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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Abode of Peace--A sermon

Abode of Peace
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 26, 2009

Surah 10:24-25

The likeness of this present life is like water We made descend from the sky. The plants of the earth, such as men and beasts are wont to eat, grow diverse because of it—until, when earth has assumed its ornament and is decked out in all its finery, and its people think they hold it in their power, Our command descends upon it by night or day, and We turn it into stubble, as though yesterday it had never bloomed. Even so do We make clear the signs for a people who reflect.

God calls to the Abode of Peace and guides whomsoever He wills to a path that is straight.


On Friday the confirmation class visited the Muslim Community Center of the Northeast. We attended Friday prayer. On Friday afternoon at 1:30 the call to prayer is sounded and people gather at the musalah (place of prayer). In addition to prayer a sermon is given.

I don’t think all of them are the same, but at this particular musalah, there is a separate place for women and men. The guys and I were in the front part and the women were behind a window. It is a one way mirror. The women could see and hear, but the men couldn’t see them.

We were given a brief tour beforehand by Taneem Aziz. Friday is not like Sunday for Christians. After the prayer, they return to work. They have education classes on Sundays. On the wall of one of the children’s classes I could see where they were learning about the principles of Islam and the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). To say “peace be upon him” is a sign of respect.

Next to Muhammad’s name were his qualities, “trustworthy, kind, loyal.” Muhammad is a model for how to live in the world.

Taneem invited us to either watch or participate. He said that before prayer, we should wash feet, hands and face. In the restroom is a place to wash your feet. The guys thought that was pretty cool, so they and I washed our feet and hands and face.

The speaker was from Texas. The Muslim Community Center doesn’t have an imam, so the person who is most familiar with the Qur’an is the one who gives the sermon. On occasion they will have a guest speaker like they did Friday.

We were introduced to him beforehand and he was impressed and pleased that we wanted to learn about Islam.

We went into the Musalah, the call to prayer was recited by Taneem, and people began to gather. We sat on the carpet. The sermon was interesting. He was encouraging Muslims to make relationships with non-Muslims. It is important to do that so that non-Muslims can overcome stereotypes about Islam. These stereotypes include equating Muslims with terrorism.

“Terrorism does not have a religion,” he said.

He mentioned us with gratitude. It is important for Muslims and non-Muslims to find common ground and to work together for peace he told us.

After the sermon, we gathered in two parallel lines, shoulder to shoulder. The guys asked me what to do, and I said, “I don’t know, just follow along.” Following the lead of the others, facing Mecca, we bowed, kneeled and prostrated when they did.

I found it to be moving. There is something that binds people when they pray together, especially close together. We were connected beyond the differences of culture, class, and religion to surrender to the Source of all that is.

When the prayer had finished Taneem and his college-age daughter, spoke to us in one of the classrooms. They answered questions and invited us to a potluck. On the second Saturday of every month, they have a common meal. I said I would bring this invitation back to us, and on a Saturday that works, we can schedule that time.

His daughter wears the hijab, the head covering. Most of the time when she goes out with her mother to shop, they are treated with respect. But now and then they will receive comments such as “Go back to Iraq” or “Go back to where you came from.” She is born in the United States, so she already is where she came from.

They never confront. They never return hostilities. That is part of their reality. Most of the time they are treated well, but hostilities against them can surface. He said to the youth that they can be helpful in speaking out against misinformation against Muslims. Now, we have prayed together. Now, we know each other, face to face.

I asked what it meant to be a Muslim. And his daughter put it quite eloquently and simply:

“It’s a way of life. I begin each day saying, ‘Bismallah (in the name of God).’”

The youth will have their own interpretations of the day. For me, I felt another point of connection with our Muslim neighbors.

What is Islam? What is this way of life? Islam means among many things to surrender or to submit. It is not to surrender or to submit to another human being or to a doctrine or to culture or to creation or any to created thing. Islam is to surrender to God. God (Allah in Arabic) is that which is beyond all names. God is the reality beyond all realities. A Muslim is one who surrenders to God alone.

A Muslim is more than a practitioner of a religion. It is a way of life. Taneem said something very interesting. “All children are born Muslim.” Traditional Christianity says that children are born in sin. Islam says the opposite. As we grow we forget who we are. Islam is the way of remembering who we are and whose we are.

When non-Muslims see Islam from the outside we tend to see practices, rituals, and rules.

Muslims believe this. Muslims believe that.

We compare what we see with what we believe or do. That is all we can see. That is OK as far as it goes. But that only gets us to the outside, to the external religious practices. I think it is possible if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to see more than that.


These external practices are a path or a way to the heart.

This is one of the reasons I am engaging us in reading a translation of the Qur’an this year as well as finding ways to connect with our Muslim neighbors. The goal is to search for and respect the heart, which is a metaphor for the sacred experience of surrendering to God.

The other reason is to become aware of stereotypes and to dismantle them. On Friday morning there was a message on the church answering machine. It was from a church in Johnson City inviting us to a conference on “Radical Islam.” I knew where that was going--a bunch of Radical Christians engaging in some fear-mongering.

Would you like to learn about Islam? Here is a novel idea. Talk to Muslims. This is why we took the confirmation class to the Muslim Community Center. When they hear negative things about Islam or Muslims, they can know and perhaps even say that isn’t true.

Surahs 9-13 is the reading for May. I chose today 10:24-25. One of the principles of Islamic spirituality is that the created order is a sign or a parable for the mystery of God.

Because we live inside the created order we take it for granted. When things go well we tend to think we are responsible. We think we hold it in our power. We are entitled. We think it is our right. This is human arrogance. The wise person, the one who reflects, recognizes that life is transitory. At times there is nourishing rain. At other times drought. This is not simply about weather patterns. This is about our own lives.

Sometimes life goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. Life is change. The wise person does not put his or her life or value in that which changes, but in the Source beyond change. In the Bible story about Jonah, the prophet is on the hill, bummed that God does not destroy Nineveh but allows the people to live.

In the story, God commands a plant to grow and provide Jonah shade. Jonah likes that. Then God tells a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah is angry, “angry enough to die,” says the text. Then God tells Jonah:
‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Islamic spirituality is the invitation to consider the Source of life not just the circumstances. In so doing we will discover blessing, the “Abode of Peace.”

A church member gave me this book. It is called The Heart of the Qur’an: An Introduction to Islamic Spirituality by Lex Hixon. Neil Douglas-Klotz provides a forward and commentary.

Hixon take a number of passages from the Qur’an, meditates on them, and provides his own commentary from his own personal meditation. After I chose this passage, I discovered that Hixon commented on it. Here is his meditation:
Contemplate life as fresh rain showered abundantly on receptive ground from the Ever-Present Source, Who is like the vast sky. This pure rainwater, mingling with the earth, causes the boundless variety of seeds to sprout and flourish, providing ample nourishment for all creatures. Imagine the spiritual blindness of those who deny the existence of the Original Source, the very sky from which life-giving water descends, and who insist that they alone have power over the fertile expanse of this earth, turned fruitful and beautiful by the rain of life. With terrible suddenness, during night or day, a ray of light like fire can radiate from the Source of Power and reduce rich orchards and pastures to fields of straw, without leaving a trace of the abundance experienced only moments before. For those who meditate deeply, this parable from the Source of Wisdom presents a clear teaching to rely upon the Ultimate Source alone. Thus the Voice of Allah invites human beings home into Divine Peace and guides them along the Direct Path of surrender. These souls return to the Single Source, along the noble way that is called Islam. P. 49
The heart of Christianity is similar. “Seek first,” said Jesus, “The realm of God.”

There is, I think, a common word, a way of life that binds humanity beyond all of our differences. Our various religions and practices show us this way. It is a way to the heart of life, to the heart of God, and to the Abode of Peace.


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