[color=#339999]a sermon by donel mcclellan
first congregational united church of christ
[color=#339999]hot topics for the summer: should christians convert muslims?
[color=#339999]genesis 21:8-20- pentecost 7 - july 27, 2003
ishmael, the child of abraham and hagar, the brother of isaac, was saved by god to live and to prosper and to have many descendants. just as jews and christians trace our lineage back to abraham through isaac, muslims trace their heritage to abraham through ishmael. three of the world's great religions, judaism, christianity and islam are religions of the book. jews, christians and muslims are cousins. unfortunately there is strife within the family. this morning i want to address a small part of this tension and ask, should christians convert muslims?
this month i have been reading yann martel's marvelous novel, life of pi
. it is the story of a young east indian boy, piscine patel, who has such an openness to religion that he begins to participate in the hindu, christian, and moslem communities. none of the leaders of those religious groups realize that piscene is part of the others. nor is his family aware of his religious inclusiveness.
one hot sunday afternoon when piscene was sixteen, his family walked along the esplanade on the bay of bengal when, improbably, all three of the religious leaders happened upon them: he christian priest, the muslin imam and the hindu pandit.
as piscine describes it:
after the "hellos" and the "good days", there was an awkward silence. the priest broke it when he said, with pride in his voice, "piscine is a good christian boy. i hope to see him join our choir soon."
my parents, the pandit and the imam looked surprised.
"you must be mistaken. he's a good muslim boy. he comes without fail to friday prayer, and his knowledge of the holy qur'an is coming along nicely." so said the imam.
my parents, the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.
the pandit spoke. "you're both wrong. he's a good hindu boy. i see him all the time at the temple coming for darshan and performing puja."
my parents, the imam and the priest looked astounded.
"there is no mistake," said the priest. "i know this boy. he is piscine molitor patel and he's a christian."
"i know him too, and i tell you he's a muslim," asserted the imam. "nonsense!" cried the pandit. "piscine was born a hindu, lives a hindu and will die a hindu!"
the three wise men stared at each other, breathless and disbelieving. "piscine, can this be true?" asked the imam earnestly. "hindus and christians are idolaters. they have many gods."
"and muslims have many wives," responded the pandit.
the priest looked askance at both of them. "piscine," he nearly whispered, "there is salvation only in jesus."
the pandit interrupted them quietly. in tamil he said, "the real question is, why is piscine dallying with these foreign religions?"
father raised his hands. "gentlemen, gentlemen, please!" he interjected. "i would like to remind you there is freedom of practice in this country."
the pandit spoke first. "mr. patel, piscine's piety is admirable. in these troubled times it's good to see a boy so keen on god. we all agree on that." the imam and the priest nodded. "but he can't be a hindu, a christian and a muslim. it's impossible. he must choose."
"i don't think it's a crime, but i suppose you're right," father replied.
the three murmured agreement and looked heavenward, as did father, whence they felt the decision must come. mother looked at me.
a silence fell heavily on my shoulders.
"hmmm, piscine?" mother nudged me. "how do you feel about the question?"
"bapu gandhi said, all religions are true.' i just want to love god," i blurted out, and looked down, red in the face. 
would that interfaith dialogue were so easy. the story, of course is pure fiction, for only fiction can lift us above our captivity to facts and past experience.
early in july, marilyn and i drove to vancouver bc to take our nephew mark baldwin and a friend to dinner. mark is a professor of education at california state university san marcos but is spending two years at the united arab emirates university as a consultant. his friend and colleague was dr. abdullah al-khanbashi, director of the university general requirements unit.
we began the afternoon by listening to their presentation on the challenges of providing an education in english to arab students who had been taught in arabic through high school. the united arab emirates have decided that english will be the language of higher education because it is the language of science and business and will provide more equity to their graduates.
abdullah is a handsome young man in his 30's with an american education and a doctorate in chemical engineering. he is clearly a rising star on the campus of this university of 15,000 students which was founded in 1976.
we talked about many things but spent some time comparing culture and religion. i asked about islamic fundamentalists. he insisted that there are no fundamentalists in islam. those radical groups are not true muslims because they ignore the clear teaching of the qu'ran about respect for all people and cooperation among nations. his faith values the traditions of his people but is perfectly comfortable with the life of the intellect and the scientific modernization of his society. abdullah's religious faith and cultural history are of a piece. he is as fine example of the muslim faith as you are of the christian faith. i found much to admire in this new acquaintance.
based upon this conversation i looked for some information about islam and discovered that it is the second largest religion on earth (after christianity) and the third largest religion in america (after christianity and judaism). it is expected that in the next couple of decades it will be the second largest religion in the united states.
although islam has a great deal in common with christianity and judaism as one of the religions of the book, it is considered foreign and strange to many americans.
muslims are the majority population in fifty-six countries worldwide and, contrary to the assumptions of the west, only 20% of the world's 1.2 billion muslims are arabs. the largest populations are in indonesia, pakistan, bangladesh and india.
the prophet muhammad lived in the sixth century in mecca which, at that time was becoming a wealthy center of trade with a growing division between the rich and the poor and a disregard for the worship of god. muhammad preached a message of return to the worship of the one true god and a socially just society.
muslims believe that god sent revelations to moses-- the hebrew scriptures, then to jesus--the gospels, and finally to muhammad--the quran. from their perspective, muhammad did not found a new religion, but called people back to a way of life they had forgotten.
the kaaba, which is illustrated on the cover of your bulletin, is the most sacred space in the muslim world. it is the site in mecca to which muslims turn each day when they pray. islamic belief holds that the original kaaba was built by adam as the first house of worship to the one god. it was destroyed only to be rebuilt by abraham and ishmael. islam requires that each muslim, if financially able, make a pilgrimage to mecca once during their lifetime to worship at the site of the kaaba.
there is a tendency in all religions to measure their own worth by their highest teachings and to measure other faiths by their worst excesses. that feeds the unfair assumptions that islam blesses war and terrorism and that it endorses violence. in fact, islam has been more accepting of other faiths over the years than has christianity. in 1492, not only did christopher columbus set sail from spain, but granada fell and the militant effort to forcibly drive the muslim moors out of spain and southern europe took hold.
when we american christians approach the muslim world, we tend do so armed with the terrible twin weapons of ignorance and arrogance.
as a western culture our ignorance about the muslim world is vast and lamentable. although our schools
have been attempting to provide a multi-cultural understanding of the world, it is hard for most western christians to imagine a life which is not undergirded by our own economic and theological assumptions.
a simple but telling example was the innocent use of the word crusade
by our president to describe the war on terrorism. to the muslin world, the crusades were a savage attack on their faith and culture for reasons which were more economic than religious. that simple word drove a wedge of misunderstanding between the west and the middle east.
our arrogance comes from a theological one-note-samba which took a stranglehold on christian culture over a hundred years ago and has never released its grip. for many people, the christian faith is reduced to one statement by jesus in john, the least historical and most metaphorical of the gospels. john 14:16 quotes jesus as saying, "i am the way, and the truth, and the life. no one comes to the father except through me."
in the first week of july, pat robertson illustrated a narrow logic in criticizing president bush for demanding that charles taylor, the president of liberia, resign from office. much of the world understands that charles taylor has been accused of corruption and charged by a un war crimes tribunal for his support of rebels in neighboring sierra leone. however pat robertson's evaluation is independent of such historical charges. he told the 700 club
"we're undermining a christian, baptist president to bring in muslim rebels to take over the country, . . . how dare the president of the united states say to the duly elected president of another country, 'you've got to step down.'"
by holding one passage as the lens through which we view the whole of the christian faith we distort the nature of jesus' life and ministry. did jesus ever turn away anyone because they were different? no, he was a friend of the poor and the wealthy, men and women, jews and non-jews such as the samaritan woman at the well. jesus' life was inclusive and welcoming. shall we deny everything we know about jesus because we take one, apparently exclusive statement, as the primary truth about our lord? "certainly not," i say. that interpretation is a theological choice made years ago by people who do not understand the world and other cultures as we do today.
as john killinger puts it in his new book, ten things i learned wrong from a conservative church
"so jesus, who in person was the great leveler, the wonderful unifier always breaking down walls and reaching out to the unredeemed and the untouchable, has ironically become the great divider, separating people into the saved and unsaved, the righteous and unrighteous. today, more than anything else, he prevents his followers' acceptance of muslims, jews, hindus, buddhists, shintoists, pantheists and liberals." 
as christians, we have a responsibility to act in the highest traditions of acceptance and inclusiveness towards those of other faiths. we must continue to assist other countries in improving their educational and medical systems. out task is to serve others in jesus' name, not to make them like us.
should christians convert muslims? my answer is no. they worship the same god we worship, they are cousins in the ancient faith of abraham, and they have much to teach us about making faith a practical part of everyday life.
. yann martel, life of pi
, harcourt harvest book, 2001 p. 64ff.
. from sightings 7/24/03, an email newsletter from the martin marty center at the university of chicago divinity school.
. john killinger, ten things i learned wrong from a conservative church
, crossroad publishing company, 2002, p. 51
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