First of all, let me thank Fr. Jason Parkin and the planners of this event tonight for inviting me to be part of this interreligious Thanksgiving Service. I think it is so important for adherents of the world’s religions to gather together publicly, from time to time, as a witness to the world that people of faith are not in conflict with one another all the time (as the headlines would sometimes make it appear) but that we share common values and common commitments and that it is possible to be deeply committed to one’s own faith while still respecting and even cherishing other religions and other traditions.
I cannot think of a better time to gather for such a purpose than the observance of Thanksgiving to the One who made us, the One who sustains us, and the One who will someday take us home. The act of Thanksgiving has a valued and time-honored place in all our religions…and a place in the hearts of many who may claim no religious commitment at all. It is a human response to the beauty of this world and the goodness of life.
After serving as a priest of the Episcopal Church for sixteen years in Central Florida, I was elected Bishop of the Diocese of Iowa in 1988. For the next thirteen years, I was deeply involved with the ecumenical movement, seeking greater unity between the various Christian communions. So much so that, in 2001, the Presiding Bishop of our church asked me to come to New York and serve as his Deputy for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations.
While the job focused again on facilitating dialogue with Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and other Christians, the Presiding Bishop made it clear that he wanted interreligious dialogue to get increasing amounts of our attention. We resumed the long-neglected Jewish Christian dialogue, working through the National Council of Churches to make it clear that this was not Episcopal-Jewish dialogue, but Christian-Jewish dialogue.
We engaged in Torah and New Testament study together and eventually built enough trust that we were able to grapple with the seemingly-intractable problem of Israel/Palestine. The conversations were painful and upsetting for many of us, yet I do believe they helped us all deepen our compassion for those in this troubled part of the world and to understand how our different “narratives” contribute to their plight.
I was in New York on September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center came crashing down in a crush of fire and ash. We were just finishing up our Morning Prayers in the Chapel of Christ the Lord in our church center headquarters when someone burst through the doors, shouting “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!” We rushed back upstairs and, like most of the rest of the world, watched those awful events unfold on television, wondering where it would all end!
I remember looking down on Second Avenue all day long and watching hordes of people, still covered in ashes making their way on foot slowly uptown, away from the horror. Right after that tragedy, calls began coming into my office for educational and study material about Islam. Many of our clergy were concerned that there would be a backlash against Muslims (something we need to continue to worry about today with the rise of ISIS and the recent attacks around the world) and they wanted material to help educate our people about what true Islam was really all about.
We had precious little to offer at first, but due to a generous grant from the educational arm of Episcopal Relief and Development, I was able to hire an Anglican scholar of Islam, Dr. Lucinda Mosher, who helped us put together an interreligious web site, provide educational material and seminars across the country. I like to think that we played a small role in keeping hate crimes and other forms of Islamophobia from sweeping our nation in those early months after 9/11…though there was certainly some of that. This phase of our work culminated in 2004 with a major seminar at our Washington National Cathedral and the publication of the Interfaith Education Initiative’s Manual for Interfaith Dialogue.
Since we’re in a Thanksgiving mode tonight, one of the things for which I am most thankful is that in that same year my wife and I were privileged to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, Spain. Begun in 1893, as you know, right here in Chicago, this periodic gathering of representatives of the world’s major religions is a huge accomplishment in and of itself. The Parliament convened most recently just last month in Salt Lake City.
The one we attended brought together 8,900 persons for a full week of lectures, workshops, worship and feasting. The major themes we focused upon were: mitigating religiously motivated violence; access to safe water; the fate of refugees, worldwide; and the elimination of external debt in developing countries. Themes we would do well to continue to explore together today!
Attending this Parliament was a life-changing experience for me. So many memories come flooding back! Among them, attending a lecture by the great Hans Kung, Roman Catholic professor at Tubingen University, on what he calls the “Global Ethic” (the so-called “Golden Rule” which is present in virtually all of the world’s religions in one form or another) – “Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.”
“No peace in the world without peace among the world’s religions,” Kung said. “No peace among the religions without dialogue among the world’s religions. No dialogue among the world’s religions without the embracing of this Global Ethic which can bring us all closer together.”
Another fond memory was attending a daily text study of the Qur’an led by an imam from Pakistan. What a joy to sit in the midst of people from vastly different cultures and perspectives, seeking wisdom from a Holy Book not your own! The reverence in our teacher’s eyes and voice made me ashamed of many Bible studies I’ve been part of, or led, over the years.
But one of the most profound experiences was attending a mid-day meal provided daily, free of charge, by the Sikh community for hundreds if not thousands of “parliamentarians.” This was an adaptation of the “Langar” or community meal provided for in many, if not all, Sikh temples. We entered a vast tent, removed our shoes and were seated on the floor.
Then, smiling representative of the Sikh community brought us delicious courses of traditional food. How could a Christian not think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, “…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me!” (Matthew 25:35)
Before retiring from my position in 2009, I worked with the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations to produce a paper entitled Toward Our Mutual Flourishing: A Theological Statement on Interreligious Relations which was intended to give impetus and a rationale for our various dioceses and congregations to engage in such conversations on the local level.
This brief, ten-page statement begins by commending “…to all our members, dialogue for building relationships, the sharing of information, religious education, and celebration with people of other religions as part of Christian life.
- Dialogue begins when people meet each other
- Dialogue depends upon mutual understanding, mutual respect and mutual trust
- Dialogue makes it possible to share in service to the community
- Dialogue is a medium of authentic witness by all parties and not an opportunity for proselytizing.”
The paper continues with sections on the Historical Context of interreligious dialogue; the Current Context in which these relationships take place; Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as Resources in Interreligious Dialogue; Salvation in Christ and Interreligious Relations; Mission and Evangelism. We concluded the statement with these encouraging words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Love is the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about human reality is beautifully summed up in the first Epistle of St. John: ‘Let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. The one who loves not does not know God, for God is love. If we love one another God dwells in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”
Dear friends, it’s that love – or at least the desire for that love – which brings us together here tonight: to give thanks together to the God who is the Source of that love. And since the occasion of our gathering revolves around a national holiday, I’d like to close with a Prayer for our Country composed in the 19th century for Thanksgiving Day. It has a hallowed place in our Book of Common Prayer, and I trust its sentiments are ones shared by all of us who – in this land at least – are free to gather on occasions like this, a privilege impossible in much of the world today. Let us pray:
Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion, from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask (for the sake of your love). Amen.