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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Return to the Source: A Sermon

Today was Qur'an Sunday. We are reading the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009. The reading for June is Surahs 14-18.

Return to the Source
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 24th, 2009
Qur’an: Surahs 14-18

We are about half-way through the Qur’an. The readings for June are Surahs 14-18. The Qur’an is not very long. It is about the length of the New Testament. So if you haven’t started yet, now would be a good time. You could read it during the summer.

I like the translation by Tarif Khalidi. It doesn’t have any notes or explanations. It is like reading a book. I highly recommend Lex Hixon’s, The Heart of the Qur’an: An Introduction to Islamic Spirituality. Also, Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations is a helpful guide.

Lex Hixon’s book is particularly helpful in understanding the tone of the Qur’an. In the English translations, God comes across as harsh. But Hixon and Sells bring out the compassion and the sadness of the Qur’an. Sadness in that God sees humanity refusing to return to the Source of Life. Compassion in that God never ceases to give up on humanity.

I noticed in reading that the Qur’an seems to repeat itself. It says the same thing in different ways, sometimes in the same way. At first it was annoying. I wanted a plot or if not that, at least a thesis statement with an orderly argument. But that is not what you get. It swirls and spirals, going back and forth from contemporary events in the time of Muhammad to stories of the earlier prophets to reflections on nature and pronouncements on the human condition.

It is more like a long conversation. If you have ever stayed up all night with your partner in order to clear the air you will know what I mean. Those conversations are not orderly. They move in terms of emotion. You repeat yourself. You tell a part of a story from the past, then argue about something, then tell part of another story, then back to the first. On and on, a dance throughout the night.

The Qur’an then, is a conversation with the Source of Life. I hesitate to use the word, “God” as it is bigger than God, if we think of God narrowly as a supernatural being. It is the Universe, Life itself, the Source of All, speaking in human terms. The conversation is from the Source of Life to us, through the prophet Muhammad.

The Qur’an as book is only a piece of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is really the Source of Life itself. Hixon uses the term, Cosmic Qur’an. Everything is the Qur’an. Everywhere is the voice of God, the voice of the Source of Life, if we will listen.

From Surah 16:
“He it is Who made water descend from the sky, of which some is for you to drink and some for trees from which you eat. With it He causes vegetation to sprout for your benefit: olives, palms and vines, an all types of fruit. In this is a sign for a people who reflect.

He made the night to serve you as also the day, the sun, the moon and the stars—all are made to serve by His command. In these are signs for people who understand.

Behold what He created for you on earth, diverse in colour. In this is a sign for a people who remember.” 16:9-13
As I read through these revelations it came to me why they seem so repetitive. That is because the Source of Life is trying to penetrate my veil of ignorance. From various angles, with numerous parables, with repetition, the Source of Life, like my conversation partner with whom I converse all night, is trying to get something through my thick skull.

The compassion is reflected in that the Source of Life never gives up. The Qur’an whether it be the Cosmic Qur’an or the words on the page of a poor English translation, is the ongoing attempt by the Source of Life to wake me up so I will return to Life.

A church member gave me a cd this past week by folk singer, Susan Werner. The cd is entitled, “Gospel Truth” and it contains a number of songs about spirituality. She is delightfully irreverent. She jokes that she is an evangelical agnostic—passionate yet ambivalent.

I am going to play a song from that cd. This one is not irreverent, however. I found it to be deeply meaningful. It is about conscience. I don’t know if she had the Qur’an in mind when she wrote it, but it seems to me to reflect the wisdom at the heart of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is the invitation to return to the Source. This is not a return to religion, but to the Source beyond all religion, beyond all science, beyond all knowing. It isn’t about believing in things. It is about transformation.

Susan Werner expresses that in this beautiful song about the Divine Troubler.

It is called, “Did Trouble Me”

When I closed my eyes so I would not see
My Lord did trouble me
When I let things stand that should not be
My Lord did trouble me
When I held my head too high too proud
My Lord did trouble me
When I raised my voice too little too loud
My Lord did trouble me

Did trouble me
With a word or a sign
With the ringing of the bell in the back of my mind
Did trouble me
Did stir my soul
For to make me human, to make me whole

When I slept too long, slept too deep
My Lord did trouble me
Put a worrisome vision into my sleep
My Lord did trouble me
When I held myself away and apart
My Lord did trouble me
And the tears of my brother didn’t move my heart
My Lord did trouble me

And of this I’m sure, of this I know
My Lord will trouble me
Whatever I do and wherever I go

My Lord will trouble me
In the whisper of the wind, in the rhythm of a song
My Lord will trouble me
To keep me on the path where I belong
My Lord will trouble me

We forget who we are. We don’t see the Divine imprint on everything we see. We are too busy, too clouded, too sleepy, too desirous of our own agendas and goals. We aren’t even sure why we have these agendas and goals. They keep us busy I suppose. They give us the illusion that we are doing something important.

Amidst all of this, whether we are conscious of it or not, the Divine Troubler is at work. The Divine Troubler messes up our plans on a daily basis. She puts holes in our carefully constructed theories and does all kinds of mischief. She does this not to be mean or cruel, but to remind us to return. She does this from compassion.

At the Source is Divine Peace. We will be troubled until we return. We will be troubled by beauty, troubled by suffering, troubled by someone in need, troubled by success, troubled by failure.

In chapter 18 there is a parable of two men. God gives to one of them a fruitful garden, surrounded with palms and a gushing river. The harvest is bountiful. The man who enjoys this harvest says to his neighbor: “I am greater in wealth than you are and more powerful.” He enters his garden and says to himself: “I imagine that this will never become desolate. I doubt that the Hour shall come. And if I am ever returned to my Lord, I shall find something even better that it as a final destination.”

The neighbor tells him to be careful for what he is saying. He tells him, “Are you blaspheming against Him Who created you from clay, then from a sperm, then fashioned you into a man? Assuredly, it is God my Lord, and I associate none with Him. If only you had entered your garden and said: “This is the will of God! There is no strength save in God!”

Sure enough. The arrogant man’s fruit was withered and his orchards became barren. The point of the parable, as all parables, is to cause us to reflect. They are designed to trouble us. In what sense are we like the arrogant man?

When we refuse to recognize the Source of Life and to recognize our interdependence with all of creation, we become arrogant. That arrogance manifests itself in contempt for others and for creation. We think we own something or deserve something or have a right to something.

When that happens, the Qur’an, because of Divine Compassion, will trouble us.

I am discovering that there is not a great deal of speculation in the Qur’an. There is not a list of things we are supposed to believe. It is an invitation to be aware of life and to be conscious of our surroundings. It is a call to walk lightly and to take time to notice this incredible mystery of creation.

Everything is a sign. Every created thing is a parable for the Source.

This Source is Divine Love and Peace. This Source embraces us as we are, as beloved.

I will close with this quote from The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis:
What the world needs now is not more religion and dogmas but a stream—a torrent of warm heartmelt that cuts through the ice cap of our mental hardness. God surely reveals Himself to all who can prostrate themselves before His unknowable reality. Can we give ourselves over to the possibility that we, too, are something so marvelous that no one has ever been able to say it? Something so outrageous that knees could actually give way. We could drop to the ground, fall prostrate, fall within the center of the word humility, and disappearing, live with in it. P. 96.
That is what it means to return to the Source.
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