Sunday, September 14, 2008


August 2008

Through an extraordinary stroke of good fortune, I had been invited to join a think tank exploring cutting edge issues in interfaith dialogue, sponsored by the World Council of Churches. For two consecutive summers, I have had the remarkable experience of traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, to meet with this exceptional group of people: a senior Jewish educator from Jerusalem, a progressive imam and Islamic scholar from South Africa, a Buddhist professor of conflict resolution from Thailand, a professor of Hinduism from India and Trinidad, a senior leader of the Presbyterian Church in the US, an internationally known Christian scholar and leader of the interfaith dialogue movement, and a Buddhist monk and scholar from Sri Lanka wearing bright orange robes, among others. Now with this group for the second time, I was thrilled by the opportunity to develop my identity as a citizen of the world, listening and learning about how the world looks from parts of the globe far beyond my own experience and perspective.

As our four days of work drew to a close, we were treated to an outing: a hike in the hills outside Geneva and a festive dinner together. We set out on our hike, expecting to find a path in the hills set aside as a place for contemplation, with texts by great spiritual teachers planted at various points along the way. It sounded like a wonderful thing to do with this group, and so we hiked. And hiked and hiked – uphill. We were a good-natured group, enjoying one another's company, offering pseudo-theological explanations for why the expected spiritual texts continued to elude us. Finally we reached the top of the hill, and it was clear that we were not going to find the rumored signs. Several people mused about how spiritual "texts" may have been present for us on our walk together, but not in the physical form we had expected. Suddenly beautiful words began to pour forth from Thomas, a prominent Christian scholar and theologian from India, as he pointed to the greenery around us.

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? "Therefore do not worry, saying, "What shall we eat?' or "What shall we drink?' or "What shall we wear?' . . . For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."

I was stunned at the beauty of Thomas' words. My knowledge of the New Testament is woefully lacking, and I knew Thomas to be a person of great eloquence. So I paused, deeply moved by the suggestion of his words that the "texts" had been all around us throughout our hike together, in the beautiful plants we had seen, the glorious beauty of our surroundings, in the blessings of our friendships and our shared work. Yet his words – they had such a ring to them – had perhaps exceeded what even Thomas could have created in the moment. I swallowed my pride and asked, "Did you just make that up?" My Jewish friend, with decades of interfaith dialogue work in her background, was quick to point out that Thomas had been quoting a passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:28-34). Thomas laughed, his whole face lighting up with delight, graciously accepting my ignorance of his sacred text. No, Thomas said, he would not have been able to make up those words. He laughed in a self-deprecating tone about the way in which he had been educated to memorize large chunks of the Bible when he was a child. "You learned this text when you were a child from your Bible," I said to Thomas, "but I just received it, right here on this mountain top, from you. I will treasure it as a gift from you."

On a mountaintop outside Geneva, with my new friends, spanning four continents and five world religions, I had received the blessing of a beautiful walk in the woods and an introduction to one of the great sacred texts in the history of religion, the Sermon on the Mount. At the perfect moment, Thomas had shared his beloved text with me, transforming a light-hearted afternoon with friends into a sacred pilgrimage. I will always have a special relationship with the Sermon on the Mount, for I learned it at a special moment in my own life, with gratitude.

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