Holy Envy

When I visited a Methodist Church this summer I was introduced as “the minister most likely to show up at the protest rally.” So here is a call and response song you can lead at your next protest.

Rosa Parks was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight (say what?)
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right (say what?)
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)           Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)

You can add new names as you go along – Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth and more to have an interactive Black History Month lesson.

This morning I want to talk about the freedom fighter from another country, Nelson Mandela. He spent 27 years of his life as a political prisoner before being released and becoming the first president of a post apartheid South Africa. Mandela was largely a secular leader of a secular state even so I believe we can gain many spiritual insights from his life in part because he was able to emerge from so many years in prison without any discernible bitterness or resentment. He did not come out bearing grudges or seeking revenge. Instead he focused on truth and reconciliation and a united South Africa.

Nelson Mandela was famously circumspect about his own religious beliefs but once when he was asked about his religion he replied, “I certainly recognize the importance of the religious dimension of my own life…Religion is important because at the center of the great religious traditions is the pursuit of peace…the world needs peace and I am convinced that if we were to put into practice the central tenets of Christianity, Judaism, African traditional religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and other faiths – all of which have a lot in common – there would be peace in the world.”

Mandela reminds us that religion at its best is about seeking peace. At the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in working for peace in the world. We aspire to be a place where people of all faiths can find common ground and work together for the common good. One way we do this is through a class we offer our young people called Our Neighboring Faiths where we take our youth to visit a synagogue, a mosque, a Hindu temple and a wide variety of Christian churches.

The thing I like the most about this class is that it teaches our young people to have the courage to cross the threshold of another faith; to walk through the doors of new building with confidence. Anyone who has ever done it knows that it can be very intimidating thing to do. My hope is that by offering this class we are giving our children a lifelong skill, and ability to cross lines and form friendships with people of all faiths.

Now this peaceful approach to learning about different religions can stand in stark contrast to another approach taken by others. The religions of the world can sometimes seem very competitive; Jews versus Christians, Catholics versus Protestant, Muslims versus Hindus, Evangelicals versus secularists, the Methodists versus the Methodists (for sometimes the competition between factions within a church, including our own, can make every Sunday feel like Super Bowl Sunday.)

However, the more we make religion a contest between “us and them” the more we make religion a battle where there are “winners and losers” the more we seem to stray from that deeper unity that underlies all religions. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” a paradoxical statement that reminds that the more competitive we get about religion the more we are missing the point. For the wisdom of all the great religions points to paradoxes that can be summarized in this way, “It is by emptying that we are filled, it is by letting go that we gain, it is by losing our life that we find it. In other words, it by losing that we win.”

Mahatma Gandhi once said that wisdom can comes to us through all religions but all religions are imperfect for they come to us through imperfect instruments-human beings. So when studying our own religion or the religion of others we will find the sublime and the imperfect, faith and flaws. That’s why the religious scholar Krister Stendahl warns us that when we study another religion we should not compare our best with their worst – but leave room for “holy envy.”

So what is holy envy? Holy envy means that although I am a Unitarian Universalist minister I can envy the Jewish tradition its liturgy; the Greek Orthodox Church its iconography; the Hindu temple its statuary; the Buddhist tradition its spirituality. In other words, I can belong somewhere but still learn and grow everywhere.

Over the last couple of years I have been leading an adult version of the Neighboring Faiths class with field trips to African American churches for members. This time last year I took a group of us to Trinity Seventh Day Adventist Church in East Knoxville for a Black History Sabbath led by the Reverend Harold Middlebrook, who was one of Dr. King’s lieutenants

On other occasions we’ve been to a Watch Night service on New Years Eve at New Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. We’ve been the New Year’s Day Emancipation Proclamation Service at Mount Zion Baptist Church. We’ve been to the Martin Luther King Interfaith Service at various congregations. We’ve been to the Good Friday service at Tabernacle Baptist Church. We’ve been to the Thanksgiving service at First AME Zion Church.

Now whenever I take groups to visit other congregations or other faith traditions I will often say, “You do not always have to agree with the theology in order to align with the energy. Theology is about language, concepts and ideas. Energy is about life, power and vitality. Theology comes from the past written in ancient words. Energy is found in the present moment. Theology is an outward form. Energy is the inward power. Energy is about transformation and change. And one of the reasons I feel it is very important for everybody to visit historically black churches is to experience the energy that can sustain us in times of trial, the energy that overcomes oppression and empowers resistance; the energy that aligns us with the truth that sets us free.

Maybe you felt some of that energy in this room last Sunday. Last week we had a guest preacher Pastor Chris Battle and his wife Toma playing gospel on our piano. Could you feel the energy? It’s like Pastor Battle said, “Church was never meant to be about an address. Church was never meant to be about a place on a map. Church was never meant to be about bricks and mortar. The church is about relationships.”

When we visit another congregation we strengthen our relationships. When we invite someone from another tradition to preach here we strengthen relationships. As Maya Angelou likes to say, “We are more alike than unalike.” We walk on the same earth. We drink the same water. We breathe the same air. As the bard says we all have “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.” If you prick us we will bleed. However, if we love one another and learn from one another then we strengthen our relationships.

Earlier I shared a reading by Barbara Brown Taylor who was a fulltime Episcopal priest before becoming a professor of world religions at Piedmont College in North Georgia. Once when she took a group of students to the Hindu temple in Atlanta she found one student named Maria could not even stay inside the building. She was afraid. The temple seemed foreign. All the statues of various gods and goddesses were overwhelming. The rituals made her uncomfortable. She panicked. So she left the building.

If I were to end the story there you might draw certain conclusions about Maria but the story continues. Maria recovered from her panic attack. She went on to make an A in the class. For her final project she designed a hypothetical interfaith chapel for Piedmont College. The chapel she designed reminded me of this sanctuary; no religious symbols or iconography inside so anyone of any faith might feel welcome. The lighting was soft so that no matter where you looked people would be able to see each other and have a sense of community. So Maria was able to overcome her fears and move in the direction of spiritual growth and so can we.

When Barbara Brown Taylor teaches about the world’s religions she urges her students to practice three principles.

  • When trying to understand another religion, we should ask the followers (and the friends) of that religion about it and not it’s enemies.
  • We should never compare our best to their worst.
  • We should leave room for holy envy.

Religion at its best is about the pursuit of peace. Yes there are religious terrorists out there. Yes, there are clerics who proclaim holy wars. Yes, there is violence done in the name of God. Religion can exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. However, there are moments when we can tap into the energy of peace that is at the heart of all the great religions and the energy we can feel when we are in relationship with people of all faiths.

Sometimes we can even draw sacred wisdom from secular institutions. This week someone threw a smoke bomb into Yassin’s Falafel House, an act of pure malice committed against the restaurant that a national magazine has deemed the nicest place in America.

Yassin is Muslim, a Syrian refugee. Rabbi Erin Boxt of Temple Beth El next door is Jewish. However this week I took some comfort when I saw the rabbi post a picture of himself in Jerusalem wearing a T-shirt from Yassin’s with the words from a sign we often see when we go there, “Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people safe here.” That picture of the rabbi wearing that t-shirt in Jerusalem, a place that has seen so much conflict, discord and violence between religions gives me hope.

Such moments remind us that peace is possible; that Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths can find common ground because we all want peace; we all want freedom and we all want good falafels.

This week while doing a little Internet research I learned that there is a restaurant in in Ohio that has a falafel sandwich called the Nelson Mandela (and apparently this sandwich is rated very highly by Tripadvisor.) Which brings me back to something Nelson Mandela once said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

So in the midst of our nation’s impeachment controversy and our continuing culture wars let’s draw wisdom from one of the great freedom fighters who reminds us that it is by letting go of our bitterness that we gain; by losing our hatred that we win; it is by emptying our hearts of enmity that we are filled with peace and with freedom. So let’s end by singing.

Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight (say what?)
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right (say what?)
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)           Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?(on the freedom side)

May it be so.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, February 2, 2020.)

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