World Interfaith Harmony

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Happy New Year!  Happy year of the snake.  Here’s hoping it’s a king snake and not a cobra!

New Years, of course, are very Interfaithy.  Every culture has one.  Every spiritual path either has a New Year of its own, or has adopted one.  And we here get to celebrate them all.  Last year, we built a service around the Chinese New Year.  This year we have another theme.  But it is good to remember the lunar new year, and to recognize it.  As Interfaithers, we recognize that there’s no one “right” date to start the year, no one “right” way to celebrate the new year, just as there is no one “right” way to pray about the new year.

And I think it’s important to note, for posterity, that it’s not ambivalence.  It is notambivalence.  It is respect.  This is the foundation, this is the paradigm shift that is at the core of who we are: remembering our own traditions, while respecting the traditions of others.

Which brings us to what we will be recognizing and celebrating and pondering today: World Interfaith Harmony Week.

The idea for Interfaith Harmony Week originated with the King of Jordan.  And Jordan, being right in the middle of the Middle East – if you will, literally caught between the Arab rock and the Israeli hard place – certainly understands how profoundly important and helpful at least some harmony between our spiritual paths would be.  In 2010, the UN adopted the idea.

Interfaith harmony.  I love the concept.  And I love that there has been for the past few years a designated Interfaith Harmony Week.  One week out of fifty-two.  Hey, it’s a start!

But what do we want to be talking about here, today?

First, I very much want to share with you that I am supremely grateful that they didn’t call it Interfaith Tolerance Week.  If you’ve read my book, you know why.  But just in case you haven’t, or at least haven’t memorized it … yet , let chat about interfaith “tolerance” for a few minutes.

Ok.  We’re tolerant.  We know the truth.  You poor slobs don’t.  But we’re tolerant.  It’s a free country.  You’re wrong.  You’re misguided.  And you’re probably going to hell.  But that’s ok.  We will generously allow you to believe whatever hokum you need to.  And by now I’ve heard it from just about every angle.

“If you need to believe in God, then that’s ok.”   Or,

“If you need to believe that God doesn’t exist, then that’s ok.”

Both are said with the clear implication that you’re wrong.  But … it’s ok.

I won’t ask for hands, but I would ask us to consider.  What would we rather have our beliefs be, what would we rather have our beliefs be … tolerated, or respected.

Now I do have to say that tolerance is not to be sneered at.  Just this last week I was reading an article in the New York Times about a minister who, of all things, had participated in an interfaith service in Newtown, Connecticut for those murdered kids at Sandy Hook Elementary.  He was instructed by his superiors to apologize …to apologize for participating in an interfaith service – and he did.  You see, in his denomination one is not allowed to pray with nonbelievers.  And a nonbeliever is anyone who doesn’t believe precisely what “we” do.

This happened to be the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church.  But the Missouri Synod is not alone.  There are other Christian groups that feel that way, and Jewish groups, and Muslim, and so on.

So this is not an isolated incident.  We see it all over the U.S..  We see it all over the world.  So yes, we need to recognize that tolerance is important.  It’s an essential step, a positive step.  But I would submit that it is only a step.  It is not a good place to stop.  Yet many have.

It is, I would submit, a much too tempting place to stop.  It allows me both to be patronizing (“I’m right and you’re wrong, but if you need to believe that you just go right ahead.”) and at the same time feel good about myself (“Look at me!  I’m tolerant.”).

Again … seen from the flaming and destructive abyss of intolerance, tolerance is a fundamental and important step forward.  If you are unfamiliar with the history of edicts of toleration, and the grudging agreement of governments  to allow at least certain spiritual paths to exist, I’d invite you to check out Wikipedia (  One example.  The Maryland Edict of Toleration of 1649, mandated tolerance of … Catholics … in a Protestant colony.

But still, toleration is only a step.  If it becomes a goal, we are in trouble.

So I do truly appreciate the goal of Interfaith Harmony, rather than Interfaith Tolerance.

Among other things, I like the metaphor of Interfaith Harmony.  Most of you know that I’ve been a choir director most of my life.  A choir is made up of differing parts.  Each part not only has its own notes, but frequently its own rhythms, which make up its own line.  In rehearsal, we practice each individual part.  After all, a singer needs to know his or her own notes.  But harmony happens when we combine the parts, each part singing its own line with all the other parts singing theirs … together – listening to each other, to balance, so that the choir truly becomes one.  If all are singing the same line, it would be unison, not harmony.  In harmony, all the differing parts come together to make up the whole.  In all honesty, this is what drew me to choir.  All the differing parts becoming one.  Each individual singer depending on the other singers in his or her section, and each section depending upon the other sections to come together – to become one.

And, of course, it’s not just singers.  The same is true of an orchestra.  And of a single chord.  A C major chord is made up of CEG.  Question.  Do you imagine the C “tolerates” the E and the G?  My guess is that they all get along, just fine.  Not only that, but my hunch is that in its heart of hearts (or is that note of notes?), the C knows that without the E and G there is no harmony.  For harmony, we need each other.

John Donne wrote that no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

World Interfaith Harmony celebrates, or can celebrate if we will let it, the idea of the differing faithpaths, each singing its own line, each being a part of a single, great harmony of the human choir.  No faithpath is an island entire of itself; every spiritual path is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

And what’s interesting is that faithpaths recognize and indeed urge this way of approaching and seeing our common humanity.

Hinduism tells us, “Like the bee, gathering honey from different flowers, the wise person accepts the essence of the different scriptures and sees only the good in all religions.”

I particularly like this quote from Jainism.  “Those who praise their own doctrines and disparage the doctrines of others solve nothing.”

Likewise from Buddhism, “To be attached to a certain view and look down on other points of view as inferior – this the wise call a fetter.”

You’ll find similar sentiments in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and, I’m sure, others.

From the Baha’i faith comes an acknowledgement that the specifics of our beliefs depend on the culture they come from. “There can be no doubt that whatever the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, they derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source … The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed.”

So if every spiritual path preaches this … what happened?

It’s not a new question.  We’ve been here before.  We all agree that we should love one another – the Golden rule is everywhere.  And now we see that that there is universal acknowledgement that we should all respect each other’s spiritual paths.  As Peter says in the Acts of the Apostles, “ Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  So why is World Interfaith Harmony Week even necessary?

It is necessary, and you know this already, it is necessary because also once again, what we proclaim, even from the mountain tops, and what we practice day to day are frequently from different corners of the galaxy.

Thus in a very real and important sense, World Interfaith Harmony Week is about us:  Living Interfaith.  This is our week.  In the coming years I hope we will build more and more around it.  Interfaith Harmony is who we are.  We are living what others around the world are hoping for, what others around the world are preaching, what others around the world pray for, are striving for.

There’s a question that comes up from time to time.  Either we ask it of ourselves or someone asks us.  Why are we here – this small church?  What do we hope to accomplish?  Well, obviously there are many reasons for being here.  But for me, one of the most important, and quite possibly the most important reason is to exemplify that we canindeed practice what we preach.  We can close the gaping chasm between practice and preaching.  This small church, and other churches as they begin to form, and they will, small as they may be, and they will be, are a crucial component of bringing about the world that we all seek, and yet has seemed to be beyond our grasp.  We hold this sacred space, this welcoming and open sacred space, so that others, as they begin to seek it, have a place to come.

My friends, you are the pioneers.  Your are the keepers of this sacred space.  NOT the defenders of the faith, but the keepers of the space.  We build a home for the world.  We build a shelter for humanity.

We do not evangelize.  But we do hold the space, the sacred space, for Living our Interfaith – a sanctuary, if you will, for all, all of humanity.

What we do here, I hope, is fun.  In the sharing that we do here, we grow and are spiritually nourished.  Yet more than that, what we do here is important.