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Sermon – “When a Foreigner Prays” – June 2, 2013

Sunday, June 2, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

When a Foreigner Prays 1 Kings 8: 22-23, 41-43; Galatians 1: 1-12; Luke 7: 1-10

They’ve done a study with nine month old and fourteen month old babies. They fed each child green beans one time and graham crackers another, and figured out which the child preferred. They then put on a puppet show in which one character shared the infant’s taste and the other puppet made the opposite choice. When other puppets interacted with the first two, the most telling result was that the babies liked it when the puppet which didn’t share their tastes was mistreated by another puppet. At that age the children seemed to adopt the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

This research has been taken to demonstrate that prejudice against those who differ from one is not merely socially learned, but comes naturally to human beings. The explanation offered is that it is useful for survival to be able to distinguish who’s part of one’s social group and who is not. There is an expectation of a positive outcome from social solidarity, and a suspicion, at least, of menace from outsiders.

Some of us can remember looking countercultural, and being regarded with suspicion by some people– hard to credit now, but I had hair down past my shoulders in 1974–and at least knowing the slogan “you can’t trust anyone over thirty.” Many of us also can recall being relieved when people who seemed obviously different turned out to have significant things in common with us– it makes interaction easier, at least– and being disappointed or even hurt to discover that people whom we took to be people just like us had reasons for feeling we didn’t qualify as part of their set.

It was part of the culture then both to decry and often to dismiss the possibility that persons who looked or acted different were in any meaningful way different from oneself. Many of the “liberation” movements and “pride” movements inspired by the heroism and success of the civil rights movement had it as an article of faith that persons, underneath it all, were essentially the same.

America has been retreating from that confidence for some time. Some groups want to assert that they are better than others in general, and other people feel that it has been a dangerous delusion to believe, for example, that Muslims believe in God in a way comparable to Christian or Jewish approaches to religion. The injustice and danger to public peace of prejudice, which seemed so obvious in the context of the civil rights movement, is less emphasized. Resentment of those who are different, and a suspicion that they pose a threat to the rest of us, is less shameful than it once was. This study with infants is an effort to see how soon preferences and a form of vindictiveness toward the different appear, and in a sense, how naturally they arise.

What does it mean that we divide the world between people with whom we identify and other people whose getting hard knocks satisfies us? Maybe some of us have overcome that tendency which this study suggests is in our wiring, but how thoroughly have we left that behind? How completely do we want to become persons who respond to human suffering exactly the same whether it is the suffering of kin or a complete stranger?

This bears on a couple of things. One is the inevitable increase in our society of people who don’t conform to our appearance, our culture, our assumptions or our hopes. How are we to live well together in a diverse community? What will persuade us to see certain obvious differences as less significant and regard as more meaningful traits which may be less evident? The other thing on which a human predilection for prejudice bears is our religion. What distinctions does faithfulness to God require, and what differences are put in perspective by belonging to a common faith? Is there a faith which can be adequately “common” to build bridges between different religions, and at the same time uphold the integrity of each for its adherents?

There was a time when increasing technology, science, social science and secularism made people expect religion-in-general to have less impact on the world. Religion, however, is a powerful part of human anxiety and antagonism, despite intending to be, almost all the time, a source of inner peace and harmony between people. How can disciples of Jesus Christ live their faith in ways which permit respectful relationships with other disciples of Jesus whose Christianity operates on very different principles, and with adherents of other religions altogether?

I’ll begin by saying that culture and history are inescapable. You can pretend that your own thinking, no matter how “objective” you try to be, isn’t linked to identity and era. It’s better to admit we can’t help the perspective provided by who, where, and when we are, and propose, nevertheless, to reach for religious truth that supports civility and regard across cultural divides.

There is a prejudice on the part of secular humanists that the obvious common thing should be humanity, and that relying on that, instead of religion, can lead away from rivalries and intolerance. Factoring out religion, however, leaves many sources of mistrust intact, including national feeling. What God must help us do is find a religious approach which speaks to many religions, not on the basis of the lowest common denominator, but relying on the highest similar symbols and consciousness. I don’t mean a sociology of religion, because that is not religion, it’s about religion. I mean religious intention to discover what our religion has that’s enough like what others’ religion has that we can take each other seriously and give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Judaism begins as a tribal religion. It begins as a local, ethnically and culturally defined faith. It doesn’t remain there. Its conception of God grows, so that by the time the record of its experience of God is set down–by the time scripture is forming–you find references from before the Exodus to the non Jews among the Jews, who yet share the same God. The terms may be different, but the openness to outsiders finding a spiritual home and being guaranteed fair and even generous treatment by the cult is large-heated and large-minded.

Eventually the Old Testament faith expects all peoples to acknowledge that the one God worshiped by the Jews is the God of the whole world. Solomon’s prayer anticipates this expectation. The Jews don’t exist merely to have a relationship with God, doing their part as God does God’s part. They exist to give God a reputation which people from near and far will hear, in order that the wider world be drawn more and more to God.

That’s what’s happening in the gospel story. This non Jewish imperial officer is drawn to the faith of the land he occupies. He fosters the health of the synagogue. He calls upon the Jewish holy man and healer for help, and he expects the God of this subject people to deliver what the holy man promises. Jesus says it’s more faith than he’s witnessed among his countrymen, and it anticipates the wider world’s embrace of the God of the Bible in the form of Christianity.

Judaism outgrew an exclusively ethnic or regional conception of God during Old Testament times, and adopted global and even universal expectations of the meaning of its faith. The gospels show Jesus engaging people of differing heritage and no evidence of conversion as those who still may believe with power in the one true God. Paul insists that his churches in Galatia resist being pulled back into patterns focusing on what makes people different rather than what people have in common. In our time we have to find a way to view God in as large a perspective as possible, and to trust that God being God, our willingness to stretch toward shared understandings, at least of the premises and perspectives each group has, will not undermine the goodness or the purposes of the Almighty.

In a world in which God will not go away, we need to learn to deal with the distinctions between religion in ways which respect all the reasons that we differ, and share with one another those teachings which recognize and try to make real peace, fairness, and compassion for one another. God is God of the world, and it is not ritual behaviors or scruples about holiness, but achieving a loving community, in which the integrity of religion now resides. How daring this is we ourselves must discover, as we seek to relate with the love of God in our hearts with all those whose ideas of God are different from our own. That’s not something forced on us by the danger of neglecting it, but by the conviction that the whole world indeed is God’s.

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