University Public Worship Sunday, October 26, 2008 Memorial Church As I thought about what to share in my portion of the sermon this morning, I quickly became overwhelmed. Trying to distill my experience in the Fellowship for Religious Encounter into five minutes is a tough task. It was a year of intense education and profound deepening of my own religious life. We were a group of thirteen, including Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, a Jew, a Hindu, a Ba’hai, and a Mormon, and we met weekly with our Deans of Religious Life for dinner and conversation about religion. While five minutes cannot do justice to the experience, I hope to give you a glimpse into what made this experience such an incredible one. We began the year with a retreat to a nearby monastery. Among other activities, each fellow shared a sacred object from his or her faith tradition. A prayer shawl, a statue of Hanuan, a chastity ring, a scrapbook from a mission, and an Emerson book were some of the objects brought to the table. As each person described his or her object and told the group about his or her faith journey, I glimpsed for the first time the richness of experiences and stories that each person would contribute over the coming year. We then walked an outdoor labyrinth together. Some closed their eyes, all walked deliberately, and all treated this moment as sacred and seemed to sense some presence of the divine. While the sacred objects had spurred discussion of our very different faiths and faith journeys, the labyrinth was a powerful symbol to me of the common path that we are all on. In a way, the retreat set the scene for the year to come – a year of discovering that real differences do exist between our religions, but also of sensing that we are all in a common quest for meaning together. 2 During our weekly meetings, we began by eating dinner together as friends and not just as debate partners. Getting to know and care about the other fellows was an important piece of the experience. We supported other fellows as they wrote honors theses and prepared for new jobs and transitions, and rejoiced with them when some of the fellows got engaged over the course of the year. Coming to know each person as an individual and friend, and not simply as a representative of a religion, was incredibly valuable. As we moved into discussion of various topics, it became clear to me that ours was not just a dialogue between religions, but a dialogue between real, living followers of those religions, who also brought questions and struggles to the table. It was important for me to realize that we were all imperfect representatives of our religions, but that indeed no one is a perfect religious specimen. Yet we all joined together, in our differences and doubts, our hopes and fears, in asking “Why am I here, and what shall I do with the life and education that have been given to me?” We built, over the course of the year, a community of trust rooted in mutual respect. On top of that, we constantly tried to push ourselves toward confrontation, knowing that the richest conversations often stem from our differences. For example, we differed sharply in our beliefs about women, gender, and sexuality. At the end of the meetings, though, we always came together in prayer. Each week, a different person shared a prayer from his or her tradition. These prayers were in Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish; they were sung and chanted; they were poems and liturgies. They showed me the rich diversity of ways to experience the divine. I could go on and on, but instead I’d like to end with two quotes from Eboo Patel, a social activist and founder of the Interfaith Youth Corps. Patel writes that, “Religious pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus. It is a form of proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that…the common good is best served when each community 3 has a chance to make its unique contribution.” In another article, he asks, “What if every city block were a cathedral of pluralism; every university campus; every summer camp and day care. There would not be enough bombs in the world to destroy all of our cathedrals.” May we all work to build cathedrals of mutual respect and proactive cooperation on every city block, and on every university campus.
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