Jesus often lifted up Gentiles (non-Jews) as examples of extraordinary faith, which was not received well by his own people who looked down on people of other faiths. In today’s world, some Christians see Muslims as a threat to American society. Instead, we should seek to build relationships and trust with people of other faiths. We have much to learn from each other, and also share some common values such as the Golden Rule.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Bible Passage: Luke 4:24-30
During my sophomore year at UCLA, my roommate and a few other people from our group started going to a midweek Bible study off campus.
This group that my friend went to was founded by a leader who would reveal truths about the Bible and the Christian life, which were then taught by designated teachers of the movement at their weekly Bible studies.
I remember one night my roommate came back from the Bible study and said, “we learned tonight that God doesn’t love everybody. God only loves Christians.
I looked at my roommate and said, “What are you talking about?” I mean it says right in John 3:16, For God so loved the world..” I think that means everyone, right?
But my roommate went on to cherry pick some verses from the Bible to support this teaching that God doesn’t love you unless you become a Christian, until you become one of God’s “chosen people”.
Now I couldn’t tell you now what those verses were, but I’m certain that the passage from Luke that we just heard was NOT among them.
Because what we hear about in scripture are people outside of God’s “chosen people” who are showed favor by God, and people who are lifted up as examples of faith over and above the so-called “religious” people.
In Biblical times, before the Church came into being on the day of Pentecost, God’s chosen people were the people of Israel, those of Jewish faith. Everyone else were known as Gentiles, whom the religious people considered unclean and therefore unable to have a relationship with God.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day believed kind of like my friend’s church in college did:
That as ones chosen by God, that God only loved them, that they had special favor with God, a “hotline to heaven” we might say, that they were the models of the true faith.
There was a sort of pride in this, a feeling of superiority over others, a creation of an “us” vs. “them” mentality, an “insiders” vs. “outsiders” approach,
Where “we” the insiders were more blessed by God than “they” the outsiders.
And so when Jesus turns their privileged worldview upside down in his sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, it’s no surprise that all you-know-what breaks loose.
To give a little backstory, everything’s going fine as he quotes from Isaiah about the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah and the kind of Kingdom that he will inaugurate.
And when he says “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”, he definitely turns some heads because here is their hometown boy, this son of a carpenter, who is going to be this Messiah.
It says that Jesus’ audience is “amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth.”
But then comes the point where gracious turns to vicious. Where things go south. Like all the way to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America.
No prophet is accepted in his hometown, Jesus says. And then he tells two stories from the Old Testament where Israel’s own prophets end up showing God’s favor not to their own people but to Gentiles, those “outsiders”.
First, during a severe famine, the prophet Elijah seeks food and water from a Gentile, a widow in Zarephath. She gives him water, and starts making some bread,
but she says it’s only going to be enough to feed her and her son, and they are so weak that she say’s it’s going to be their last meal before they die.
And then God works a miracle kind of like what Jesus did with the loaves and the fishes to feed the multitudes. The yield of bread is so great that it was enough to feed the widow and her son for weeks.
And then God works another miracle kind of like what Jesus did with Lazarus; Elijah raises the widow’s son back to life from being at the brink of death.
And this Gentile, this “outsider” widow’s response to all this is “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is true.”
The second story that Jesus tells in his Nazareth sermon is of Naaman, a commander in the Syrian army, an army which had been at war with the Israelites.
And then God uses the prophet Elisha to help cure Naaman, this enemy, of leprosy. And as a result, Naaman put his faith and trust in the God of Israel.
So after Jesus told these two stories of Gentiles experiencing God’s favor and healing touch, his hometown crowd has had enough. They rose up out of their seats, chased him out of the synagogue and to the edge of town,
And were ready to throw Jesus over the cliff. But somehow he slipped away and hightailed it out of town.
Why did his fellow Israelites, his own people, get so mad at him? Well it looks like their special favor, their “privileged status with God” worldview was shot full of holes by Jesus. Apparently God’s love extends wider and farther than their narrow, self-centered, possessive understanding of God.
For a long time in our country, Christians enjoyed a kind of special favor with the government and a kind of privileged status in society.
Up until about 50 years ago, the Church was at the center of society. Everything except maybe gas stations was closed on Sundays so Christians could observe a day of rest.
Over 70% of Americans were members of some type of Church back then, and that percentage remained pretty stable until the beginning of this new millennium.
Then church membership and attendance started dropping…and dropping. By 2015 the number of church members was down to 55%, and then in just 5 years that number dropped to 47% in 2020, the first time since we can remember that less than half of Americans identify as belonging to a Church.
With decreasing numbers has come an increasing sense of marginalization, of losing a sense of privilege and power in society. And also a desire to put the blame on someone else, to find a “them” to pit yourself against and make an enemy out of.
In the past 20 years, to a lot of Christians, Islam and Muslims have become that enemy, that threat, that scapegoat to blame for your decline.
In fact, I read that a poll showed that white evangelical Christians believe that Christians in America face more discrimination than Muslims.
I’ve been reading this book “Jesus and John Wayne” and the author Kristin Kobes de Mez talks about how especially since Sept. 11, 2001, Evangelical leaders, pastors and authors have painted a negative picture of Muslims.
Many of these leaders have called Islam a religion of violence dedicated to world domination, and they lumped all Muslims into that category.
The “war on terror” declared by President George W. Bush after 9/11 came to be interpreted as a war on Islam, whose adherents were often called “Radical Islamists”.
Then there was the travel ban by former President Donald Trump in 2019 that ban anyone from majority Muslim countries from entering the United States, based on the fear of terrorism.
This kind of rhetoric and these kinds of policies only serve to perpetuate an “us” vs. “them” mentality that drives a wedge between people of different faiths and different cultures.
It only serves to escalate fear and suspicion of people who are different from us, instead of creating an environment where people can live in peace and harmony, appreciate our differences, and learn from each other.
I was looking forward to the Interfaith Friendship Walk today, partly for the opportunity to get to know people in our community from the Muslim faith, other Christian denominations, and other faith traditions.
Last Sunday I talked about entering into other people’s world, and encouraged us to try to have a conversation or two with someone who is different than you. I think we all know that building relationships through conversations and dialogue is a key of breaking down barriers and building understanding and trust.
A few months ago Logan Lehman, our student at George Mason, shared about a group that Logan helped start called Abrahamic Union, bringing together people from the three Abrahamic faiths—Judiasm, Islam and Christianity—
in order to better understand each other and work together for peace and unity on campus. What a great group to have on that campus!
When I was serving as Campus Pastor at Bluffton University, Bluffton sponsored some students through what was called the Iraqi Student Project. One of those students was named Shahad Al-doori. Shahad is Muslim, and she got placed in my First Year Seminar class.
It was a class about discovering our identity and also broadening our understanding of the world around us. It was a perfect setting for Shahad to share about her Muslim faith, so I had her give a presentation on the five pillars of Islamic faith and what they mean to her.
Most of the students were from small towns in Ohio and had never met a Muslim before; they only had the stereotypes and suspicions that they heard from the news, their communities, families, and their churches.
It was really cool to see how their perceptions and stereotypes of Islam and Muslims changed because they had the chance to get to know Shahad and hear her faith. It was a great teachable moment.
I recently read about this really neat organization. It’s called the Tri-Faith initiative: it started with three Abrahamic faith congregations in Omaha, Nebraska, a synagogue, a church and a mosque.
The organization purchased a 35 acre piece of land and each group has built separate houses of worship on the property, and partnered with the Tri-Faith initiative to build a shared community center to promote peace and understanding among communities of different faiths.
The Tri-Faith website says: “Together, we offer antidotes to fear and hate.
We connect interfaith neighbors in community, nurturing relationships.
We cultivate trust and understanding, celebrating religious differences.”
What a great mission to have in our world that is so polarized!
As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by the prophets in the Old Testament, and that he is incarnation of God and the fullest expression of God.
And like the Tri-Faith movement, I believe that we can hold on to our distinctive beliefs and still learn from each other and be challenged by others.
I believe that the three Abrahamic faiths worship the same God, though we understand God in some different ways. We share the same Old Testament.
I believe that there are truths and there is beauty in other religions. We have much to learn from each other, and we also share a lot of common ground.
For example, most religions I know would affirm the Golden Rule that Jesus taught, which is illustrated so beautifully by the Norman Rockwell painting on today’s bulletin: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
Jesus told the stories he did in his hometown to show how God’s love extends to all people, and how people outside of the supposed “chosen” people often showed more faith and devotion to God than the “chosen” ones.
I don’t have time to cover it today, but if we look at Jesus’ life and relationships with people outside of Judaism, he loved them, he healed them, and he often held them up as examples of people with great faith.
I hope and pray that I and all of us who call ourselves Christians will have that same kind of love, respect and appreciation for people of other faiths as Jesus did.
And I hope and pray that we do all that we can to work together for peace between us and in our world, and to pray for one another. Right now, there is a huge need for peace and understanding in Israel-Palestine, as the long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has flared up this past week with violence.
So I want to close with a prayer for peace in Israel-Palestine that I found online, written on Friday by Rabbi Naomi Levy. I’ve modified it just a bit to be more inclusive of my understanding of the concerns and prayers of Palestinians.
God, Our hearts are breaking.
Our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine, in from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to the Gaza Strip, crouch in fear as sirens pierce the air
and rockets rain down from the sky.
We pray that all Israelis and Arabs, all Jews, Muslims and Christians, will learn to live in peace, learn to experience more of your Shalom.
We pray for the day the riots in the streets of Israel
will give way to sound of children playing.
When hate will be healed
and the sound of sirens will give way to songs of hope.
We are all God’s children and in God’s light we are all One.
Hear our people’s prayers
and hear the prayers of those who live in the Holy Land,
who share our longings for an end to this conflict.
Loving and merciful God, God of peace,
Spread your shelter of peace over the holy land and all its inhabitants.
We pray with the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. Let it wash away all hatred and bloodshed.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. AMEN.