The Many Rooms of God (John 14: 1-14)
By Karyn L Wiseman
Global News, Personal Encounters
The news of the world with its conflicts between racial, ethnic and political groups affects us not just on a global level but often on an interpersonal level as we go about our daily living.
Recently I was riding on the regional train line into downtown Philly. On the train were people of several races, genders, gender expressions, and ages. The world news had just reported yet another terrorism attack in Europe and Islamic extremists were suspected. A few weeks earlier multiple Jewish synagogues had been targeted with vandalism and bomb threats. With hate crimes on the rise in the United States and with terrorism still brewing here and abroad, it is hard not to feel the air between neighbors is tenser than before. Our defenses are up. It takes bolder gestures towards understanding to relate to one another.
I'm a people watcher. But I also like to interact with people I meet out in the world. I love the engagement and interpersonal connections. If I cannot get to know them even a tiny bit, I often make-up stories about them. Sometimes I think they might be fairly accurate. Other times, I'm sure that I'm way off. Those assumptions can get me in trouble at times. But they can also provide me with a great opportunity for moments of human connection.
As I walked the center aisle of that commuter train in Philadelphia, I saw two persons: one of Muslim and one of Jewish faith. I was making informed assumptions based on evidence that the man on the train had on a yarmulke and the woman on the train was wearing a hajib.
The older Jewish man was seated near the front of the train car. He sat confidently and met others' eye contact with a sense of kindness. Perhaps his gender had a lot to do with that. I'm not sure. But as I passed by, we had a moment of personal connection. We locked eyes, I nodded to him, and he replied in kind. We smiled at each other.
The young Muslim woman sat very close to the window near the middle of the train car. She was tucked into the corner of the seat, keeping to herself, somewhat wary of others. This young woman appeared to me to be uncomfortable, totally aware of those around her, and barely glancing at those who were passing by. I attempted to make eye contact and she briefly looked in my direction but made no real connection. I saw her glancing around on occasion, watching others but not interacting. That could just be her personality. But I sensed unease.
Obviously, I was reading a lot into body language and brief personal interactions. But I've been people watching and working with folks from a variety of life experiences and religious backgrounds for decades and I've gotten good at reading people. Yes, I could still be way off, but the experience taught me something.
What I learned was that we can interact with persons all the time in many situations every day. I had the privilege to approach these folks, but how others respond is not always up to us. Hate, distrust, world news, violent extremists, personality, past experiences with persons different from ourselves, and other things impact not only who we interact with in the world but also how others see and they respond to us from their own life experiences.
Just as I made some assumptions based on my experiences, the appearance of the two persons on the train, our interactions, and the world situation at that moment, others do the same when they see people both similar and different from themselves. The outside influences that impact those assumptions and interactions are enormous. Sometimes the assumptions we make are correct and sometimes our own prejudices and experiences get in the way.
When Fellow Travelers Become Friends
In the video this week, Jewish and Muslim women break past the barriers of experiences and assumptions to have authentic conversations with one another. Through the Sisters of Salaam Shalom, they are coming together to discover their similarities and bond together as friends and fellow travelers in the world. They are finding common ground, language, or customs to be bridges to relationships. They are not allowing the world to separate them.
The text for today comes at a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus. It happens on the night he was having the last supper with his disciples before his arrest and betrayal. He is giving his followers a sense of the promise of reuniting with their rabbi and leader, Jesus, in the world to come. It is a promise that in God's "house" there is enough room for all of us. But even amid Jesus' promise there is also the problematic phrase, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (v. 6) The narrow interpretation of this phrase is that the only way to one of these rooms is to give one's heart and life to Jesus.
Growing up in "the buckle of the Bible-belt" in Texas, I was subjected to the judgment and pressure that as a Christian, you must accept "Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior." I heard this on so many occasions that I grew up hating the phrase. I came to believe that this narrowing of the love and grace of God to one expression or pathway to God was inappropriate.
My own Lutheran congregation proclaims every Sunday, "We find our approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ who is our model for living. We recognize the faithfulness of other paths which may also lead people to an experience of God." This kind of openness is what I was looking for.
But some in our world view persons of different faiths as the enemy. They act in hateful and violent ways. The Sisters of Salaam Shalom are working past the differences and the hate to form real relationships. These women know they are in this life together. They know that we have more in common than we are different. They know that amid hate, indifference, greed, violence, and judgment, we can only make it if we band together.
Many Rooms, Many Paths
There are many rooms and many pathways to God, Allah, Yhwh and we are called as followers of a grace-filled God to love and respect them all. Jesus was reassuring his followers that he is their way. But I believe that he never meant he was the only way.
Jesus knew they needed hope. He knew that despite their world falling apart around them in the coming days, they needed each other.
Connecting When It's Not Your Usual Route
That day on the train I sat behind the young Muslim woman, Naja, and engaged her in conversation cautiously. After exchanging greetings, we started a conversation about the weather, our kids, and about the train not being very crowded. As we went deeper, she shared that this was not her usual route and that she knows people on other routes that sit next to her to make her feel safer. The train ride was an opportunity to connect to another human being who was a bit afraid. And it was a chance to learn about the ways she interacts with the world.
We live in an era where hate against others often happens and distrust is rampant. Jewish, Muslims, and Christians can and must form relationships.
I believe the rooms Jesus was describing are for all persons. I believe the welcome from God is incredibly diverse with vibrant differences and rich variety. I want to be in one of the rooms and I want to see my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters next door.
A narrow view of who is welcome in God's house does nothing but separate us from one another. Don't forget there are MANY rooms. All are welcome.
How do you cross lines of faith that are drawn by others? How do you bridge differences and share in the similarities of life and love?
When you see others in public spaces who might be at risk or fearful, what is your role as a follower of Jesus? Protection? Engagement? Advocacy? How do you live into that role?
What are the "rooms" you inhabit in the world and how can you invite and welcome others into them?
For Further Reading:
Eboo Patel. Interfaith Leadership: A Primer. Beacon Press, 2016. You can also check out Interfaith Youth Core at https://www.ifyc.org/the-interfaith-story
Work with an Interfaith organization in your community, region or state similar to the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia. http://www.interfaithcenterpa.org They have abundant resources like: https://sofiaalikhan.com/dear-non-muslim-allies-letters/
FAQ about the Muslim Community - https://ing.org/top-100-frequently-asked-questions-about-muslims-and-their-faith/
Tools and strategies to fight anti-Semitism -- https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/question-corner
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