A Small Room With Room Enough for All (sermon)

Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

Hosted by Temple B’nai Shalom

East Brunswick, New Jersey

November 22, 2016

to see video click here

GaHave any of you, say, in the past month been in an airport? Let’s see a raise of hands. How about plans to be in an airport in the coming month?

In early November, I flew from here to there and then from there to another there, just further south and not so far west, and then after a week’s time, I flew back here. Five airports in all. I wasn’t in any of them for very long, particularly O’Hare, where I was for no more than eighteen minutes, 17 ¾ of which I spent running the length of two concourses in order to not miss my plane. Which thankfully I did not. Whew.

One of the airports was Charlotte, North Carolina, on my way back from Knoxville, Tennessee. My layover was a luxurious two hours. As I sauntered from one concourse to that of my connecting flight, I spied a sign that read, “Chapel.” It reminded me that I had not yet meditated that day and so I proceeded in search of sacred space set aside for travelers in need of prayer, contemplation, and quiet.

The path to the chapel was well-marked, for which I was quite thankful. I had once had the experience in the Houston airport, with a FIVE hour layover, looking and looking for the chapel, asking employees of the airport, finding little help, until I happened upon it after nearly giving up.

That wasn’t the case in the Charlotte airport. It did take awhile, after walking in corridors I was sure I did not belong, but that’s where the signs pointed me. Finally, I arrived.

One could not call the chapel “spacious,” but still, it was quiet, and set aside from the hub-bub of airport traffic: just perfect for my purpose.

I peered through the glass window and saw one person: a Muslim man on a prayer rug in a very snug –we could call it cozy — space. As I know to be true, in Islam it is traditional to have separate space for men and women to pray. I did not want to disturb him as he made salaat. So I waited. Happily.

Perhaps this is true for you, but when I am a visitor to a house of worship of a faith tradition different than mine, I try to learn and follow the customs. In my brother’s egalitarian shul, I wear a kipaa like the other women do. When visiting Friday Juma’a prayers at the mosque of friends, I wear a scarf to cover my head (and allow the women to fuss over it to make sure it stays in place).

I do this, even though it is not my faith’s tradition. I do this, even though it is my faith’s custom to be inclusive around gender, setting no separate boundaries in where we worship, how we lead, or who are clergy are. I do this, even though it is my faith’s custom to be radically inclusive in our understanding of gender, that it exists on a continuum rather than just in binary form.

This learning and respecting each other is the shared world I want to be a part of. This is the shared world I want to build together with you: where our faiths and traditions meet, are honored, are given opportunities for co-existence, holding out the possibility of life-affirming surprises when our shared lives are woven together.

This is the shared world I want to be a part of: where we bring humility, curiosity, and a strong dose of what the Bishop of Sweden, the late Krister Stendahl, called, “holy envy.” Holy envy is a deep appreciation for something not found in your own faith tradition, but found in that of another’s. It requires a spiritual maturity and strong sense of security in one’s own religious tradition, and it allows for life-affirming surprises, the kind of which we are in desperate need these days.

Of course there had been other people in that chapel before that man entered or after I left. Hundreds, probably thousands just in the space of a year’s time. Jews from this country or from abroad. Hindus or Bahai. Sikh or Catholic. Buddhists, spiritual seekers, Mormons, Coptic Christians, or any from the array of Protestant denominations. A small room with room enough for all.

There is a wonderful story poem from the Palestinian-American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, one of the kindest women I have ever met. In the story, Naomi encounters a wailing woman, dressed in Old World clothes, at the gate where their shared flight has just been delayed. The airline staff person does not know why the woman is being so, well, troublesome.

“What is her problem?” and then, “Please help.”

Naomi, whose first language is English, speaks to the old woman in halting Arabic.   And now the story continues in the author’s own voice:

The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “You’re fine, you’ll get there, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her – [we were flying] Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for fun. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.

Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions.

As the story continues, the woman pulls out of her bag mamool cookies – traditional for the part of the world she calls home. They are made of dates, nuts, and powdered sugar. She offers them widely. Again, we return to the story, to the poet’s amazement:

… not a single [person] declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo – we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie. And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar too.

Holding hands with the old woman, at this point, Naomi reflects

…I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in.  The shared world. Not a single person in this gate – once the crying of confusion stopped – seemed apprehensive about any other person. …. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

This story reminds me of this prayer from a minister from my own Unitarian Universalist tradition, the Reverend Kathleen McTigue:

We do not seek a unity that would deny our differences.

We seek rather a deeper union,

A union woven through choice and intent,

Through time and attention,

Through respect and compassion,

Until we recognize that we have become a whole cloth,

A cloth made rich and textured and vibrant

Through our differences.

Each of us can hear, in the beating of our own hearts,

The ancient rhythm of the loom at work.

We are woven together.

We are bound to one another.

We belong to and with each other.

We need to create that shared world, that woven world. Through interfaith relationships, through community dinners (or desserts), through connections with other houses of worship, through coming to the aid of someone suffering, through companioning someone who is filled to bursting with delight, through learning each others’ histories, through cultivating holy envy in ourselves and among our kin.

We can’t wait on someone else to create this shared world. We can’t wait until we have what we think is the full story, or all the right knowledge or a guarantee of avoiding accidental offense. It is up to us here. It is up to us now.

This is the world I want to live in.

The shared world.

This can still happen anywhere.

Not everything is lost.

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