Monday, September 10, 2007

Sermon for September 9, 2007

Note: This was a special interfaith prayer service. The first part of what follows here is the Welcome at the opening. The second part is my homily on Jeremiah 18:1-11, which is the Old Testament lesson for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I am sorry that I do not have here the other sermon we heard, which was by Dr. Gazi Erdem.

Opening Welcome

Today we commemorate 9-11. That day made all the difference. We need to interpret that day in terms of God and to pray to God about the repercussions of that day. That day made all the difference to Muslims in America, and so it’s fitting that we do this together with Muslims. We Jews and Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. We tell different stories about God, and our stories don’t all match up, but God is One, and our God is the truest unity we have, so it’s in praying together that our best unity is found.

It was in 2002 that Rabbi Jerry Weider challenged me to use 9-11 to make contact with the Muslims of Brooklyn. Since then we have welcomed here Imam Abdallah Allam of the Dawood Mosque, and then Wa’el Mousfar of the Arab Muslim American Federation, and then Faruq Wadud of the Bangladeshi Baitul Jannah Mosque, and then Debbie Almontaser of Women of Islam.

Today we are pleased to welcome the Universal Foundation, which represents the Turkish community of Brooklyn. But their hospitality was first. They welcomed us to their Ramadan Iftars. It was at the Mosque of the Crimean Turks that I was first invited to join the prayers. That was profound for me. While they prayed in Arabic I knelt beside the wall and I prayed as a Christian, and there, in prayer, I discovered that it was the same God we were praying to. It was in prayer that I found our deepest unity, because the Spirit of God was present there.

Today I am most pleased to welcome Dr. Gazi Erdem, from the Consulate General of Turkey, who is the Mufti or chief Iman of all the Turkish Imams in North America. Sort of like a Muslim archbishop. It’s an impressive office but Dr. Erdem carries it with gentleness and a great sense of humor. I love his laughter and his joy. I have heard Dr. Erdem address a thousand people at the Waldorf-Astoria, but I’m really looking forward to what he has to say within a house of prayer.

Today we are praying side-by-side. Our Christian prayers will be Christian and our Muslim prayers will be Muslim. Our unity is not some unnatural amalgamation. Or unity is in the One God that we worship, and in the loving hospitality that we practice with each other.


On the basis of Jeremiah, you might get the impression that God was behind 9-11, that God sent the evil against America. That was the claim of some fundamentalist Christians, and ironically, that put them very close to Al-qaeda, as if 9-11 was what God wanted.

On the one hand, we do believe that God has the freedom and authority and sovereignty and power to do whatever God wills to do, and we believe that God is the great judge of the world, and that God judges the nations, but on the other hand, we also believe that ever since Jesus, at least, the way God judges us is not through violence or disaster or weapons or by making use of criminal actions but simply and directly by means of God’s Word.

God’s public Word. God’s open and straightforward Word. In the prophets. In the Book. We are people of the Book, we are people who honor the prophets, because through the Book and the prophets God speaks to us and judges us, and the reason that God judges us is in order for us to hear and learn and turn and live.

The judgement of God is a privilege and a gift. People make judgements all the time, pundits and politicians, police chiefs and generals, CEOs and CFOs, regulators and mortgage lenders, we make judgements all the time, and our judgements affect our freedom and our lives, and amidst the clamor and tumult of all these voice, to get the judgement of God is a privilege and a gift.

And the judgement of God is simultaneously good and bad for us. It is good for us if we honor and accept it and it is bad for us if we refuse it and ignore it. It justifies us if we affirm it and it condemns us if we deny it. It’s up to us whether it’s for evil or for good. God gives us such freedom and responsibility.

This prophecy from Jeremiah combines what many people find paradoxical, the freedom and responsibility of humanity with the total sovereignty of God. But the truth of this, in different ways, is a common conviction of both the Reformed Church and Islam. And so, to push the metaphor, we say to God, "Thou are the potter, I am the clay, mold me and make me after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still." That’s a Christian song, but it perfectly describes the physical attitude of "islam," which is to wait on God, yielded and still.

The enduring significance of 9-11, for us, at least, is not how many died, though that is hugely important. The enduring significance of 9-11 is not why Al-qaeda did it, though we need to be clear about that for our foreign policy. The enduring significance of 9-11 is that we learn from it, that we learn from it rightly and not wrongly, that we interpret it rightly, not on our own, but with God’s wisdom, and that in response to it we examine our own selves, that we search ourselves, and the way that we search ourselves is by means of the judgements of God, and the judgements of God are given to us faithfully and lovingly in the Word of God.

In a moment we will do just that. We will pray selections from Psalm 139, in which we open ourselves to the searching of God. I wish that our lectionary editors had not taken out the last few verses, which are both the most severe and most liberating, but we do with what we have. Psalm 139 is one of the great prayers in the Bible, it’s a profound expression of the religious consciousness, and remarkably modern despite its antiquity, and, as far as I can tell, it’s a prayer that can be said equally by Jews and Christians and Muslims.

We will take a few moments of silence in order for you all to look it over, and then I will invite you to rise together and pray it with me. Our custom here is to do it responsively; I read the first part, and you read together the part in bold print. After the Psalm will come the traditional Gloria Patri, and would the Muslims and Jews be so kind as to indulge the Christians as we sing it with the hospitality of your listening? I thank you in advance.

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