Interfaith Sunday

Readings

Genesis 16 (NLT)

16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
    and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
    for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
    his hand will be against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
    toward all his brothers.”

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

John 14:1-7 (NLT)

14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Homily by the Rev’d Kate Massey

When Liam and I first moved to England, we lived in hospital accommodation in Warwick. Reflecting the diversity of the NHS staff we worked alongside, our block of flats was quite an international and multifaith community. One Christmas, when the work commitments meant that we couldn’t go to Scotland to celebrate with family, we invited our friends to celebrate with us. It was the best and most complicated Christmas meal we ever had. Our gathering comprised three Christians, an agnostic, two Muslims, a Hindu and a Jew. Liam spent hours working out how to make a traditional turkey dinner with vegetarian and pork-free options for our guests. As we began our meal, Liam and I asked if our friends would mind us saying grace. No, cried our Muslim neighbour, Jesus is my favourite prophet anyway!

This Sunday is Interfaith Sunday, and I thought it might be good for us to spend some time thinking about how we, as Christians, engage with people of other faiths and backgrounds. Now in doing this, I am leaving my comfort zone far behind. I am fairly confident talking about the Bible and traditional Christian belief. But I am not particularly knowledgeable about other faith traditions. I might really put my foot in it. I might say something horribly offensive without realizing. But I think – even if we risk making mistakes – it is important to talk about how we live well as a faith amongst others in our multifaith society.

I think that the Christian tradition offers us three values which might support us as we engage well with neighbours of different faiths.

The first value is openness. I have spent some years in churches which had a very suspicious attitude towards people of different faiths. And there are certainly plenty of passages in the Bible which may seem to support antagonism towards those who believe differently to ourselves. However, Jesus modelled openness. His most famous parable tells people they must love their enemies including those detested Samaritans who had different beliefs and different places of worship. We don’t always remember that the Good Samaritan is an interfaith story. So, whatever the faith of our neighbours, we are to love them and seek their good.

Now what might this look like in real life. During lockdown, we hosted a Zoom evening with an author called Andrew Graystone, who was promoting his book “Love, Faith and Mischief”. He told a story of how he went along to his local mosque just a few hours after the horrific mosque shootings in New Zealand with a sign that simply said “You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray” and stood outside the building. After Friday prayers (during which the iman had mentioned him) people came out and spoke to him and thanked him. Someone took his photo. The image went viral and he became a global sensation for a few days. But it was a simple as noticing that his Muslim friends had just had some horrible news and wanting to show a bit of care and solidarity. Our love for our neighbours of different faiths is about everyday kindness and an openness to friendship. Whatever differences in belief, we are human beings, made in the image of God, worthy of dignity and respect, worthy of being seen as individuals and not some cartoonish stereotype, people with whom we have more in common that that which divides us.

This brings me neatly on to our second value, which is celebrating what we share. Our first reading today tells us of the birth of Ishmael. His mother, Hagar, was a remarkable woman. A slave and a surrogate, she is the first person to give God a name. The God who sees me. It is a powerful thing to be seen as we are – to God she was not a servant involved in the smooth running of a household, she was not a vessel from which Abraham’s offspring might come. She is a person with her own concerns and dreams. God sees beyond the labels that others have placed on her and sees her as a person. God gives her a promise of her own, as he already has to Abram and Sarai. Our personhood is one of the most basic things we share with neighbours of different faiths. We all have concerns and worries. We all have hopes and dreams. We have family and friends and food and work. There is always common ground if you choose to look for it.

And Hagar is the mother of Ishmael, whose descendants, tradition tells us, were the first Muslims. We share many things with people of other faiths. At the most basic level, we are all looking to something beyond ourselves for meaning, wisdom, purpose and guidance. We all have practices of worship and prayer which raise our gaze from ourselves to the divine. We have sacred texts and wisdom gathered over centuries which our tradition holds are inspired and inspiring. In the Abrahamic faiths, there is considerable overlap. We share the Old Testament with our Jewish cousins and many of our Biblical stories and characters can be found in the Qu’ran. Mary, whom Muslims call Mariam, even has her own book! We have festivals we celebrate. And we have values and ethics which, despite some problems and the many scare stories you might find in the press, tend to point us towards community, generosity, goodness. In many ways, people of faith (despite our differences) have more in common with each other than with those who hold no faith. So perhaps in a world which can be increasingly individualistic and money driven, we can work together on old values like community, thankfulness, generosity and love. Again, what might this look like? Well, the winter before the pandemic, our neighbours at the Frank Street mosque joined with churches across the town to help run the Winter Night Shelter for the homeless. We have different beliefs but we are united around a value for human dignity and a determination that people shouldn’t sleep rough in the coldest months of the year.

My last value is knowing what you bring to the table. This takes a little explaining. Basically, in interfaith work from a Christian perspective, there is a spectrum of views on how we engage with others. At one end of the spectrum is the belief that the only way to God is through the Church. Personally, I see too much of God in the lives of people of other faiths and none, many of whom would never darken the door of a church building, to be able to accept this position. It also seems a little too much like telling God how God can operate and we do such things at our peril. The other end of the spectrum is the “many roads up a mountain” argument which argues that all faiths lead to God in their different ways and are pretty much interchangeable. This is quite a popular view, but I struggle with it. I don’t think it takes seriously the specific truth claims that Jesus makes about himself. In our Gospel reading we hear Jesus say clearly “I am the way, the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me!” So, where does this leave me?

Many years ago, I had a tutor at college who really made me think about all this. He used to be a vicar in a parish in Leicester, where the population was 90% Muslim. He supported his parishioners in the aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Terror. To the horror of them all, a flat in his parish was used by the 7/7 London Underground bombers in preparing their attack. It was an incredibly difficult time for that community. He made close friends with local imans and would fast during Ramadan with them. He went on a joint pilgrimage in the Middle East. He really really loved the Islamic faith. But he remained a Christian. Why? It was a question he asked himself and the answer was always Jesus. There was just something about a God who would come and die on a cross which he found utterly compelling.

As Christians, Jesus is what we bring to any encounter. Jesus is the gift we offer in our shared search for God, and so we shouldn’t be embarrassed about the differences or distinctive claims of our faith. Our faithfulness to our own tradition helps us share generously and hopefully with others. For me, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He is the way through which all humanity can be forgiven, the world redeemed, the cosmos renewed. But this is not an exclusive statement which denies those honestly seeking and serving God through other traditions. Rather it is a promise of hope for us all.

So this Interfaith Sunday, may we be open to loving friendship with neighbours of other faiths, may we celebrate what we share and work together for the good of our world, and may we – with humility and love – offer our greatest treasure, Jesus, in our shared search for God.

Prayer

Courage comes from the heart
and we are always welcomed by God,
the Croí (heart) of all being.

We bear witness to our faith,
knowing that we are calledto live lives of courage,
love and reconciliation in the ordinary and extraordinary
moments of each day.

We bear witness, too, to our failures
and our complicity in the fractures of our world.

May we be courageous today.
May we learn today.
May we love today. 

Amen.

(Corrymeela Prayer for Courage by Padraig O’Tuama)

Closing Worship

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