A Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 11, August 24, 2003, dedicated to Kyle Zachary Daniels on his baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
Genesis 21:1-14; John 6: 56-59
(IV of V in the sermon series,"Abraham: Father of Three Faiths")
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our salvation. Amen.
The headlines this week read that two suicide bombers - one in Baghdad and one in Jerusalem - killed over 50 people and injured several hundred more in the name of Allah. In addition, our American and British troops continue to suffer losses in Iraq as Islamic warriors throw themselves at us in the name of Allah. You and I continue to wonder - how could faith in our One God be named as the source for killing, maiming, and destroying the lives of innocents, soldiers, and self-proclaimed martyrs?
At the same time in recent weeks, not far from Baghdad another story has begun to leak out to the listening world. At Ezekiel's tomb, a community of Shiite Muslims has taken it upon themselves to protect and defend the resting place of the Hebrew Scripture's prophet - who died and was buried while his people were in exile in Babylon over 1500 years ago. When the small community of Jewish protectors moved from the tomb in 1948, the Shiites took it upon themselves to hold this sacred trust of care for this prophet's final resting place. When asked recently "why" they have done this, often under the threat of persecution, they said, "It is the right thing to do. Ezekiel is our prophet, too!" You and I wonder - "what fuels this amazing faith called Islam? - of which we know all too little. Let us look . . .
"The idea that in the seventh century after Christ another religion would arise out of the Middle East, use the same basic narrative as Judaism and Christianity, then quickly supplant them in terms of political and religious power came as a shock to almost everyone - including Arabs" (Abraham, Bruce Feiler, WmMorrow, Harper and Collins, New York, NY, 2002, pp. 163-164).
It did not surprise the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad was an unlikely messenger. He was around forty when he received his first revelation in 610. He was a well-to-do trader, married to an older woman and illiterate. He hardly fit the profile of a revolutionary. He had learned a lot while traveling throughout the Arabian Peninsula, an area beset by feuding tribes. Because of the poor land in this parched core of the Fertile Crescent, the Arabians had not shared in the abundance of culture and power that a regular water source had brought to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and even the Promised Land. As a result, these Bedouin tribes had no agricultural surplus, no need for a complex society, and no drive for advancing civilization. And 2500 years removed from Abraham and 600 years apart from Christ, Arabians were still largely polytheists (Ibid ,reference p. 164).
When Muhammad began preaching in 612, two years after beginning his prophetic writings in the Koran (which simply means recitations), he knew Arabia was changing. His tribe, the Qurysh, was beginning to become involved with international trade routes and more complex financial transactions. Muhammad not only recognized this change, but he was able to husband it as well. Muhammad brought, in the poetic language of his people, a message of hope, grace, and destiny. He brought them the message of one God, Allah.
Many say that Muhammad spoke an Arabic even more arresting and powerful than anyone had heard at the time, and few have heard since. Bruce Feiler writes in Abraham, "One reason the Koran continues to exert such influence is that the poetic language reproduced in its suras has a luxuriance attributable only to God" (p. 165). In the Koran there is no third-person narrative. God speaks directly in all the Koran's 6,200 verses. With no filtering of God's word, theologians have had a hard time picking it apart, as has been done with the Bible. That has left the interpretation in the hands of pious believers not academically trained scholars.
In addition, the message is filled with figures already familiar to listeners. The six greatest prophets are Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. As cited earlier in relation to Ezekiel, the Koran recognizes all the Old and New Testament prophets as important and necessary to delivering God's eternal word. Many believe that, had Muhammad known of other religions which speak of One God, he would have also incorporated them into the Koran.
But most significantly for his nomadic audience, Muhammad rooted his message in the story of Abraham! Abraham is mentioned in 25 of the Koran's 114 suras (or chapters). And the prevailing message about Abraham is that he was upright, submitted himself to God, and rejected idol worship (Ibid, p. 166).
Thus, the starting point for Islam is remarkably similar to starting point for Judaism and Christianity: Have faith in God. And the one man who best personifies this faith in God is Abraham. Bill Graham, the Harvard Islamicist says, "Why Abraham to me is such an interesting figure, is that while we don't know anything about him historically, there is this Near Eastern tradition that somehow portrays him as a man of unimaginable, almost idiotic faith. A man who in the face of all rationality believes in God. And because of that, he stands out in history - whether he is mythological or real - as the figure who somehow catches the imagination of all three faith traditions" (Ibid, p.166).
In the early years of Muhammad's preaching, he was careful to stress that Abraham was a universal figure of faith. He spoke of the coming together of Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the People of the Book, who all believed in the same God. Muhammad truly believed that Christians and Jews would follow his return to pure monotheism. He worked closely with Jewish leaders in Medina, a city with 10,000 Jewish inhabitants, to enhance his knowledge of the Bible and to adjust his new religion to accommodate his allies even more. He set his weekly prayer time on Friday afternoon to coincide with the Jewish preparation for the Sabbath (and not to compete, as the Christians did, with the Jewish work week). In the early years, he encouraged his worshipers to pray toward Jerusalem and declared that the Jewish Day of Atonement would be a day of fasting for Muslims, too.
But, Muhammad's warm relations with Jews did not last. Both Jews and Christians refused to accept Muhammad as a prophet. He became frustrated with their lack of recognition and the tone of the suras in the Koran begins to harshen towards his monotheistic brothers and sisters. In sura 5 the text reads, "The Jews and the Christians say, `We are the children of God and his loved ones.' Say (to them) `Why then does he punish you for your sins?'" He points at Christians and says, "Unbelievers are those who declare: `God is the Messiah, the son of Mary.'" A split begins to form between Islam on one side and Christians and Jews on the other side. As in the past, when new believers offer a clear, universal message to established believers who fail to embrace it, the new believers proceeds on their own. In the words of Jesus when speaking to his disciples as they head out on their mission: "If you come to a town where they reject you, shake the dust off your sandals and move on."
By 624, Mohammad is shaking the sand off his sandals and moving on. He asks his disciples to turn from Jerusalem and offer their prayers facing Mecca - the birthplace of the prophet and a central place of Abraham's establishing monotheism. When Muslims today point to Muhammad's early words about accepting all religions who worship one God, Bill Graham of Harvard responds, that over time the Koran increasingly challenges Jews and Christians to respond to God's voice speaking now - a voice to which Muhammad feels they have become deaf.
Through all these early years of struggle, Abraham remained at the center of Islamic writing and faith. While the God of Abraham was split once again, Abraham survived another incarnation of his importance in the life of evolving faith! In fact, Arabian Muslims saw themselves clearly as the recipients of God's blessing, the sons of Abraham, tracing their linage through Ishmael and Hagar. Arabian tradition held that Ishmael and Hagar had settled in Mecca (home of Muhammad) when they had been cast out of Abraham's tent - thanks to Sarah. When Abraham visited them there, he helped Ishmael rebuilt the Kabah - a stone which Adam had orbitally erected, but had fallen into disrepair. The Kabah is the centering stone for the annual pilgrimage of the hajj, which every Muslim is called upon to make at least once in their lifetime. Thus, Abraham and Muhammad were linked by family, by geography and, of course, by faith in One God.
By 628, Muhammad's followers had slaughtered 700 Jews in Medina and sold their women and children into slavery. Any hope of long term alliances between the faiths was shattered and the new Muslims were strong enough to stand on their own. In Bruce Feiler's words, "By the year of his death, 632, Muhammad controlled all of Arabia. Monotheism had a new member religion; Abraham had a new address."
In the final sermon next Sunday, we will examine how the three faiths rooted in Abraham might, in our day, find a path through the malaise of our twisted histories - a wandering forward in hope with father Abraham as our nomadic guide. Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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