The Changing Face of Religion
The Changing Face of Religion
February 7, 2016
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.
Moses has been changed, changed by his proximity to God. Changed, but he did not know it. And with him, Moses carried two stone tablets bearing the commandments of God. He was changed by God and his people would be changed by what he had been given by God.
This Sunday is a special day on the calendar of Christian churches. It is Transfiguration Sunday. We heard about Moses climbing Mount Sinai, returning with his face shining. We then heard about Jesus who had climbed another mountain in order to pray. While praying, his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. Dazzling white is Bible code for angels and so Jesus took on a visual aspect of the divine, which was otherwise unusual for him. Jesus was typically in cognito, running under the radar so to speak.
And with Jesus are seen two men, Moses and Elijah, who both appeared in glory. “In glory” is another bit of coded language. It means that they were also shining, shining like the rays of the sun were coming from them. If you have ever seen the sun break through clouds, the rays of light beaming down, that is the picture the authors of the Bible were trying to convey.
Transfiguration involves change, as the word suggests. It means to change form as with the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. But when I thought about the two events, the shining face of Moses and the altered appearance of Jesus, it did not seem that they had changed form or shape. Moses and Jesus were the same, but they looked differently. They were seen anew.
The Greek word used in Luke was “heteros” and is generally translated as “altered” or “changed.” But “heteros” more frequently means “different” or “other.” Light shining from your face and clothes would obviously change how someone might look at you, but it does not necessarily change what is under it all. Moses did not even notice what had happened to him. There was no change other than how they were being seen.
The working title of my sermon today was “The Changing Face of Religion” pun entirely intended. In each of the scriptures, Exodus and Luke, a transition is about to occur. Moses has led the Hebrew people out of captivity, Jesus will cause his followers to go in a different direction. In both cases, there would be a significant change, a new way of looking at the world.
The other day, I was at a clergy meeting and I asked one of my rabbi colleagues to explain to me the many names for the people we often round off to being simply Jewish. At various points in the Bible, that particular name has no meaning, or at least no meaning recognizable in a modern context. For example, Abraham was not Jewish in the truest sense. He was pre-Jewish, pre-Israelite, pre-Hebrew. Those words describe a certain group of people at a certain time in history. Hebrews, for example, only refers to the period of time from the captivity in Egypt through entry into the Promised Land – our Exodus reading today highlights the beginning of that shift. That land would in time come to be known as Israel and its people would be called Israelites.
The terms “Jew” and “Jewish” come from Judah, one of the sons of Jacob, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Judah became the leader of the Tribes, his tribe dominant, particularly in the south around the city of Jerusalem. The northern part of the kingdom of Israel was eventually conquered, leaving the southern part known as Judah, and later known as Judea. The place name stuck.
The terminology is further messed up by changing religious practices over the centuries. Those rituals and customs shifted. Someone in the time of Abraham would not have recognized the practices in the time of Moses let alone in the time of Jesus. From Mount Sinai, Moses carried down with him the Ten Commandments, which was a dramatic moment, visually and religiously. Then Exodus was followed by Leviticus and Deuteronomy, each book filled with rules and expectations for how those Hebrews would become Israelites.
Even this changed. Things changed in the time of David and Solomon, when Israel was a strong kingdom. They changed again in the time of Jeremiah when Jerusalem was destroyed and again in the time of Nehemiah when Jerusalem was rebuilt.
There was no easy way of going back to what was before. How do you go back to acting like the big kid on the block when you are not? You adjust, you shift, you reinterpret. Because you have no other choice. This happens again when the Romans destroy the second Temple. How can you practice the rules and regulations of the Hebrew Scriptures when most of them require doing so in a certain building, the Temple, that no longer exists in a location, Jerusalem, where you are forbidden to enter? You adjust, you shift, you reinterpret. The names “rabbi” and “synagogue” existed before the destruction of the Temple, but they took on new meaning because there were no more Jewish priests and there was no more Jewish temple. The times changed and the people had to make do.
At this same time, one group of dissident Jews broke away on their own. The followers of Jesus became in time Christians, a term that Jesus probably never used and one that did not come into being until many years after his life. Followers of Jesus were simply Jews who had added another prophet to the list of those they sought to follow. This shift became more pronounced over time, of course, beginning with the missionary efforts of Paul. And so Jews and Christians were essentially cousins religiously. This is still the case, but over the centuries these cousins were not always on the best of terms.
In the description of Moses from the readings, for example, there was some confusion over the translation. The Hebrew word that is now translated as “shone” or “shining” is “qaran.” It can mean shone or shining. It can also mean “grows horns.” Different, to say the least. For this reason, Moses has been depicted over the centuries with horns growing out of his head, famously so by Michelangelo. The original intention was probably to convey that Moses was transformed by his experience. Horns were, by the way, only associated with the devil many centuries later. The mistranslation and that later diabolical imagery became one more arrow in the quiver of anti-Semitism.
Christianity has changed over the centuries as well. Early Christians were a distinct minority in the Roman Empire, one that later went through a series of persecutions. Eventually, and quite improbably, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Those who were once reviled became the ones in charge. Those threatened by the authorities became the authorities. And that changed Christianity. I would not use the term “transfiguration” because this was not a case of divine light shining forth. Quite the opposite. The religion of outcasts became the religion of emperors. Is it any wonder there would be a change?
Christians were in charge, at least in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. That lasted until about the year 700, when a new religion, Islam, began to make major incursions into previously Christian territory. Islam, you may already know, is another religious cousin to both Christianity and Judaism. Muslims branched off, adding another prophet to follow, the Prophet Mohammed. These three groups have moved away from each other over the centuries and currently are at odds to a certain degree. You might have read about it. These three groups all come from the same background, three branches off the same tree.
If you say that too loudly, by the way, you might get yourself into trouble. Say at Wheaton College in Illinois. A professor there, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, got herself into hot water by suggesting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She was alluding to a statement made by Pope Francis to the same effect. She also decided to wear a hijab, or Muslim head covering, during this past Advent and did so in solidarity with Muslims accused of being violent as a religion group. Wheaton College sought to remove Hawkins from her position as a tenured professor for these statements and this behavior. There was coincidentally an announcement just yesterday that the termination of Hawkins would be reversed and college officials apologized.
Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God? Yes, no, maybe? Are there three different gods out there duking it out? Are there three different understandings of God, three different traditions? Or is there only one true understanding of God, only one correct way of believing, with all the others being false? False doctrines, false traditions, false gods. False or different? False or simply not my choice? What happens when people choose differently? And what happens when some people choose on behalf of others?
What do I mean? One of the distinguishing characteristics of religion is often who is in charge. Not just who is in the majority, but who is actually in the seat of power. In Syria, the technical leader of the country, Bashar al-Assad, comes from a small religious minority, the Alawite Muslims. This is a sub-group of Shiite Muslims who are in turn a subgroup of Muslim – so a sub-subgroup. The Alawites were in charge, so some other Muslims like the Sunnis feel left out, persecuted. And, honestly, they probably were left out and persecuted.
This phenomenon is not unique to Syria or to Islam, certainly not historically. Christian Europe spent hundreds of years fighting religious wars, both before and after the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Empire split in two and with it two sects were born, now referred to as Catholic and Orthodox. The Orthodox side splintered into essentially ethnic religious groups: Russian, Greek, Armenian and so forth. Part of the Catholic side shattered into Lutherans and Presbyterians, Baptists and Anglicans, Unitarians and Universalists, to name but a few.
Those are many different groups with varying degrees of difference. And depending upon your perspective, those differences are enormous or they are inconsequential. That perspective strangely enough seems to change from time to time. It often changes depending upon who is in charge. If a particular religious group is in charge, the differences often seem to magnify, us versus them, proper doctrine versus heresy. One side cares more because it is in charge and gets to call the shots. The others object, feeling slighted or persecuted. Shia or Sunni, Catholic or Protestant, one versus another.
But aren’t we free of that now? Isn’t it over in America at the very least? We have freedom of religion, freedom to worship and to gather as we please. We do. We do. And all in all, that is better. When it works. When it is observed in spirit as well as in word.
Not that long ago, sadly, a few candidates for president proclaimed that they would seek to exclude Muslims from entering the United States. You do not need to be a great constitutional lawyer to realize that this would be an explicit violation of the United States Constitution, the very First Amendment if you care to take a peek. And yet there has been significant sympathy for that campaign position. There is sympathy because people are afraid. Afraid for their safety, afraid for their future. Afraid because Muslims are different.
A few weeks ago, I attended the birthday party for a little boy. There was cake and ice cream. There were funny animal masks that the guests were expected to wear – lions and tigers, giraffes and elephants, cats and dogs. The party was for my nephew, the son of my brother-in-law and his wife. The little boy’s name is Anwar. He is now six years old, a six year old Muslim boy. I have known him for all of his life and his parents for a bit longer than that. There is nothing uniquely weird or worrisome about Muslims. Now people in general, they worry me.
There are plenty of reasons to be worried in the world right now, that I completely understand. There is violence and hatred, war and terrorism. Those are matters worthy of worry. They just do not happen to be the sole responsibility of anyone. No particular group, no particular country, no particular religion. I can call to mind recent examples of religious violence perpetrated by every major world religion. And yes that includes the Buddhists – Google Burma.
We often see other religions through the eyes of their detractors. There are of course examples of religious violence and strife, but those examples are used as the rule rather than as the exception. If the worst example of a group is used as the typical example, is it any wonder people find ways to be afraid.
It is like saying that every Italian is a fascist, every German a Nazi. That every American is a member of the Ku Klux Klan. We know these are mistaken associations, too broad and historically inaccurate. But from a distance, from a place of misunderstanding, that distorted image can be taken as accurate. Knowing what we know about ourselves as Americans, we realize that these generalizations are absurd. Not knowing can be the source of fear. Knowing only the bad can be the source of hatred.
Think back. In 2001, Islam became a point of concern because of September 11th. Go back just a few years and Americans were worried about Communists rather than Muslims. Go back again and we were worried about the Germans and the Japanese. Even further and we were worried about the British — the British. What we fear changes over time. Fear itself does not go away. It is just pointed in new directions.
This Sunday is about transfiguration, light shining forth from those who have been touched by God. The light did not change who Moses was, the light did not turn Jesus into someone else. But those around Moses and Jesus looked at them differently. They saw them in a new light. If anything, the light transformed those who saw it more so than those surrounded by it.
How do we see that light for ourselves? To transform fear into hope, worry into gladness? It takes work. It takes moving beyond the easy categories. It means getting over our fear of the British, our terrible anxieties about the Germans. I use these examples because they are for the most part historic fears. For the most part. That does not mean that someone might still not harbor those fears. Ask the Irish about the British, the Chinese about the Japanese, a Holocaust survivor about Germany. Fear is hard to forget, hard to forget like two jetliners flying into skyscrapers.
But fear can grow. It can grow beyond the underlying reasons for it. Fear then becomes phobia, a pervasive dread of something far beyond what is rational or healthy. There are indeed bad people in the world. Some of those bad people happen to be Muslim. And some of those people use being Muslim as an excuse for being bad. That is all true. And it is true for any other religious group on the planet.
When the light was shining off of Moses and Jesus, it allowed those around them to see truly, to see the faces of those men in the light of God. The same is true for anyone else. The only way to see truly, to see the faces of the men, women and children of the world, is to look around trying to find the light of God. That light does not come from our religions or doctrines, from our churches or temples. That divine light only comes from the faces of people. The faces of people that we approach with open eyes and hearts not lost in shadow. The light of God does not change the people from whom it shines. It changes those people who are willing to see it. To search for it. The light of God can transfigure the world, one face at a time.