It looks like we’re going to have to find a bigger venue for the Cobb County Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service. Since these interfaith gatherings began 12 years ago, Temple Kol Emeth, which seats between 800 and 900, has hosted them. The place was packed Thursday before last. When she couldn’t find parking, one of our members had to turn around and go back home.
Do you know how the Ecumenical Thanksgiving celebration began? In 2000, the baccalaureate committee for Walton High School chose Rabbi Steve Lebow to give the main address. The service was to be held at a local United Methodist church, which meant that Rabbi Lebow would be preaching. The pastor objected to a non-Christian speaking from the church’s pulpit and told the planning committee if the rabbi remained the speaker, they would not be able to host the baccalaureate. The event was moved to the Cobb Civic Center.
In response to the controversy, several interfaith partners planned an interfaith Thanksgiving service for the community. The first was held in 2005, at Temple Kol Emeth, the synagogue Rabbi Lebow still serves. With each passing year, the gathering has grown…. to the point that it looks like we’ll have to find a larger venue.
The thing I hear from those who attended the service is, “It was just so good to be in the same room together with people of other faiths.” It’s true. Women in hijabs. Men wearing the turbans of Sikhism. Yarmulkes. A drumming circle. Singing bowls from our friends at Unity. The call to prayer from one of our Muslim friends. And the Muslim children’s choir that stole everyone’s hearts! In a time when divisive rhetoric is high—especially against our Muslim friends—there was something deeply moving about being together in the same room. Reflecting on the event later, I realized that sometimes, the most radical thing you can do is simply to be in the same room with people who are different from you. Sometimes presence is prophetic.
Have you seen the video that demonstrates what to do if you see someone being bullied? The clip depicts a woman in a hijab sitting on a park bench being yelled at by a man leaning over her. As the man yells, another person walks up, joins the woman on the bench, and begins a conversation with her, ignoring the bully. That’s a great example of presence being prophetic.
The prophet Isaiah offers another image of the transformative power of presence. “In days to come the mountain of God’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Jacob that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.”
We 21st century folk understand God to be present in all the world, not just on mountain tops or in sanctuaries. But let’s go with this image for a minute. First, we have a mountain, taller than all other mountains. On top of this mountain is the house of God, a place to worship God, to learn from God. And from as far as the eye can see, people are streaming to this mountain. (Kind of sounds like the parking lot at Eastminster Presbyterian the night of the Thanksgiving service. J) From every direction, people of different races and ethnicities and nationalities and languages and sizes and shapes and colors and dress are streaming to the mountain of God. They get to the bottom of the mountain and start climbing. Why? Because they want to get closer to God! They want to learn from God. And so, they climb.
And as all these different people climb the mountain to get closer to God, look at what else happens! As the people get closer to God, they also get closer to each other…so that, by the time they get to the top of the mountain to commune with God, they’re sitting right next to each other! And what do they do once they get there? They learn from God’s ways so they can follow them. Somehow it seems fitting that getting closer to God happens as we get closer to people who are different from us, including those who worship God differently. Who knew the mountain of God was located at the corner of Sewell Mill and Old Canton Road!
The prophet doesn’t only offer an image of a better world, though. He also offers an image of how to get there. Listen: ‘For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of God from Jerusalem. God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of God!
Swords into plowshares. Spears into pruning hooks. Take your weapons—implements of war—and transform them into implements of peace.
“The words of Isaiah 2:4 (‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’) are engraved in large letters on the wall opposite the United Nations headquarters in New York City.”
And in Washington, DC, ‘welded to a 16 by 19 foot steel plowshare are thousands of disabled handguns confiscated by the Washington Police Department. The label for the sculpture reads, ‘Guns into Plowshares.’”
The words of Isaiah serve well as a mission statement of sorts of the UN. And the creativity with which the Washington Police Department has contemporized the image is beautifully instructive.
But perhaps the most powerful use of this image is a nine-foot sculpture that stands in one of the gardens at the UN. In that sculpture, a muscular blacksmith is beating a sword into a plowshare. What the blacksmith has is neither sword nor plowshare. It’s something in between. The blacksmith is in the process of making peace. He’s in the process of conversion.
As are we. Oh, to live in a world where nations do not lift swords against each other! Oh, that war-making could be removed from our collective curriculum as obsolete! Unfortunately, for us—as for the prophet Isaiah—our conversion process is not yet complete. We live in a world where nations do war, a place where senseless violence still occurs. It’s hard—so hard—for us to imagine a world without war or violence, but that’s why God gave us prophets. Prophets help us imagine. And Isaiah helps us to imagine a new day, a day where people of different backgrounds and faiths and colors meet together on the mountain of God in peace.
When Isaiah wrote about the mountain of God, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thinking about the corner of Sewell Mill and Old Canton Roads. It was probably Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb, one of those tall mountains in Israel or Egypt. But really, any place where people of diverse backgrounds come together to worship God, where implements of war are transformed into implements of peace….any place where that happens can become a dwelling place for God.
Even this place, our church, on this hill.
In light of the increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric, one of our members contacted me a couple of weeks ago and asked how we might support our Muslim friends in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Last December, several of us visited our friends at their mosque in Norcross. Then, in February, several members from their community came to visit with us. You’ll recall that we had a wonderful time of fellowship and learning. We pledged at the time to do it again soon.
When I saw Nafis Rahman—Mahmooda’s husband—at the Thanksgiving celebration a couple of weeks ago, we talked about getting together again. Now, it’s Advent and we don’t have a lot of extra time on our hands, but here’s an idea. We first got to know our friends in the Ahmadiyya Community when we partnered together to work in Family Promise. Because of their religious beliefs, housing people overnight in their facilities isn’t an option for Muslim communities. Even so, Ahmadiyya wanted to participate. Since Pilgrimage is the smallest participating congregation, Family Promise paired Ahmadiyya with us. Mahmooda and her group take care of providing breakfast and lunch for our Family Promise guests.
So, here’s what I’m thinking. Our next Family Promise host week begins two weeks from today, December 11. We won’t have time for the kind of conversation we had when they were here in February, but we can invite our friends to worship. I’m thinking—as an act of worship—we can receive the food offerings from Mahmooda and her crew. Then we can share our prayers and hopes with our friends as a sign of our love and support. (I’ve actually already extended the invitation. Nafis is checking to see if it might work for them. If they aren’t able to come on Dec. 11, we can hand write our prayers and hopes for them and send them to them.)
I invite you to share your prayers and hopes for our Muslim friends with me before December 11th…..that way, I can plan the service around them. And perhaps on Dec. 11, we can set up a time to go back and visit Ahmadiyya Community at their place.
Our work of Advent is like the work of the blacksmith in the sculpture at the UN: the call this Advent is to be about the process of making peace. Perhaps extending hospitality, prayers, and good wishes to our Muslim friends is one way to create some peace, to turn a sword into a plowshare or a spear into a pruning hook. And perhaps in doing so we will realize that God-with-us is with us…and has been all along.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.