ST. PAUL, Minn. -- I had the privilege here yesterday of offering the sermon at an interfaith service for Friends of Woodstock School, the institution in northern India I attended for a time when I was a boy. (The top photo here shows me, in front, with my three sisters and mother on the first day we arrived at Woodstock, meeting with the head of the school, Canon S.R. Burgoyne. The Wikipedia photo below shows a campus-wide view of Woodstock.)
People sometimes ask me how in the world it might be possible for adherents of different faith traditions to come together in a common worship service. Wouldn't that water down everyone's religion? Well, it could. But it doesn't have to have that result. It also can be a way of acknowledging and honoring the common ground we share, and it can be done with respect in a way that respects our souls, our centers, our spirituality.
So I thought it might be helpful to demonstrate that by reprinting my sermon here today, but it requires just a bit of background information first.
When I attended Woodstock School in 1956, its student body was made up almost entirely of children of American missionaries. My parents were not missionaries, however. Instead, my father was part of a University of Illinois agriculture team for two years there, stationed at the Allahabad Agricultural Institute, now called the Sam Higginbotom Institute of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences. Today, by contrast, Woodstock is very much an international school, drawing students from around the world, including Americans. It retains its Christian heritage but it is much more multicultural and interfaith than when I was there.
So I wanted to pay attention to that change in my sermon and to speak about what we can learn from our various faith traditions when looking at the question of "headwaters," which was a theme for the gathering.
So here's what I said:
Please pray with me: Gracious God, out of sickness you bring health, out of darkness light and out of death life. So I pray that you would take these inadequate words of mine and make them your word for us this day. I pray this in the name of the one we Christians call the Word, Christ Jesus, but we pray this in all the names by which we know you. Amen.
As you know, the theme for this weekend’s gathering is “Woodstock & Minnesota: The Headwaters.” I want to explore the idea of headwaters a bit with you as well as the idea of destiny or destination. But I must tell you that when I think of Woodstock as my own headwaters I don’t think first of Woodstock School, which I attended for just part of one year in the 1950s as a member of what would become the class of 1963.
Rather, I think of Woodstock, Illinois, where I was born, northwest of Chicago and where — except for the two years my family lived in India at the Allahabad Agricultural Institute — I lived until I went off to the University of Missouri to get a degree that would allow me to spend my career committing journalism.
In fact, I have Woodstocks all over my life. My wife, for instance, grew up near Woodstock, Vermont, after which my hometown was named. When I worked on the afternoon newspaper in the late 1960s, I assigned someone to go cover the Woodstock Music Festival. The name of my latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. See me later if you want to arrange to buy a dozen copies of that book a week for the rest of your life, or maybe just one for now. And my next book will be published next year by Skylight Paths Publishing, which, believe it or not, is based in Woodstock, Vermont. I seem to be almost over-Woodstocked.
When people of faith think about human headwaters — our origins — and also think about our purpose and destiny, we naturally turn to sacred scriptures. We find there many commonalities across different faith traditions but also some uncertainty, some ambiguity that reminds us that we live by metaphor, by allegory, by myth because we have no choice. Every word we speak or write, after all, is a metaphor in that it points to some meaning beyond itself. And that is true of the words in sacred writ, too.
In Genesis 1:27, we read, in the Common English Bible translation, that “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” Words about headwaters, to be sure.
And in surah 49, verse 13, of the Qur’an, using the translation by Laleh Bakhtiar called The Sublime Qur’an, we find God, or Allah, the Arabic word for God, saying this: “O, humanity! Truly We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and types that you may recognize one another.” M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s translation has it that God “made you into races and tribes so that you would recognize one another.” Other translations say God made us into different tribes and families so that we would have a chance to “know” one another, including, presumably, what we have in common and how we are different.
The point in this and many other sacred texts is that we have a common origin, we come from common headwaters and this was by divine plan.
There are, of course, many different creation stories in various cultures and traditions. Just within Hinduism, for instance, there are many accounts of creation. Indeed, according to some Hindu texts, whenever Brahma sleeps the world is destroyed, and every morning when he wakes up it is created again. I personally am grateful that when I wake up in the morning this new world bears an eerie resemblance to the one that existed when I went to sleep — otherwise I’m afraid the future shock would destroy me.
Speaking of headwaters and creation stories, you may have heard about a well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) who once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, moves around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a lady at the back of the room got up and said: “You have spoken rubbish, sir. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle.” The scientist gave a condescending, superior smile before replying, “What is the turtle standing on, madam?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
At any rate, Minnesota is a good place to think about creation stories, beginnings and headwaters because the headwaters of the Mississippi River are found right here in Itasca state park. I haven’t done this, but I’m told that you can actually walk across the mighty Mississippi there as it starts its journey of 2,320 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
When we think about beginnings, about headwaters, we can conceive of that in several different ways. One is where we were born. Another is the years we spent being educated before we made our way out into the rest of the world. But another is the headwaters of our faith, of our spirituality. I want to tell you a story about my faith headwaters, and it has to do with my time at Woodstock School.
I have already told you that we live by myth, by metaphor, by allegory because there is no other way. I learned that when I was 11 years old. It was Easter Sunday 1956 and I was attending a sunrise service outside of Kellogg Church near Woodstock School with other Woodstock students. Maybe even some of you.
In the foothills of the mountains that day, the air was sharp but welcoming, supplely fragile but not brittle. At the eastern edge of the horizon two hills formed a V, and we observed the sun rising in the very center of that V, prodigally exploding light and hope into the expectant, dark air.
I came to believe in resurrection that morning, though I probably did not have the vocabulary to begin to articulate what that meant. And I’m sure all these years later that there is no vocabulary adequate to that task. I also began to discern then — as much as an 11-year-old could — that myth, metaphor and allegory are the foundations on which we build the castles of our reality.
What does that mean? Well, I just told you that the sun rose that sweet Easter daybreak in India. But that’s not true. The sun did not rise. The sun never rises in the way that those words suggest. What happens, of course, is that the Earth spins on its axis and the spot on which I happen to be located in the morning inches into the sunlight. In the same way, in the evening the sun does not set. The earth, instead, twirls away from its light. (Though, of course, both the Earth and the sun are in motion, meaning that although Galileo was mostly right in his argument with the Catholic Church, the church — sort of like a stopped watch that’s right twice a day — was also a tiny bit right.)
We all know that truth about our sunrise/sunset language but we continue to use those words, anyway. Myth, metaphor, allegory.
In many faith traditions there are rituals that rely on metaphor, myth and allegory to mark beginnings, to take note of headwaters. In Christianity, of course, it’s the sacrament of Baptism, when we remember what a powerful symbol water is. Water cleanses. It heals. Water nourishes and redeems. It is both a symbolic and a literal presence in our lives and in our faith and it is God’s precious gift to us.
Over and over, the Jewish and Christian faith stories confirm the reality that water is a potent symbol. As the Common English Bible translates the first of the two creation stories in Genesis, it says that when God began to create the heavens and the earth, “the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters.” We also recall the water of the great flood of Noah’s time and the way Moses parted the waters of the reed sea, or Red Sea, to let the people of Israel escape slavery. And we Christians recall Jesus’ own Baptism in the water of the River Jordan. And on and on. So water is a symbol for beginnings as well as a necessary element for the rest of the journey. Water becomes sacramental, which is to say it’s an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality.
Water plays an important part in many other faith traditions, as well. In Buddhism, for example, it’s used in funerals. Water is poured into a bowl placed before the monks and the dead body. As it fills and pours over the edge, the monks say this: “As the rains fill the rivers and overflow into the ocean, so likewise may what is given here reach the departed.”
In Hinduism, water has a special place because it is believed to have spiritual cleansing powers. To Hindus, all water is sacred, especially rivers, and there are seven sacred rivers in India, including the Ganges and Jumna, as we called those rivers when my family lived next to the Jumna near its confluence with the Ganges in Allahabad. There, as you may know, they both join the mythological Saraswati River.
And, of course, we find ritual cleansings with water in such religions as Islam, Judaism, Shinto and Zoroastrianism. So it is hard even to mention water without noting the many ways in which people of faith consider it sacred. And if it’s sacred in various headwaters, it’s also sacred along the journey, as our Catholic friends remind us by placing a container of holy water just inside the entrance to sanctuaries so that worshipers may use it to make the sign of the cross as they enter. Indeed, the more we learn about water and religion the more we discover evidence of our common humanity.
But what about our journeys from our headwaters, wherever they have been? (And surely for most of us here today those headwaters do include Woodstock School.) What about the rivers — whether actual or metaphorical — that have carried us along in life and are inexorably moving us toward the end of our lives and toward whatever our faiths say comes after that?
A 2001 Catholic document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission of the Vatican says something we need to remember as we think about this journey: “It is common place to speak in one phrase of the ‘greatness and wretchedness’ of the human person.” Our greatness and our wretchedness. Which of us hasn’t experienced both at some time — and sometimes maybe even at the same time?
Despite that paradox, the same document insists that the phrase“created in the image of God,” “applies to all men and women of all times and places and confers on them their highest dignity.”
And that is what I hope you and I can remember as we move from our headwaters toward our destinations. Because we are created in the image of God, each of us is of inestimable value and worthy of respect and dignity. In his book, The Political Meaning of Christianity, political scientist and Episcopal layman Glenn Tinder described this idea of the exalted individual as the “spiritual center of western politics.” He says it’s why we have a welfare system to care for the needy — because each needy person is precious — and it’s why we send the Coast Guard out to rescue one lone hapless sailboat enthusiast, even if that sailor brought the trouble on himself or herself by bad decisions.
We value each life. We value every individual, though I must say there are times in our American culture — as well as in the cultures of some of the other 35 or so countries I’ve been privileged to visit in my life — when it seems as if we’ve forgotten this truth. Our individual actions and public policies sometimes lead us to deny equal treatment under the law to everyone, or to provide health care for everyone except those who can afford it least but need it most, or to view the world through racist eyes that devalue people based on skin color, or to create educational systems in which the poorest students with the most needs are given the fewest resources. And on and on. And as you recount the on and ons to yourselves, you can fill in the blanks with such names as Ferguson and Charleston.
There are fundamental, essential human rights, but too often we are willing to slight them for others so we may guarantee them for ourselves. As the Dalai Lama has rightly said, “Each individual has a universal responsibility to shape institutions to serve human needs.”
Many people who attended or graduated from Woodstock School have devoted their lives to exactly that, serving human needs. The world, in fact, is a better place because of the values that have led Woodstock alumni to seek the common good, to value all individuals, to honor what Glenn Tinder calls the idea of the exalted individual. And we should celebrate that and use such gatherings as this to highlight those achievements and to encourage us to continue down that path, that river as long as we are physically and mentally able to do so.
But as we do that, my prayer is that we can be open to the wisdom that our many faith traditions provide and that we can appreciate insights found in religions and philosophical traditions not our own. I am not suggesting a syncretistic approach in which we regard all religions as essentially the same and, therefore, we try to create one mushy faith for all. Not at all. But I am suggesting that we Americans have an opportunity in this century to model what it might look like for people of many different religious traditions to live together in harmony.
If the call to Americans of the 20th Century was to get racial harmony right (clearly still an unfinished task), I think the call of this new century is to get religious harmony right. In a world often set aflame by religious differences and conflict, we have a chance to show that people of many faith traditions can respect one another and at very minimum tolerate one another. Tolerance is a very low standard, of course, much lower than the standard of love that my Christian faith calls me to offer to all of humanity. But at least it’s a start.
To grow beyond mere tolerance, of course, will require that we become educated first about our own faith, if any. And in my experience among American Christians, biblical and theological illiteracy is rampant. So, as a result, what happens in what sometimes gets called interfaith dialogue is really interfaithless dialogue, when people of nominal commitments to different faiths get together and agree about stuff that they would have agreed to anyway. Real interfaith dialogue is hard and requires a lot of time. And until you feel some discomfort about it, you’re not there. Nor are you there until the people with whom you’re speaking begin to challenge your thinking. But that’s what will be required if we are to get anywhere close to my vision of Americans modeling good interreligious relationships.
If most of us here today share Woodstock School as at least part of our headwaters, we also share at least some experiences of accompanying each other on our journeys from Woodstock to here in Minnesota today. Many of you have been friends for decades, have stood by one another, cared for one another, cheered one another on and mourned with one another when death or some other catastrophe has struck. You have been companions on the journey along the river that is leading us toward some final destination and destiny.
Don’t stop now. Remember your common headwaters, yes. But continue to be fellow sojourners, holding each other when in need and continuing to call out the best in each other, always remembering that each of us bears the image of God and, therefore, deserves to be treated as a precious treasure.
Let us pledge together to continue the journey in this communal, supportive, loving way until, in the end, we are wrapped in the solicitous love of a God who has taken the journey with us, binding up our wounds, comforting us, cheering us, guiding us and helping us remember not just the headwaters from which we came but also the glory of the sunset that will be ours.
May it be so this day and all along the way of life. Amen.
Well, there are lots of ways to approach an interfaith service like the one here in St. Paul yesterday, but that's how I did the sermon. I'd be intrigued by your responses, which you can e-mail to me at email@example.com. The response yesterday from Woodstock School folks was quite positive and surprisingly (to me) lovely.
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MUSLIMS LEND A HAND
And speaking of interfaith matters, when a series of predominantly African-American Christian churches in the South burned in recent weeks, guess who stepped up to help rebuild them, among others? Groups of Muslims. Nice work. It's what people of other faiths should do when vandals also attack mosques and synagogues and temples. Whenever anyone's sacred space is threatened, everyone's is.