Metaphors
Sylvia Plath

I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

Meister Eckhart
We are all meant to be mothers of God,
for God is always needing to be born.

Qur’an 19:1-36 (3)
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

A reminder of the Mercy of thy Lord unto His servant, Zachariah, when he cried out to his Lord with a secret cry. He said, “My Lord! Verily my bones have grown feeble, and my head glistens with white hair. And in calling upon

Thee, my Lord, I have never been wretched. Truly I fear my relatives after me, and my wife is barren. So grant me from Thy Presence an heir who will inherit from me and inherit from the House of Jacob. And make him, my Lord, well-pleasing.”

“O Zachariah! Truly We bring thee glad tidings of a boy whose name is John; We have not given this as a name to any before him.” He said, “My Lord! How shall I have a boy, when my wife is barren, and I have grown decrepit with old age?” He said, “Thus shall it be. Thy Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me! I had created thee before, when thou wast nothing!’” He said, “My Lord! Appoint for me a sign.” He said, “Thy sign shall be that thou shalt not speak with men for three nights, [while thou art] sound.”

So he came forth from the sanctuary unto his people, and signaled to them that they should glorify morning and evening. “O John! Take the Book with strength!” And We gave him judgment as a child, and a tenderness from Our Presence, and purity; and he was reverent, and dutiful toward his parents. He was not domineering, rebellious. Peace be upon him the day he was born, and the day he dies, and the day he is raised alive.”

And remember Mary in the Book, when she withdrew from her family to an eastern place. And she veiled herself from them. Then We sent unto her Our Spirit, and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect man. She said, “I seek refuge from thee in the Compassionate, if you are reverent!” He said, “I am but a messenger of thy Lord, to bestow upon thee a pure boy.” She said, “How shall I have a boy when no man has touched me, nor have I been un-chaste?” He said, “Thus shall it be. Thy Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me.’” And [it is thus] that We might make him a sign unto mankind, and a mercy from Us. And it is a matter decreed.”

So she conceived him and withdrew with him to a place far off. And the pangs of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a date palm. She said, “Would that I had died before this and was a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!” So he called out to her from below her, “Grieve not! Thy Lord has placed a rivulet beneath thee. And shake toward thyself the trunk of the date palm; fresh, ripe dates shall fall upon thee. So eat and drink and cool thine eye. And if thou seest any human being, say, ‘Verily I have vowed a fast unto the Compassionate, so I shall not speak this day to any man.’

Then she came with him unto her people, carrying him. They said, “O Mary! Thou hast brought an amazing thing! O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not an evil man, nor was thy mother unchaste.” Then she pointed to him. They said, “How shall we speak to one who is yet a child in the cradle?”

He said, “Truly I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I live, and [has made me] dutiful toward my mother. And He has not made me domineering, wretched. Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am raised alive!”

That is Jesus son of Mary—a statement of the truth, which they doubt. It is not for God to take a child. Glory be to Him! When He decrees a thing, He only says to it, “Be!” and it is. “Truly God is my Lord and your Lord; so worship Him. This is a straight path.”

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We are in the home stretch. It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is coming up fast.

“We’ve boarded the train, there’s no getting off,” writes Sylvia Plath in her poem, Metaphors.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent lectionary texts feature Mary in some way in all three years. Either the announcement from Gabriel to Mary, the angel’s announcement to Joseph about Mary, Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth, or her song, known as “the Magnificat” are read on this Sunday or a combination of the above.

We will honor that tradition. The final hymn will be the Song of Mary based on her own song.

We will honor Mary in a slightly different way. We just heard the story of Mary giving birth to Jesus from the Qur’an. This is Mary or Maryam (peace be upon her) in the Muslim tradition. I hope it will whet your appetite for the Sunday Starter class next year on Jesus (peace be upon him) in the Muslim tradition.

Mary is highly revered by Muslims. All Muslims, including scholars, regard Maryam as the most pious woman and an example of faith. She is regarded as the holiest woman who ever lived. A minority of Muslim scholars even regard Maryam as a prophet, the only female prophet.

Prophets are the most important people and were especially chosen by God to teach the faith of Islam. Adam, Noah, Abraham are all Muslims according to the Qur’an. The beliefs of charity, prayer, pilgrimage, worship of God and fasting are believed to have been taught by every prophet who has ever lived.

Mohammad (peace be upon him) is the seal of the prophets.

As-Shahada is the creed of Islam:

There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.

Jesus, known as Issa, in the Qur’an is a prophet of God. He is not the son of God. The first words of Jesus as an infant in the cradle are

“I am a servant of God. He has given me the book and made me a prophet.”

The Qur’an is clear that Issa or Jesus (peace be upon him) is a prophet like the other prophets. The section on Mary and Jesus concludes:

That is Jesus son of Mary—a statement of the truth, which they doubt. It is not for God to take a child. Glory be to Him! When He decrees a thing, He only says to it, “Be!” and it is.

This last line is regarded to be from Jesus:

“Truly God is my Lord and your Lord; so worship Him. This is a straight path.”

The “they that doubt” refer to Jews and Christians. Jews from the Qur’an’s point of view are in error because they do not regard Jesus as a prophet. Christians are wrong because they call Jesus divine. The phrase “it is not for God to take a child” is found throughout the Qur’an to say that there is no son of God. There is no one begotten of God, all are made by God. Of course, that is a direct rebuttal of the Christian Nicene Creed.

This Surah or chapter sets the record straight. Jesus is a servant of God, a prophet, a messenger and his message is the same as all the prophets, the truth of Islam.

“This is a straight path.”

There are some marvelous ironies. Jesus is believed to have had a miraculous birth. He is a prophet who performed miracles. He will be the one to be he judge on the final day by the law of the Qur’an. Those are some similarities with orthodox Christian views of Jesus.

The irony is that many, not all, but many progressive Christians do not regard Jesus as divine and regard the miracles and claims about Jesus as son of God and so forth as metaphor or legend.

Muslims believe more supernatural things about Jesus than do progressive Christians.

Another interesting irony is that many contemporary Muslim scholars appreciate the work of the Jesus Seminar, that is the study of the historical Jesus. However, most Muslim scholars reject Western historical-critical methods when it comes to the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is not like the Bible. The Qur’an theologically is the Word of God, spoken by God through Mohammad, a perfect revelation. For orthodox Christians, Jesus is the Word of God, a perfect revelation. Jesus in Christianity is like the Qur’an in Islam.

That is how important the Qur’an is for Muslims. It is like saying Jesus is the Word of God for Christians. That is what is at stake. For Muslims there is a devotional relationship to the Qur’an. You memorize the Qur’an in Arabic. You are close to it. It lives within you. They are the first words you hear when you are born and the last you hear when you die. The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in Arabic. An English translation is not the Qur’an but a translation of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is God speaking to you, addressing you.

It is almost like Christians who have a personal relationship with Jesus. So Muslims have a personal relationship with God through the Qur’an and of course respond through the five pillars of Islam:

1. as-shahada or the creed, There is one God and Mohammad is his prophet
2. prayer,, five times a day
3. almsgiving,
4. fasting,
5. and the Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca.

For Western scholars to ask of Muslims to use Western Historical-Critical methods to find the historical Mohammad or to evaluate the Qur’an as a human book would be like asking Christians to give up on Jesus as Divine. Can you be a Christian if you do that? Most Christians don’t think of Christians who do that as Christian for that very reason. That is what is at stake and that is why there is much resistance by Muslim scholars to go that way to regard the Qur’an as a human book. If you go there are you Muslim any longer?

Interesting ironies.

For those of us who are heretics in every tradition, foolishly we tread to evaluate sacred texts and traditions from a human point of view. When I read this beautiful story of Mary by the palm tree and a voice from below calls out to Mary,

“Grieve not! Thy Lord has placed a rivulet beneath thee. And shake toward thyself the trunk of the date palm; fresh, ripe dates shall fall upon thee. So eat and drink and cool thine eye.”

That sounds like the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew. We are going to read from that Gospel on Christmas Eve. These are stories of the birth of Jesus. In this story written several centuries after the birth of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus are on their way to Egypt to escape Herod. Here is the story:

And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast. And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle. Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed.

This story was inspiration for the Cherry Tree Carol which you will also hear on Christmas Eve. You can see from a literary point of view the sharing of that story with the story in the Qur’an.

Christians who enjoy battling with Muslims love to point this out in an attempt to “prove” that the Muslims are wrong and they are right. Conversely, Christians don’t like it pointed out that virtually every story about Jesus has a literary parallel in the Hebrew scriptures. For instance, Jesus escaping Herod’s sword is likely a fiction based on Moses escaping Pharoah’s sword. You can go on-line and watch the two groups battle it out in chat rooms.

This brings up a challenge. How do we have a respectful conversation, build important bridges, accept another’s point of view and yet speak our own truth as well?

It is the same challenge within our faith traditions as it is between them. Probably, if we can help it, we don’t start with the sharpest disagreements. We might start with the things with which we share in common. When we discover another’s sacred text, tradition, or belief we try to hear it from their point of view and see what is beautiful, good, and true in it, even as we may approach things differently.

A helpful way for Christians to approach the Qur’an is to read a respected translation and commentary. The New Study Qur’an has now been published by Harper. That is the translation I used in the bulletin today. I had a chance to interview the general editor, Joseph Lumbard about it. I am doing a series of shows on Islam.

In the commentary on this chapter it notes that the word Compassionate is used for God. One third of all references to God in the Qur’an as “the Compassionate” occur in this chapter. Of the ninety-nine names for God in Islam “the Compassionate” is featured in this Surah about Mary and Jesus. Sixteen times in this Surah, God is called “the Compassionate.”

In both Hebrew and Arabic the root word for womb is Rechem in Hebrew or Raham in Arabic. It is the same as that for compassion. The compassion a mother has for her child is womb-love. Mercy, compassion, a name for God.

The stories themselves reveal the character of God.

In this story in the Qur’an, Mary goes away to a deserted place and a veil a hijab is placed between her and her family. This what prophets do, including Mohammad, to be set apart to receive a revelation. Maryam’s hijab or veil symbolizes her holiness, her set apart time, her closeness to God.

While she apart in a holy, sacred place, the spirit of God comes to her. This spirit in human form, believed to be Gabriel speaks to her that she will have a pure boy. She is astonished as she is in the gospels, “How can I when I am chaste and been with no man.” The angel says that God just says it and it is.

She becomes pregnant and while under a date palm goes into labor. She cries out in aguish which is the anguish of prophets who have an important task given to them by God that will also put them at risk with other human beings. In Maryam’s case it is giving birth without a husband. All the prophets have something to bear. There is a personal cost in receiving a revelation and being charged to deliver it. Maryam witnesses to “the Compassionate” by giving birth to a witness, Issa, or Jesus.

While she is in distress a voice tells her to “Grieve not.” Is this voice the angel or is it Jesus newly born? The text is not clear. Commentators differ about this. But the instruction is that there is a river and date palms. Shake the tree, he says to Maryam. She is refreshed. “Cool thine eye” is a phrase meaning to be refreshed.

He then tells her to take a vow of silence so she won’t have to defend herself to her family. She sees them with her boy, and they raise an eyebrow.

“Hey Maryam, what gives? Your father wasn’t evil and your mother was chaste. What is up with you?”

Maryam points to Jesus and he speaks.

“Truly I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I live, and [has made me] dutiful toward my mother. And He has not made me domineering, wretched. Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am raised alive!”

In other words, I am a prophet. Don’t mess with me and don’t mess with my mama.

What I take away from this story is that Compassion is the link between Jesus and thus Christians and Muslims. Born of compassion is Jesus. Womb-love. Whatever we mean when we think of God, compassion is God’s character. That character is revealed at the birth of Jesus.

Mary’s womb is the place where the compassionate prophet is revealed, and thus a name for God also revealed.

The 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart said:

We are all meant to be mothers of God,
for God is always needing to be born.

I take this story from the Qur’an as revelation. Regardless of how we conceptually think of God, or how we interpret our religious beliefs, we can take away the truth that humans have the capacity to discover and even give birth to compassion and nurture compassion.

Perhaps we are most human when we are compassionate or most reflect the divine image. Islam when it is true to itself and Christianity when it is true to itself are faiths that embody compassion.

It is easy to see the faults and distortions of our respective religions. What unites us and what our gift is to the world is the hope that we can live with compassion and mercy with one another.

People often want to talk about the true meaning of Christmas. I think we can look to the Qur’an as much as we look to the Bible. Christmas is where compassion and mercy shine in the darkness. It is refreshment like date palms and a pure stream.

May you receive the light and refreshment of compassion and share it with others.

Amen.