relationship with Abraham and his descendants. We do see repeatedly in the scriptures that God longs to be praised and blessed and thanked by human beings. God’s relationship with people, who are created in God’s very image, matters to God. It matters enough that we, as Christians, believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus, to seek us and to save us and to bring us back into relationship with God.iiWe matter that much to God. The other question is what human beings get out of this relationship with God? All three Abrahamic traditions would have a different answer, nonetheless Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree that this covenantal relationship with the God of Abraham is the most important thing in the whole world.
Surely we as Christians can share some common ground with Jews and Muslims, who lay joint claim on this covenantal relationship with God. The English word “religion” comes from the Latin, religare, which means “to bind fast.” Religion is a spiritual “ligament” which holds the parts together. The word religion comes from the same etymological root as our word “rely,” rely not just on God, but rely on one another, for the love of God. When I say, surely we as Christians can share some common ground with Jews and Muslims, I’m speaking about appropriating this “vertical” covenant with God in a “horizontal” way with one another: appropriating the Abrahamic covenant to respect the dignity and the integrity of each other; to come together in a bond of love and trust, to share our interests, sometimes even to share our lives, by pledging faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can do alone. To share the Abrahamic covenant with the other Abrahamic traditions.
I say this for three reasons. For one, though we do not share the same faith, we do share the same fate, this again according to Rabbi Sacks. We share the same earth, with its wars and rumors of war, with its ecological devastation, and with a world economy now in a volatile recession. We are interconnected with one another. We acutely need one another’s help and not harm, just to survive, and hopefully to thrive. We may not share the same faith, but we do share the same fate, and we can surely do together what we will only destroy apart..
Secondly, surely we can find an invitation to practice this covenantal relationship with one another because we are strangers to one another. If we look to the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Old Testament, which Jews, Christians, and Muslims share as sacred scripture – a person who is the other, who is the stranger, is given special reverence. This is counterintuitive. Most of us are most drawn to people most like us. But the Pentateuch gives us quite a different and higher vision. As the rabbis noted, the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to “love the stranger.”iii And so we read, for example:
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger – you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
In the Gospels, Jesus also speaks poignantly about our welcoming the stranger. Jesus’ generous welcome to everyone is remembered in the Greek as philonexia, which is “the love of strangers.”ivPhilonexia is the opposite of zenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers. Philonexia, the love of strangers, becomes the New Testament norm for hospitality as it is repeatedly described. We read, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Let love of brother and sister continue; do not forget the love of the stranger (philonexia).”v Philonexia, not xenophobia.
And thirdly, we may experience some new revelation from the God of Abraham from the “other,” from the “stranger.” For those of us who bear the name Christian, we recognize that we have seen the face of God in the face of Jesus. This is not to say that no one else has seen God or known God, heard from God or called on God in another way or time or place or name.vi At the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the Roman Catholic Church issued a “Decree of Ecumenism” to restore unity among Christians. This new doctrine also praised Jews as “the people most dear” to God because they received God’s covenant first. And the doctrine hailed Muslims as those who “profess to hold the faith of Abraham and together with us adore the one, merciful God.”vii Dr. Walter Brueggemann of Columbia Theological Seminary says, “It is perfectly legitimate for Christians to draw all of these traditions to Jesus. It is perfectly legitimate for Jews to draw these traditions toward them, and the same for Muslims. It is not legitimate for Christians or anyone else to presume that theirs is the only direction.” Brueggemann says, “As a Christian, I have to be bilingual enough to notice that our confiscation of the tradition is not the only possible legitimate confiscation of the tradition.”viii
A week or so again I was sharing a conversation with someone who was concerned about what they called the growing Islamic threat. They were particularly vexed about some violent passages that had been pointed out to them in the Koran. Did I know about that, they asked? Well we talked about Islam and the Koran, my not claiming expertise. I did ask this person, “Are you familiar with the amount of violence recorded in the Old Testament, like in I and II Kings? Do you know the Psalms’ speaking of the happiness in dashing little children’s heads against the rocks?”ix I told them I find all of that appalling, and it does require contextualization and explanation, which we as Christians are quite prepared to do with our own scriptures. We surely owe the same sense of dignity to Muslims and the Koran. Surely?
Jesus Christ “proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who are near,” we read in the Letter to the Ephesians. Jesus “has come to break down the dividing wall of hostility between peoples.”x The way that a dividing wall of hostility between peoples is broken down is not by berating or convincing the other person, the other tradition, that we are right. Dividing walls of hostility are dismantled when people enact a tacit covenant with one another: respecting the dignity and the integrity of the other. People of the covenant come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant is about relationship, a relationship that invites and presumes a transformative change in both parties. In the context of our seeking out, meeting, welcoming the stranger, we may even discover God’s revelation to us, in ways beyond which we could have asked or imagined.
In the Book of Exodus – a sacred text shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims – there is the story of Moses who discovers God speaking to him through a burning bush.xi There is an ancient story of a Rabbi Joshua’s being asked, “Why, of all things, did God choose the humble thornbush as the place from which to speak with Moses?” The rabbi replied: “If God had chosen a carob tree or a mulberry bush, you would have asked me the same question. Yet it is impossible to let you go away empty-handed. That is why I am telling you that God chose the humble thornbush to teach you that there is no place on earth bereft of the Divine Presence, not even a thornbush.” If divine revelation can even come through a lowly thornbush, then surely through another person, created in the image of God, and all the more likely if they are a stranger to us, a stranger to be welcomed into our life, into our heart.
Consider this for a Lenten discipline concerning this Abrahamic covenant to which we are heirs, a shared covenant. Live into the covenant. See if you can share some time, share a conversation with a Jewish or Muslim person this Lent. Presume you are meeting them on holy ground and listen, mostly listen.
ii John 3:16-17.
iv Philonexia comes from the Greek roots philos,a friend or neighbor, and xenos, foreign or alien.
vi Inspired by unpublished writings of Joseph C. Hough, Jr., president of Union Theological Seminary, New York.
vii Bruce Feiler in Abraham; A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, pp. 200-202.
ix Psalm 137:9. See also, e.g., Psalm 110:6 “He will heap high the corpses; he will smash heads over the wide earth.”
xi See Ephesians 2:11-19.
xii Exodus 2:22-3:7.
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