Believing is Seeing
This past Thursday evening a dozen of us gathered in the center of Braintree, on the top floor of the Thayer Public Library to hear from the Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, Rabbi Or Rose. The mix of us was Jewish, Christian, and Unitarian. Professor Rose is also the co-Director of CIRCLE: the Center for Inter-Religious & Community Leadership Education, a joint venture of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School. So, he was speaking to us while wearing both hats – a person of the Jewish faith and culture and a professor invested in promoting interfaith discourse and dialogue.
Rabbi Rose opened his lecture with the statement that America is, at the same time, the most religiously diverse and the most religious country in the world. That we live in peace – for the most part – and do not experience religious violence and hate on a daily basis and on widespread level is not to be taken for granted, the Rabbi reminded.
And, he distinguished between diversity and pluralism, urging us not only to accept or tolerate the diversity of our neighbors, but through dialogue and education, to engage with diversity, to actively seek understanding across lines of difference. That is, in the Christian context to live out the new commandment made manifest in Jesus, where in John’s Gospel he said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34).
We talked about the implications of loving one another, of pluralistic engagement between and among individuals and communities who hold competing commitments and beliefs. We talked about the threat of difference and the nature of truth, difference as threatening to the integrity of our own belief systems, difference as threatening to the identity of our own communities, and difference as threatening to the preservation of our own traditions and rituals and truths, which we hold to be unassailable and incontrovertible.
It was the scientist, the pragmatist, the psychologist William James who proposed that: “The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.” Competing commitments, conflicting beliefs. He maintained that the truth of an idea or belief can never be proven…so, our doubting, dear Thomas in the shadow and glow of the empty tomb doubted – waiting and wanting for Jesus to prove the truth he needed to see in order to believe.
After nearly two hours of lecture and discussion, inquiry and assertion perhaps the only truth to come out of Thursday’s interfaith dialogue was one that the Rabbi offered, that, the only thing universal about humankind is our particularity.
Indeed, we are different. Indeed, we are diverse.
In appearance, in experience, in mind, and in heart. Created, each, every and all, in the image of God.
Not only between religions, but among communities of faith, there is difference. There is diversity. In appearance, in experience, in mind, and in heart.
Here, among us, at First Congregational Church there is difference. Look around. Is there any one among you who is of exactly like-mind or appearance or experience or even belief? Together we are the body that Jesus calls us to be – hand to serve, foot to lead, eye to cast vision, mind to question, ear to listen, heart to understand, calloused heel to remind us where we have been, intestine to process and digest – to do the dirty work. We are one though many.
Following worship this morning, we will gather in the lower parish hall to discuss potential changes to the chapel space in the church. Space that has been set aside and apart by our First Church forbearers as specifically holy, sacred, and worshipful. Space that is full of memory and meaning for so many here in this place. The chapel, with its pews, their remaining or being removed, and their potential replacement with chairs – is an issue where our differences have been brought to bare, where they have been pronounced and exposed over the past year.
Over and over again, I’ve thanked God for this – for the ways that the chapel has served as an avenue for us as a congregation to discuss change in the church in a real and tangible way. I thank God for, through the chapel pews, challenging us to love one another across difference and through utter frustration and even annoyance, at times. For the ways that we are able to disagree and, yet still obey God’s new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us.
There is no winning side to any vote taken in this church – whether it pertains to removing pews or transferring funds or terminating a long-time pastor or calling a new pastor. There is no losing side to any vote taken in this church. Each vote, each decision if our hearts are pure and true, as God intends, will not be political but faithful, not in the best interest of the self, but of the whole. If we are truly seeking to serve God and make the gospel of Jesus Christ manifest in this community and world, then no issue will ever be a tug-of-war, exhausting us and distracting us from doing the real ministry of the church. But the question of the chapel and others like it will be an exercise in conversation, in diversity, in difference, in love and understanding.
Many summers ago now, when I had a job at a golf course that allowed me to spend much of my time outside, sitting in a golf cart waiting to sell adult beverages, peanut butter crackers, and sandwiches to the thirsty and hungry players as they passed through. Many hours that summer I found myself under a large weeping willow tree between the front and back nine, so much so that I decided to read the classics. Some I trudged through with a prideful commitment to reach the final page, so that I could then wear the book like an internal badge of honor: Moby Dick and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss I must admit, were a commitment that I couldn’t but wished I could quit. But, others I adored: Jane Ayre, The Sun Also Rises, and Anna Karenina, page earmarked and underlined where Anna reflects:
“If it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” There are many kinds of love when it comes to the sacred and holy space of the chapel in this church, they are deep and diverse.
My love for the chapel isn’t for what it was, or even is, but for what it could be. When I look in the chapel – I don’t see what it once was - the family baptisms or weddings or youth fellowship gatherings or Vacation Bible School because, quite simply, I don’t carry those memories in my heart. When I look at the chapel, when I stand in that holy and sacred space, I see potential and hope for meaningful, productive, faithful ways to learn about and serve God through the vessel of that room.
But the truth is, it is difficult to trust what we can’t yet see, what we cannot yet experience. Ever the more difficult when it feels as though our truth and our tradition is threatened and in danger. So, enter Thomas: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Everyone wants their own experience of the truth.
“But,” Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
Resurrection is more than about how much God loves us, or the power of God, but it’s a about creating new realities. Realities of trust, love, and forgiveness. Realities liberation from oppression an discrimination – equality (but not sameness) amidst difference.
When I look upon us, when I imagine our community, I see a beautiful garden variety – and what a Sunday to play with this image – in the presence of such exquisite bouquets offered in the memory and memorial of two of our unique and irreplaceable members – Bob Fink and Nancy Capron. We are, each, our own flower, carefully crafted and formed and fashioned by God. Some lilies – strong, with a lasting fragrance, some roses – maintaining the beauty of tradition, some butterfly trees – attracting friends and offering sweet prayers and comfort, some hostas to mark needed boundaries; others wildflowers, reminding us of a beauty that surprises, that pops up in new and unexpected places.
Indeed, we are different. Indeed, we are diverse.
In appearance, in experience, in mind, and in heart. There in our difference we find the vastness and beauty of God reflected into the world.
Isn’t this what we teach our children? Boy or Girl, black or white, smarter or slower, scientist or artist, athlete or actor… Isn’t this what Paul was getting at: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (Romans 12:6).
Our differences make us special. Our differences make us stronger.
Perhaps the highest stake of bridging difference is sameness, of losing that which makes us wonderfully unique and particular – our traditions, history, and experience – change is hard and the risks are real.
In the process, may we not learn to always agree, may we not seek to become the same – of like mind and fixed belief - but to cultivate understanding across lines of difference. To love one another as Christ loves us.
~Rev. Leanne S. Walt