Harrowing Of Hell
September 13, 2015

Islam, Jesus, and Empathy

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I wanted to write a sermon about Islam because it is in the news and has been on my mind—particularly because of some of the experiences I had during my Sabbatical—but Jesus got in the way. So it turns out this sermon will be about empathy not Islam, though Islam was helpful in moving my mind toward the topic of empathy, which surprised me, given my very conflicted feelings about Islam.

What tripped me up was this line in the Gospel, where Jesus says: “You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” It was his response to Peter. They are coming back from Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks, “Who do people think that I am?” Peter responds, “The Messiah.” And Jesus continues, “Yes. The Messiah who is going to Jerusalem and will die on a cross.”

“No!” Peter replies. “No, that is not our Messiah. Our Messiah is about conquest, not crucifixion.”

And in this conversation between Jesus and Peter we see unfold the distinction between an idea and incarnation. Until the presence of Jesus, the Messiah had been an idea—an idea of a man who would come and lead the people of Israel to a place of supremacy and peace. That was the idea, formed like a cloud in the minds of many. And, like clouds, no two are the same. That is the reality of an idea. It is particular to the person who holds it. And when the idea seeks to become a reality, conflict can occur.

Jesus is the incarnation, the reality of the idea of the Messiah, and he knows, because he knows the mind of humanity, that when an idea becomes a real thing there can be conflict. Does this mean violence? It doesn’t have to, but Jesus knew that in his case it would.

Peter doesn’t understand this, so Jesus gives him a shorthand way of thinking about it: Set your mind on heaven, not humanity. This is going to prove a paradox for us because when Jesus is talking about heaven he is talking about flesh and blood, the here and now, this moment. And when he is talking about humanity he is talking about the cloud of ideas, the things of the mind, or the future, or the abstract, which is exactly the opposite of what we might think. It sounds weird, but only because we tend to forget that this is heaven, right here, right now.

Jesus came to teach us that the kingdom of heaven is present on earth, and we are its residents. And while the capacity to have ideas is a gift from God, these intellectual constructions are only as good as their practical application in heaven. They are only good if they allow us to touch the core fundamental principle that Jesus teaches us: that heaven is most fully realized when we love our neighbor, because God loves our neighbor.

We bear witness to this love in the story of Hagar and Ishmael. She is a slave, which is a human idea. She is rejected by Sarah. She is expelled by Abraham. It is a complicated scenario ready made for another sermon. But in our passage today, we see her abandoned in the desert with her son, alone and vulnerable. I have thought a lot about her this past week, not because people believe she might be the forbearer of Mohammed, but because of her vulnerability.

As I think about Hagar, I remember a moment when I was afraid, when I thought my child’s hand might slip from my own grasp. I remember calling out to God. I remember that moment. I remember how I felt.

I was on Sabbatical in the Holy Land with my son Desmond. We were in Galilee staying at Pilgerhaus, a German retreat center I’ve stayed at before. It is lovely and serene. It was Sunday morning about 6:30 and I was out jogging. I had left Desmond asleep in the room. I headed up the coast along the Sea of Galilee toward Capernaum. It was a beautiful morning, and I was lost in my thoughts. I was probably a couple miles out when I heard a very loud boom, something like an explosion. I looked off toward Syria. That was my first impulse, because of everything happening in Syria. That is where the mind of an American goes.

I saw no smoke, so I ran on. Then I heard another boom, so this time I turned on my heels and ran and ran and ran back to Pilgerhaus because that is what you do when you hear a boom and don’t know where it is coming from. All I could think of was Desmond. And I prayed to God for safety.

But even as I prayed, I was mad. I was really mad. My anger went immediately to ISIS, to Hezbollah, and to the idea of Islam that they lay claim to. It was “their” fault (whoever “their” was) that I couldn’t have a peaceful, normal Sunday-morning run along the lake. I was mad that I had to feel this way, this fear, this anxiety, this vulnerability.

I flew onto the tranquil campus and across its sprawling gardens to our room. And there was Desmond sitting on the balcony looking out across the Sea of Galilee at Syria. Between gasps, I asked him to go into the room, while I packed. “Why?” he asked. “Just go in the room.” I said.

We heard another boom. We were leaving that morning any way. We just left sooner and faster. I asked the lady at the front desk what the sound was. She thought it might be fishermen on the lake. Right! Fishing with dynamite on the Sea of Galilee at 7 am on Sunday? No one else around seemed at all concerned. They were mostly German. We scurried out of there anyway.

By the time Desmond and I arrived in Nazareth for church my anxiety had subsided and I remembered where I had heard that sound before. It was the sound of jets breaking the sound barrier. My theory was supported by friends in Jerusalem; it was the Israeli military patrolling the northern border.

This experience, even though those booms weren’t bombs, even though the anxiety came from within me, not the reality around me, that experience heightened in my mind my conflicted feeling about Islam.

Then Desmond and I went to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There is nothing that provokes more contempt in me, and probably most Americans, than seeing a man in jeans and tennis shoes talking into the mesh-covered face of his wife while sipping tea.

And my conflicted feelings about Islam have continued since I returned home, fueled, I suspect, by a steady diet of news on the war in the Middle East, and ISIS, and the refugees, and the recruitment of disenfranchised Americans over the Internet. And all of this makes me wonder about Islam, the idea of it, and the more I wonder about the idea of it, the more conflicted I feel. And I don’t like feeling that way. It doesn’t feel good, or healthy, or holy.

So what helps, what returns me to some semblance of equanimity is returning to Jesus. Not Christianity, because the idea of Christianity has its own historical complexity. No, what helps is returning to Jesus, the person, the personal, the incarnation…and hearing him say, “Doyt, set your mind not on human things, but on divine things.” That is why I read the Bible, so I can hear him and remember. That is why I come to church, so I can hear him and remember.

My spiritual discipline in the face of my conflicting feelings about Islam is to remember Jesus. Islam has given me cause to redouble my relationship with Jesus, and has opened me to empathy and grounded me in the kingdom of heaven.

I believe that if we look deep enough, we can remember a time when we felt like our child’s hand might slip from our grasp. If we look deep enough, we can remember a time when we felt like our mother’s hand or father’s hand might slip from our grasp. We can return to that feeling of being scared and vulnerable, like we might let go. We can remember, and these memories move us to empathy and ground us in the kingdom of heaven.

When I saw on the news the other day, that man running across a field in Hungary, carrying his child and getting tripped by a camera woman, I remembered Jesus. I don’t know if he was Muslim or not, but it doesn’t matter. He was a person, personal, and incarnational, and a resident of the kingdom of heaven. All I know was that he was vulnerable. I remembered Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman in Tyre, the blind man, the leper, and the little children who he blessed. I remembered the outsider, who I know to be my neighbor, who is loved by God, like Hagar and Ishmael. I remembered my time of vulnerability, and I knew for a moment what it might feel like to be that Dad just barely holding on.

I invite you to remember your moment of vulnerability and how that connects you to the outsider as your neighbor, and grounds you in the Kingdom of God through the person of Jesus.