Sunday, October 29, 2023 – Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
In Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives sits the Chapel of the Ascension. The place where Jesus is supposed to have last stood on earth. Attached to the chapel is an Islamic mosque. And somewhere below them is a burial crypt where a Jewish prophet, a Christian saint, and an Islamic mystic are all said to be buried…and all three of them are women. Hulda, is the Jewish prophet; Pelagia the Christian saint; and Rabi’a, the Sufi mystic.
Hulda appears in the Book of Kings, during a time when the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel were deep in crisis…It’s the late 7th century BCE… and king Josiah is doing some renovations of the Temple, when some undiscovered Torah scrolls are found hidden in a wall. These scrolls—typically understood to be a version of the Book of Deuteronomy—reinterpreted many of the laws found in Exodus and Leviticus…and made it painfully clear just how far Josiah’s kingdom had fallen from loving God with heart, soul, and mind…and strayed from loving neighbors as themselves…and it promised some very unpleasant consequences. The king was disturbed and wanted a prophet to take a look this, but he doesn’t go to Jeremiah—probably fearing that Jeremiah would launch into one of his lengthy “I told you so…you’re just going to get more wrath,” jeremiads.
Instead, he goes to Hulda—but if he was hoping for more favorable spin from her…he was sadly disappointed… Hulda tersely says, “this is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: ‘I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken Me and have […] vexed Me with their deeds” (2 Kings 22:15-16)…IOW They have not loved God or their neighbors as themselves, and Hulda tells them so.
Fast forward a thousand or so years…to the 4th or 5th century CE, and a group of monks led by their bishop is out for a stroll in the town of Antioch. They pass by the beautiful Margarita, a well-known actress and courtesan, perfumed and wearing just enough to enflame the imagination into all sorts of smoldering thoughts…The monks bloom red-faced and look away, but the bishop chastises them, saying: ‘If only we had as much devotion for or took as much loving care of our souls as she does of her body.’
The next Sunday, Margarita shows up at the bishop’s church and begins the process of converting to Christianity. She takes the name Pelagia at her baptism, and turns over all her earthly possessions to be distributed to widows, orphans and the poor of the city… She frees all of her slaves, and begins living with a female deacon named Ramana. Sometime later she goes to Jerusalem where she lives in a cell on the Mount of Olives, and ministers to people there…claiming to be a male eunuch. Demonstrating her love God and her neighbors…but in a very non-traditional way.
A few more centuries on—the early 8th century CE—a child is born to a Muslim family in Basra. Rabi’a was the fourth daughter born to a family so poor they had no oil to light even a single lamp, or even a cloth to wrap her in. But one night the Prophet Muhammad appeared to her father in a dream and said that Rabi’a was, “a favorite of the Lord, and shall lead many Muslims to the right path.” When her father died, she goes into the desert and lives a life of semi-seclusion…becoming a model of “mutual love between God and God’s creation.”
And people came from all over for her spiritual and ethical guidance.
She is perhaps best known for her clarity about not only how to love God…but the pure reasons for worshiping God. She said:
“O God, if I worship you because I fear Hell…then burn me in Hell…[don’t worship God out of fear]…If I worship you because I desire Paradise…then exclude me from Paradise…[and don’t worship God hoping to get something out of it]…But if I worship you for yourself alone…then deny me not your Eternal Beauty.”
Granted, very few facts adhere to any of the stories of Hulda, Pelagia, or Rabi’a, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a powerful truth in them. I think it is significant that a fearless Hebrew prophet, and a transgressive Christian saint, and a reclusive Muslim mystic are all believed to be eternally sharing the same ground where Jesus last stood on earth…this miraculously thin space where the eternal and the earthly…the sacred and the profane…meet, combine, and through a kind of sacred alchemy are transformed into a healing balm for all of creation.
Jesus quotes the Torah in commanding us to love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves…Indeed Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all say we should love God, and have compassion, love, and respect for one another. These are not simply shared values, they moral imperatives in all three faith traditions.
Last week, I sat around a table with Christian, Jewish and Muslim friends, and fellow faith leaders in Brookline. It was our regular meeting, but it was far from usual. We spoke openly about the anguish, fear, frustration, and anger that many in our community are experiencing because of the crisis in Israel and Palestine. We spoke about the different ways we and members of our communities see, understand, and experience what is happening. We recognized how, in times of crisis, the pressure to “choose a side” can be become strident and toxic. We spoke honestly, and we listened deeply, and there was no doubt that we all loved God, and that we had come together to affirm and honor our shared humanity. At the end, we prayed in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, that “we should not despair/That we shall see life in each other/That we shall have mercy for each other/ That we shall have pity on each other/[and] That we shall hope for each other” (Prayer of Mothers for Life and Peace).
We also wrote an open letter, calling on everyone to stand together against hatred, to call out injustice whenever we see it, to listen with compassion to one another, and to reach out in faith and work together towards a world where every life is valued equally.
These days it may appear that common ground is impossible to find…but I assure you it is there…it is always there… Hulda, Pelagia, and Rabi’a all point the way.
…Sometimes we need to be fearless and speak truth to power, like Hulda,…At other times we may need to be more subtle…and transgressive…fly under the radar like Pelagia. And like Rabi’a we always need to be aware of our own motives and guard against doing what might look like the right thing…but for all the wrong reasons. But common ground can alway be found by those who truly love God and who faithfully strive to love our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.