Entertaining Angels and Meeting the Prophets of Baal
The following sermon was preached by Carol Schersten LaHurd, Lecturerer in World Religions, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, March 11, 2013.
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Join me on a journey back to my life in 1981. My English professor husband had been granted a senior Fulbright lectureship at the University of Damascus. I was studying Greek and preparing to begin Ph.D. work in New Testament. Taking a Grand Canyon-sized leap of faith, we rented out our home in small-town Pennsylvania and took our two young children to live in Syria for a year. Ryan began lecturing to classes of 800. I traded grad school for teaching English at the British Language School.
The first months were an immersion in the world of Arab Islam and the delights of the "orient": jasmine wafting into our garden apartment, coffee roasting with cardamom in the suq, and the chorus of a half-dozen muezzins chanting the call to prayer. But it was also the sound of explosions every few weeks as suicide truck bombers struck at government and military targets. It was the year of the Syrian government’s destruction of Hama. If you've read Tom Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem, you know the story. For us it was a first-hand introduction to the ethnic and religious conflicts of the post-colonial Middle East.
After several months of meeting our Syrian neighbors and teaching our mostly Muslim students, we made the first visit to my husband's ancestral village in Lebanon's Bekaa. That's the fertile valley between two mountain ranges separating Beirut from Damascus. Three of his grandparents had come to the U.S. from that village, comprised mostly of Maronite Catholics, along with a few Sunni Muslim and Druze families. Since we usually visited over a long weekend, we often attended worship with the relatives at Mar Elias, the church of St. Elijah. Looming over the entire experience was a bigger-than-life oil painting behind the altar: an enraged prophet Elijah waving his sword above the bloody heads of the prophets of Baal.
That painting with its story of Elijah has continued to haunt me during the thirty years since. It was definitely not the answer I was seeking to the question: what biblical resources do we have to guide our relationships with religious others?
First Kings 18 presents a powerful contrast between Elijah's sober reliance on the God of Abraham and the Baal prophets' pathetic limping and self-mutilation--all for the sake of a deity who may have been daydreaming, away on a trip, or even sleeping. The story epitomizes the Hebrew historians' belief that God willed not tolerance for the non-monotheist inhabitants of Canaan, but the removal of all evil and ritual impurity from the midst of God's own people. This posture embraces the radical choice between God and Baal that many of us make every day. But it also demands treating the religious other as a threat to be eliminated, or at least avoided.
Such a posture is alive and well today among those who flood the Internet with anti-Islamic emails or even burn copies of the Qur'an. Also alive and well among us is the potentially destructive outcome of this hostile response to difference in the human community. Elijah's bloody elimination of the other was mirrored by Anders Brevik's slaughter of 76 people in Norway. His 1500-page manifesto included more than 200 references to the anti-Muslim rhetoric used by American bloggers and misinformation experts. Brevik's hatred of foreigners, especially Muslims, was an apparent motive for murdering the children of Norway's current political establishment, one that is welcoming to immigrant Muslims.
But back to Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
As teachers and preachers of the Bible we have critical resources to help us interpret difficult passages in their historical contexts, to help us discern the message for believers today. But here's some good news: we also have alternative biblical models for dealing with the other among us—even a story about Elijah. As he inaugurates his ministry in Luke 4, Jesus cites Elijah's care for the outsider widow of Zarephath during a time of severe famine. This is just one example of the Bible's stories of welcome to strangers, stories that require neither a weakened commitment to the God of Abraham nor the destruction of those different from us. In fact, these stories often have some quite unexpected positive outcomes.
Earlier today Professor Mark Swanson reminded us of some of the biblical resources for dealing with outsiders. Deuteronomy 10:19 counsels the people of God, "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Genesis records that Abraham and Sarah knew personally what it means to be aliens in a new land--as we learned that year in Damascus. By the time the three strangers approach their tent in today's lesson, Abraham's family has reportedly traveled from Mesopotamia north and west through much of modern-day Syria, and then south into Canaan. In 1981 we actually traveled some of that route ourselves. We took a Karnak Company bus to visit historic Aleppo, a city which proudly claims, "Abraham slept here." Considering the current devastation there, I am grateful we saw the ancient covered bazaar in better days.
Take another look at Genesis 18. Notice that before he offered hospitality, Abraham did not say, "Stop! Show me your ID card." Nor did he pull out his trusty shotgun in case the three men turned out to burglars. No, instead, Abraham provided water so the men could wash their feet. He instructed Sarah to bake three cakes and his servant to prepare a calf. This story appears also in the Holy Qur'an in at least three different chapters or surahs. Muslims showed our family similar lavish hospitality over and over during our year in Damascus, and again in 1992 when we had a second Fulbright experience in Sana'a, Yemen. And, by the way, after that year in Damascus, I totally get why water for foot washing is offered even before food. Much of the Middle East is hot and dusty. The busy city streets are shared by cars, trucks, donkey carts, sheep and goats. The first thing I did each afternoon when returning to our flat from teaching: take off my sandals and step into the bathtub to wash my feet. Thus, on a very basic level I understand why Abraham tended to his guests’ feet before their stomachs, as did Jesus for his disciples in John 13.
So far this morning I've talked about two models for dealing with strangers and religious others. On Mount Carmel Elijah eliminates the other as threat—and in so doing blocks any possibility of mutual understanding or relationship. By the oaks of Mamre Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers and receive life-changing good news. But more about that later.
LSTC is a Lutheran seminary in which I am privileged to teach Religions in Dialogue with two esteemed colleagues, Muslim and Buddhist. My preference for the Genesis 18 model of life with religious others in no way means I believe theological differences don't matter. S. Mark Heim, an ordained Baptist at Andover Newton Theological School, published an important book in 1995: Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion. He asserts that "Religions may be seen as both true and alternative rather than necessarily either true or false, and thus two ‘true’ religions need not be assumed to represent the same thing."(225) And I concur when Heim writes that "to see nothing ultimately distinctive about one’s own religious commitment in relation to others is as serious an impairment as to be ignorant of any religion but one’s own." (227)
Pretending that differences in faith and praxis don't exist shows a lack of commitment to our own faith and lack of respect for the depth and complexity of the religious life of others. I experienced that pitfall 20 years ago in the Minnesota Muslim-Christian dialogue when one pastor downplayed the importance of Christ in making a presentation to the Muslims. Indeed, it is true that there is no place for a suffering god in Islam, but that difference need not hinder mutual respect and collaborative social action.
Before we return to Abraham and Sarah and their visitors, I want to recall the Luke 15 gospel text many of us heard yesterday in church. Jesus is in the presence of tax collectors and sinners, as well as the "grumbling" hostile others, the Pharisees and scribes.
And by the way, especially in Luke's gospel Jesus often shares not only preaching but table fellowship with strangers and others. Here he tells the story of the Father and Two Sons, found only in Luke. Jesus' diverse listeners hear about the prodigal younger son's decline into poverty and despair. They share the depth of the father's joy at the son's return and witness his readiness to forgive. But they also meet the faithful servant older brother, who is furious at the welcome given his wastrel sibling and refuses to join the public celebration. Instead of rebuking his older son for this insulting and disrespectful behavior, the father reaffirms his commitment to both sons: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
Now what does this story have to do with choosing biblical models for interreligious encounters? Remembering the grumbling scribes and Pharisees at the start of Luke 15, for centuries Christian interpreters have concluded that Jesus or at least Luke is here saying that the First Century Jews who have rejected Jesus' good news will also be rejected. But a careful reading of this parable reveals its open-endedness. We don’t know whether the older brother will return to the family. What we do know is that the father embraces his relationship with his angry older son.
The good news: God's radical inclusion trumps the older son's human concern for fairness and refuses to treat him as an outsider. The take-away for Jewish-Christian relations: some past readers have oversimplified this parable and the whole matter of how Luke and Acts portray Jesus's interactions with his fellow Jews, and also such interactions by the apostle Paul. At the very least this text cannot be put the service of supercessionist Christian theology. This Luke 15 older brother may on some level represent Jews who do not accept Jesus as messiah. If that's the case, note that the older son has not only not been rejected by the father, he has been granted permanent insider status.
Keeping interreligious others "in the family," so to speak, and giving and receiving the hospitality modeled by Abraham and Sarah, can have life-giving and life-changing results. In a subtle connection to what Luke 15 implies about God's covenant relationship with the Jews, one of the strangers in Genesis 18 announces, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." Note that such is the case also in the Qur'anic parallel, which names both Isaac and his son Jacob. By the way, according to at least one medieval Muslim interpreter, Hebrew tradition mistakenly says the visitors ate Abraham's bread and meat. They were, after all, angels who don't take food. But, says the Qur'anic commentator, they may have appeared to eat food that evaporated into the air.
We Christians who exchange the gift of hospitality with interreligious others may not receive angels signaling the start of an everlasting covenant with God. But we will have opportunities to welcome interreligious visitors into our lives and be transformed by our encounters with them. A recent research poll queried Americans on attitudes toward Islam. The results: if a person knows even one Muslim personally, the approval percentage rises dramatically.
Indeed my own spiritual journey has been enriched by 30 years' worth of friendship and interreligious dialogue, especially with Jews and Muslims:
- My trust in the Triune God has gained a much stronger emphasis on God the creator
- I have witnessed in my Jewish and Muslim friends the value of daily praxis ethically and of remembrance of God spiritually
- I have learned to ask new questions of old texts, such as, who is the suffering servant in Isaiah?
Finally, here's what I've learned through many acts of kindness from the rabbis with whom I did text studies in Minnesota, from my Muslim students in Syria, from our university colleagues in Yemen, from my Muslim and Buddhist co-teachers in Chicago. In interreligious relationships, the other soon becomes much more friend than other. What unites us becomes stronger than what divides us. Then, to paraphrase Eboo Patel, our religious commitments can serve as a "bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division."
The good news is that, even though we are all strangers in some way to the divine wholly other, this God invites us all to give and receive hospitality.
This God who sent messengers to Abraham is big enough to be the God of all the nations, the God to whom our Abrahamic cousins also pray, "Let your will be done."