Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Say 'Yes' To What Is Within!

Here is the text of today's sermon. This weekend marks the beginning of Ramadan.

Say “Yes” To What Is Within!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 23rd, 2009

O believers, the fast is ordained upon you, as it was ordained upon those who came before you—perhaps you will fear God—for a number of days. Whoever is sick among you or on a journey, then a number of other days. Upon those who can bear it, a penance: the feeding of a poor person. He who willingly proffers good, this would be better for him. To fast is better for you, if only you knew. The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Qur’an was sent down—right Guidance to mankind, and clear signs of Guidance and Distinction of truth from false-hood. Those among you who witness it, let him fast therein.
Surah al-Baqarah 2:182-5

Christ passed by a group of people who hurled insults at him, and he responded with blessings. He passed by another group who insulted him, and he responded likewise. One of his disciples asked, “Why is that the more they insult you, the more you bless them, as if inviting this upon yourself?” Christ said, “A Person can bring forth only what is within him.”
Tarif Khalidi, ed. The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (London: Cambridge, 2001), p. 106.


Yesterday marked the first day of Ramadan. This is a month of fasting and worship for our Muslim sisters and brothers. For thirty days Muslims will fast during daylight hours. After the sun sets they will eat and socialize.

It is believed that during the month of Ramadan, on the 27th day of this month to be precise, that Muhammad received his first revelations. It is also during this month that God determines the course of the world for the coming year.

When I first heard that I had a visual of God in his study with his yearly planner, charts, newsprint, and markers as he plans the universe for the next year. A couple of hurricanes, maybe a pandemic, some pretty sunsets, and a bumper corn crop.

Or maybe God is She on the beach with her doodle pad wondering if she ought to so something nice and provide world peace this year or at least universal health care.

I thought it was fun to think of God using the month of Ramadan as a planning period for world events. With our modern consciousness the idea of gods and goddesses or even God with a big G planning things seems rather, well, antiquated. Things seem to take care of themselves.

The major consequence of modern science for religion was to put God in the unemployment line. The universe handles itself and there was nothing left for God to do. Nevertheless, it is fun to think of God out there planning things. I guess it provides some sort of comfort. Somebody has planned this mess. Perhaps that idea makes the mess bearable. Whether we find it all believable or not, religion is a tribute to human imagination.

During Ramadan, observers may spend more time than they usually do praying or reading the Qur’an. Or maybe they just feel guilt for not praying or reading the Qur’an as much as they think they should. This period of fasting is similar to Lent for Christians in that it is a time of spiritual and personal renewal. Observers are to avoid telling lies, being greedy, and gossip. Instead, they are to be kind, do well to the less fortunate, and so forth.

The idea is to be conscious about doing good and to avoid being mean. It would seem to be a swell idea to do good and avoid being mean all the time of course. But setting a time a part helps us to remember.

Here is an explanation of Ramadan from a woman in the United Kingdom. Her name is Arfana and she lives in Wrexham in the UK:

Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims all over the world and it's a very important month. We fast for 30 days - we can't eat after sunrise and then all day until after sunset. Prayers are most important at this time. It's a spiritual journey more than anything.

It is difficult not eating during the day especially in the UK as it's not a Muslim country and you still have to go about your day to day life, like going to work where your colleagues might be sitting having fish and chips for dinner! Whereas in a Muslim country all the shops would be closed during the day and it's easier, but it's still a challenging thing to do.

I work in Wrexham and my colleagues are fascinated by Ramadan! They ask lots of questions and think it must be a difficult thing to do, for anybody.

In Wrexham we all get together on Friday, which is a holy day, and break the fast together at the Mosque. Generally people in their own homes would invite each other round to break the fast together. It's a tradition to invite people to your house and break the fast together.

At the end of Ramadan comes Eid, which is a celebration of Ramadan, and it's when we all have a big feast.

Every year Ramadan starts 10 days earlier so it starts at a different time every year. Obviously it's harder when it's during the summer as the days are longer. We've had fasting over Christmas too which has been interesting.

Fasting is only observed by healthy individuals. They have to be of an age that they know what they're doing. Pregnant women or people who are unwell or on medication don't fast and children have to reach a certain age before they can fast.

Notice that in her explanation of Ramadan, she included no theological speculation. There was no mention of God. No reference to God planning the upcoming world events or Muhammad receiving the Qur’an. I am not saying she doesn’t believe in that. Whether the theology is important or not, she doesn’t mention it. What is important from what she says is what is done--30 days of fasting and all the perils and challenges associated with that. Then come the evening meals, celebrations, and socializing culminating with the big feast at the end of Ramadan. That is the important stuff.

Ramadan is a month long celebration of tradition and human connection. There is perhaps a theological mist behind it, but the real value is the party. If God is to be found, it is in the interaction. God is in the feast and in the fast.

One of the most important sayings of Jesus, or perhaps I should say a saying of Jesus that resonates with me is found in the Gospel of Luke. In response to the question of when folks should expect the kingdom of God, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” It could also be translated, “The kingdom of God is among you.”

I don’t know for sure whether that statement originated with Jesus or was placed on his lips by creative storytellers. Whatever the case, it represents a huge step in the evolution of God. In this one sentence of Jesus, God made a monumental shift. God, or the kingdom of God, is within you. This is in opposition to an external authority or reality out there in time or in space, or even outside of time and space.

Leo Tolstoy was so moved by that saying of Jesus that he wrote his famous, radical, too-true-for-us-to-handle book, and titled it The Kingdom of God is Within You. It is a book about Christian pacifism. His book was banned in his home country of Russia. In it he claimed that all war and violence was against the will of Christ. If humanity was going to survive it would require us to take Christ’s message, "turn the other cheek," to heart and to live it. The kingdom of God is realized as people of conscience refuse to cooperate with all forms of violence and oppression.

Peace arises from within the individual, that is, the Christ within.

A new book I recommend is Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. It is a fascinating book that traces the development of the concept of God as human consciousness changes. He shows how “God” has evolved throughout our religious past and into the present day. This is a very important book regarding how we think about God and how we use God to control our surroundings including other people.

You can tell a lot about a person by the God they believe in. For example a God…

• who desires you to kill in his name,
• who sends the unbelievers to hell,
• who makes you recite a list of 160 commandments before breakfast,
• who sends tornadoes to Minneapolis as punishment on the Lutherans for welcoming gays,
• who says Jesus was tortured on the cross because you are really, really bad,

is not God or reality at all. It does say a lot about those who invent that God and evangelize for that God.

We are no better than the God we invent for ourselves.

The kingdom of God is within you.

Just in case there might be one person who has not heard this Cherokee fable, I will share it with all of you.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather:

"Which wolf wins?"

The old Cherokee replied, "The one you feed."

The kingdom of God is within you. What wolf--what God—will we feed?

Religious celebrations, like Ramadan, give us an opportunity to be conscious about the God we feed.

Even for those of us who are not Muslim, yet out of respect for Muslims, Ramadan can be a month of observance. This is a good thirty day period to learn about the Muslim faith, to make connections with our Muslim neighbors, to search for common ground, and to do things that make for peace. An act as simple as taking a moment of silent meditation and offering it as a gift to our Muslim sisters and brothers is a gift of peacefulness.

Compassion, creativity, joy, peacefulness--the kingdom of God--is within us and among us.

That for me is a God I can believe in.
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