Putting Love First

Rev. John Maine - March 2016

So there I was at Oscar’s, that well-known restaurant on Victoria near River Road. It was dark out because it was barely 7am and this was a month ago now, in early February. The place was practically empty and I was sitting there, at one end of a long table. Nearby were two friends from “IGR”, short for Interfaith Grand River. That’s the multi-faith forum which meets monthly, here in K-W, to promote greater understanding, respect and cooperation amongst our different religious communities.

Five other people were also at the table and them I was meeting for the first time. They were all pastors and together they constituted the executive body of an organization called “City Watch”, an alliance of what are commonly called “conservative Christian” congregations. These are evangelical, Pentecostal and Baptist churches in Waterloo Region, maybe twenty or thirty of them altogether. They’re united by a similar set of beliefs, most especially the literal truth of the Bible and the Christian faith as the only path leading to salvation.

That makes them to be pretty much at the other end of the spectrum from us as Swedenborgians. We read our Bible not just for the literal meaning but for its deeper, spiritual sense. Nor do we believe that Christianity is the only faith that embodies love of God and neighbor and leads to heaven. The gospel or good news of Jesus, about living in the ways of love, is more than big enough to be present in many other traditions.

So as Swedenborgians we want to include, not exclude. For us there is only one God, one infinite love and wisdom of loving, known by many names and worshiped in many ways. The religion people follow is less important than how much it helps to raise up the quality of their love and the goodness of their heart.

Mind you, it’s not that religion doesn’t matter at all or that having a faith is of no consequence. Religions teach us the all-important “how” of loving God and our neighbor. We’re not all on our own here, having to figure out who we are and what it means to live a good life. Nor do we have to be taken in by the lies and delusions of our manic, consumer culture. The witness of countless generations of good people who’ve gone before us is there, to show us a way we can take, whether that way be Christian or something else.

But at Oscar’s early that morning, with the darkness heavy all around, I knew that the strangers opposite me didn’t see it that way. For them, as for all our more literal-minded, fundamentalist neighbours, of whatever stripe, their way is always the only way. Everybody else is wrong. Let’s face it: it’s how all of us on the planet used to think and, alas, we still do at times. Only slowly but surely is the higher spiritual consciousness that we call the New Church or the New Jerusalem coming to be amongst us.

So the differences between us didn’t augur well for our time together. Those evangelical pastors of City Watch were holding their monthly breakfast meeting and y two friends and I from IGR were there as invited guests. We wanted to make a presentation to them on a subject we felt to be of great concern for our community.

And that concern is the very noticeable rise in so-called “hate incidents”. These are situations where people, often visible minorities, are targeted for name-calling and threats and other abusive behavior. Muslim women are easy targets because of their hijabs but Sikhs, Hindus, and, always of course our Jewish neighbours it seems, come in for this kind of treatment. To be yelled at from a passing car, or spat on, or even have something thrown at you, is devastating and terrifying. Yet, in the law, these things don’t generally qualify as hate “crimes”. There’s rarely anything the police can do. Often going unreported, such episodes get called hate “incidents”.

What to do about it? Well, as Chief Bryan Larkin of our police service has said, the key is “prevention through education”. This is one of the major commitments of Interfaith Grand River, to engage all our faith communities in a united front against religiously-motivated or targeted hate.

So that’s why my two friends and I from IGR were there that morning, to educate our evangelical friends about this situation and to get their support, which meant making connections between us. Because, you see, IGR contains representatives from across the Christian family, both Catholic and Protestant, as well as just about everybody else, from the major world religions all the way to the neo-pagans, wiccans and even the atheistic humanists. The large, evangelical Christian community, however, has yet to take any consistent part in our work, despite occasional attempts from both sides at changing that situation. It may be that believing you have the only right and true way to heaven gives you little incentive to talk with, or listen to, people who follow other ways of getting there.

And yet I can tell you: when we told of them of these hate incidents multiplying in our city, their concern was immediate and genuine. It was very heartening to see. Our evangelical brothers and sisters roundly condemned such behavior and thanked us for opening their eyes to the scope of the problem. In that moment we were as one on this. The Spirit was there and the light of God’s love was shining amongst us all.

All the same, it felt to me like there was a certain “elephant in the room”. I mean, how can you be against religiously-motivated hate and yet still believe – and maybe preach – that only Christians go to heaven and all others are not only wrong but rejected by God and destined for eternal damnation in hell? How do you build up God’s loving kingdom in a multi-cultural, multi-faith world, while being committed to an evangelism which tries to make everybody the same, into being a Christian like you?

So after we skirted this issue a few times, I decided I would name it. Taking my heart in my hands, because this is such difficult and sensitive territory, I said to them, “You know, for me, I see my relationship to people of other faiths like this. I would hope and pray for the grace to be the best follower of Jesus I can possibly be, so that, say, my Muslim friend might feel inspired to be the best Muslim that they could be. Because then they would love God and neighbour in their way, as I do in mine, and that, for me, is fulfilling the gospel of Jesus Christ. That, for me, is true evangelism.

Well, there was a distinct pause after I spoke those words, a silence that seemed to fill the restaurant. Forks hovered over waffles and scrambled eggs got cold, as we looked at each for what seemed a long moment. The older pastors at the far end of that table had faces like stone. I’d crossed a line with them in what I’d said, and I knew it, and I knew they knew it, too.

Finally one of them spoke. He leaned forward and said, very quietly, “Well, John, helping someone become ‘the best Muslim they can be’ may be a big win for you – but not for us!” To which I could only reply, “I know; you don’t see it that way. I know.”

And what more was there to say? It felt somehow so disheartening, like we weren’t all together anymore, in the light of God’s presence, but plunged into a darkness of our different gods, yours versus mine, ours versus theirs. Suddenly our different beliefs about God, and perceptions of God, mattered more than the love that brought us together.

You know, I think it would’ve helped us a lot if someone could’ve read to us our scripture lesson for today. It’s the first commandment and it’s the first because it’s the most important, it’s the foundation for all the rest: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out from Egypt, from the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

No other gods – not the gods of our various religions, not the gods of our world – wealth, status, power – not, finally, the little god inside, constantly shouting “me first, me only”. No. Only the one true God that all those other little gods can at most only hint at or point us toward.

Only how will we know if it’s really God we’re serving and not one of these pale substitutes? Because we all know how somebody can be so devout and observant in their religion and yet end up so narrow-minded and judgmental. We know people, totally outside of religion, who play by all the rules but only to use others and serve themselves. So how do we know that we’re not only doing the right things but for the right reason, the right God?

Well, the answer is built into the commandment itself. In the Christian tradition, to distinguish itself from the Jewish story out of which it grew, the part about being led out of Egypt is dropped. We just focus on “you shall have no other gods before me”. That’s unfortunate. Because in the Jewish tradition, it’s that first part as well, about your God being the One who frees you from slavery.

So what does that mean? Slavery to what? To all the little false gods, the Pharaohs we’re forever tempted to make first in our lives instead. We live safe inside our own small certainties, never questioning, never reaching out, doing what we’ve been told, over and over again. That’s the life of a slave. God calls us to be so much bigger, where we’re to risk much and give more, and all for love. That’s the life of a free and fully human being, passionately open and engaged with others.

So, no, we don’t argue our different gods with one another because, let’s face it, we’re all of us wrong. Nobody has the complete picture on the infinite Divine, not even Swedenborgians, although sometimes some of us like to think so. We know we’re serving the one, true God when it fills us with humility and awe, when it give us a sense of energy and life that comes from daring to love – all our leaps of faith into the unknown of others, that it might be well for us all.

Sort of like these new friends of mine at City Watch. We don’t see things the same way but, you know, we can still be okay together. They’re good and decent people and incredibly kind. For a start, regardless of our differences, they still insisted on paying for breakfast! Yes, they inspire me to practice my faith better than I do. That’s true evangelism!

And guess what? Just last week I attended one of their big monthly presentations on . . . supporting Syrian refugees – and there was no talk of evangelizing those refugees either, of trying to turn Muslims into Christians. Just loving your neighbor.

For that’s the truth to set us all free, putting love first, God’s first commandment. This is the heart of the “deal”, the covenant, that we should live always putting love first and foremost in all that we are and do – and then just see God’s blessings flow! Amen.