Dealing with Difference
by The Reverend John Beddingfield
A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, April 27, 2008 at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C. The lectionary readings are Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18 , 1 Peter 3:13-22 , and John 14:15-21 .
In February, the Archbishop of Canterbury got into huge trouble with a lecture he gave. There were calls for him to step down, to resign and to take back his words.
The whole trouble of his talk had to do with his mention of sharia law, the legal and social code used in some Muslim countries. Rowan Williams was exploring what it means for religious people to live within a system of secular law, especially when those people represent many different religions. Williams noted examples of when Christians are able to break the law for religious reasons and he suggested some places in which British law already matches sharia law. When asked if he thought it unavoidable that the British system might eventually have to incorporate other aspects of sharia law, the archbishop said “yes,” he thought such a thing was probably unavoidable. He ended his lecture by saying
"If we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of 'deconstruction' of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment".
[The entire text of the address: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1575]
Though the archbishop might have taken a little more responsibility for the way in which his words would be heard in the contemporary political climate, it strikes me that Rowan Williams at the Royal Courts of Justice was doing very much the same thing Saint Paul was doing at Areopagus.
Areopagus (the hill of Ares, or for the Romans, Mars Hill) was a great place of meeting in Athens. It was a place where the philosophers debated—the Epicureans, the Stoics, and all the other parties advocating one way of reason or truth as opposed to another.
Many different gods, many different philosophies. But notice how Paul preaches. It’s very unlike most of his preaching elsewhere. In other places, Paul draws on the long tradition of Judaism, showing how Jesus fulfills the traditions and hopes of Judaism. But he knew this wouldn’t play well in Greece. There in Athens, while people would have known a good bit about Judaism, it wasn’t infused into their lives the way it was elsewhere. Paul needed to speak in a way that might be more familiar and accessible to his audience.
To vastly oversimplify what Paul is doing, we could say that he does at least three things: he listens, he looks, and he loves. He listens to those in front of him, he looks for connections, and he loves them as children of God.
Paul listened. He listened enough to know what people believed. He admired their religious beliefs. He noticed that they had a shrine to an unknown god.
Paul looked for connections and found them in the beliefs they could hold in common, in their questioning, in their seeking the truth and looking for God.
Paul loved his audience. Having listened to the Athenians, and having made some connections with them, Paul moves on to be able to offer them his own understanding of the love of God. Still showing them respect, resisting the urge to belittle or discredit the beliefs they already hold, Paul uses what they believe to link them to the love of God. It’s not a mushy, personal affection that Paul feels with the individuals there. Instead, it’s a realization that each one is made in the image of God, and God loves each person as God’s very own daughter or son. And so Paul offers them the sense he has of God’s love and presence. And in the presence of God’s love, there is room to grow.
This threefold way of relating to people is something we all might try from time to time, not only with those who are different from us, but perhaps and even especially with those who are similar but with whom we have trouble communicating or relating.
First there is the opportunity for listening. Listening means not talking, not judging, not assuming we know the mind and heart of the other, but really allowing there to be space. Had Paul approached the Athenians with his own agenda, assuming that they were hellbound pagans who didn’t have much of a belief system at all, his audience would have sense this, and they would not have listened.
Second, there’s the chance for connecting, for finding something in common. We can do this even when we are angry with another person or disagree in the most violent way. If we’re able truly to listen, surely there is something we can find in common, something we share, something we understand in a similar way.
And finally, even when we’re sitting across from someone we genuinely may not like, or not understand; we can envision that person in the presence of God. We can ask God to love this person, even when we’re unable to.
This is hard stuff, this relating to others as though they really were children of God, but it’s what we’re all called to do, not just famous Christians like apostles and archbishops, but each one of us.
And Jesus promises us help. Though it’s hard work dealing with others as children of God, Jesus promises to send us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who encourages, strengthens, and fills us with all spiritual gifts.
Saint Paul had a dramatic setting for engaging people who were different from himself. For most of us, that setting is less dramatic though just as difficult. It involves our family, our coworkers, and our fellow parishioners. As we move toward the Feast of Pentecost, may we be open to this Spirit of Christ to help us listen, connect and love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen
© 2008 John Beddingfield
Check out John's Blogspot: http://beddingfield.blogspot.com/