Rev. Dirk Ficca Speaks at McCormick Worship

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For McCormick’s worship service during Interfaith Harmony Week, the Rev. Ficca was our preacher. The title of his sermon was “Who Will Go First?”.

McCormick Theological Seminary
Worship – Interfaith Harmony Week
Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Who Will Go First?

Scripture: Psalm 3
Gospel: Matthew 5:21-26, 38-42

As we gather together in observance of Interfaith Harmony Week, even a quick survey of the field is probably enough to be appropriately overwhelmed.

Just consider the major league versions: Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Shinto, Taoist, and Zoroastrian.

Not to mention all of the variations within each: Sunni, Shia and Sufi within Islam; Theravadan and Mahajanan, Vajrayanan and Zen within Buddhism; Labavich, Hasidic, Orthodox, Traditional, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic within Judaism; and so on, and so on….

And then – remembering that every tradition has to start somewhere, at some point in time – there are all those smaller franchises, the ancient and the neo-ancient, the modern and the post-modern, the off-shoots and start-ups:  Wicca, Mormon, New Thought, Unity, Unitarian Universalist, Scientologist, Brahma Kumaris, Christ Scientist, Subud, and so on, and so on…

Of course, the longest standing traditions originated long before all of those mentioned so far, the traditions of indigenous peoples, rooted in the land, bonded in tribe and clan, with a reverence for their ancestors past and a respect for their elders present. Even after the scourge of conquest and colonialism, current estimates have 350 million indigenous people residing in 72 countries, and practicing over 5,000 distinct traditions.

Now we should also probably include all of those secular and humanistic ideologies that one might argue function like religions, only without all the religious stuff? The devotion to the human potential movement and self-help philosophies; the deification of libertarianism and equalitarianism; the cults of consumerism and civil religion; the worship of the market, of science, of technological advancement, of the nation state.

So that’s the world out there. What about locating oneself in the midst of all of that?

Even sticking for a moment with the explicitly religious and spiritual, what does it mean to be an adherent of one particular tradition? Say, a Christian? Is simply “Christian” enough of a designation?

How about all those variations within the Christian tradition: Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, Non-Denominational? And the variations within any one of those variations? Say, of Protestantism?

Are the distinctions between Baptist, Congregationalist, Quaker, Reformed, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal actually definitive when it comes to matters of salvation? Or is being a particular Protestant simply a matter of upbringing, or ecclesiastical preference, or the availability of parking on Sunday morning? What does it mean to be a Presbyterian these days?

If you find yourself aware of this spectacular spectrum of humanity, how do you get your head around the seemingly endless diversity?

Should you take this diversity into account in choosing your own path?

If you were to you work in the midst of, and on behalf of, such a diversity of communities and traditions, how would you go about it, given the often significant, sometimes-drastic differences of belief and practice, values and aspirations?

How can any society respect all the differences and yet function in a cohesive way? How can a society make the tough decisions when not everyone’s conviction or preference can be honored or accommodated?

How much of this is an either-or proposition? Can it be a both-and proposition?

One place to start is to emphasize the commonalities. In first encounters with those of other traditions, people are often surprised to find that their view of another religion was incomplete or stereotypic, and find beliefs, values, hopes and dreams they hold in common. So a promising way forward is to find, and highlight, and work with those commonalities. Though, as effective as this can be, this approach still begs the question about what to do with the differences.

Another approach is to move beyond commonalities and to simply declare our unity. You hear these catchphrases in the interreligious movement: “We are finally all simply human beings.” “Religions teach essentially the same thing.” “If only we would all follow the golden rule, that would be enough.” And the number one, top of the charts: “I’m spiritual, not religious.” It is as if there are in fact no real differences. I suspect it’s because the differences are so overwhelming for some, that its easier to operate as if they don’t exist.

Proponents of these approaches are at least attempting to acknowledge, to understand, to work with, to live in harmony with, those who are different.

Many are not so willing, proclaiming that their way is the only way. If this is the case, there is no reason to examine or revise the incomplete and stereotypic views one may have of those who are different. It doesn’t matter who they are. Given the differences, dialogue is not only not possible, no dialogue is necessary, because no relationship is possible. That is, of course, unless you agree to become like me.

I find this “my way or the highway” approach is not the exclusive feature of one particular, or a few select, religions. I find it is a mindset brought to any and all traditions. You get a sense of this when, in the midst of dueling truth claims, certain adherents will play their trump card.

  • Ours is the first true prophet.
  • Ours is the last true prophet.
  • We are the chosen people of God.
  • We follow God incarnate.
  • You can date when your scriptures were written and by whom. We don’t know when our sacred texts were written or by whom. Therefore, your sacred texts are merely a human creation, ours are eternal.
  • We don’t even have scriptures. We experience the divine directly.


When I began working as a Protestant Presbyterian Christian in the interreligious movement, I had a bit of a crisis of faith. Is Christianity the one and only true religion? Or if I grant that other religions may have a piece of the truth, does Christianity have a corner on the full truth? Or is Christianity merely one religion among others, with nothing unique or definitive to add?

And what does it mean to work in the midst of, and on behalf of, other communities? Do I identify myself as a Christian? Or do I become a religiously neutral person in my professional life, while practicing my tradition in my private life?

After twenty years in the interreligious field, here’s what I know, and what I don’t know. And perhaps more importantly, here’s I use what I know to deal with what I don’t know.

I am convinced that, as human beings, we are as different as we are the same. Really different. From our respective ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious and spiritual perspectives, in absolutely crucial and often irreconcilable ways, we are different. In fact, I have come to believe our differences rival our commonalities.

So our relations with each other – person to person, community to community, as a society, as a global community – cannot simply depend on our commonalities, but more critically, on how we navigate our differences. And we’re not finally going to work out these differences in terms of religious or spiritual belief and practice. Hell, we can’t even do this as Presbyterians. No, if we’re ever going to work things out relationally, it’s going to be in terms of how we decide to treat each other, regardless of our differences.

I’ve also learned not to be afraid of difference. In ways that seem at first counter-intuitive, I have found the more I engage in encounter and dialogue with those who are different from me, my own sense of identity is not threatened, but strengthened. I am now more self-consciously and intentionally a Presbyterian Christian than I was when I embarked on the interreligious journey. My horizons have been expanded, as my sense of identity has deepened. I have been changed by these “close encounters of the interreligious kind,” in often radically altering ways, but it is still a loving God that I serve, Jesus of Nazareth who I follow, and the Spirit present in both that guides me.

What does it mean to be a Presbyterian? I have come to understand myself as a Presbyterian Christian in terms of the charge the apostle Paul gave to the Philippians: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” Being Presbyterian identifies the community and the tradition in which I am working out my own salvation – in following a Christian path, in a Presbyterian fellowship that worships and prays together, guided the scriptures and informed by the confessions, joining in the communion of saints past and present; and for me, called to be an interreligious practitioner to serve on behalf of those in other communities and traditions as an expression of service to God out of my own.

Yet, as I become more convinced of, and rooted in, my own tradition, the more I experience life as ambiguous, and the pursuit of competing truth claims in any ultimate sense, as problematic. Or maybe its more accurate to say that the more convinced and rooted I am, the better able I am to confront the ambiguities of life, and to seek to live out the truth claims particular to my tradition without claiming supremacy over those of other traditions.

For I believe there is finally no intellectual or metaphysical arbiter in deciding ultimately between these truth claims and ways of life. There is no “God’s eye view” for those of us who are not God. Life is ambiguous, and the more ultimate the questions we ask, the more ambiguous the claims we make about it are likely to be.

And still yet, even though life is ambiguous, I believe that we all inescapably live by some kind of truth claim – even if it is the claim there is no such thing as truth with a capital Truth. Despite the inherent ambiguity of life, I don’t believe its all for grabs. I do believe that we can, and must, test out our truth claims. We can come to a clearer view of what matters most in life, of what can make the world a better place. We can, and must, act out of a sense of deeply held conviction, yet do this with an accompanying sense of humility.

This means doing the ongoing self-defining work of theological reflection, and the soul-searching spiritual discipline, required when one follows a “reformed and always reforming” tradition. This means engaging in the intellectual inquiry and creative imagining demanded of those who seek to live responsibly in the painfully real and always changing world. But we do all of this knowing that it is always penultimate in nature; that we are seeking to serve a higher calling, imperfectly and incompletely, but nevertheless necessarily and crucially.

Perhaps this is the meaning of being a person of faith; living in the reality that the knowing is intimately and inextricably woven in with the not knowing. Any claim to ultimacy rests finally in to Whom we entrust our lives and how we live them out.

How do we do that? By living in the real world. By living with others. By asking the right question. A question like: Who will go first?

Last year, on a snowy Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Presbyterian and Jewish colleagues to study Talmud – the central text of mainstream Judaism, a compendium of thousands of years of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. The topic on this particular day was justice. Here’s what was written:

As it has been taught: Justice (tzedek), justice you shall pursue. The first [mention of justice] refers to a decision based on strict law; the second, to a compromise (pesharah). How so?

Where two boats sailing on a river meet, if both attempt to pass simultaneously, both will sink. However, if one makes way for the other, both can pass [without mishap].

Likewise, if two camels met each other while on the ascent to Beth-Horon [a high mountain with a narrow path]; if they both ascend [at the same time] both may tumble down [into the valley]; but if [they ascend] after each other, both can go up [safely].

How then should they act? If one is laden and the other unladen, the latter should give way to the former. If one is nearer [to its destination] than the other, the former should give way to the latter.

If both are [equally] near or far [from their destination,] make a compromise (pesharah) between them, with the one [which is to go forward] compensating the other [which has to give way].

(Talmud Sanhedrin 32b)

Two boats trying to pass on a river. Who will make way for the other? Who will go first?

Two camels trying to pass on a narrow path? Who will make way for the other? Who will go first?

As we seek to navigate of the matter of commonalities and differences – between Buddhists and Sikhs, Jews and Muslims, Christians and Hindus, and so on – when it comes to getting along with each other in a harmonious and peaceful way, who will go first?

Alongside the question of the claims of religious and spiritual communities about how to live, informed by the truth of their traditions, when it comes to addressing the challenges facing the world – violence and conflict, poverty and hunger, shrinking ice caps and rising seas, globalization and human rights – who will go first?

As I’ve gotten to know more about the other religions in the world, I can say this much.

When it comes to the rampant conflict and violence in the world, it will be the Jain tradition – of an ancient religious community originating in India, whose principle of ahimsainspired Mahatma Gandhi, and then Martin Luther King Jr, – that calls Jains to go first in responding to violence with non-violence.

When it comes to the ominous threat to our environment, it will be the place-based traditions of indigenous peoples, who have always lived closest to the earth, that calls the first nations and tribes to go first in lowering their carbon footprint, in living respectfully and in harmony with nature.

When it comes to the gnawing emptiness of a globalized and consumer oriented world, it will be the Buddhist tradition – with its teaching of non-attachment – that calls Buddhists to go first in living more simply, in seeking fulfillment by cultivating the inner life.

When it comes to welcoming the stranger, the downtrodden, the outcast, it will be the Sikh tradition – with its understanding that we are all equal in the sight of God  – that calls Sikhs to offer langar, their blessed sacred meal, and shelter, to anyone who arrives at the door of a gurdwara.

And as for Christians, as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who, as was his habit, always went first, we can read our scriptures with that question in mind.

Jesus says: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

(Matthew 5:23 NRSV)

When in comes to human relations, to matters of forgiveness and reconciliation, more often than not, at some point, the rightful notions of right and wrong, of who did want to whom, have to give way to healing and moving on. And when it comes to that point, more often than not, the question becomes: who will go first?

Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let her have your cloak as well; and if any one force you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to her who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”

If it comes to it, only an eye for eye, no more. If you must retaliate, stop at a tooth for a tooth. But even then, retributive justice has its drawbacks. As Gandhi said, “An eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye…ends up making everyone blind.”

Jesus takes it’s a step beyond merely limiting retaliation. When it comes to doing what’s necessary to stop the cycle of retaliation and violence – not only when there is every expectation of reciprocity, but especially when there is not – Christians are called to go first, even when it means going the extra mile.

Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…

The essential question for Christians in the interreligious movement is this: Do I treat you a certain way because of who you are, or because of who I am. Do I treat a certain way because you are a Christian, and others differently because they are a Buddhist, or Muslim, or humanist? Or do I treat everyone the same way because I am a Christian, regardless of who they are, or should I say, because of who they are.

“…for God makes the sun rise on the evil and good, and send the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For it you love those who love, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 6:43-48 NRSV)

As always, when it comes to deciding about truth claims, the living expressions of those claims are always the most definitive, the more compelling.

Jesus says: “…every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit…Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

(Matthew 7:17 – 20)

Who will go first?

Elana Rozenman is an Israeli, a long-time resident of Jerusalem, and an observant Jew. I first met her at the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, and on subsequent trips to the Middle East.

In 1997, her son was critically injured in a Palestinian suicide bombing in the city. He was 16 at the time, and was caught, walking down the street in Jerusalem in the middle of the day, between two Palestinian suicide bombers. One hit him first from behind, the second in front. He was hit by at least 100 pieces of shrapnel, which tore off his flesh, broke bones, and left burns all over his body. A little girl right beside him was killed instantly, and other children were killed and hundreds were injured. As Elana described it:

I spent months in the hospital sleeping on a mattress beside him, as he slowly recovered, in intensive care, the burn unit, then in rehabilitation programs. I had a lot of time to think about what was going on. I had been leading my life as a religious, Jewish woman, living in Jerusalem as God wanted me to live, raising my children as God wanted me to do. But that was not sufficient to keep horrific violence from striking my family.

What should she do? Be bitter. Be filled with hatred. Seek revenge. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But a seed of something different was planted on that fateful day.

Elana rushed to the hospital, and was immediate confronted with urgent questions from doctors.

One doctor grabbed her, asking, “Are you the mother? I’m Dr. Khoury. ” He said he must operate immediately.

She asked him, “Are you not an Arab?” He said, “Yes,” and she said, “One Arab just tried to kill my son and now you will save him!”

He said, “That’s our reality; please sign the papers so we can get to work to save your son.”

I felt truly blessed by God (she said) that I had been shown that there was no way to go to a place of anger or revenge or hatred. I had a Palestinian surgeon, who saved my son’s life.

And even while I was in the burn unit, there were some Jordanian men who had been burned in a work accident. Their wives and mothers came from Jordan to visit, and we were all sitting there together, as wives and mothers, trying to get our loved ones through the trauma. We were relating to each other as women, as sisters, at the heart level, all helping sons and husbands to recover.

Elana decided to work for peace. As her son’s body and psyche and spirit were slowly being repaired, she would seek to repair the world that had done this to him. Tikkun olam. The Jewish imperative to repair the world. (Elana goes on…)

To do nothing was to collude with that violence. ??After a couple of years when my son had finally recovered enough that I felt able to leave him, I decided to work with women. I had always worked with women, and knew that women are able to relate at the heart level far more easily than men.

I also wanted to work with religion, because I was a woman of faith. Religion is one area that can transcend, that can overcome divides. The truth that is inherent to religion is about living in peace in the Holy Land, so that we can sanctify it.

So I began to work with women, and found Muslim, Christian, and Jewish women longing, indeed thirsting, to work with other women in normal relationships. They felt an intense need to bridge the divides. So we began to work together. And that’s how I got started.

Elana chose to go first, and decided to start with women. As she said, when it comes to matters like this, women are often willing to go first. She became partners with Arab Christian and Palestinian Muslim women to build bridges of understanding and harmony. Today she leads a network of women of many faiths who are working for peace in the region.

What impact will efforts like hers have in that troubled place? I don’t know.

What impact will efforts such as this, by the people of faith everywhere, have for the world and the future of the global community? I don’t know.

But I do know this: none of it has a snowball’s chance in hell unless someone goes first.

(Quotes from Elana Rozenman come from a June 30, 2010 interview posted on the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs) 

Rev. Dirk Ficca serves as Executive Director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. Dirk worked closely with the religious and spiritual communities of the Chicago metropolitan area to plan and organize the 1993 Parliament event in Chicago. Given the enthusiasm generated by the 1993 Parliament, Dirk continued to lead’s the Council’s efforts to build a vibrant interreligious movement in Chicago and around the world. Dirk is an ordained Presbyterian minister and prior to joining the Council served for eleven years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor, Michigan.  Dirk teaches at DePaul University, the Lutheran School of Theology and Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary.