This past weekend, a neighbor asked me, “So, what do Muslims do to celebrate Christmas?” I was delighted to answer: Any Muslim from the Polaris Masjid (Mosque) Islamic Center in Lewis Center celebrated Christmas this year with a rather Jesus-centered ministry.
Yes, indeed! This Muslim congregation covered for their Christian sisters and brothers over Christmas at the Family Promise House in Delaware! They prepared and delivered warm meals to the many families there, as well as to multiple others Promise House is hosting in nearby hotels and motels during the housing crunch this year.
For me, this act of Muslim love and care connects two Biblical narratives rarely, if ever, linked: The story of Jesus’ holy birth under the bright star (Luke 2), and that startling story of Saul, who finally saw the light on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). In both stories, God’s outer light blinded humans outwardly so that they could see only God’s inner light. Our outer masks blinded us, but God’s greater light demasked us. In both stories, God’s power operated best from the back row; the back street; the back barnyard stable; the broken back of the beaten down; the least of those among us.
I already have secure reservations in the Bethlehem hotel. So these two Biblical stories hit me hard: I who am wealthy, white, and “with it” have already missed it! God’s Gospel reports: God’s big party is not here in the ballroom of the Bethlehem Hotel, it is back there in the barn, among the smelly animals and the humble, working poor.
That “other” religious group we have loved to hate so intensely? Already linked into God’s greater love vision! (See the holy Quran, chapter 19: Mary as the holy mother of the messiah, Jesus.)
That ragtag family with so many kids? Parents unemployed and homeless? Nowhere to go but down? Already embraced by the loving care of our local faith communities – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and so many others right here in Delaware!
So let’s go back to this past weekend: Just what is our personal opinion of the people who received those meals from our Muslim sisters and brothers? Do we think of them as deadbeats? Losers? Invisible? A drag on our local resources?
What would Jesus say to us about this? Could we truly look Jesus in the eye and tell Him what we think of the homeless families in our community?
From my nearly five decades as a university chaplain, I have learned to listen to young people about such matters. A recent acquaintance, Chris Rapier, a young research scientist/engineer, sent me a missive recently that blinded my eyes wide open, like Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus. Chris wrote to say that the most radical part of Jesus’ ministry was his answer to the question, what is the most important law? Love God, and then love each other as you love yourself. Radically different, he said, from the interfaith Golden Rule (generically passive: don’t harm people). Jesus said: Actively love each other! That is the totality of Jesus’ life and witness.
One of my dearest brothers in Christ, Delaware County Sheriff Russell Martin, recently commented on the work and witness of our interfaith Promise House ministry: “I have seen the power of second chances, forgiveness, redemption, and hope. People do break the poverty cycle, overcome addiction, and turn their lives around. It is often because of others who believed in them and lifted them up when they were struggling. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to support others, I pray we all never cease, because it is what God calls us to do.”
This is the story of our behind-in-the-barn-born Jesus. This is the story of our now hero, the hate-filled Saul on the road to Damascus. May it be our story, as well? Blessed be.
The Rev. Jon R. Powers is chaplain emeritus at Ohio Wesleyan University.