Tuesday, June 28

Sunday Sermon

For those of you who do not know, I am currently serving as a chaplain at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, IL. It has been an incredible year of service. I have been stretched and pushed in more ways than I can begin to describe. After reading this week’s lectionary, I am moved to share with you one of the more powerful encounters I have had.

The program I am in has us on rotations of four months each…one in a general medical/surgical unit, another in pediatrics and finally one in critical care. During my critical care unit over the winter I was working in the Emergency Room. Lutheran is a big hospital. We serve many people. Forty percent of the patient population is Catholic. Twenty percent is Jewish. The remaining forty percent covers the rest of the population in and around Park Ridge. A growing percentage of that final amalgamation is Moslem.

One day a patient came in from a local nursing home. We will call him “Sayed.” Sadly, he had passed away there. The ambulance crew was bringing him to Lutheran to fulfill several different legal obligations some of these nursing homes have. The patient was an elderly gentlemen, his age hard to pinpoint. He simply looked ancient. His beard was thick and white. His face heavily lined. By his appearance, I thought he could be Moslem, but I did not know for certain.

Typically, the Moslem families that come to the Emergency Room bring their own religious leader, an Imam. I don’t have the same interaction with them as I would with a Christian patient. I do my best to be a good host, however, facilitating the specific family’s religious and emotional needs per the direction of the Imam. I get water, tissues, make certain that all who would like to speak with the physician have that opportunity.

Sayed’s family did arrive shortly after he did. The nursing home had contacted the eldest son to let him know the bad news. He arrived, and the attending physician and I met with him in the family room to discuss all we knew and to figure out together what the next steps would be. Sayed and his family were actually Moslem. I asked his son if there was anyone I could call for him, if there was an Imam that we should contact. In my experience ,it seemed the most appropriate course of action. When someone who is Moslem has passed away, the tradition is to bury them within a day. There are certain prayers that must be said. And any signs of medical treatment, such as an i.v., must be removed from the body before they leave the hospital. Typically, all of this is orchestrated by the Imam.

This, however, family was new to the country and had no Imam. There was no mosque. There was no one to turn to. I said to Sayed’s son, “I am a Christian minister. I will help you where I can.” The son said to me. “We are the children of Abraham. Today we are brothers.”

Times of crisis and change have been known to create barriers and divisions, but they can also break them down. “Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person, will receive the reward of the righteous.” We are the children of Abraham. Today we are brothers. That day, however briefly, I would serve as Imam to a Moslem family.

Today’s Old Testament passage is one of the more famous. The Sacrifice of Isaac is one of the first scripture stories we teach our children. I remember learning about this very early on.

You may know the song…”Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham. And I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s just have some fun…”

And I encountered the story again when my wife Trish was involved in a theatrical production of the work of Bruce Felier entitled Abraham’s Calling. Feiler’s work and the play were explorations of what the three Religions of the Book, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, had to say about Abraham. Feiler is interested in reconciliation in the Middle East. He is interested in discovering what the traditions have in common that might be helpful to bridge gaps and ideological distances.

Perhaps our common heritage in Abraham would be that bridge. Both the play and the book don’t really come to any conclusion. They illuminate the differences, and try, as best as possible, to tell the story of three faiths who share a common ancestor.

Isaac and Ishmael are brothers. Both have been given the same promise. In the Moslem tradition it is Ishmael who goes to the mountain with Abraham, not Isaac. So, there are some important differences in how the story is told...but the story is told. The identity is shared.

The differences may end with the particulars of the story, however. You see, one possible interpretation of the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac for Christians is simply the great example that Abraham sets for us. This is obedience. This is an obedient man…and he will remain so. And God rewards him for it.

The Moslem tradition speaks about this story a little differently. Islam means “submission to God.” For the Moslem, this story is about submission. In some retellings, Ishmael is older in the story than Isaac is in ours and he allows himself to be bound. Both Ishmael and Abraham willingly submit to the will of God. Ishmael is obedient. Abraham is obedient. They submit.

The trouble with the story as it has been handed to us, is that God can seem like a big bully. At least that is the complaint that I have heard. God can seem sadistic and cruel. To be honest, I am not sure how to rescue someone from that complaint. I have had the same complaint and I certainly wrestle with it.
But I feel, by engaging the focus that the Islamic tradition has, that I am beginning to understand more. The word “obedience” is not as popular in our culture as it once was. And certainly the word “submission” is equally unpopular. But there is more to the story, and more to the language than submission.

The root for the word “submission” in Arabic is seleme. It is both the root for the word “submission” as in “Islam”…submission to God…and the root for the word that means “peace”…salam. For those of us from the Judeo-Christian tradition, we might make the logical leap and hear the word shalom in our heads. Hebrew and Arabic are in the same language family. We should hear shalom when we hear salam.

It is interesting to think about. The correlation between submission and peace is implied. They share the same root. One comes naturally from the other. They both rise from the same word, the same root.

To submit to the will of God is to find peace. To seek for peace is to submit to the will of God.

Frustratingly, this still leaves us with a bullying deity testing his friend Abraham. Today, I still have to say that I don’t understand how to reconcile the seemingly cruel nature of this story…except to say that my getting hung up on that one interpretation gets in the way of my own ability to hear the promise of peace that comes with obedience to God.

In the story of Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham is not only sacrificing his son. No. That would be hard enough, impossible enough to imagine. In reality, Abraham is being asked to sacrifice much more. He is being asked to sacrifice his promise. He is being asked to sacrifice the promise God made to him.

God said to Abraham that he would lead him out of Ur and to a promised place. From Abraham’s line, God would people the whole world. Abraham’s relationship with God runs deep. Abraham is the only one who is called God’s friend in all of scripture. They are friends. They are that close.

And yet, by what we witness in this story, God is still The Almighty Lord God who in the beginning of the book of Genesis breathed the entire creation into being. Abraham is still only a man. He is the man who will offer up his wife Sarah to pharaoh as a slave. He will cast out his own child Ishmael. Abraham is a human being. Perhaps this is a quality to the relationship that I too easily forget.

You see, not even the promise of a son, of continuance, of immortality is Abraham’s possession. Even the relationship that he has with God does not belong to him. When Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son, he is being asked to give up everything…even the very core of who he is, enshrouded in the friendship and promise of God. He does not even belong to himself.

To submit to God is to recognize one’s place in the cosmos. We do not belong to ourselves. Peace comes with this knowledge. Our very faith is not our own. It is not our possession. It is God’s. We are God’s. Our conversion lies in this knowledge.

Matthew understands this.

Whoever welcomes you…welcomes me…and welcomes the one who sent me.

The relationship is that close. Our relationship is to Christ and through Christ to God. In this passage he is speaking to his disciples. The “you” is them. The “little ones” are the disciples. Christ is laying claim on his own. His disciples do not belong to themselves. They do not even belong to one another. They belong to God. Those who recognize and honor this relationship…giving them a cup of cold water, perhaps simply having compassion upon the followers of Christ, will receive their reward.

Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.

“We are the children of Abraham. Today we are brothers.”

Righteousness and submission are wrapped up in one another. Righteousness, obedience/submission and peace are parts of a whole. They all point to relationship with God and knowing who we are…

This takes me back to my experience in the Emergency Room…and my very brief, and very special, career as an Imam.

The doctor and I went with the man to see his father, Sayed. There we all wept. The son prayed in Arabic. He led the doctor and me through several different rituals to prepare the body for burial. The doctor removed all the signs of treatment. I gently turned Sayed’s head so that he faced to his right…as not to look directly upon God.

More family would eventually arrive. I spent several hours praying with this family, assisting them in what they needed. And when they had all gone home, hours later, the doctor and I looked at one another in amazement. We spoke briefly about everything that had happened. Neither of us had ever experienced anything like it. We were both deeply moved and honored.

Now, I don’t want to be too dramatic here, but the correlation is too clear for me, to real to be passed up. Sayed’s son, the doctor and I were all led to a mountain top that day.

Sayed’s son could have said “No. You will not do. I will hold on to my tradition and demand that we get an Imam. I will not give that up.”

The doctor could have said. “It is not my job to remove the i.v. The funeral home does that. I have more important things to do…other patients to see.”

And I could have said, “I am a Christian. I am Baptist. I am not an Imam. I cannot help you in the way you need to be helped. It is not my tradition. I will not be your Imam.”

Instead, we all were willing to sacrifice who we are…our roles, our identities. God intervened and provided a worthier witness. Through that witness of shared grief, pain, compassion and faith we were all made righteous.

Righteousness comes from being willing to sacrifice ourselves, our identities, our own story to God. God’s promise is not undone by this willingness to sacrifice. God will bring the sacrifice. Instead, righteousness works for the salvation of all the world. It brings peace.

This is what righteousness does.
It does not build up walls.
It builds bridges.
It does not isolate communities.
Righteousness brings people together.
Righteousness fulfills the promise of God…the promise that God made with the first breath that brought about all creation.
It feeds the hungry with good things.
It gives hope to the poor.
It causes wars cease.
By righteousness, the slaves are freed.

Our identity is not our own. Who Reconciler is does not belong to Reconciler. Who I am does not belong to me. I believe that I must continually be willing sacrifice myself, even my own faith, to God. When I have done this, it has always been returned to me, richer, more fulfilled…my salvation more real, more present.

And this is the promise of God to this church. God will not strip your identity from you. Far from it. Through you, your identity in Christ, God will work your salvation, the salvation of this neighborhood, and the salvation of this city.

Here is my hope for you all this morning, that for righteousness sake, you will be willing to come to the mountain top and lay down who you are before the altar of God. For God’s promise to you is true. God’s ways are generous.

Welcome the prophet.
Welcome the righteous.
Welcome the little ones…God’s poor.
Welcome this neighborhood…

…for none of you will lose your reward.