Text: Genesis 9:8-17
This morning I want to tell you the stories of three people who have each left a lasting impression upon me, two of whom I met within the last few months.
Fr. Moussa Youssef is the pastor of the Virgin Mary Chapel in Egypt, a Coptic Orthodox Christian Church. He holds two bachelor degrees, one being in production engineering from Cairo University. He also holds a master’s degree in theology from The Ecclesiastical College, also in Cairo. Before his ordination as a Coptic Orthodox priest Fr. Moussa worked as an engineer. Now, along with being pastor of the Virgin Mary Chapel, he is also in charge of “interfaith-bonding” between Muslims and Christians in Greater Cairo. Fr. Moussa speaks Arabic and English.
I met Fr. Moussa on December 9 of last year. In a recent sermon, I shared with you a bit about that meeting. You may remember that he was here with a small delegation of Muslims and Christians who were participating in an international program focused on interfaith dialogue. The coordinator of the program had contacted me to ask if I would meet with the group because of their interest in churches in the US with a history of being involved in social justice and interfaith dialogue.
Fr. Moussa stood out to me from the beginning of the introductions on that December day. He had engaging eyes that communicated he was a man of deep thought and feeling and seriousness. The purple robe and Gandalf-like hat he was wearing reminded me a bit of my colleague and friend Malkhaz Songulashvili from the Republic of Georgia. Maybe that’s why he grabbed my attention. Throughout the hour-and-a-half conversation he sat listening, somewhat contemplatively without saying a word. It wasn’t until we were saying goodbye that he approached me and offered this statement. He said, “As Christians, we must find a way to be in dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Our faith requires us to do so.” I agreed and then, at his request, posed with him for a picture standing in front of our communion table.
Fr. Moussa was the first person I thought of when I read the horrific story of the beheadings of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christian men from Egypt by terrorists claiming Islam as their faith. As I read the story, I thought of Fr. Moussa words to me: “As Christians, we must find a way to be in dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Our faith requires us to do so.”
The second person who has left a lasting impression on me in recent days is Layla Barakat, the mother of Deah Barakat, the young UNC student who was killed in an act of hate and violence on February 10 in his apartment along with his wife and sister-in-law. One day after the murders, on February 11, at the suggestion and encouragement of a Muslim friend, I went to the Barakat home to represent Pullen, to offer our condolences, and to let the family know that we were holding them in our prayers. Amy Jones, a Pullen member and a neighbor of the Barakat’s went with me. Trembling, I stepped up to the door and rang the doorbell. All the way to the home I had tried to rehearse what I might say upon meeting the family. But everything I could think of seemed inadequate. And worst of all, I kept thinking, what if I say something wrong or offensive. I tried to tell myself that maybe my presence would be enough and that I really didn’t need to say anything. As a parent I couldn’t imagine that there were any words that could ease the pain of what the Barakats were experiencing.
As the door opened a woman was standing in the doorway. She looked at Amy and me and said, “Come into my home. Everyone is welcome.” I said, “We are here to speak with Layla.” to which she replied, “I am Layla.” As she and Amy recognized each other, they embraced. As Amy introduced me, Layla reached out her arms and embraced me, too. I’m not sure what I said but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is what Layla said. She took my hands in hers, looked into my eyes, and after thanking me for coming she said, “Our faith is not about violence and hate. It is about love and peace. It is about treating each other with compassion. We believe in Mary and Jesus. We believe in one God and one humanity.” For the next fifteen or so minutes we stood hand in hand and talked about our shared vision for the oneness of people of all faith and for the acceptance of religious diversity. She told me of how her son Deah believed his faith was all about compassion and peace. One God, one humanity!
The third person I want to tell you about is Samar Shawa. Samar and her husband Iyad Hindi are not strangers to Pullen. They are both Muslim and both of them have spoken at our church on several occasions to share with us about their faith, Islam. About three weeks before the murders of the three Muslim students, I had reached out to Samar. Last year, I had met a couple of times with Samar and Iyad to talk about interfaith dialogue and how Pullen might partner with the mosque they attend in Apex to build relationships between our two communities. Wanting to pick that conversation back up, I had emailed Samar to ask if we could meet to talk about some ideas that had been left on the table and we had set a date to get together. The week before we were scheduled to met the unbelievable happened—three Muslim students shot “execution style” in their Chapel Hill apartment. Samar knew well the families of the three young Muslims murdered. When I heard of the murders, I called Samar. The call was heart wrenching. The devastation in Samar’s voice was palpable. I just kept saying, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry.” We agreed to keep our meeting time, and as we said goodbye Samar said to me, “Nancy we have to do something. Please go visit the families.”
Fr. Moussa said, “As Christians, we must find a way to be in dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Our faith requires us to do so.” Layla Barakat said, “One God, One humanity!” Samar said, “We have to do something.”
On this first Sunday of Lent, I come to you with some questions; questions that have been shaped and formed from my experiences with these three individuals.
- Why are we still threatened by the idea of “our God” being the same as “their God?” What do we have to lose if there really is One God?
- Can we retain our individual and collective identity as Christian or as Baptist and still believe that we are all worshipping the same One God?
- Can we honor the specific traditions of other faiths under the umbrella of One God?
- How do we handle the fact that we may accept one God, but others reject that idea and us?
- How do we respond in the face of hatred, especially religious hatred and violence?
As Islamophobia is on the rise in the West, these questions feel significant to address as people of faith. I recently made the statement that there may not be a more important issue for our church to address than Muslim-Christian relations. And as a church that has not been afraid to tackle many of the cultural phobias and fears that have divided people of faith, addressing Islamophobia may very well be our next prophetic task. If we choose to make this journey, it will be important for us to be honest about our conscious and unconscious biases toward Muslims. Can we put aside our cultural bias about veiled clothing and gender roles in order to listen to why a young woman may choose to wear a headscarf or burka or worship in a different space than her male counterpart? Can we acknowledge that Christian extremists who kill in the name of God are no different than the Islamic extremists who kill in the name of Allah? What will it mean for our identity as a Christian church and to our ministries to fully proclaim that we believe in One God and One Humanity?
As I think about these questions and the prophetic task before us I am encouraged by our text for this first Sunday in Lent. Throughout Lent we will read about God’s covenants with God’s people. And here at the beginning of those readings, we start with an incredible affirmation of scripture. At the very beginning of our sacred text, we read that God’s covenant is between God and ALL FLESH that is on the earth, not just some flesh. Our Christian scripture tells us that God’s covenant is with all humanity. There is no our God, their God. There is no us and them. There is one God, one humanity. Call it whatever you will—God, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha. Call God’s creation whatever you will—Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindi, Buddhist; gay, straight, bi; black, white, yellow, brown; Asian, American, African, Middle Eastern. Our fate is bound up in each other. One God, one humanity. That doesn’t mean that we all have to be alike and believe the same way and live out our faith by the same practices. Actually, it means just the opposite. It means through all our differences, in all our diversity, with all our uniqueness God is at work in our world through it all. Any time we try to limit God by our differences, by our diversity, by our uniqueness well, that is on us, not God. The prophetic task of our day is to proclaim through word and deed that God’s covenant is with all flesh and that this One God is not limited to our personal understanding.
I sent Fr. Moussa an email this week to tell him that I am holding him and his community in my prayers. He wrote this back:
Dear Dr. Nancy,
I hope you are fine, I would like thank you very much for your kindness and your mail at this time, thank Our God for every thing.
Again many thanks…Remember me in your prayers.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Philipians 4:6 & 7
GBU & Best regards.
Priest Moussa Youssef
St. Mary Church, Zamalek
Fr. Moussa, Layla Baraket, and Samar Shawa’s voices are speaking to us. May we listen closely in this season of reflection and contemplation! And may we present our request to God that we learn to live serving one God and one humanity.