Neighbors

Philocrites : Liberal Religion : Sermons 1.20.03


From a midweek sermon preached by Christopher L. Walton in King's Chapel, Boston, on August 1, 2001.


He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."

— Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)

About a month ago, a new temple opened in a small farming town in Utah. This would hardly be surprising if the temple had been built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons — who dominate the state of Utah and who dedicated a temple of their own just outside Boston last year. No, the temple that opened in Spanish Fork, Utah, in June was built by devotees of the Hindu god Krishna, by the group that people often call the Hare Krishnas.

This news caught my attention for two reasons. First, few places in the United States would seem less religiously pluralistic than Utah County. The largest city near Spanish Fork, site of the Hare Krishnas' temple, is Provo, the home of Brigham Young University and the Mormon Church's missionary training center. One would think this would be a less than welcoming spot for a Hare Krishna temple.

A second aspect of the story interests me even more. The 15,000 square-foot temple for Krishna, with its alabaster domes and Indian architectural details, was completed in June with the help of the Mormons. It turns out that youth groups and students from Brigham Young University helped build the temple and prepare its grounds as service projects. The LDS Foundation, the philanthropic corporation that distributes grants from the profits of Mormon Church-owned businesses, donated $25,000 to the temple.

So here we find two of the more famous proselytizing religious groups in the United States — the Mormons, well-known for going door-to-door with the Book of Mormon, and the Hare Krishnas, whom you may have met distributing flowers and the Bhagavad-Gita in an airport — engaged in some simple neighborly help. They are still eager to share their good news and would be eager for you to join them, but they are also giving each other a helping hand. I think this story captures something profound about the actual state of religion in America today.

When I was a seminary student, I worked here at King's Chapel during the summers as a tour guide. I loved meeting people from all over the world, who stepped through a portal when they walked into this sanctuary, who for a short while were transported to a very different America.

When King's Chapel began, in 1686, this is how things stood in Massachusetts: Practicing Roman Catholicism was against the law. Mary Dyer, who had been banished for promoting the Quaker faith, returned to Boston in 1659 and was hung in the Common. A few years after King's Chapel was founded, the infamous witch trials and executions took place in Salem. In other words, one thing to remember when visiting King's Chapel is that it has its roots in a time when people experienced religious pluralism as dangerous, and vigorously suppressed it.

But when people visit King's Chapel, they are also visiting a monument to a change that transformed America. When this building was completed in 1754, new ideas were in the air. We talk about it as a spirit of freedom. King's Chapel was one of the very first churches in Boston that was not Puritan; it was the church of a religious minority.

The change that took place between 1686 and 1776 was profound. By the end of the American Revolution, King's Chapel tried something truly remarkable. This congregation came to think of Christianity as broad — able to accommodate several different theological perspectives at once. This congregation came to think of Christianity not as a sword of division that separates the true believers from the heretics, but as an invitation to live as neighbors. Unitarians and Trinitarians, they thought, shared a common gospel even though they differed in theology; here, at least in principle, they could worship together.

And, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, when it was still illegal to practice Roman Catholicism in Massachusetts, a special exemption allowed a priest to say a funeral mass in the crypt of this church for a French Catholic who had died fighting with the American patriots. In less than a century, something extraordinary had begun to happen in America. Even in Puritan New England, people were finding ways to be faithful and to be neighborly.

Harvard professor Diana Eck has just published a new book entitled A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. The title almost says it all. There are shrill voices in this country that still see no place really even for the Mormons — who now number five million in the U.S. — much less for the nearly six million Muslims and 1,200 mosques in America. Some Christians perceive the diversity of religion in America as a threat to fundamental religious values.

But I am struck by a spirit that I believe Christianity is only beginning to recognize in Jesus. The gospels include the story of the Syrophoenician woman — a Gentile — who approaches Jesus because she has heard that he can cast out demons. Jesus has ministered only to Jews, but this woman believes that he will help her. At first, it appears that Jesus will not: he says, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." But in spite of what seems like a cruel dismissal, she claims an awkward place at the table anyway. She says, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." And then Jesus seems to see her, not as a religious outsider, but as a human being in need, and he says, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire."

Jesus often calls us to the work of neighborliness. The good Samaritan, after all, was another religious outsider. But Christianity has, over its two thousand years, often failed to live this neighborly calling. Paula Fredericksen, who teaches the history of ancient Christianity at Boston University, recently wrote that "more Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire after Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 312 than before." Given access to political power, Christians have all too often attacked other Christians who believe differently — or attacked the Jews. I do not believe that this is what Jesus came to teach.

Instead, I see the beginning of something in Jesus' response to the Canaanite woman. I see the beginning of something in the story of this church, here in Boston. I see the emergence of a spirit in American religion that heeds the call of neighborliness when we encounter religious pluralism.


Return to Sermons
Philocrites | Copyright © 2001 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu