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Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Small Kindness: A Sermon

This is my sermon from today. My church is reading an English translation of the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009. Once per month I will preach on selected Surahs from the reading for that month. For a schedule of readings, visit the blog, Qur'an and Jive. For February we are reading Surahs 81-114 or the early Meccan Surahs. Recommended reading include

  1. The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali
  2. Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells
  3. The Story of the Qur'an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life by Ingrid Mattson

The Small Kindness
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 1st, 2009

In the Name of God the Compassionate the Caring

Do you see him who calls the reckoning a lie?
He is the one who casts the orphan away
Who fails to urge the feeding of one in need.
Cursed are those who perform the prayer
Unmindful of how they pray
Who make of themselves a display
But hold back the small kindness.
Surah 107

At the end of it all, what is the value of a human life? What is the value of my life? Those are questions of introspection. They are risky questions. These questions that when asked with mind and heart can change us.

At certain times in our lives we are open to these questions. These are times when we are confronted with the Holy. This is when that membrane--that heavy insulation--that serves to keep us from ultimate questions of value becomes thin. Scholar Marcus Borg calls these experiences “thin places.”

These thin places can be an actual place, or an event, or a word spoken or read. At these thin places we become more aware of the Holy or the Sacred. Moses, at the age of 40, an age susceptible to a thin place is confronted with the Holy at Mount Horeb. From the book of Exodus:
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’
Thus it all begins for Moses. He said, “I must turn aside and look.” Perhaps not everyone would turn. Not all would be curious enough to stop and look. There are sheep to be kept. There is money to be made. There are worldly things that need attention.

But Moses (who knows why) turns aside, and looks. His life changes. He, by the way, was 40. Mid-life, while not the only time, is a good time for a thin place.

Mohammad, at the cave of Mount Hira, at the age of 40, is confronted by the Holy. He hears a voice: “Iqra! Proclaim! Recite!” From Surah 96:

Recite in the name of your lord who created—
From an embryo created the human

Recite your lord is all-giving
Who taught by the pen
Taught the human what he did not know before

The human being is a tyrant
He thinks his possessions make him secure
To your lord is the return of every thing.

Thus it all begins for Muhammad.

We will not read the Qur’an correctly if we only read with suspicion. If we read it wrapped with our insulation of prejudice, stereotype, or that common illusion among the educated—academic disinterest—we will miss its invitation.

If, on the other hand, like Moses, we “turn aside” and take a look, we may be confronted by the awe and the intimacy of the Holy.

I have finally found a version of the Qur’an that I can recommend. It has text and commentary. The translation is respected by Muslims. It is called The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an by Abudullah Yusuf Ali. It has text and commentary with other aids and helps. I found it at Barnes and Noble. It was originally published in 1934.

In the preface, Yusuf Ali writes:
One final word to my readers, Read, study, and digest the Holy Book. Read slowly, and let it sink into your heart and soul. Such study will, like virtue, be its own reward. xvi
Muhammad received revelations for twenty-three years. The Qur’an is divided into three periods: The first period contains the early Meccan suras that occur mostly at the end of the Qur’an, the ones we are reading for this month, the later Meccan suras, and the Medinan suras.

According to Michael Sells, author of another book I highly recommend, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, these early Meccan suras “focus on existential and personal issues.” P. 14

Sells offers translation and commentary of Suras 81-114. Each Sura has a name and the name is found within the text of that Sura.

I want to spend some reflection on Sura 107, Al Ma-un or The Neighborly Assistance. Sells translates it as The Small Kindness.

When non-Muslims read the Qur’an, because we are unfamiliar with the Arabic, we tend to see God as harsh or angry. As Sells points out, the tone is not anger or harshness, but sadness. The Gospel of Matthew captures this tone when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem:
‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
This is the tone of the Qur’an. God, compassionate and caring, like a mother hen, wants to gather the people, but the people are not willing. Yet, there is always the hope that some will, like Moses, turn aside and seek the Holy.

The reason people are not willing to turn aside and seek the good, is because they deny that life matters. The word in Arabic is din. In English, it is translated as judgment, reckoning, responsibility, right and wrong, virtue, morality, or faith.

Sura 107 begins:

In the Name of God the Compassionate the Caring
Do you see him who calls the reckoning a lie?
He is the one who casts the orphan away
Who fails to urge the feeding of one in need.

Those who deny that there is right and wrong or deny that there is value in life, show that through callousness or indifference to others. The Qur’an never allows a belief in God to be separate from acts of compassion and social justice.

The purpose of the Qur’an is to draw people back and to remind them that there is right and wrong and that we are responsible for the least of these. Even those who know forget. The Qur’an is a reminder to return. It is the invitation to ask of ourselves today what will be of value at the end of life.

What is of value will not be our possessions, our accomplishments, or our status, but the small kindness. The reckoning or the din, is not so much a future event but a recognition of the value of life at this moment.

The Qur’an specifies practices or pillars of din. The five pillars or practices of din are performed to keep us humble so that we do not forget who we are and to whom we are responsible.

One of the pillars or practices of din is to share our wealth with those in need. Zakat or almsgiving is the practice of compassion. The practice itself reminds us that we are responsible to others, that our lives have value, and that value is expressed in the charity, compassion and care we have for others.

Cursed are those who perform the prayer
Unmindful of how they pray
Who make of themselves a display
But hold back the small kindness.

The next pillar of din or practice of reckoning is the salat or the prayer. The point of the five times a day prayer is to remind us who we are. It is a calling out of the daily business of life and toward the highest virtue, the din. The motion of the forehead touching the ground is the motion of humility.

The point of these actions whether charity or prayer is to keep us mindful. As the sura shows, we can pray in a way that is unmindful. Any practice can be abused. We can pray for show or recognition. The true test is the small kindness.

What is the small kindness? This is the act of pure virtue. When Jesus said, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” he was also speaking of din.

This is difficult. We tend to do things for what we get from them. That is the essential forgetfulness of living. We calculate. We want to be seen in a certain way. We see this calculation in others but often not in ourselves.

To follow the Qur’an is not to worry about what others do. It is to seek the highest virtue, to look for the highest value, and to recognize that the small kindness is the way to the Divine presence.



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