A sermon by Rev Abhishek Solomon
A couple of weeks ago I had a fascinating conversation with Alisha (7) and Serena (5). On our way to school one morning, Serena, out of the blue, says that "daddy, Alisha does not believe in the Bible." To which I reply, "What do you mean by that? Can you tell me more about it?"
I could not even finish my sentence when Serena enthusiastically jumped in with her response, "Alisha told me that she doesn’t believe that God made the world."
As was expected, Alisha defended her position. "I don't think the Bible is correct about how the world was made. I went to the museum where I learnt about the big bang. I believe that the big bang created the world. Science explains us better how the world was made, not the Bible."
After a brief silence, Alisha extends her point, saying, "well, there might be a chance that God is behind the big bang and the big bang is behind the world. To it, Serena added, "Yes, maybe God made the big bang, and the big bang made the world."
Before I can seek more clarity about this causal chain they have worked out, Alisha made another comment that left me dumbfounded. She said, "I still believe that a lot of the Bible is a fib." Now at this point, I am thinking, where did you get this? Who have you been speaking with? What is going on in your head?
Out of my intrigue, I asked Alisha to elaborate more.
Without any hesitation, she explained: "When I went to my friend's place for a sleepover, we talked about the Bible. My friend told me that she learnt at her Sunday school, it is written in the Bible that God cursed some people."
So, "what is the problem with that? I asked"
She did not hesitate but replied, "I don't believe that God will curse anyone because God loves everyone. So, some of the Bible is true, and some of the Bible is fib." Our conversation concluded with Alisha emphasizing her point with discernable enthusiasm, "I can't believe all of the Bible because God will definitely not curse people. So, some of the Bible is true, and some of it is fibbing."
This intriguing conversation attests to what Paul is trying to communicate to the Christian community in Rome, reminding them what the true nature of faith looks like.
Paul begins with a glimpse of history. "Abraham", he says, "is the father of us all". To us it may not seem so, but these are contentious words. All sorts of people would have read or listened to the letter. Each of them would lay claim that they are a part of Abraham's family because of their name or lineage or childhood religion in which they were born.
On the other hand, the same people would have been quick to point out to others that "this person, sitting next to me, is not the same, because they are Greek or Roman. In contrast, "I am a Jew. I am one of Abraham's children. I am a rightful son or daughter of Abraham because I must be. I was born into it."
This reminds me of a good old Jewish joke loved by a French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who himself was a Jew. It’s about a group of Jews in a synagogue, publicly admitting their nothingness in the eyes of God.
First, a rabbi stands up and says: "0, God, I know I am worthless, I am nothing!"
After he has finished, a rich businessman, a prominent member of the synagogue, stands up and says, beating himself on the chest: "0, God, I am also worthless, obsessed with material wealth, I am nothing! "
After this spectacle, a mere gentile visitor also stands up and proclaims: "0, God, I am nothing . . ."
The rich businessman kicks the
rabbi and whispers in his ear with disdain: "What insolence! Who is that guy who dares to claim that he too is nothing!"
One can imagine a similar scene in Rome, people pointing fingers at each other while laying exclusive claim to Abraham's faith.
Paul, however, throws a twist into this. For him, faith is less about what we must be or what we must do. Righteousness is not a birthright. Instead, it is more about what we could be if we understand the true nature of our faith. That is to believe that we can be a part of God's family and create a community of faith for all to belong despite our weaknesses, our biases, and our inadequacies.
For Paul, the prime characteristic of a community of faith is that the barriers across race and socioeconomic classes are banished. And when that happens, the life of faith regains its fluidity, and the community of Christ is born. Faith in God, claims Paul, not in rigid rules, is the glue that holds a community together. Such a claim makes it possible for Paul to put Jews and non-Jews on an equal footing. What matters for both is faith.
Let me conclude this reflection with a parable I learnt while attending Ecumenical Institute in Thailand in 2016.
A Buddhist monk shared a parable with us about a nun, who one day approached a great Buddhist patriarch with a question if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.
"I am illiterate," the patriarch replied, "but perhaps if you could read the words to me, I could understand the truth that lies behind them." In disbelief, the nun responded, "If you do not know the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?"
After a brief pause, the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: "Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon's location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger."
Similarly, Paul wants us to know that being right with God is nothing to do with a reliance on the law. While necessary for the growth of faith, the Mosaic Law is only fingers pointing to the moon. And if not careful, it can readily become stumbling blocks. Relationship with sacred, Paul insists, is a matter of faith, not a birthright.
Maybe we do fib ourselves when we put our faith in objects and things, books, and ideas. While they may be necessary, they are only fingers pointing to the moon.
May this season of Lent be a time for us to pause and reflect on things we hastily place our trust in at the cost of relying on humble yet redemptive faith. While one serves to perpetuate division and alienation, the other open windows where there were once walls. Thanks be to God.