Culture of Encounter, by Pastor Kinsey
“Dear Friends, I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero,” Pope Francis began his remarks on Friday, …here “where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction. Here grief is palpable.
“A few moments ago I met some of the families of the fallen first responders,” said the leader of Roman Catholicism. “Meeting them made me see once again, how acts of destruction are never impersonal, abstract or merely material. They always have a face; a concrete story; names. In those family members, we see the face of pain, a pain which still touches us and cries out to heaven.”
And the “heaven” that Pope Francis envisions, is a very life-affirming and inclusive heaven. Leaders from many major faith traditions: Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, as well as Orthodox Christian, were on stage with him at the 911 Memorial Museum. What a remarkable statement to make. Not so much in words, as in symbol and act – a ‘culture of encounter.’
Here at Ground Zero, where so much of America in 2001 quickly turned their scant knowledge of Islam into Islamaphobia and hatred, Pope Francis transformed his stage into an act of outreach and beauty towards Muslims and all people of faith. Francis may not have changed the doctrine of closed communion within the Roman Catholic Church, but he has gone out his way to say that ‘all religions are true’ and demonstrated it this past Friday, in his willingness to pray with people of all major faith traditions.
Sayyid M. Syeed, an imam who works with the Islamic Society of North America said, “Francis’ visit is even more important for Muslims than it is for Catholics. This pope,” the imam said, “is our pope.”
Francis takes his name, of course, from that 13 century saint, Francis of Assisi, who deserted the military and renounced violence, in the time of the Crusades. Saint Francis once counseled Christians to stop their violence against Muslims, at a time as difficult as ours is, to find peace. Jesus said, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
In our gospel reading today, the disciples ramp up their competitive nature and complain to Jesus that there is a ‘maverick exorcist,’(Ched Myers) they think Jesus should stop. ‘If he’s not following us, how can we approve? How can he not be a threat to us?’ they say.
But Jesus has no problem with this type of rogue healer. There is not, a limited amount of God’s power to go around, like a bottle of olive oil that will someday run dry. God’s love never ends, and healing in Jesus name can only produce good, and reflect well on healer, and those who are made well. “Whoever is not against us, is for us,” Jesus tells them. “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
A striking picture of Francis, taken shortly after his elevation to pope in 2013, showed him washing the feet of an imprisoned Muslim woman – which is a kind of interfaith twist, on our Maundy Thursday tradition.
Pope Francis, even before he became Pope, was reaching out in this way. He was one of the first public figures to sign a petition calling for justice over the 1994 hate crime that killed more than a hundred Jews, in his native Buenos Aires. Soon after, he became fast friends with Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka. Francis and Rabbi Skorka co-authored a book together, and even co-hosted a television program. In fact, the rabbi has been seen making frequent trips across the Atlantic to continue to visit his friend at the Vatican.
Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh explains, that rather than conventional interfaith dialogue, Pope Francis is interested in what he calls the ‘culture of encounter,’ building trust with another person, instead of trying to convert them. When you create space for the Holy Spirit to act, then God can use that to unite people, whether they are of the same faith or not.
When Kim and I were in NY a couple years ago, we took time to visit the 9/11 Memorial site, even before the Museum was completed. But the pools at Ground Zero, where the Pope, with Cardinal Dolan, prayed and laid a white rose, were already completed. Viewing the pools in person is deeply moving, the way they invoke the falling-in of the Twin Towers, as water cascades quickly and powerfully from ground level, down many stories below, along dark marble walls to a bottom you can barely see. It can bring it all back.
And as the Pope said in his remarks, “The flowing water is also a symbol of our tears. Tears at so much devastation and ruin, past and present. This is a place where we shed tears, we weep out of a sense of helplessness in the face of injustice, murder, and the failure to settle conflicts through dialogue. Here we mourn the wrongful and senseless loss of innocent lives because of the inability to find solutions which respect the common good. This flowing water reminds us of yesterday’s tears, but also, of all the tears still being shed today.”
We believe that, from water comes life. Not only biologically, but sacramentally, in our baptisms – it is water in which we are cleansed, and re-born children of God. The water of the 9/11 Memorial Pools are not baptismal waters, but waters of tear’s, the remembrance of grief, and our failure to reach out from faith and love to find common ground, without the need for violence.
Are there ways in which we as Americans made a ‘culture of encounter’ difficult before 9/11, or after? Are there ways we could support peace now in reaching out as Christians?
“Truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
The disciples object to the maverick exorcist because he is not following them! Once again the disciples fail to “get it,” in Mark’s gospel. Aren’t the disciples supposed to be the ones who are the followers of Jesus, as their name implies!? Are they still consumed with determining who among them is the greatest, and next in line, to Jesus? Now they even seem to think they are already on par with Jesus, that they should be followed. But they are not yet ready to bear the name of Christ; the name of the Messiah, as Jesus asks in a humble “culture of encounter.”
So Jesus strongly reminds the disciples how deadly it is to put a stumbling block before other believers. If your foot, or your eye, causes anyone else to stumble in their faith, like your desire to stop this rogue healer, it’s on you, you are responsible. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God, without them.
“Everyone will be salted with fire,” said Jesus. “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Pope Francis, in another first, perhaps, has shared interfaith Christmas Eve Mass with Jewish friends, and always, it is said, making sure the wine is kosher! These gestures of openness go to the very source of Christianity, we could say, back to Jesus, who was radically open to others, anyone who was not against him, encouraging extreme humbleness, in the gift of a cup of water to drink, a gesture worthy of an eternal reward.
We are followers of this Messiah – disciples – unafraid to learn from others, as well as share our faith, in a ‘culture of encounter,’ where we find that the Holy Spirit is already active, amidst our tears – which wash and transform – allowing us to also experience joy, in the diverse world God has created with many religions – and hopeful for a very life-giving and inclusive heaven.