If you are like me, you are of two minds about interfaith worship. Going in, I am always very excited about the common ground I am about to share with a diverse group of people of faith. Coming out, I am always strangely dissatisfied, because even though some of it was familiar, it was never exactly what I came for.
Perhaps it is because each of us has a place of comfort which is necessary to enter into that spiritual zone which speaks to our souls. For me, it is Hebrew language. For a Muslim, it may be a particular posture. For a Hindu it may be a chant, while for a Buddhist, it may be meditative silence. And certainly a Christian needs to hear Jesus somewhere in there or the experience falls short of full authenticity.
So I come to these gatherings filled with both exhilaration and trepidation. My universal soul rejoices for the meeting. My particular soul worries that I am going to be expected to bow, chant, shut up or say "amen" where I don't want to. And, by the way, it's the silence that is the hardest for a Jew.
My experience is that to divert us all from our differences in worship, we tend to focus on something other than actual worship. And that something other is generally a value we all share. It is wise, I think, to set our sights on the results of our individual approaches to faith rather than contend with our individual practices. We look for a place of embarkation from the unique faith- values we hold to the universal pursuit in the common world we share. And those pursuits may include justice, compassion, morality, integrity, tolerance or civility, just to name a few.
Today, our focus is on poverty, on caring about and caring for the poor. In my own tradition, the Torah contains all sorts of instructions about relief of the poor, and includes the most honest and cynical statement in all of Scripture: the poor will never cease out of the land (Deut 15:11). The sacred writings which Sandha included in our order of service this morning make clear the common point of embarkation. It is the will of Allah that we feed the poor, and without expectation of reward. Prajapati conveyed self-restraint, giving and compassion in a single, foundational syllable. The Buddhist aspires to rain sustenance upon all who are parched. Jesus came to free everyone who suffers and thus provide the model for a believer's life. And Isaiah challenges the so-called pious not to hide behind ritual when human need is at stake.
We all agree, then - we are obligated to serve the poor. And I think we all agree that in an affluent society such as ours, poverty is unnecessary. If we but had the will, we would find a way to give lie to the Biblical assertion that the poor will never cease from the land.
I saw a political cartoon last week from the Christian Science Monitor. In the first frame, the President said, "I wondered what would Jesus do?" In the second frame, he says, "And Jesus told me: I would feed the hungry, heal the sick and care for the aged." In the third frame, the President says, "So I said to him: that makes perfect sense." And in the fourth frame, "You take care of them, and I'll take care of everyone else."
Perhaps the cartoon is a little cruel, and I don't think it would pass muster under the guidelines for civil discourse this organization has propagated, but it helps to illustrate the dilemma we face as The Interfaith Alliance, both in this city and in the communities you serve. The dilemma is poverty, but not material poverty - poverty of the spirit. We are impoverished when we erect a wall between our personal beliefs and our personal politics. We are impoverished when we do not proclaim the faith which brings us here excited about our common ground and makes us leave with a taste of disappointment on our lips. We are impoverished when we do not lift up the rich and particular covenant in which we each participate. We are impoverished when we reduce our concern for the poor, and not just for the poor, to a political platform or an objection to the excesses of the religious right.
There's an old gospel song, based on a verse in Romans, that goes "We are not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of salvation to everyone that believeth and to everyone that receiveth; they shall have everlasting life." It doesn't get sung too much in my synagogue, but my secretary gave me the lyrics. We cannot be ashamed or reluctant to name the force that moves within our lives, for me the Kadosh Barukh Hu, for you God, Jesus, Allah, the teachings of the Buddha, whatever sounds and contexts we put to that transcendent power that will not allow us to meet suffering with complacency.
But I know why we are. In some measure, it is because we don't want to sound like the religious right. The rhetoric of their advocacy has become a caricature of religious commitment, with their glib invocation of a god who is, as near as I can figure, white, male, heterosexual and commuting between central and south-eastern Virginia. It drives us crazy to think that by explaining the underpinnings of our commitment to justice, compassion and an independent government we will be lumped together in the popular imagination with people who think their personal prayers can divert hurricanes or who believe every Muslim is a terrorist.
In some measure, too, it is because we confuse humility with a wealth of faith. The more low- key we can be, the more righteous we are. And while I am not suggesting that we scramble up the minaret or shout it from the rooftops, neither can we assume that just because we work for an organization called The Interfaith Alliance that we can be distinguished from People for the American Way or Americans United for the Separation of Church and State or, for that matter, the host of advocacy groups with which we sometimes ally ourselves. It is not enough to say, "I am a believer and I support this policy or oppose this other policy." Our faith should compel us to say why - why it is important for believers and non-believers alike, and why it is important for the United States of America. It is not an indication of a wealth of faith to side-step; it is an indication of poverty of the spirit.
But think of the power that is ours when our consensus on policy positions - whether it is poverty relief or civility or education or human rights - emerges not from a single-minded agreement on politics, but from the often divergent paths we each follow to do what is right and faithful in the context of our unique commitments. Think of the difference between saying, "America, we, your citizens, agree to search for your promise in our faith," and "America, we have searched our faith and agree - you are the promise of your citizens."
And when it comes to government, we must be convinced of the goodness of government. We must be convinced both that government is a good thing and that government must be good government. Our responsibility is to remind our government constantly that care for the vulnerable, for the needy, for the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free cannot be accomplished by throwing money at programs, or even by subcontracting those programs to caring religious communities.
Because the real solution to any person's problems come from a change of heart, a change of perspective, a renewal of spirit. You know it, because you have had that experience. Your spirit has been renewed, transformed by the compelling message of faith which has allowed you to be better than just yourself.
And what is true for a human being is true for a government as well. Good government, our government must be our partner in the goal to provide a better life for all Americans, not only, but especially for the poor, the vulnerable, the under served. And the only way for it to happen is for us to be willing to share what we know with society at large. Our personal transformations have brought us closer to each other in our diversity, not separated us. We must be willing to bear witness to our success as people of faith, as allied people of many faiths, as an Interfaith Alliance.
A government independent of any religion being guided by the principles of many religions. Like interfaith worship, it sounds like an exciting opportunity to share common ground with a diverse group of people of faith. Like interfaith worship, it will always be strangely dissatisfying, because it will never be exactly what any one of us hoped it would be.
But I urge you to enter the world tomorrow with a sense of exhilaration and trepidation and do the work you cannot help but do: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
America, America, God mend thine every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.