Sunday, September 12, 2010

prodigal god

We are drunken ecstatics who have let our hearts
Go to the wild. We are musty scholars
Of love, and old friends of the wine cup.

People have aimed the arrow of guilt a hundred times
In our direction. With the help of our Darling’s eyebrow,
Blame has been a blessing, and has opened all our work.

Oh, dark-spotted flower, you endured pain all night,
Waiting for the wine of dawn; I am that poppy
That was born with the burning spot of suffering.

Today we read that great parable of the prodigal son at church. It’s one of those stories where you almost don’t want to say anything at all so as not to ruin what’s already there! Or else you have to talk for hours because it has so many facets to it. Proof yet again that whatever else he was, Jesus was certainly a master storyteller. But it actually wound up making me think about something else: the relationship between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

This is a particularly powerful time in the history of our world, and even these days specifically here in the middle of September 2010. Just the other day our Jewish brothers and sisters marked the feast of Rosh Ha–Shanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also the celebration of the anniversary of the creation of the world 5771 years ago. And in just a few days, following on that, they will celebrate Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. This year those feasts serendipitously coincide with the end of the month of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and penance, when our sisters and brothers of Islam spend a period trying to purify their hearts through self-restraint and good deeds, asking for forgiveness for their sins, and pray for guidance and help in avoiding evil. This was the first year I was really aware of the three-day feast called Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of Ramadan, when there is traditionally lots of food and gift-giving. That feast just ended last night, though it was curtailed considerably by many in the US due to its falling on September 11th this year. Sad to say, some Muslims were worried that there would be violence; and others were concerned that it wouldn’t even appear as if anyone was celebrating the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. That of course is the other anniversary that we just remembered yesterday, that horrendous event that changed everything in the course of history and tied our religions together in a more horrific bond than we ever thought we would have. I don’t have to tell you that this has coincided also with a string of violent acts against Muslims around the country––the stabbing of the cab driver, the desecration of the prayer rug, the fire bombing of one mosque and the protests against the Islamic center in New York, culminating with this crazy controversy around the evangelical Christian pastor in Florida threatening to desecrate some copies of the Qur’an by burning them. In this day and age of the 24 hour news cycle and the Internet, for better of for worse, this has pointed out just what an increasingly smaller web of relations we are involved in now, where the actions a virtually unknown man in Florida can foment violence all over the world––in some way we are psychically connected with nearly everyone on the planet. If there’s any good news in this it’s that virtually everyone knew that this action would have been heinously wrong, and so many people publicly condemned it, from the President to Sarah Palin, from the Pope down through members of Pastor Jones’ own denomination. So we do have some sense working even in this day and age of craziness.

So it seemed to me that this was a particularly good time to start trying to find and talk about what common ground we share.

In my study of comparative religion, I like to use the phrase “source and summit”––the beginning and the end, and what I have discovered in my studies is that while we diverge about various things, our three traditions––who we sometimes refer to as the “prophetic traditions”––definitely agree on the source and the summit of faith. What is the source? When I refer to Jews and Muslims as our brothers and sisters, I’m not just being metaphorical. We are all the spiritual children of Abraham since all three of our traditions trace their origin back to the covenant with Abraham. (I’d like to be inclusive and say Sarah too as some feminists prefer, but Muslims consider Hagar to be their mother, Sarah’s serving girl who gave birth to Abraham’s other son Ishmael.) That word “covenant” is very important: it’s a relationship. Our common source is our covenant with God. From there on the three traditions diverge on some very fundamental things: our view of the world, our understanding of Scripture and revelation, certainly at the level of doctrine (the Trinity for example), and even in our various understandings of God (and certainly the place of Jesus). But what we discover at the other end, the summit, is that the great mystics of our traditions––be they the visionaries of the Kabbalah, the Christian mystics, or the Sufis––converge again in that they speak about the end of this journey of life. They all use language about union with God, and they all teach that the life of faith becomes a longing for and a striving for union with God, so much so that an erotic love poem––the Song of Songs––was included in the canon of Jewish scriptures, some rabbis referring to it as the holiest book in the Bible; so much so that the Christian mystical tradition speaks of “mystical marriage of the soul with God”; so much so that the Sufi mystics write ecstatic love poems about the spiritual life––witness the poetry of Rumi or Hafez or Rabi’a. So it begins with union––the union of the covenant––and ends with union, the mystical marriage.

But what is equally significant about this covenantal union is it’s not simply a matter of our longing for and striving for union with God. Perhaps even more fundamental is that God is longing for union with us! What’s significant about the story of the covenant with Abraham is that it was God’s initiative! What’s significant about the Exodus event for the Jewish people is that it was God’s choosing a people to be his own. What’s significant about the Incarnation of Jesus is that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” not merely as an afterthought, but part of the plan to draw all things to God’s self. What significant about Islam is that Allah called out to Muhammad (peace be upon him). Our traditions all teach that the Divine One is longing for union with us!

And that brings us to today’s story of the prodigal son. You know the word “prodigal” means wasteful and extravagant, like someone who spends money freely and recklessly. This story could easily be called the story of the prodigal father. The image of God that Jesus is trying to convey to us is that God is very reckless even wasteful with love. This young man barely deserves to be let back as a servant, but there is the father with the robe and the ring and fatted calf. You gotta imagine, this is God standing in the middle of the road covered with dust longing for his child’s return, not just meting out justice, not just begrudgingly letting us sit at the table but––as Jesus says in the two previous parables––there’s more rejoicing over a repentant sinner––robes, rings, fattened calves and banquets! This is why the prophet Ezekiel says, “I do not want sinners to die; I want them to turn to me and live.” This is why every surah of the Qur'an begins with the phrase ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, the most common way to refer to Allah, “the all merciful and compassionate.” This too is our common ground: we believe that God is a prodigal parent who longs for us!

I heard a great line recently on a retreat: “When you act like God, you get to feel like God.” This parable is not only about our returning to God no matter what we have done wrong, knowing that we will be welcomed and even feted and fed. It’s also a warning! It warns us to not be like the older brother, who was not like God. In most of our dealings with the world we are looking for justice and rights. Well, if that father had been just, that kid would have been right back out in the cold. But as Jesus sees the world, mercy trumps justice! Compassion trumps rights! So while the old man is inside dancing with his son and the guests at the banquet, the older kid is out there being just and demanding his rights––bitter and cold. Well, if we act like God, we get to feel like God! We get to come in to the banquet. If we are merciful and compassionate, we get to feel divine! We get to be partakers in the divine nature.

So with our Jewish friends, let us pray for atonement (at-one-ment); with our Muslim friends let’s ask forgiveness, pray for guidance and help in refraining from evils. And this would be a good time for all of us to try to purify our hearts through self-restraint and good deeds. As Jesus taught, no matter what has happened let’s not be afraid to approach the Divine One, who is All-Merciful, All-Compassionate, who stands in the middle of the road with a robe and a ring longing for union with us.

Then, let’s act like God, and be merciful and compassionate for the sake of the world that God loves so much.