February 26th – Steve Jungkeit
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Ruth 1: 6-17; Romans 12: 9-18
February 26, 2017
Our Sanctuary is Your Sanctuary, Part II: A Muslim and Christian Friendship
“Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay, your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.”
Those are words from the Book of Ruth, a lovely, if also a heartrending tale about loss, but also about the bonds of friendship and love that develop between two women. It’s a story found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it constitutes one of the great gifts bequeathed to us in the pages of the Bible. It’s a story we need right about now.
Here it is, in a nutshell. Naomi lives with her husband and two sons in Bethlehem, but food is scarce, and so the family opts to become refugees, journeying to a neighboring land that is more prosperous. While the family is there, Naomi’s sons mature, and in time, they both marry women from that neighboring land. These are marriages across cultures, across religious lines, across tribal and familial allegiances. One daughter in law is named Orpah. The other is Ruth. But after a decade, tragedy strikes, and Naomi’s husband dies. Both of her sons do too. The text doesn’t tell us what happened or why, only that it happened. Some of you have experienced the death of a spouse, and a few of you, I know, have even lived through the death of a child. And so you know how everything in life gets scrambled and rearranged after such an event. But it’s even more complex for Naomi, for she is an exile, and she decides to return to Bethlehem to be with her own people. And she urges Orpah and Ruth to return to their own homes, and to rebuild their lives, for she has nothing further to offer them by way of a future. Orpah protests, but then relents, and departs. Ruth, however, chooses to remain. A bond had developed between the women, and Ruth decides that her future lies within that bond, and not outside of it. Despite the differences of culture, history, and language between the women, Ruth chooses to preserve that bond, rather than letting the circumstances of life dissolve it. I suspect the bond between Ruth and Naomi was forged in their shared adversity and sorrow, as they came to depend upon one another for their well being. “Where you go I will go,” Ruth says. “Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.” Ruth’s story is a beautiful testimony to the power of friendship, to the power of walking together, to the power of journeying with one another, especially through difficult or painful moments.
I cite the story of Ruth because it functions as a parable for the kind of friendships that I believe each of us is called to. I cite the story of Ruth because it’s a parable for the kind of friendship that I believe our entire community is called to. I cite the story of Ruth because it might even function as a metaphor for the relationships that we’re celebrating today with our friends from the Berlin mosque. That set of relationships developed through shared visits and journeys and conversations, and I can tell you that I can think of few leaders of religious communities whose wisdom I trust more than Reza or Aida Mansoor, or the many other individuals we’re privileged to know within the Muslim community here in Connecticut. In a time when suspicion and fear are being directed toward the Muslim community with renewed force, I wonder if Ruth’s words to Naomi might also be used to ground our relationships with our Muslim friends: “Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God.” It’s a vision of accompaniment, of journeying with one another, of sharing life with one another. It’s a vision in keeping with the sort of stretch theology I’ve been advocating around here for a while now, where drawing close in relationship with others opens us to a holy envy, rendering the borders between traditions and practices more than a little porous.
I don’t need to tell you how important those bonds of affection are right now. I don’t need to tell you how important it is for different religious faiths to accompany one another through what may prove to be perilous times. I don’t need to tell you such things. But I will. Muslims have been rendered incredibly vulnerable by voices that have attempted to delegitimize Islam, making it somehow alien to what is called “American life,” or “Western Civilization.” Several weeks ago, some kind and generous soul anonymously sent me a brochure that detailed all the ways Muslims supposedly undermined American democracy, relying on stereotypes and misinformation that reminded me of the anti-Semitic document from the early 20th century, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That document described a global conspiracy of Jews intent on world domination, a piece of propaganda that spread through Europe, and that Henry Ford himself paid to have printed and distributed throughout the United States. The brochure I received wasn’t nearly as sophisticated, though I hesitate to apply that term to The Protocols. It was crude, but it traded in some of the same tropes, like these: Islam is bent on world domination. The Muslim mind is incapable of exercising reason, and is hostile to science. Islam spreads dictatorships and terror, while the West spreads democracy. The Koran is a uniquely violent document. And Islam and its practitioners are a monolithic entity, where everyone somehow shares identical beliefs and practices. It’s painful to repeat those stereotypes, because they’re so flagrantly misinformed. But the brochure I received represents the kind of paranoia that’s afflicting many segments of our culture right now, even among some otherwise thoughtful people. And while a part of me feels a sense of frustration and outrage over what seem to be willful misrepresentations, another larger part of me feels heartsick, because the capacity for relationship, for trust, for conversation, and for friendship has been foreclosed. There can be no Ruths or Naomis in such a paranoid climate.
Reza and Aida Mansoor have been tireless in their efforts to help individuals and communities understand Islam a little better, and to help everyone, even those of us who occupy a different religious identity, to fall in love with Islam. I don’t know how they manage to be in all of the places that they do. Their energy and their spirit seem boundless to me. I’ve asked them to share a little of what they’re experiencing these days, in hopes that our bonds of friendship will continue to grow as we journey with one another into the mystery of life, into the mystery of God, into our shared commitment to stay human in what is coming to seem like an inhumane time. And so I’m delighted to welcome Reza/Aida to the pulpit this morning.
Reza (9:00)/Aida (11:00)
Let me conclude with an image. Every few months I find myself on the Tappan Zee Bridge, crossing the Hudson River. Over the last two years, a new structure has started to take shape alongside the old one, and I look forward to seeing its progress every time I’m there. And I marvel at the ingenuity and skill and precision required to build such a structure. I’ve come to think that bridges might be the single most powerful invention that human beings have learned to build. All of you engineers in the room may not see it as particularly mysterious, but this bookish humanities major finds it nearly impossible to fathom how construction started on one side of the river can meet the construction started on the opposite side in such a precise fashion.
I’ve come to think of that construction as a symbol for the crossings of friendship that can and do occur between individuals and communities. I’ve come to imagine that if we can engineer such incredible structures like the Tappan Zee, let alone other marvels like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate, then surely it’s possible to engineer other sorts of crossings as well, ones that help us affirm the common humanity that we share with our neighbors. Ruth and Naomi are one such human bridge, and Ruth’s words are the concrete pylons and scaffolding that allow such a crossing to take place. But really, there’s a relational set of pylons and beams that allow similar crossings to take place all the time. I’m grateful to be part of a community that fosters those crossings, those friendships. And I’m bold enough to hope that the spirit of Ruth might be enacted between our community in Old Lyme and the Muslim community in Berlin, in Groton, and elsewhere. I’m bold enough to hope that the spirit of Ruth can nurture acts of friendship, acts of accompaniment, journeys of the spirit, allowing us to cross toward one another, and to meet.
That’s the sort of infrastructure I long for these days. That’s the sort of infrastructure I wish to cross as often as I can, as our communities become sanctuaries, one for the other. Perhaps Ruth shall be the spirit guiding us toward one another.