October 11

Praying for and with the Religious Other

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 10:17-31

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Good morning.

It is always good to be in this space, and I am especially grateful to Bob Hill for the opportunity to stand in the pulpit today. This fall, as Jen and I continue work on our dissertations, we enter our seventh year on the staff here at Marsh Chapel. In these years, Marsh has been our spiritual home, and the Sunday morning liturgy has been the service grounding the rhythm of our weekly lives.

In October of last year, I accepted a position as the administrator for the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education – CIRCLE – the interreligious initiative of Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School which brings together rabbinical students and seminarians along with Muslim community leaders to cultivate authentic relationships across lines of difference and to live into caring for the world together. At its core, CIRCLE facilitates real relationships across religious and theological divides and seeks to transform religious education and religious leadership in the 21st century through this mutual encounter. The basis of the work is both eloquently simple and extraordinarily bold – take students from two neighboring educational institutions; create intentional opportunities for those students to interact, learn, and explore together throughout their studies; and ultimately change the culture of both institutions, and perhaps the trajectory of graduate theological education itself.

My work at Marsh Chapel had already helped me encounter the power in working across intra-religious difference. The Christian staff here over the last several years has included folks from more than a dozen Christian denominations and communities, and in that time I have grown to be a better United Methodist because I have learned about personal piety from Roman Catholic colleagues, the depth and importance of liturgy from my Anglican and Episcopalian friends, and the importance of speaking truth to power from a Southern Baptist minister-to-be.

In 2013, the World Council of Churches General Assembly invited young people from around the globe to gather to think about what formation in religious leadership can and should look like in the 21st century. As we learned the stories of one another, an Arab man living in war-torn Gaza, a Korean woman seeking a voice and place in South Korea, a Kenyan woman struggling to find the means to feed the orphaned children of her neighborhood, we discussed how religious leadership in the new millennium must move beyond cultivating community within one’s own tradition to loving and working across lines of religious difference for the sake of the world’s least and lost, poor and marginalized.

Our gospel passage today contains one of the most difficult passages of the New Testament: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” As a university chapel community, largely-well-educated, attached to a premier research university, and benefiting from its education and social location, we ought rightly to wrestle with the consequences of these words of Jesus recounted in the Marcan text today. As a recent home-owner, I ponder that verse regularly (and I should); however, its full exegesis on a Sunday morning waits for another day.

My interest this morning is in Mark 10:29-30:

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

We still hear in this passage that following Jesus is hard, and that in following Jesus we give up and lose things along the way, sometimes even family, but the good news of this text is that in following Jesus we find new family. While the church understands itself to be a family, and in baptism we are reminded that we are incorporated into a Christian family that transcends space and time, the new family we find in following the will of God through Jesus is not limited to followers of Jesus. “For God all things are possible:” When we do the work of God, as we seek to love God and neighbor, we encounter new sisters and brothers, mothers and children who are also on that same journey of doing the work of God. In following Jesus, our new family may come to include those whom we would least expect.

As a United Methodist, experience plays an essential role in interpreting and navigating Scripture. Were it not for my work at CIRCLE and the relationships forged there, I would have trouble knowing or sharing the Good News I now hear in Mark 3:32-35 – “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” – and again in today’s text, Mark 10:29-30, we are reminded that through following Jesus we find family not just in the future eschatological promise of resurrection, not just within the four walls of our chapel nave, but in “whoever does the will of God.”

I want to share a story I was introduced to by my colleague Rabbi Or Rose, just a few days after I started my job at CIRCLE. He and Celene Ibrahim, two of CIRCLE’s co-directors, were presenting on a panel about multifaith college chaplaincy at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard as part of the annual meeting of the Association for College and University Religious Affairs. Or related a reflection of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – better known as Reb Zalman – about his time at Boston University, and I immediately knew I had a lot to learn about being a good and “trustworthy” Christian from from this Rabbi.

I relate these words from Reb Zalman’s 2012 memoir, My Life in Jewish Renewal [pages 88-92]:

In the spring of 1955, I was finally ready to embark on educational training to become a B’nai B’rith Hillel rabbi. Ever since Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and I visited Boston University in our first campus outreach for Chabad in the late forties, I had yearned to work in this capacity. It seemed to offer its staff wonderful, creative Jewish opportunities in an intellectual milieu. From Hillel’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., I learned that my smicha (rabbinic ordination) plus a master’s degree would be my entry ticket for a campus position. So I enrolled in Boston University’s pastoral counseling program. Its starting date lay a few months ahead in September, but I needed to complete several preparatory psychology courses during the summer. If all went well, I might eventually be able to earn my doctorate: that was my dream.

Boston University had an excellent academic reputation, but it certainly wasn’t nearby: it was two hours each way from my home in New Bedford. Leaving that first day at 5 a.m., I arrived with enough time to daven morning prayers as I had planned. But where? At that hour, everything on the Charles River campus was closed, except Marsh Chapel at 735 Commonwealth Avenue…

I went inside expectantly, but the ornate main chapel featured wooden statues of Jesus and the four Evangelists. I didn’t feel comfortable even thinking about davening there, so I headed downstairs to the smaller chapel. A cross was prominently displayed above the pulpit – again, not the place for me. Walking over to a small side room, the Daniel Marsh memorabilia room, I put on my tallit and t’fillin; facing east toward Jerusalem, I recited morning prayers and then I took my breakfast. Right after, at 8 a.m., I went to the first of my classes and drove back in the afternoon to New Bedford to teach Hebrew school.

I repeated this routine for several days, when one morning a middle-aged black man peeked inside the downstairs side room where I was davening. “Is there a reason why you don’t pray in the chapel?” I mumbled something about the symbols. To my surprise, the man warmly replied, “When you come back tomorrow, see if you don’t feel more comfortable,” and smiled enigmatically.

The next day, I entered Marsh Chapel and was quite curious about what I would find. In the downstairs chapel, a large white candle was burning, and the Bible on the lectern was open to Psalm 139:7, which says, “Whither shall I flee from thy Presence?” The large cross was no longer where it was the day before but rested on its side against a wall. Feeling very grateful to the janitor, I did my davening right there. When I finished, I replaced the cross in its regular position and turned the Bible to Psalm 100, the thanksgiving psalm – “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to Him, bless His name!” And so, the downstairs chapel became my prayer place from that morning onward…

Soon it was time for me to plan my spring course schedule. A catalogue course titled “Spiritual Disciplines and Resources” caught my eye. Ever since my teenage years in Antwerp, I had been fascinated by the subject of inner growth and studied it avidly with my Hasidic mentors in Brooklyn. However, this time the instructor would be no Hasidic rabbi but Minister Howard Thurman, dean of Marsh Chapel. Although the topic certainly intrigued me, the catalogue indicated that the course would involve “labs,” experimental class activities.

Deep down in my guts I felt anxious about entrusting my soul to a “Christian” – knowing that they all want to convert Jews. Was he open enough to allow me to learn spiritual disciplines and resources to make me a better Jew? AS a pulpit rabbi for several years, I had learned enough to know that such methods require ample trust to be effective, and to do that I wanted to make sure that Minister Thurman was trustworthy – that is, that he wouldn’t try to convert me to Christianity.

At the time, his name meant nothing to me, though he was already famous as a leading theologian and descent of southern slaves…

After making an appointment through Dean Thurman’s secretary, I appeared at his office and knocked on the door. To my amazement, Minister Thurman was none other than the kindly black man whom I had misperceived as the building’s janitor!

Talking over coffee with the dean, I explained that I really wanted to take his course and learn from his experiential methods. But I also confessed that “I’m not sure if my anchor chains are long enough” to relinquish self-control and allow him (a non-Jew) to guide me spiritually. With a pensive expression, he put down his coffee mug. His graceful hands went back and forth, as though mirroring my dilemma. Finally, Howard Thurman looked right at me and said, “Don’t you trust Ruach Hakodesh [holy spirit]?

To hear a non-Jew speak these Hebrew words so eloquently shattered my composure. As though yanked on an invisible chain, I immediately stood up and hurried out of the dean’s office without offering even a word of thanks or good-bye.

It was a profound challenge: Am I a Jew because God wants me to be Jew, or am I a Jew without reference to God? I agonized over my decision for three weeks, and committing myself to be led by God, I registered for Dean Thurman’s course.

“Spiritual Disciplines and Resources” was a tremendous learning experience for me… Under Howard Thurman’s able tutelage, we experimented with a variety of spiritual techniques, including guided meditation. In one memorable exercise, our class was instructed to translate an experience of one sense into another: for example, we would read a biblical psalm several times and then listen to a beautiful meditative Bach composition – in order to “hear” the psalm’s meaning in the sounds of music. In this way, we refined our senses and became better able to experience the divine around us. Beginning the first lab with the reading of Psalm 139, we reflected on it to Bach’s melody. When afterward Thurman played a recording of Max Bruch’s orchestral composition of the ancient Kol Nidre prayer sung on Yom Kippur, I allowed myself to relax. During the course I visited Thurman frequently during office hours to discuss my practice.

Several years passed, and when one of my sons was close to bar mitzvah, I introduced him to Dean Thurman and asked the minister to bless us both. For an instant he seemed surprised, then wordlessly prayed while placing a hand on our shoulders. This profound experience has stayed with me intensely for over fifty years. Decades later, I was moved to learn that Thurman long remembered this soulful encounter between us. In an unpublished part of his autobiography titled With Head and Heart, he wrote, “I’d never been in a position like that before, where the fact of being in the instrumentality of a blessing was so personal and intimate and exclusive. It was not like saying a blessing with a group at a moment of some sort of celebration, but here was the celebration of a common religious experience and a friendship and an affection that existed between two men, each of whom came from a radically different tradition but had met in that zone in which there is no name or label. And standing there I bowed and I prayed. I do not recall any words that were said, but what I do recall is the intensity of the religious experience in that moment, and the transcendent and yet penetrating look in his face when I opened my eyes and found that he from his kneeling position was looking up in my face.”

Now Thurman’s writings had been a vital part of my seminary experience, and he was even required reading in preparation for my own ordination this past summer, but I realized I didn’t really know Thurman or appreciate what his legacy meant to me or Marsh Chapel until I encountered a rabbi who loved Thurman.

So about a month ago, Bob Hill and I were sitting on a park bench behind the College of Arts and Sciences building chatting about the consequences of taking seriously three significant creeds spoken at the chapel regularly: 1) We believe that the Sunday morning liturgy is the heart and heartbeat of a Christian religious community. 2) We believe that we communicate the core values of our faith through liturgy. 3) We believe that we are called by the gospel to be in authentic community with the religious other. That conversation became the genesis of this morning’s liturgy.

Two years ago, Marsh Chapel took the bold move of hiring the first full-time university chaplain for international students in the country. Through that position my friend, the Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, became the university’s de facto multifaith chaplain, at least for the international student community. Her hire was a one way of living into the chapel’s commitment to “be on a journey with students no matter where they come from or where they are going.” Brittany reacquainted the chapel community with practices of hospitality as we extended a warm hand of welcome to students from a variety of religious traditions at various activities through each week of the academic year. Brittany cultivated communities of intentional interaction across cultural and religious differences, and that work continues.

Celene Ibrahim, one of CIRCLE’s co-directors and the Muslim Chaplain at Tufts University, noted this week with enthusiasm that her job is to get people of different faiths “to bump into each other.” We cannot find new sisters and brothers, parents and children if we don’t really, truly engage them. How do we then “bump into the religious other” on a Sunday morning?

At Marsh Chapel, our theme for the year is prayer. You’ll notice that the title of the sermon today references this theme. How are we to pray for or with the religious other? Experience and Thurman both tell me we cannot pray for and we especially cannot pray with the “other” if we don’t know the other, and in coming to know the other, we may find that they are not really the “other” at all, they are in fact our sister or our brother, or a mother or a daughter on the journey of faith.

Bob Hill is fond of reminding us that Thurman was one hundred years ahead of his time 50 years ago. Thurman didn’t use words to pray with his Jewish brothers, and I am not here to suggest a way to find those words today, but I do want invite you to meaningfully “bump into” a new brother or sister in your life this week and learn something new.

Over the course of our many months working together, I’ve “bumped into” Celene a lot. We share office space both that Andover Newton and at Hebrew College, and I’ve learned she prays, a lot. In fact, she probably prays more each day than I do in a week. I didn’t really know about personal piety until I got to know a Muslim who took her faith seriously.

So, as a way to begin this process of bumping into new brothers and sisters on the journey, I have invited two colleagues to share wisdom from their traditions in the language of their traditions as we close today: Benjamin Barer, the Editorial Director of State of Formation, CIRCLE’s online platform for connecting emerging religious and ethical leaders, and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College reminds us of the wisdom in Psalm 90 today and my colleague Shehla Zakaullah, the coordinator of the CIRCLE residential community and alumna of Boston University, offers a reading from the Quran [Q. 49:10-13].

When we hear a sister share from the Quran’s teaching on family, how do we hear the Gospel lesson from Mark differently? When we hear a Jewish brother meditate on the words of the Psalm in light of the pain and suffering of a faith community over hundreds and thousands of years, how do we hear the words from Mark differently?

Psalm 90 in Hebrew

Quran 49:10-13 in Arabic and then in English:

The believers are siblings; so make peace between your siblings, and revere God, such that you receive mercy. / O you who believe! Let not one people deride another; it may be that they are better than them. Let not women deride other women; it may be that they are better than them.  And do not defame yourselves or insult one another with nicknames; how evil is the iniquitous name after [your] having believed! And whosoever does not repent they are the wrongdoers.  / O you who believe!  Shun much conjecture. Indeed, so conjecture is a sin.  And do not spy upon one another, nor backbite one another. Would any of you desire to eat the flesh of a sibling?  You would abhor it.  And revere God. Truly God is Relenting, Merciful.  /  O humankind! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another.  Surely the most noble of you before God are the most reverent of you.  Truly God is Knowing Aware.[1]

As Christians, we are not alone in seeking new sisters and brothers in faith, nor are we alone in our commitment to caring for the lost and the least. Our reasons for seeking one another out as friends and “new family” in God are different and complex, but a similar call resonates throughout our traditions.

Think about inviting the neighbor who observes dietary restrictions you don’t to dinner sometime soon. Learn why their food practices are important and meaningful to them. Have a real conversation about how to provide genuine hospitality. Come to know one another by learning of each other’s deep love of God, and in the encounter find the family you are promised in the gospel lesson today.

As we experience the beauty of each other’s traditions, may we know one another as sisters and brothers, sibling believers who seek to do the will of God, and as the Psalmist writes:

Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!


[1] Adapted by Celene Ibrahim from The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, to be released by Harper Collins Publishers in November 2015.


-The Rev. Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership and Development

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.


Leave a Reply