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Voices of Faith

April 1, 2004
Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, TN

The Bigger God
Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein

(This sermon is also available in audio.)

My dear friends, this Lenten series has broadened our spiritual horizons in the countdown to Palm Sunday, Passover, and Easter. Our spiritual horizons tend to be small when we view God’s world only through Jewish eyes or through only one expression of Christianity. Obviously God is much bigger than any one, two, or three of our faiths, precious and true as they are to each of us.

I don’t know about you, but the more I learn about other faiths, the more I appreciate my own. I am a more faithful Jew because of my relationship with Christians, not in spite of them.

That’s the goal of interfaith dialogue. The goal is not to dilute Judaism or Christianity, but to deepen both. We have to tear down any misperceptions we have of each other until our love is greater than fear.

Lent is a time to harness all the powers God has given us to change for the better. Those God-given powers include using our heads as well as our hearts. What I admire about this preaching series is that the extraordinary speakers we have been listening to have challenged us to think deeply, not simply.

It’s easy to be a demagogue about anything, including religion. I once heard a preacher so magnetic, so captivating, compelling and inspiring, I was on my feet cheering with the rest of the crowd. But something was gnawing at me during the drive home, and suddenly I realized what it was.

Nobody had thought about the logic of what he was saying because it made them, and me too, feel good. Then I thought through what the speaker was saying, and it was very troubling. It’s easy to whoop up a crowd. Hitler was the best at it.

Next to preaching evil, probably the easiest way to whoop up a crowd is to preach an exclusivist religious theology. Jews and Christians for instance, agree that human beings are God’s children. God is the parent, and we are all God’s children. And yet, some very charismatic preachers will go on to say that if you don’t believe the way they do, then you will burn in hell.

More than one person over the course of my life has told me, “It is because I love you and don’t want you to burn in hell that you need to be saved my way.” When I hear this, I understand what the other person is saying. He wants to prevent me from getting whipped, burned, and beaten.

But have you ever stopped to think about what that theology says about God? If God is the father, and we are all God’s children, what kind of parent would whip, burn, and beat you? Answer: a God who is into child abuse. Or to put it another way, if the only way to heaven is via a theology which teaches my way or hell, then is Gandhi burning in hell?

I have begun to tell evangelical audiences I speak to what I was taught by my rabbi. I have begun to tell those audiences that while I know they may be surprised to see me and the Jewish people in heaven, I just hope they won’t be disappointed!

If they are surprised, that’s okay, since it’s God’s call who enters the Kingdom of Heaven. But if they are disappointed and don’t want me there, I tell them, then they’re really not my friend.

Our spiritual horizons are small when we view God’s world only through Jewish or Christian theology. Obviously, God is much bigger.

When you think about the world from God’s perspective, you begin to realize that we are all minorities. Two-thirds of the world are not Christian, and there are more Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists than there are members of Jesus’ own faith, Judaism. The challenge for our time is to affirm religious truth without defining it for others.

How do you do that? Berthold Lessing was a friend of the great Jewish teacher of Germany, Moses Mendelssohn. Lessing wrote a book called Nathan The Wise. In it, he deals with the problems of the competition between religious theologies. The proponents of each religion claim to possess the truth.

How is one to know which is the true religion? Nathan tells a story in response to that question.

There was once a nobleman who had inherited a beautiful ring from his father. It was handed down from generation to generation. Each father gave it to his most deserving son, and it brought favor in the eyes of man and God. The ring went from father to son for generations until it came to one man who had three sons.

The father tried to pick one who was worthy of wearing the ring, but he could not make up his mind since they were all worthy. In desperation, he called in a jeweler and asked him to make two more rings that were so identical to the original that even he could not identify it.

The jeweler made the rings so skillfully that no one could tell them apart. Then the father gave each son a ring. When he died, the family gathered and the three sons displayed their rings.

They were puzzled and wanted to know who had the genuine one. They decided to go to a judge and each son declared that his father had presented the authentic ring to him.

The judge examined the rings and saw that they were absolutely identical. He declared that no one can tell which is the genuine ring. There is only one way of knowing. The son who lives the noblest and most decent life has the genuine ring.

Each religion claims it has the truth, but talk is cheap and no theology is foolproof. Each religion proves whether or not it is genuine by showing how its adherents live.

Our goal each year during Lent, or in Judaism, during the High Holidays, is to make our faith shine through again--to show that we are wearing genuine rings of faith by how we live, act, and reflect the Divine image.

The world and God will know whether the rings are real. The world and God will know which ones are telling the truth and which use religion for the wrong purposes.

When I first spoke in this series three years ago, I recommended a powerful book to you on Jewish-Christian relations by James Carroll, entitled Constantine’s Sword. More than a few of you have shared with me how transformational that book was in understanding just how far we have come as Christians and Jews.

I commend another book to you, one that is even sharper, more to the point, and less than half the weight of Constantine’s Sword. The author is the prolific Christian scholar, Mary Boys who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Her book Has God Only One Blessing?, is about Judaism as a source of Christian self-understanding. We cannot change the tragic history that arose from the Christian failure to recognize that God, Mother and Father of us all, has many children and more than one blessing, more than one ring.

We cannot erase that frightful past, but we can recognize, at least in Memphis, that Jews and Christians see themselves as accountable to the same God and committed to transforming the future together.

Unlike the past 1900 years, we Jews and you Christians have become partners rather than rivals--partners and friends who recognize the Way of Torah and the Way of Jesus as different refractions of the same God, the God Who loves us all, the God who has more than one blessing for His children, the God Whose love is greater than fear, the God Who is waiting for our love to be greater than our fear.

But how again is it possible to embrace and affirm your own religious truth without defining truth for others? A Methodist minister named Wesley Ariarajah offers this answer.
He illustrates the distinction between my Jewish truth, your Christian truth and absolute truth in a way we can all understand.

He says, “When my son tells me I’m the best dad in the world, and there can be no other father like me, he is speaking the truth, for this comes out of his experience. He is honest about it. He knows no other person in the role of his father.

But, of course, it is not true in another sense. For one thing,” Wesley says, “I myself know friends who, I think, are better fathers than I am.

Even more importantly, one should be aware that in the next house there is another boy who also thinks his daddy is the best father in the world. And he too is right.

In fact, at the level of the way the two children revere their two fathers, no one can compare the truth content of the statements of the two boys.

Our shared Judeo-Christian tradition deals with a different language - the language of faith and love. To say, “If you don’t accept my truth, then you have rejected absolute truth,” would be like my son, Jake, telling his friend in the house next door that there is no way he can have the best father, because the absolute best one is only in his house! As if my house is the only one in the neighborhood. If my son were to make such a claim, we’d have to call that claim what it is – 'child-talk!'”

Ever hear the one about the well-intentioned Arkansas Baptist minister who said, “I don’t understand why there have to be Presbyterians and Catholics, Jews and Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians…why can’t we all just live under one big Baptist roof?!”

What is needed more than ever before is the mutual respect of those who adore the One Creator and Lord, and who seek to bring honor to God through the lives we lead, the faith we profess, and the deeds we do.

I applaud the Episcopal Church in particular for believing as strongly as ever in the Christian faith, without discounting the reality, the religious reality, of other faiths, especially the faith of Jesus, Judaism, which I am honored to represent.

Why can’t we all be the same religion? That’s like asking why people have to be different.

A generic religion is impossible because there is no such thing as a generic human being! God created many different animals in His zoo, including us. God must love diversity. Just look at us.

A Christian writer named F. Forrester Church, put it this way:

Human beings all stand in the cathedral of the world. In the cathedral are a multitude of stained glass windows [like those lining the walls of this beautiful sanctuary].

We are born in one part of the cathedral, and our parents and grandparents teach us how to see the light that shines through the window, the window that carries the story of our particular family and people.

The same light shines through all the windows of the cathedral, but we interpret its story in many different ways. The light is the presence of God. And the way we see its colors are the ways of our particular faith.

There are, indeed, different responses to life in the cathedral of the world Rev. Church teaches.

Relativists say, “All the windows are basically the same, so it doesn’t matter where you stand."

Fundamentalists say, “The true light only shines through my window.”

And fanatics break all the other windows except theirs.

The light that shines through my Jewish window is the light of Torah and mitzvoth--those sacred obligations which link humanity to God. It is not the whole light.

But like Christianity, it is a refraction of God’s light, and that is why it is holy. That is also why the ministry of Calvary is holy, for this congregation too, is a refraction of the light of God.

The only hope for realizing the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus is a willingness to accept one another, regardless of our differences. We differ in color and creed, but we share common convictions during this Lenten season and our destinies intertwine.

More on that tomorrow, but today, may each of us, no matter where we worship, live, or pray, hear God’s call to Abraham.

God didn’t tell Abraham to share a blessing or offer a blessing, God said, “V’hyeh b’racha,” Be a blessing.

May this Lenten/Passover season re-energize our commitment to be blessings, to be a blessing to all whose lives we touch and who touch ours. Amen.

Copyright ©2004 Rabbi Micah Greenstein


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