How can we keep Christ at the center of our lives without giving into the intolerance of other faiths that is so tempting these days?
By Rev. Jerry Hancock
I am so happy to be at Memorial this morning. This church and you all have been supportive of the Prison Ministry Project and my call to ministry since before the beginning. Phill and Bonnie were my best and truest guides in leading me away from being a lawyer and beginning my attornment by going to prison.
This morning, I want to talk about four of my favorite things; the Bible, Christmas, donuts and Mt Rainier. But those are just excuses to talk about tolerance. I know that tolerance has been on your minds a lot recently. The letter you sent last month in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters was wonderful and I was delighted that it got so much attention.
These days, when terror is all around us, it is hard to find the right words to be a Christian voice for tolerance when so many other voices are using Christian words to justify intolerance.
It is hard to find the right words when the Bible seems co-opted by voices of intolerance. Particularly at Christmas.
I a couple of friends of mine always said they got lost when the scripture reading stated on Sunday morning. It was not their words. It was not their story. It was not their gender. So one became a Unitarian and the other a Buddhist.
All of us who stand up here know that reality. While the Bible is our story and we are sticking with it, the text on a Sunday morning can be obscure, confusing, outside of any relatable context and– try as we might– exclusionary. It is sometimes downright offensive.
But not at Christmas. This is the story that we have heard all our lives:
Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem because of the census.
No room at the inn.
The time came for her to delivered.
the swaddling clothes.
We read this story in Sunday school, we role played this story in generations of Christmas pageants , with every creasch we make, with every carol we sing, this is the story we know better than any other. This is our story like no other.
Culturally in America, Christmas is the season when we are most adamant in staking our claim to being God’s most favored child, if not God’s only child. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas no other faith tradition has much of a chance.
For some Christians the unmistakable message of the Christmas season is:
We are the flock.
Jesus is our shepherd.
The rest of you are on your own and good luck with that.
I know many of us who are faithful Christians are uncomfortable with these excessive claims of being the most favored. But how can we keep Christ at the center of our lives without giving into the intolerance of other faiths that is so tempting these days?
One way is to listen carefully to the Gospel. In the Gospel of John (John 10:16), Jesus uses the image of the good shepherd to explain his relationship to his followers. He says the good shepherd knows his sheep, he calls them by name, he protects them from danger, he shows them the way. This is an image I remember as a kid in Sunday school, the picture of Jesus carrying a lamb over his shoulder. But after defining himself as the good Shepard, Jesus calls us to tolerance with these words:
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”
In this season of Advent, we anticipate the arrival of our Good Shepard. We delight in the care He gives to us. But I find it hard to believe that that care is exclusive.
In spite of all the Bible based claims that are used to exclude people from basic human dignity because they are not Christians, The Gospel says He has other sheep not of this fold. His care is inclusive not exclusive. That is in the Bible. It is, the Gospel Truth. “He has other sheep not of this fold”
Who are these other sheep and how to we relate to them?
Recognizing who they are and finding better ways to understand each other is our challenge for this Christmas Season.
One of the most common ways of thinking about religious differences is to imagine that all faiths are climbing the same mountain. We are just following different paths to the top. We are all trying to get to heaven but we follow different traditions to get there and we should respect each other’s traditions. The mountain image is more or less true for Christian’s, Jew’s and Muslims who do worship the same God in different ways. But the idea that we are all climbing the same mountain of faith seriously underestimates both mountains and faith.
Mt. Rainer is just outside Seattle: on a clear day it almost seems to float over the city and Puget Sound. It is the second highest mountain in the lower forty-eight states. Some mountains in Colorado are almost as high, but they start at a base of 6,000 feet and rise to a pointy summit at over 14,000 feet. Mt. Rainer starts at sea level and rises to a volcanic cone. Anyone who has seen it from Seattle, or flying over it knows that it is impressive. Looking at it from the base is almost overpowering.
And that is where I started my climb. Having grown up in the Colorado, I had climbed Pikes Peak and some of the other accessible 14,000 foot mountains. To be clear, these were not dangerous or even technical climbs; in fact at the summit of Pikes Peak you can get hot donuts.
Mt. Rainer is much different. It is a technical assent over glaciers. It usually takes two days to get up and back. Usually you go in a group, roped together with a guide. The guide knows your name. The guide knows the way. The guide knows the dangers. The guide would always give up his or her life to save the climbers. On the mountain of tolerance, my experience on Mt. Rainer seems to be a very Christian path to the summit. My fellow climbers and I were the sheep and our guide was Jesus. I knew there were other ways to get to the top but this was my way.
As appealing as the image of all faiths climbing to the top of the same mountain trying to get to heaven by different paths may be, it is just too simple a metaphor for tolerance. It might encourage a kind of passive acceptance, but it falls short of the understanding that true tolerance requires.
In thinking about my experience on Mt. Rainer and the metaphor of the mountain of tolerance, I remembered several other kinds of people I met at the base. Some were there to hike the trials just to look at the flowers. Some were there just to hike to the ice caves. Some were there to hike all the way around the base of the mountain. Some were there to repair the damage the other hikers and climbers had done to the trails. None of them shared my obsession in getting to the top. Even getting to the top was not a singular goal. Unlike Pikes Peak where there is only one place to get donuts, Mt. Rainer is a volcano and any point on the rim is considered the summit.
Our reasons for being there at the base of Mt. Rainer were very different. Our equipment was very different. Our techniques were very different. We were going in different directions. But we were all on some trail and all respected each other’s journeys.
For many of faith traditions an upward pathway to God is an unknown and irrelevant idea. Loving our neighbors requires that we respect those traditions.
When Jesus, the good Shepard, says I have other sheep not of this fold is once again reminding us that his love is not exclusive it is always inclusive . If that’s where He is that is where we must be. That is the Gospel truth.