CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2015; Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38
“Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me,
this is my covenant with you:
You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.’”
The sermon today is by request. Last week, a couple of you came up to me and asked me if I could say something about the situation in the middle east — specifically, about the group called ISIS, ISIL, the so-called Islamic State. It goes by different names, but whatever you call it, they’re the men with the black hoods and automatic weapons, the perpetrators of horrible atrocities. They’re a huge and very frightening problem: for our nation, and for every civilized nation.
I have to confess I’m a bit reluctant to talk about this, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s a topic I know very little about. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the fine differences between one Islamic sect and another. I can say I’ve tried to read up on the subject of late, consulting what I believe to be reliable sources.
For another thing, I’m very aware that the middle east is a far-off place. Relatively few of us have ever been there — I never have. The easiest thing in the world, for a preacher, is to condemn evils that are far from home. I could go on and on about how terrible those people are — recalling the kidnappings, the brutal murders, the rapes, the seizing of property, the forced marriages of young girls, the enslavement of Christians and others, the sheer terror we’ve all heard about — and I would be 100% certain not a single one of you would feel personally offended. In that sense, it’s the easiest sermon in the world to give: a classic example of what they call “preaching to the choir.”
I do think the subject’s worth talking about, though. While none of us can do a thing about it as individuals, the reason the terrorists are doing what they’re doing is to try to influence our hearts and minds. This group wants us to be afraid. They want us to be morally outraged. They want us to be angry. That’s the reason for all the well-produced videos of beheadings and burning people alive. As strange as it may sound, they actually want us to call upon our government officials to unleash the dogs of war and invade their territory.
I’ll tell you why in a moment, but let’s look, first at the striking image on our bulletin cover this morning. It’s the one Linda just told the kids about. This is a modern-day icon, in the tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt and Ethiopia. It portrays a group of martyrs, 21 in number. They’re looking to Jesus as they die. Even at that moment, ministering angels are presenting them with heavenly crowns.
This icon may look like it belongs to ancient history, but it’s as current as a picture from today’s newspaper. On February 12th, the so-called Islamic State in Libya released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christian fishermen, whom they had kidnapped. At least one of the captives could be seen on the video mouthing the words “Jesus, help me” as they cut off his head.
Some of us may have thought the age of Christian martyrdom was over, that such horrors belong to another era. Sad to say, Christians are still being killed solely for their faith.
And who is it who’s doing such a thing? These are Islamic fundamentalists who recognize no authority other than their scriptures, the Qu’ran, interpreted in one particular way — only they would never admit it’s an interpretation. To them, what their leaders preach is simply what the Qu’ran says. Any questioning of that viewpoint is heresy.
It’s an apocalyptic reading, that says the end of the world is near. They believe there’s going to be a terrible battle at a particular place in northern Syria, between the forces of righteous Islam and the armies of what they call “Rome” — by which they mean the Christian world. They also believe it doesn’t matter how outnumbered or how outgunned they may be, because at the final hour of the struggle, God — Allah — will intervene on their behalf to give them victory. Allah will send Jesus — yes, Jesus, who is an important prophet in Islam — as the leader of the heavenly armies. Jesus, their imams have promised, will personally drive a spear through the heart of the leader of “the Romans.”
Now, if that doesn’t sound to you like the Jesus you know, you’re absolutely right. They haven’t read the New Testament. They don’t know the Jesus we know. They don’t understand him to be the son of God. All they know is the Qu’ran, where Jesus functions sort of like a John-the-Baptist figure, paving the way for Muhammad. Nearly all other Muslims have a more nuanced view, but this is an insane, fundamentalist theology under which they’re operating: a true outlier.
Think of them as like a large and very dangerous version of the Branch Davidian cult of David Koresh. That was the group of religious fanatics who barricaded themselves into a compound outside Waco, Texas. They set their buildings on fire and perished in the flames — men, women and children — rather than allow themselves to be captured by Federal agents.
There’s another aspect of the so-called Islamic State that makes them so hard to deal with. They behave in many ways like a street gang — only this is a street gang armed not only with chains and guns, but with tanks and rocket-propelled grenades (and, in Libya, even a few fighter jets). Like a street gang, they appeal to disaffected, powerless young men who’ve lost all hope of ever bettering their lives. The black-and-white certainty of the fundamentalist preachers, with their apocalyptic vision, is hard for them to resist — but once you join and let them put a gun in your hands, just like a street gang, there’s no getting out. Not ever. Anyone who tries is considered worse than the enemies from a rival gang. That’s all the U.S. Army, or any other army, is to them. They’re just a rival gang.
Now, you may have noticed that I’ve been referring to them as the “so-called Islamic State.” That’s very intentional. These people believe their little swath of territory in Syria and Iraq is the seed of a future Islamic empire. That empire, called the Caliphate — they believe — will one day dominate not only the middle east, but the entire world. Yes, they aspire to be a state, but not just any state. They see themselves as the State, the only state. They won’t exchange ambassadors with any other country. They won’t engage in negotiations, because they believe they’re the only true state of any kind. Any other is a Godless and false pretender, subject to destruction by their righteous army. The word “Islam” means “submission” — and, to them, submission to Allah and submission to their so-called State are one and the same.
In that respect, they’re similar to the Nazis. Adolph Hitler, too, believed his country had no equals. They were the “thousand-year Reich,” divinely ordained by the Norse gods he believed in. That’s why he could make and abandon diplomatic agreements with impunity. All the other states were false states, so any agreement he made with them didn’t matter.
Notice, though, I’ve been careful to say they’re the so-called Islamic State. It’s very important to keep that distinction front and center. There’s been a lot of sloppy talk among ill-informed people in our country — even some TV and radio commentators (and yes, even a few well-known preachers) who ought to know better. They’re trying to convince us that this radical fringe group represents all of Islam.
You often hear these pundits and preachers asking the question, “Where’s the outrage among other Islamic leaders?” — as though the rest of Islam has been silent about these horrors.
In fact, there have been plenty of Muslim leaders who’ve been crystal-clear in their condemnation of this terror group. Anyone who tells you otherwise just hasn’t looked at the facts. If you doubt what I’m saying just go home today, sit down at a computer and google “Muslims condemn terrorism.” You’ll find long lists of Muslim leaders, the world over, who have issued such formal declarations. Many people don’t understand that Islam is not a single, hierarchical entity. There’s no clear chain of command. There’s no, single, dominant spokesperson, like the Christian pope. There’s no “World Council of Mosques,” either. To draw any conclusion about what “the voice of Islam” is saying, you have to survey the statements of 30 or 40 leading imams, ayatollahs and professors of Muslim theology. It mystifies me how commentators from certain so-called “news” organizations continue to make such wild charges, which are lacking any factual basis.
There are also people today who are claiming that Islam — all of Islam — is a religion of violence, and that’s absolutely untrue. Some of them are even calling for a “holy war” in response to atrocities like the execution of the 21 fishermen. They’re frothing at the mouth, demanding that Christians take up arms against all Muslims.
That’s crazy talk. You’ll see just how crazy it is if you consider who that captured Jordanian pilot was, the one the terrorists burned alive. He was a Muslim! In fact, nearly all the Syrian and Jordanian and Kurdish fighters who have spilled blood so far — battling the so-called Islamic State with weapons America and Europe have given them — are themselves Muslims! Believe me, they want the world to be rid of this terrorist gang as much as anyone.
I pray for peace. I hope you do, too. Yet, I also believe that — realistically speaking — there will probably be some major military action against this group, eventually. It will happen when the time is right. Probably it will involve soldiers from our country as well as many others. If carried out responsibly, the military intervention will not be vengeful. It will not be a “holy war” (as though any war could ever be holy). It will be a police action, a measured application of force in the name of justice, much as police departments do in major cities when combating street gangs.
If you walk out of here today convinced of one thing, I hope it will be that we’ve got to draw a sharp distinction between mainstream Islam and these terrorists. If you think otherwise, then I’m very sorry to say the terrorists have already won your heart and mind. That’s exactly what they want: a global religious conflagration, pitting all of Islam — with themselves in the leadership role — against the rest of the world. The weakness of their scheme — the thing they haven’t realized yet, but soon will — is that most of the rest of Islam isn’t buying it.
I think it makes a lot of sense to draw a comparison between the so-called Islamic State and the Ku Klux Klan. Members of that racist hate group see themselves as Christians (that’s why their symbol is a burning cross, and why crosses figure prominently on their robes). They believe they see racist ideology in the pages of the scriptures.
True Christians realize the Klan’s brand of prejudice and hatred is a perversion of the way of Jesus Christ. I, for one, would be terribly offended if someone from another religious tradition — Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or anyone else — were to identify my faith with that of the Klan: yet that’s exactly the way most Muslims feel about being lumped into the same group with the guys with black hoods and AK-47s.
Moderate Muslims already are our best allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. It would be a terrible mistake to turn them against us by bad-mouthing their religion — which is why, as the President has explained, he’s been so careful not to criticize Islam as a religion.
We read, this morning, a passage from Genesis 17 about God’s call to Abraham. “This is my covenant to you,” says God. “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.”
This, in fact, is exactly what came to pass. Abraham is the progenitor of not only the Jewish faith, but also Christianity and Islam. In fact, these three world religions are often referred to collectively as “the Abrahamic religions.” Abraham is our common ancestor. He’s a revered figure in Islam.
What’s the one thing we can say about Abraham, the one characteristic we can find in him to admire? He trusts God.
Remember how that story of his begins. Abraham’s already well-advanced in years, already at that place in life we’d call the retirement years. One day, God says to him: “Go.”
“Where?” asks Abraham.
“Just go, I’ll tell you later,” says God.
So, Abraham goes.
Here in this passage, God makes covenant with him. Part of that covenant — as we read here — is that God promises: “See this land where you’re living now, as an alien? Someday it will all be yours.”
“When?” asks Abraham.
“Someday,” says God. “Trust me.” Abraham continues his journey of faith.
A little later God says, “I will give you a son and heir.”
“How?” asks Abraham (thinking of his wife, Sarah, who’s just as old as he).
“You’ll find out,” says God.
With the exception of the birth of Isaac — the baby Abraham does eventually hold in his arms — this giant of faith sees none of these promises realized. He continues to live as a nomad the rest of his days, without a settled home. There’s even that dark episode when God commands to take Isaac, his only legitimate son and heir, up to the top of Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there.
“Why?” asks Abraham.
“Because I said so,” says God.
Abraham makes ready to do that, but God substitutes a ram at the last minute. Up until that moment, Abraham had been ready to give up even the one sure sign he had of God keeping a promise. That’s how trusting this patriarch is of the God who has made covenant with him.
When it comes to this matter of dealing with the global threat of religiously-inspired terrorism, I thing all three of the Abrahamic religions would do well to follow the example of our common ancestor. God’s covenant is still active. Its details are still being worked out. What we need to do is to trust God: even as we trust our leaders to do what they have to do, to neutralize this threat to peace.
Now, it may continue to baffle us why the human race should be so divided in its religious devotion. We who are Christians rightly see Jesus Christ as being the way, the truth and the life. We find it hard to imagine why others do not heed his call and join us on that way of discipleship.
Yet, following the example of Abraham, maybe we’d do better not to ask so many questions. Maybe we’d do better to just follow his way of obedience and trust, the best way we know how. Maybe we’d do better to just live with the questions, realizing they’re part and parcel of the life of faith. And maybe we should celebrate the things we can constructively do together, with others whose faith is different from our own — but who yet share the same desire to emulate Father Abraham and heed God’s call to worldwide peace and justice.
Our next hymn is new to us. It’s a prayer for peace, in a world of violence. This hymn makes clear, though, that only God can “redeem this violent, wounding world till gentleness shall reign.”
The Chancel Choir will start us off. The melody is simple. Join right in with them, if you feel confident; or, if you’d rather, listen to them sing the first stanza, and join in on the others.
(“Where Armies Scourge the Countryside,” #344 in the Glory to God hymnal)
For further reading: Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015.
And, for a different perspective: Hardon Moghul, “The Atlantic’s Big Islam Lie: What Muslims Really Believe about ISIS,” Salon.com, February 19, 2015.
Copyright © 2015, by Carlos Wilton. All rights reserved.