There is a day from the recent past that we all remember.
On that day, 19 desperate young men commandeered several airplanes, and flew them into the World Trade Center in NYC. I bet you remember exactly where you were that morning and, if I allowed it, we could all tell our stories about it.
We want to tell those stories, because we have not yet accepted all that happened that day. We are still stricken with horror about it. We are still traumatized.
We watched while the unthinkable happened. There was the explosion, and then the fire. There was the hope that it would be put out, that this would soon be over.
We saw people streaming out of the building if they could. Others headed for the roof hoping for rescue. We knew there were a lot of people there. Those buildings were small cities, and we wondered how many had died. We saw the responders, the grim firefighters, doing what they could. We hoped. We didn’t really expect what was going to happen.
Then, the buildings came down. Neater than a house of cards, they just fell in on themselves, and turned lower Manhattan into a toxic hell. Again and again we watched it replayed, hoping for a glimpse of some hope. Finally, when there was no hope, we couldn’t look anymore. Yet, it played over and over and over. You can close your eyes and see it. It was horrible because we knew people were dying in there, crushed under massive weight.
Yes, we remember.
For weeks after that, for months, we saw the pictures of the rubble, and the workers hauling it away. Bodies were found and laid to rest. Others, we knew, would never be found, crushed into the soil of what we began to call Ground Zero.
When bodies were found, there was silence and prayers. Speeches were made there, sermons for a grieving and angry nation. It became holy ground to us. Perhaps that is how most of us think of it today.
Now, we are told, there is to be a mosque built on that very site, on that holy ground. A symbol of the people who did this is to be erected on that spot. It has cleared a series of legal challenges, and been approved for building.
Across the nation, protests have broken out against it. It is an outrage, we are told. It “stabs at the heart of the American people,”said Sarah Palin. It seems so clearly inappropriate. Why must they build there, why not somewhere else?
Actually it’s not a mosque, but a Muslim community center, for use by the community. And it was not on Ground Zero, but several blocks away. But still, you know? It’s wrong. Hmmm.
And what do we think about this?
How do we respond to the people who are asking that this mosque not be built?
How do we talk to the people who are building it?
Is it not our problem, after all. It is in NYC.
But we know that there are issues right here in LA..
I recently attended a program put on by a group here that was telling me that Islam wants to eliminate Christianity. The speaker said that Islam has a desire to spread their faith through the whole world. And isn’t that wrong? I pointed out that Christians have done this too, but he said it’s not the same. He didn’t say how it was different.
So what do we think? I know what I think.
I want to tell you three things about it.
This resistance to the building is not based on the people building it, just on their religion. And Jesus didn’t consider people on the basis of their religion.
This is not to say that Jesus was not of a religion. He was raised Jewish, and would surely have identified himself as Jewish. Of course, the followers of Jesus through history have called themselves Christians, and I identify myself as Christian. But Jesus was not concerned about religion. He was not a religious man. And that’s why his first sermon went so badly.
Here’s what he said: There are key moments in time, and this is one. Changes are coming. But don’t you think that God is on your side, and against anyone, everyone else.
Remember in Elijah’s time, it was a foreigner who was saved. And, in Elisha’s time, it was only Naaman, of all the lepers in the world, Naaman, a commander in the Syrian army, who was healed. So we are not so special. God doesn’t care what religion or race we are. And Jesus’ audience got so mad at this that they attempted to throw him off a cliff.
The gospels tell us that several times Jesus was approached by foreigners. They were not members of the home team. And yet it was these — a woman, a Roman soldier, a prostitute, a Syrian woman, who he said showed greater faith than anyone among “God’s people.” What Jesus was looking for in people was not their religion, but their faith and their love.
This point is made over and over in the Bible, in part, because the people who wrote this book were trying to understand what God was calling them to through Christ. And they were realizing that they were called to build a community of people who didn’t take silly things like race, gender, nationality or religion into account.
The question was, are you a person of faith? And that means, do you love God? Do you love others?
So, point number one. We should not look at Muslims only as members of a particular religion.
In Christ, it is possible to connect with people across the thickest barriers. Jesus told us this: that we should love our enemies. And if we love them, they cannot remain enemies.
I am choosing not to have enemies, and the people building this mosque in NYC are not my enemies, nor are the Muslims here in LA, nor are the Muslims in Afghanistan. Even when there is conflict, they are not my enemies. That’s my choice.
Second is this: I have learned to mistrust a certain word. It’s a simple word, and it can be used properly, but I’m sensitive to when it is not.
They. They. And its variants — them, they’re.
“They are violent people.”
“They are lazy people.”
“You know what they’re trying to do. Just look at them.”
I myself have been “themed” and “theyed,” and I don’t like it.
Friends, there are a billion Muslims in the world, and I don’t think all of them are the same, do you?
There are some Muslims who are fearful, hateful violent people. There are some who are wise, peaceful, happy people. There are some who move back and forth between these poles. And the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world just want to live in peace and safety, surrounded by their family and friends.
When we think of people as categories, we make big mistakes.
I hate it when I get tossed into the category many people have for pastors as distant, judgmental, old dudes who are out of touch.
It breaks my heart when I hear Christian leaders and pastors speaking with hate and fear in their voices, and it ticks me off knowing that people are listening to that and saying, “See how those Christians are?” Yet there is so much disparity of belief among Christians!
Prejudice against Muslims isn’t going to help us anymore than prejudice against French Canadians, or blacks, or women.
One more thing I know. When people in power treat the powerless with fear, I know that a destructive pattern has taken place.
I’m old enough now that I’ve seen people in various groups ask for a level of equality. What these groups do have in common is the fact that in some way they are denied full participation in society. Sometimes these people find the means to stand up and ask that they be recognized as equals.
I have never yet seen a group rise up without another larger group pushing them back down. And I have never heard a group ask to be treated as equals without hearing someone else say that it will be the end of society if they are given equality. So far, this dire result has never happened. In fact, when diversity is increased, things get better. But when equality is asked for, there are always others who say “No!”
Those who have the power in society never give it up easily. And they hold onto it long after they see the negative effect of it on others.
So, here’s a little tip I will pass on: If you find yourself among those who are in power, and are saying "no" to those who are on the margins, you are making a mistake.
If you are one of the millions of Christians in this country who can put a church anywhere you want, and you are saying "no" to Muslims who are pushed to the edges of society, you are making that mistake.
Furthermore, you are not following the way of Jesus.
The fact is, Jesus seemed to lavish his attention on those very people who were pushed to the edge: The poor. The foreigner. Women. Children. Lepers, lame, and other disabled people. Prostitutes. Murderers. Sinners of every kind.
When I am one who stands up against the little ones, I don’t like who I am.
I want to be known for doing what Jesus did, and stand with the little ones.
In our society, our Muslim neighbors are the powerless. They are victims of great prejudice and inequality.
I am not going to add to that. Are you?
Stephen Carnahan is pastor of the High Street Congregational Church and delivered this sermon to parishioners on Sunday, Aug. 15.