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The Children of Sarah and Hagar ~ Galatians 4:22 – 5:1

A Muslim man died. When he arrived in Paradise, he was met by the great Prophet Moses who showed him around. They saw all the beautiful trees and met with many other Muslims. By and by they came across a giant white fence, with a large “Do not Enter” sign. “Who are they?” asked the Muslim man with a frown. “Oh, them?” said Moses. “Those are the Christians. They think they’re the only ones here.”

Wow, it really is true that we try to make fun of the things we are most uncomfortable about. I went online to see if there were any jokes about Muslims and Christians. But I must say that the so-called jokes that I came across were for the most part offensive – horrifically stereotyped – ignorant really – and demeaning.

And it made me think all the more that something needs to be said about Islam and Christianity. Otherwise, how we are to get our minds and hearts around our sisters and brothers from another mother?

It is not easy in this day and age to discuss the similarities and differences between Christian and Muslims as ISIL continues to move through the Middle East, and Hamas, and Hezbollah, and Al Qaida, and the Muslim Brotherhood reflect an expression of Islam that is intolerant and violent and narrow minded. It leaves many rational, empathetic, and tolerant people of faith (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) stunned. What shall we say?

In fact it wasn’t easy to talk about in Paul’s day either. Of course Mohammed had not be born yet – not for another 400 years or so. There was no Islam in Paul’s day. No Shiite or Sunni, none of the groups were around of course.

But it is all the more fascinating to me that Paul talks about the child of Hagar – Ismael – and the child of Sarah (who is never named) – Isaac. In this tortured and confusing allegorical midrashic passage, Hagar and her child represent the Jews who have bound themselves to “slavery” which to Paul means bound to an identity based on the Law, while Sarah and her son Isaac (whom the Jews claim to be the child of the promise for them) represent, to Paul, the Christians. Wow!

I do not think that this is Paul at his best! You know I love Paul –  he is a genius. He had insights about God that are so revolutionary that they challenge us today – we continue to be bound by them, and re-read them and interpret them for our day. But in this passage (and there are others), I wish Paul would have had an editor. Or, at least, have realized that 2,000 years later, we would be reading his mail and getting all tied up into knots about how these words are words of God.

Poor Paul. It is perfectly all right for us to argue with Paul, even think he is wrong. Because “inspiration” doesn’t always mean correctness. God’s inspiration comes as a community of faith wrestles with and re-interprets the text for our day.

Today we struggle about what to say to the children of Hagar. The Islamic sacred story claims a direct link to Father Abraham through Ishmael, Hagar’s son.

I have been having a number of conversations about Islam today and I have been reading quite a bit in the media:

Some think these radical, intolerant, violent Muslims are the real Islam. ISIS or ISIL is expressing Islam at its most basic. Islam is a religion of violence and war. This perspective is not only held by one political perspective. The very liberal, cynical, humorist and commentator Bill Maher argues that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from the politically correct liberals (Wow, he sounds like Rush Limbaugh).

You and I, as followers of Jesus Christ, presumptive heirs of Isaac, need to be very careful about making remarks such as these when the history of our own faith is replete with violence, and beheadings, pogroms against our Jewish kin, and yes, “Jihad” (we called them Crusades to bring about the Kingdom of God).

If anything, you and I are called, at the very least, to acknowledge that historically speaking, Islam has been actually less intolerant of women and people of other faiths than Christianity has been for much of its history. It wasn’t the Muslims who set records for mass slaughter.

If you and I hold all of Islam accountable for the violence of today, then we must hold ourselves and our sacred story accountable for the killing of 6 million Jews, the enslavement of millions of Africans, and for the notion of “manifest destiny” that drove native peoples onto reservations.

Yes, we have the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and St. Francis, and St. Claire to lift up as examples but we also have the papal legate of the 13th century who ordered the massacre of 20,000 Cathar men, women, and children accused of heresy, reportedly saying: “Kill them all; God will know his own.”

Yes, the Quran – the sacred text of Islam has passages hailing violence but so does our Bible; both in the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.

If anything, these abominations of the divine will in all the religions make me wonder at times if “religion” is not the problem.

But then I remember Dr. King and St. Francis, and Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and Jim Wallis and so many other committed but not well-known Christians and realize that we can’t take the cheap, dismissive way out – rather we must press on for peace, press on for understanding, press on in the footsteps of Jesus and cast no one out, invite all to the table and not hate because we are fearful or confused.

Did you know that in Malaysia, a lower court ruled that the word “Allah” was exclusive to Muslims. And Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has argued that Christians should not use the name “Allah” – which is Arabic for God –Arabic Christians have been calling God “Allah” for generations; it is how one says God in Arabic. But President Mohler says that “Allah” is the God of the Quran, “a god who is radically different from the true God of Jesus Christ.”

I don’t know if it helps to call our God true and your God false – certainly hinders any kind of interfaith dialogue. Actually, when we talk about God, Allah, Abba, Ywhw, Elohim, Jehovah we monotheists have quite a bit in common:

The Quran says: “Know, therefore, that there is no god but God.” And the Quran teaches: “It was God who created the heavens and the earth and all truth.” Those words could come directly from Genesis or Romans.

So we don’t do Muslims or Christians any favors making hard and fast distinctions between our understanding of God and theirs.

Absolutely, there are differences, and differences matter. We need to know our narrative and history, use our language, talk our theology, so we can enter into dialogue with knowledge and not ignorance – this is why we read Galatians – it is our story.

“We may” as Ryan McAnnally-Linz and Miroslav Volf write in a recent Sojourner’s article, “disagree about immensely important things about God, but we are disagreeing about God, not between gods, so to speak.”

So much more needs to be said and I, perhaps like Paul, need a good editor – for I too am tortured to make sense of it all, to say something about this horrific rise of violence and intolerance.

But as children of the “free woman” (as Paul calls Sarah) may we not be found to be enslaved by ignorance or fear but really to be set free for freedom which is ours in Jesus Christ, who shows us a God of incarnate love which casts out fear, of peace which challenges our baser instincts, and hospitality which sets a table with places for everyone and breaks down walls that divide.

Amen

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