Religious Radicals (Sermon for Ordinary Time Proper 19, year B)

Jesus and his disciples are on the road this morning.  The visual is important.  In the story you have Jesus, the disciples, and what Mark refers to as the “crowd.”  Jesus has a bit of a posse, a bit of an entourage.  They’re walking down a long dusty footpath from Bethsaida to Cesarea Phillipi, climbing up to the Golan heights.    On the road, Jesus decides that he has some explaining to do to those closest to him, the followers he has called into this ministry.  Maybe they’re together in a cluster, far enough ahead of “the crowd” to be out of earshot.  So far his ministry has been about healing and feeding.  He’s taught a little bit, told them the parable of the sowers.  He walked on water and calmed a storm, that was weird.  Jesus described the Kingdom of God.  But so far, Jesus, has not told them where this, this mission they are all on together, where this is all headed.
Like any good teacher, he begins with a question: “Who do people say that I am?” which leads to another, more important question: “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter gets the answer right, “You are the Messiah!”  But Jesus sternly tells them all not to say that word, that politically charged word.  You see, people were looking for a messiah.  The prophets promised that a savior would come, and rescue the people from the rule of foreign oppressors.  The messiah was supposed to come and lead a military campaign against Rome, remove the empire, and begin to reign over Israel.  The word had weight.

What Jesus says next is confounding.  He admits to being the messiah, and then says that the messiah must die.  Peter, ever the good student, pulls him aside.  Notice, Peter pulls him off the path.  He takes him off the road for a moment.  Peter was the first one with the right answer before, and he’s ready to explain to the teacher that the teacher has it wrong.  That’s not how it goes.  The messiah doesn’t die.  The messiah reigns on high, triumphant!  Jesus responds with that famous stinging retort: “Get behind me Satan.”

      “Get behind me Satan.”  The words call Peter a tempter.  That’s the literal translation of satan, “the tempter.”  The role of the devil is specific in the Hebrew and Arabic mind.  That tempting is a common theme in the stories of the Bible, in the stories of prophets and teachers.  Even in the story of the prophet Muhammad, this idea of the tempter, satan arises.

The story about Muhammad and the devil was told in this week’s The New Yorker.  The writer explains the context in which the new religion of Islam was being born.  A nomadic people had just begun to settle down permanently.  The new city of Mecca was prosperous.  Much of Mecca’s financial power came from important temples to three goddesses which stood outside the gates.  The temples were controlled by Mecca’s ruling families, and the offerings made by passing caravans served as fantastic tax revenue.

In the new cities there was a new problem: homelessness and hunger.  In the caravan, this problem did not exist.  You did not leave people behind.  The nomads took care of each other.  The umbrella of extended families, headed by matriarchal leaders, made sure that even orphans were cared for.  Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the man who would become “The Prophet” worried about the growing numbers of hungry and holy people as he walked past the temples to the goddesses on his way to Mt. Hira

On Mt. Hira, Muhammad would retreat from the busyness and poverty of Mecca.  He would spend weeks at a time holed up in the solitude of a cave.  It was at Mt. Hira that the Angel Gabriel appeared and ordered him to recite the verses that would become the holy book of Islam.  According to the New Yorker article, “The ethos of the Koran, the value system it endorses, was, in essence, the vanishing code of nomadic Arabs, the matriarchal, more caring society that did not leave orphans out in the cold.”  The people who would first embrace Islam, would form a new community around the prophet, were the hungry and homeless of Mecca, left out in the cold by the ruling elite who controlled the official religion.

The story of Muhammad and the shaitan, the tempter, satan in English, centers around the revenue generating temples of Mecca.  You see in the polytheistic Arabian Peninsula in the sixth and seventh century, another sect around another God was not a problem as long as the new God didn’t compromise the offerings/taxes that were flowing into the coffers of the temples in Mecca.  According to legend, which goes back to at least the ninth century, one day Mohammed came back from the mountain one day that said that the temples should be honored.  The temples’ “goddesses” were called “lovely birds” and their intercession was desired.  Translation: Mohammed came with a verse in the Koran that validated the offerings to the temples of Mecca.  The revenue streams were secure, the new religion was not a threat.

      Later Mohammed returns to the mountain and comes back embarrassed.  He orders that the verses must be removed from the Koran.  It turns out the prophet had been tricked by Satan, and had misunderstood his whisperings as God’s voice.  The Koran should read that these goddesses are just “names you and your fathers have invented: God has vested no authority in them.”  The author of the article wants us to ask, why Mohammad would have changed his mind about the verses.  Was it possible that at first the prophet thought his new religion might be able to support the rulers of his day, only to realize later that this vision was fantasy?  Did he avoid conflict by not condemning the temples early on?  Did the prophet give into temptation for awhile?  Listen to the voice of the tempter that offered an easier road than one of open conflict with the ruling elite.

This is the story of the “Satanic verses.”  The author of the article in this week’s New Yorker is Salman Rushdie, who in 1988 published a novel called “The Satanic verses,” based partly on the story.  His novel was called blasphemy.  His imagining of the prophet’s temptation gave rise to outstanding anger in the Islamic world.  For years, Rushdie needed state security protection in his home country of Great Britain after the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued an order for him to be killed.  The protests led to murders and massacres which shocked the world.

      Much as the world was shocked this week when protests over a film produced in the United States served as cover for the attack on the US Embassy that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans.  The tragedy was terrible, and we ask that you remember Ambassador Stevens, his family, all those who were affected, and the people of Libya in your prayers today.

As I read the article by Salman Rushdie, and saw the stories coming out of Libya, I was struck by an important difference in our times from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  When the riots in the street were happening in response to the “Satanic verses,” we saw in the paper and on the news similar angry crowds.  But we would not have seen the images of other, regular Libyans, everyday people uploaded on Facebook and Twitter, holding up signs that said “We are sorry America.  We also loved Ambassador Stevens.  This is not the message of Islam and our Prophet.”  If you haven’t seen the hundreds of photos of Libyans holding up signs with these messages, Google when you get home.  Regular people proclaiming “Islam is against terrorism” and getting millions of views, show that the internet can be a powerful tool for good.


(Photo from…click to see a slideshow.)

      The protests and death threats that came as a response to Rushdie’s book, missed his profound respect for the prophet Muhammad, a man who resisted the tempter.  The prophet replaced the satanic verses with verses that brought him into open conflict with the powerful leaders of Mecca.  Muhammad, in the end, did not give into a lesser vision.  The temptation was for a religion that was less challenging, less transformative of a society that desperately needed reforming.

This brings us back to Jesus on the road with Peter.  I hope you knew that I was going to get back to Jesus.  Kaye, on our staff, says my sermons often cause her to wonder where I’m going.  I’m a bit of a prodigal preacher, away on long wanders, but now we’re going to bring it home.  So, back to Jesus: Why does Jesus call him Satan?  Is it, perhaps, because Peter is offering him an easier road?  Just like the story that occurs earlier in Mark, the story of the temptation, where the devil offers Jesus worldly success, is Peter offering a different, less challenging vision to Jesus?

      I think that may be exactly what is going on.  The “human things” that Peter’s mind is meditating on, comfort, power, prestige, are far from what Jesus and the disciples will find down the road.  Jesus does not want to compromise.  Jesus wants religious radicals.  He wants his followers to be radicals.  Listen to what he says, you have to take up your cross, your instrument of torture, and follow me.  Jesus wants radicals.

I think Muhammad wanted radicals as well, people who would submit to God’s rule of justice and inclusion over and against the exclusion of the society which was leaving orphans out in the cold.  Blowing something up does not make you a religious radical.  Killing for the glory of your religion doesn’t make you a follower of Jesus or of Muhammad.  Hate is not radical.  Hate is too commonplace.  Love is radical.  Justice is radical.

It is far more radical to give your life, to give your waking hours, to give your time and your labor and your treasure to combating the satanic forces of poverty and injustice in this world.  It is far more radical to sit down with someone our society casts out, because you follow a leader who ate with outcasts and sinners.  Our world needs religious radicals, Christians and Muslims, willing to work together so that our world is a little more loving and a little more just.

Maybe that is why Jesus couldn’t let Peter
take him off that radical road, why he told him to get behind him, to follow in
line.  Jesus knew the world needed Peter, a radical Peter who was willing
to spend his life proclaiming the Gospel, the Good News of God’s love and care
for our world.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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