1 Thessalonians 5:11
If you have the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, you inevitably experience a great diversity of people. Among them are Jews, Muslims, and Christians, all of whom lay claim to both the land, and to their own particular narrative of history: what has happened there down through the centuries, and why. Though there is a 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.
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. Covenants transform. We are covenanted people. I am drawing here on the teaching of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, sometime Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who spoke about ten years ago 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 will happen in both persons, both parties.
The two parties in God’s covenant established with Abraham are, obviously, God and Abraham, with his descendants. We could ask, if covenants transform, what does God get out of this covenant (a rather anthropomorphic question)? I’m not sure. We do see repeatedly in the scriptures that God asks to be praised and blessed and thanked by human beings. We have been created in God’s very image, and God’s relationship with people matters to God. It matters enough that we, as Christians, believe that God so loved the world that God sent his only son, Jesus, to seek us and to save us and to bring us back into an intimate relationship with God.[ii] We 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. I’m speaking about appropriating this “vertical” covenant with God also in a “horizontal” way with one another: appropriating the Abrahamic covenant to respect the dignity and the integrity of each other. It’s 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 compromises, and with a very interconnected yet unbalanced world economy. 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 surely must do together what will only destroy us apart.
Secondly, surely we can find an invitation to practice this covenantal relationship with one another because we are often strangers to one another. If we look to the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Old Testament, which Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike recognize 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 have 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 The Koran says to “do good to… those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet.”[iv]
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.”[v] Philonexia 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.[vi] Philonexia, not xenophobia.[vii] We must welcome the stranger so that the stranger is no longer strange to us. We read in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”[viii]
And thirdly, we may experience some new revelation from the God of Abraham in our relationship with the “other,” with the “stranger.” At the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the Roman Catholic Church issued a “Decree of Ecumenism” which praised Jews as “the people most dear to God” because they received God’s covenant first. And Vatican II hailed Muslims as those who “profess to hold the faith of Abraham and together with us adore the one, merciful God.”[ix]
Muslims, Jews, and Christians share the sacred text, the Book of Exodus, where we read of Moses who discovers God speaking to him through a burning bush.[x] There is an ancient account 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. God chose the humble thornbush to teach you that there is no place on earth bereft of the Divine Presence, not even a thornbush.” And so I would say that if the 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. We read in the Koran: “My mercy embraces all Things.”[xi]
Today we have the honor of welcoming to our liturgy Kids4Peace and their sponsors. Kids4Peace is an amazing program, begun many years ago in Jerusalem, connecting Christian, Jewish, and Muslim children and families with help and hope. [xii] You, our guests, have arrived here as strangers. We hope you will depart knowing our warmest welcome and counting us as friends.
[i] Excerpted from “The Relationship between the People and God,” presented by Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008. Rabbi Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.
[ii] John 3:16-17.
[iii] 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” (Exodus 23:9). “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).
[iv] The Koran 4:36.
[v] Philonexia comes from the Greek roots philos, a friend or neighbor, and xenos, foreign or alien.
[vi] Hebrews 13:2.
[vii] “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). In the New Testament Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger, for “what you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) See also Matthew 25:35 “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13).
[viii] Hebrews 13:1-2.
[ix] Bruce Feiler in Abraham; A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths: (New York: Harper Perennial Edition, 2005); pp. 200-202.
[x] Exodus 2:22-3:7.
[xi] The Koran 7:156.
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