Sermons

All Flesh is Grass

December 9th, 2017

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017.

Lewis Thomas died over 20 years ago, but I think of him again in connection with today’s Old Testament reading.

Some while ago, I read a magazine article in the New York Times about Lewis Thomas, and his thoughts about life and death and the words of Isaiah in the first lesson today seemed to connect: “All flesh is grass” the prophet tells us. “The people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely

the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

How does that connect with Lewis Thomas? Do you know the name? He was Dean of the medical schools at NYU and Yale, chancellor of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Scholar in residence at Cornell Medical School and author of essays collected in books called “The Lives of a Cell,” “The Medusa and the Snail,” “The Youngest Profession,” and others. They make good

reading. They’re wise and warm, and they make endlessly interesting observations about human nature and about the human race.

When Lewis Thomas learned that he was terminally ill someone interviewed him and wrote about it so I read the article with special interest and I was really disappointed because he was a man who had seen so much and understood so much and now he was dying and it turned out that he didn’t have a clue about some pretty basic things like God and heaven and life hereafter. Whatever ideas he had could have been picked up secondhand from a church school dropout.

Now, I think when someone in this culture, this society, has no idea of what Christianity is all about we have to take some of the blame. It’s at least in part because we who are Christians are not communicating, not getting our message across, not living up to our faith in a way that gets any attention or understanding. So ignorance about the faith is partly our fault surely, but on the other hand, wouldn’t you think that a highly intelligent, curious man would wonder what it was that shaped our world, our culture, our civilization? He must have heard of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and maybe Karl Barth, Rheinhold Neibuhr, William Temple – some of the greatest minds of western civilization have been Christians. Wouldn’t you think that a well-read, well educated, reflective man would wonder why? Wouldn’t you think he would want to test their ideas for himself?

Lewis Thomas wrote an essay once about a space probe that was being sent out toward the far ends of the universe with a carefully coded message on board to tell any intelligent beings out there that we are here. He pondered what message we might send as typifying the very best of what we have done, and he suggested some music of Bach, all of Bach. “It would be boasting, of course,” he said, “but it’s surely excusable to put the best face on at the beginning. We can tell the hard truths later.” I like that suggestion, but can you imagine listening to Bach and Mozart and Haydn and Handel and not wondering about the faith that shaped that music? The B-Minor Mass, the Messiah: wouldn’t you wonder what it was all about? Is it possible truly to appreciate music like that and not understand what it’s saying? It seems to me that it would be like attending a performance of Shakespeare in Russian and not asking for a translation. Can you live in the western world and hear the Messiah and never wonder what it means?

“Comfort ye, my people.” We heard that passage read this morning. I remember the first time I heard it sung live my first year away from home at college. I’d heard it on the radio and maybe we had a recording, but I grew up in a small town and there was no one there who could have sung that aria. But Trinity Church Princeton had a good choir and in Advent the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” I was seventeen, so it was a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. They are the words of the prophet Isaiah, words of faith and hope, and the music enhances that expression.

So who was Isaiah? Why did he write those words? Are they just beautiful words with no meaning at all? No, Isaiah was writing at a critical turning point in Jewish history. The Jews had been in exile in Babylon for seventy years, but then they were set free to return to Israel. The exile was ending. God’s people were experiencing God’s goodness in the chance for a new beginning. God had promised and God was keeping that promise.

God does that; God keeps promises. The prophets have visions and dreams and the dreams come true – like it or not. If you like the world we live in, don’t rest easy. It’ll change. God will bring it about. In Isaiah’s vision even death comes into a new perspective: “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fades, but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Death is real, but God is stronger than death.

In some of his essays, Lewis Thomas wrote about death as a scientist, as an observer, and never apparently asked whether there might be a meaning beyond what a scientist might observe. I guess I never really understood before how blind a scientist can be to so much of the same world he or she is studying. That needs to be said. We need to recognize it: how blind a scientist can be and how narrow-minded. Politicians, too, of course; but we know that: blind and narrow-minded and doomed.

I remember that years ago there was a science teacher in the local high school when I was rector of Christ Church in Bronxville, New York, a science teacher who delighted in telling high school children that the crossing of the Red Sea was probably made possible by a volcanic explosion in the Mediterranean that drained the water away from the Red Sea for a while so that the Hebrews could cross, and then sent it rushing back so that the Egyptians were

drowned. Well, I think that’s quite possible myself, but unlike the scientist I don’t consider that a full explanation. I can’t stop asking questions at that point. I’d want to ask what caused the volcanic explosion and why did it go off at just that time. Was it coincidence that led Moses to exactly the right place at exactly the right time? Doesn’t that seem – remarkable? For myself I can’t imagine not asking the rest of the questions. It amazed me how uncurious a scientist could be.

Parenthetically isn’t it odd that a teacher in a public school was free to try undermine a student’s faith but would never be free to try to build it up? I don’t want faith taught in a public school; they’d make a mess of it. But I don’t want atheism taught there either. We need to teach science and I wouldn’t leave it to the churches; they’d make a mess of that! So we equip our school buildings with all the latest scientific equipment. Students need it to survive in this world of ours. But is that all we need to know? It’s great to know What, but shouldn’t we also ask Why?

Are the scientific answers really the full, complete, and final answers to all of life’s questions? Is life only a matter of computers and equations? When we have a free evening to go out with friends, do we go out to watch computer screens or to enjoy a dinner, hear a concert, watch a play, even go to a basketball game? I have a couple of grandsons, actually, who do spend a free evening at a computer screen, but I think – I hope – they’ll outgrow it. Most of us, given freedom to choose, do things that are unscientific and can’t be measured or calibrated. Is it cold facts, is it measurable data, that give meaning to human life and relationships? Is it the power that flows through wires and the invisible internet that creates human relationships or is it the inscrutable power of love? And wouldn’t you want to know where that love comes from and what it means even if you can’t check it in test tubes?

Now, maybe the reviewer misrepresented Dr. Thomas. I hope so. But here’s a typical quotation: “I’m not sure that we’ll come to a flat end but I don’t believe in heaven either. Once we get better at living together I think the question of an afterlife will not seem so important. And once we acquire the habit of peacemaking I don’t think we’ll feel the need for ideas like immortality. I don’t think that the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of religious thought.”

The simple naivete is breath-taking! “Once we get better at living together” he said, as if it were a problem to be solved and it’s solution is just around the corner. “Once we acquire the habit of peacemaking . . .” he said. Right. Maybe after the next election. And then that line about “I don’t think the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of human thought.” Well, I don’t think that either. But the interviewer and the doctor both seem to assume that that’s what Christians believe. I guess actually a lot of them do, because they also may never have gone beyond first grade in church school. But the Creed we recite every Sunday talks about resurrection not immortality of the soul and resurrection is a very different idea. It’s based, for one thing, not on a philosopher’s speculation but on a real, witnessed, historical event: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

So where did Lewis Thomas get the idea that “the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of religious thought.” Isaiah didn’t believe in it nor did Jesus nor did Paul. The Greeks did, but that’s where we get our philosophy not our faith. Yes, maybe Buddhists and Hindus believe in a permanent soul, but we’re not Hindus or Buddhists.

Listen again to what Isaiah says: ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Isaiah, of course, didn’t know about resurrection. But he knew that human beings are not immortal. He knew that God alone is immortal. And he knew that whatever meaning life has, what ever hope we have, depends entirely on God. But who needs God, if you have an immortal soul? If you’re immortal, you don’t need God. Or else you are God. But that’s eastern religion. Jews and Christians know better. Life is fragile. Death is real. Without God, we’re doomed. But the joy and wonder of the Christian faith is that we know God loves us and God offers us life, new life, resurrection life.

I went back at a point and looked at some more of Thomas’s essays and I found one about death. He investigated it like a scientist, observing what can be observed and ignoring what can’t be measured. He saw it as inevitable, part of the biological process, not a matter of disease as he saw it, but simply of a biological clock that runs out. He wrote: “ if we ever do achieve freedom from most of today’s diseases, or even complete freedom from disease, we will perhaps terminate by drying out and blowing away on a light breeze, but we will still die.”

Well, he’s right about that, of course. But then he goes on, “even so, if the transformation is a coordinated integrated physiological process in its initial local stages, there is still that permanent vanishing of consciousness to account for. Are we to be stuck forever with this problem? Where on earth does it go? Is it simply stopped dead in its tracks, lost in humus, wasted? This seems to me unnatural . . . but I have no data on the matter.”

It’s almost funny. “Where does the consciousness go?” he asks. “I have no data on the matter,” he writes. Really? No data? Lewis Thomas was married for over fifty years; did he never notice that love and faithfulness are something more than scientific data? I value the scientific data. It tells us a lot about God. In recent years as we’ve heard more and more about black

holes and light years and spiral galaxies and an ever expanding universe, I’ve become more aware than ever before of the inadequacy of all our language about God and how much we need to be learning new and better and greater ways to speak about a God beyond all language. We need the scientists to expand our vision – and I think they need us to remind them of the limits of their data.

Isaiah demands that we pay attention to the basic realities of the human condition: our humanity and God’s divinity, our mortality and God’s eternity. Isaiah demands that we pay attention to areas of more concern than spread sheets and Dow Jones averages, and bank balances, and shopping lists. Isaiah insists that we pay attention to the fact that three weeks from now the stock exchange will close down and the stores will be shut and life as we know it will come to an end, however briefly, and the whole world will celebrate again the birth of a child demanding love, God speaking to us, God offering life to dying human beings. “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand for ever.” In that Word is our life.

Justice Transformed by Mercy

November 11th, 2017

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, November 6, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

“ . . . let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

There are probably people who think Martin Luther King said that, and he did, more than once, but Amos said it first. Amos was a shepherd and a trimmer of sycamore trees, a country man living a simple country life over seven centuries before the birth of Christ. But Amos went to the city one day and he was appalled at what he saw. Here were people driving big cars, chauffeured limousines, shopping for stuff they didn’t need, and walking right by homeless men and women lying on the sidewalks. Here were people with computers and iPhones and central heating and cooling who would go the market and buy choice steaks and exotic fruits and pay taxes to a government that would bomb people on the other side of the world and ignore the needs of people next door. Amos was appalled. He called them out: He said, “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; so that God’s holy name is profaned; He might have read the same headlines we read and watched the same television and asked how it could be that politicians and corporate executives would hide their money in overseas tax shelters while people are homeless and why they would try to cut taxes on the wealthy while cutting back health care for women and children.

What would Amos say to us? He’d say what he said to his own day: “Sweep it away; honor God . . . . . . let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Amos was first of the so-called “canonical prophets,” the first prophet whose words were written down. His people had worshiped God for centuries, but they had known God as a God of power, a God who could make a way through the Red Sea and drown Pharaoh’s army and thunder down from Sinai: a God of overwhelming power, a God on their side against their enemies, but not a God to worry about much from day to day. Amos had a different picture of God. Amos portrayed a God who cared first for the weak and the poor, whose power had purpose and whose purpose was to use that power for those in need: the widow and orphan, the refugee and the immigrant, those with no friends in Jerusalem or Washington or city hall. Amos thundered about a God who had no interest in power politics or personal piety, no interest in prayer breakfasts or national greatness, but a deep concern for the hungry and homeless, the weak and the helpless, the sorrowful and poor. Amos, I think, would look at the churches of America and ask, “What are you doing when you promote a so-called personal relationship with God and have no relationship with those who need your help?”

The religion of too many Americans is a false religion that centers on feeling good and cares nothing for my neighbor. What kind of world have we made when 20% of the world consumes 80% of the world’s goods, when the rich hide their wealth in tax shelters while Africans flee from land parched by drought and Syrians flee from bombs and poisoned gas and children in Central America flee from armed gangs and our concern is to build a wall and keep them out? What kind of world have we made? Who is there to speak like Amos to those in power and warn them of a judgment that will sweep them away? Amos warned of a day of judgment. Amos had a vision of God standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand and the wall would not stand. Amos would tell us, Your guns will not save you when that day comes. Moses had given the people the Law, the Decalog, the Ten Commandments: worship God, honor your parents, deal honestly with each other, but it was all too easy to see a narrow vision: say your prayers, behave yourself, take care of personal relationships with family and friends. Amos had a larger vision: a social vision, a concern for the weak and the helpless, a concern for a society that left too many out and he applied that vision to his world and he saw no hope, only death and destruction, death and destruction for a people who could not see beyond themselves, who talked about national greatness while having no vision of national justice.

The world of Amos was very small. He never traveled more than a few miles from home. He never imagined a world of human beings so powerful that they could destroy themselves in a dozen ways, but the same words still work: love justice, hate evil, care for those in need. Jesus came with the same message: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the word Jesus used: “righteousness.” Not justice; righteousness. Actually, the words get used almost interchangeably in translation: justice; righteousness. Two words, maybe, for the same thing. But maybe not. The word “justice” actually never comes up in the New Testament and seldom in the Old Testament. The same Hebrew word can be translated either way but the English words have a different feel. But I think “justice” is a rather impersonal word. Justice is given, meted out. It has to do with laws and judgment. But righteousness is a human quality; it’s a lifestyle. It can be negative; if someone is self-righteous, that’s not popular. But righteous and righteousness are common words in the New Testament and they are rooted in the nature of God. God is righteous and it’s a way of acting toward others. It’s not judgmental like “justice” but merciful and transforming. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness . . .” So start there: seek righteousness, seek for the kingdom, the nation, concerned not for national greatness but human fulfillment: justice transformed by mercy, love conquering hatred, fear overwhelmed by love.

Isaiah’s Vineyard and Ours

October 8th, 2017

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on October 8, 2017.

Forty years ago my wife and I bought some land. It was, in the words of the prophet, “on a very fertile hill. (And I) dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines . . .” Well, actually, I planted it with apple trees and peach trees and corn and potatoes. But I tilled the soil and I pruned the trees and I established an asparagus bed, and I looked for it to produce good crops and by and large it did. I had a much better experience than Isaiah in the first reading – or, actually, God; it’s God speaking through the prophet about a bad experience God had with the people of God. But I had a good experience.

Eventually the time came to sell it and move on, to move west, and so we entrusted our land to new hands, a new owner, and unlike God’s experience with Israel, I have not been disappointed in the new owners either. I think he’s done better with it than I did. He sent me some apples once from my trees and some asparagus by overnight express. I’m very happy with what’s happened.

God has not been so lucky. God plants vineyards and it doesn’t work out very well.. We read about it in today’s first reading and it’s echoed in the Psalm and the Gospel. God planted a garden. God has been doing gardening from the beginning. And God has been disappointed again and again by the caretakers sent to take care of it, by the lack of a good harvest.

God also, come to think of it, planted a garden in North America. We sing about it and it always brings tears to my eyes:
O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain . . .

That’s what we’ve been given. That’s what was entrusted to us. And we were challenged to build a shining city on a hill, to draw others and inspire others.

We sing about it still: “O beautiful for spacious skies . . .” We sing about it, and we wake up in the morning to hear how many died in the latest killing spree and how badly we have failed to help those whose lives have been destroyed by a hurricane and we continue to pour carbon dioxide into the air and to warm the seas. And one plus one is still two. If you pollute the air and warm the seas, they will spawn ever fiercer storms and trees will be uprooted and farm land and gardens and homes will be washed away and human lives will be lost.

And yet we choose leaders who make false promises and are intent on their own power and wealth and have no notion, not the slightest notion, of a vision like that of Isaiah, like that of Jesus, leaders who have forgotten, as we have forgotten,
“the heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

Why is there such an apparent shortage of leaders and followers
Who more than self their country love
And mercy – and mercy – more than life – more than life.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

The Hebrew has a little play on words there:
He looked for righteousness but heard a cry.
The King James says, “He looked for righteousness but behold oppression.”
In Hebrew it says:
Vayikáv lamishpát, v’hinéy mispách; litz’dakáh, v’hiney tza’akáh.
He looked for mishpat but behold mispach, for dakah but behold za-akah

or to make a similar play on words in English:

he looked for right but behold riot;
for equity, but behold, iniquity.

God looked for righteousness.
God had expectations.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine. . .
It’s so easy, isn’t it, to watch the news and despair. How can I make a difference? I can see what needs doing but the people in power are blind, blind, self-obsessed, willing to take actions that destroy our future, blind and deaf to the things that need to be done.

We ought to know what God hopes for in this western vineyard, this city on a hill, this America. We know we ought to create a health care system that works for everyone. We know we ought to rid the nation of guns, take action to reduce air and water pollution, teach tolerance and self-sacrifice. And doesn’t it seem hopeless?

It’s easy to say, “I’ve done what I could: I voted right; I give to environmental and justice causes and I pledge to the church. I try to have an influence on others but I don’t personally know anyone who has an influence in city hall or Sacramento or Washington., so there’s nothing I can do.”

I’m just one small voice, right? But the world is made up of small voices. There are more of us than there are of them. And if I truly care, I and millions of others can make a difference. Yes, we can.

Do you tithe? Do you contribute to justice causes and the environment? If not, it’s no wonder the world’s a mess.

I’m working on the biography of a man who had been reading about coral reefs and he said, “I must have had a coral insect for a millio-millio-grandfather, loving to work beneath the tide in a superstructure that someday when the laborer is long dead and forgotten, may rear itself above the waves and afford rest and habitation for the creatures of the Good, Good Father of all.”

I like that picture: building a coral reef, century after century, a durable, lasting beautiful structure, grain by grain, grain by grain.

God didn’t call the apostle Paul to convert the world; but just to preach the gospel and Paul probably spoke to hundreds, but those hundreds became thousands, and those thousands became millions. And the world has been changed.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

Have you seen those cities, alabaster cities undimmed by human tears? I haven’t. I don’t expect to. So shall we change the hymn?

O pretty nice for modest hopes
Where we would like to see
A city that’s not halfway bad
And not much misery.

It doesn’t sing, does it? It doesn’t grab me either. I stand with Isaiah. I want to know why we aren’t getting better crops and I want to be sure the weeds don’t grow where I can pull them up. Have you pledged a tithe to the church? That’s the standard the Episcopal Church formally adopted years ago. How can we make a difference without commitment. Have you contributed to the Sierra Club or an organization working for the environment? Do you make an annual contribution to a group working for social justice? There are things we can do. We can make a difference. or we can sit home and complain that nothing ever changes, that the vineyard still produces the same wild grapes.

O beautiful – potentially –
God grant us grace to be
A fruitful vine:  justice and peace,
Fulfilling prophecy.

A Letter to Us

August 19th, 2017

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 20, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

NOTE:  This sermon supposes St. Paul writing letters to American DearFriendscities.  Those letters have been written and published in “Dear Friends:  Letters of St. Paul to American Christians” available from Amazon and other book dealers.

Suppose St. Paul were alive today and suppose he were still writing letters. Of course, he would use a computer and I think he would write a series of letters (e-mails, of course) to American cities: Washington, Dallas, San Francisco. I think the one we would all be waiting for would be the letter to Washington. That letter would cover all sorts of subjects – some I will not get into – and one of them, I think, would be inter-faith relations.

Almost 2000 years ago Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome, the Washington of the ancient world, and he didn’t write about the emperor but he did write about inter-faith relationships. He wrote about the relationship between Christians and Jews. He agonized about it. That there should even be a division was a grief to Paul. It seemed so clear to him that the ancient Paulpurpose of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. Everything the Jews had been waiting for had been fulfilled in Jesus. For three chapters Paul wrestled with the issue and last week, this week, and next week we get brief excerpts from a passage in which Paul is agonizing about why the majority of the Jews have not accepted the Messiah and how it could be that God would have let it happen.

By the time he wrote that letter, Paul had had years to think about it and in writing to the Romans he gives them his theory. That’s what we’re reading for these three weeks. And what Paul says is, God is wiser than we. God is able to take that rejection and use it to accomplish far more than God’s people could ever imagine. Did the Jews reject Jesus? Yes, but look at the result: Gentiles turning to God in record numbers. And if Paul were writing now he could feel well justified in his logic. Look it up on the web, there are about 13 million Jews in the world today, but about 2 billion Christians. That’s what God accomplished out of human failure.

So what could God do for an encore? Paul thought about that and when Paul wrote to Rome he imagined a time when Jews and Christians would be brought back together, separate branches with a common root and all to the glory of God. And you can really begin to imagine it today with Jews and Christians talking together at more depth than ever and a greater desire to understand.

I think that if Paul were writing to Washington today and felt that the people there needed some guidance – and they might – he could certainly begin with the same analysis he brought to the question of Christians and Jews 2000 years ago. We’ll hear a little more about this next week but you really ought to take time with your Bible to read chapters 9-11 of Romans yourself to get the full impact. In brief, what Paul says is God has used the Jewish failure to accept Christ to make the gospel known to the Gentiles. His own words are: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved . . .” God has, so to speak, put 13 million on hold until billions more are gathered.

But now go back to the 7th century. Christianity had become the established religion of the Roman Empire but the Roman Empire had fallen and Christianity in the west was struggling to survive in what have been called “the Dark Ages.” But into this situation came a man named Mohammed with enormous energy and organizational skill and a vision of one God and a pattern of life centered in prayer and alms giving, and concern for the poor. Paul didn’t know about that, of course, but if he had, I think he might have fit that also into his vision. If that Islamic zeal in less than a hundred years could carry this new monotheism from Spain to India and bring into its fold spaceearthmillions upon millions, why could that also not be fitted into God’s final plan? Jews and Christians in Paul’s day were utterly irreconcilable. Christians and Muslims from Mohammed’s time to our own have been utterly irreconcilable but Paul had faith that God could do more than even he could imagine. Why can’t the same faith be ours?

Listen again to today’s epistle: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Now, there’s a simplistic version of this that you often hear: stuff about “all roads lead to Rome” and “we all believe in the same God” and “we’re all going to the same place eventually” and so on. If Paul thought that, he could have stayed home and been a successful rabbi. Instead he gave it all up to endure enormous hardship: “Thrice was I beaten with rods,” he writes, “once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren.” Paul didn’t endure that because he thought it made no difference. It did make a difference. It still does.

Christianity today, for all its divisions, for all its failures, is light years ahead of Islam in terms of dealing with the 21st century world, light years ahead in terms of working through issues of sexuality and human relationships. And I believe that’s true simply because at the heart of the Christian faith is a knowledge of the triune God and a belief in the incarnation that requires us to approach this world in a very different way and a way that makes a vitally important difference.

But would it have been better for the world if Islam had never come to be? I can’t see that it would. As it is, the vast majority of the world’s peoples have come to believe in one God, a merciful God, a God who works to give all people a knowledge of the God who created us and cares for us. That’s a lot to have in common. I think St. Paul could write to Washington that “There is no distinction in God’s sight between Jew and Greek, between American and Arab; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

Well, but isn’t the present state of the world a messy way for God to be working? Was God really at work in the American invasion of Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan? Absolutely. Not to say that God would have deliberately chosen Plan A or Plan B as worked out in the Pentagon as the ideal way to proceed, no; probably not; but it is to say that God is able to bring out of this chaos far more good than any of us could ever imagine. The fifty year confrontation between east and west over politics and power, communism and capitalism, has been replaced by something far more important and yes, oil, and politics is still very much at the center of it but so is faith, so is faith. When the television news shows us again and again prayer13pictures of Muslims at prayer that demands our attention. Faith matters. Faith may divide, but only faith can bridge that divide. Only faith, only a deep understanding of who we are and what God calls us to be, can ever unite us. And it still can. It still can. God is able to use even this for the unity of God’s people and the ultimate glory of God. That’s the hope Paul held out to the Romans 2000 years ago and it’s the hope still held out to us today.