30th September, 2018
A few weeks ago I joined members of our local synagogue for their Friday night prayers as they began their weekly celebration of the Sabbath. I went at the invitation of their visiting rabbi who was here from Jerusalem to celebrate the beginning of the Jewish year and to mark two of their holiest festivals of the year.
As part of that service I was fortunate to hear the rabbi give some teaching on the Torah, more specifically a particular chapter from the book of Genesis, which came from the rabbinic tradition. For Jewish people, the ongoing reinterpretation of scripture is a fundamental part of their lives. This tradition, called midrash, involves making connections within the text of the Torah but also relates it to the world of today.
The Rabbi I heard talked about chapter 14 of the book of Genesis drawing attention to a particular verse. Now don’t worry if you don’t instantly recognise the story, this not a passage of the bible that many of us are familiar with. In the text we hear of how Abraham met with two kings. One, the King of Sodom, the other the King of Shalem. It is this second king who is of some interest. He is identified in the text as Melchizedek a name some of us may recognise from the book of Hebrews.
The text also tells us that Melchizedek was a priest, but a priest who worshipped Canaanite Gods. This of course means he was of a different religious persuasion to that of Abraham.
The rabbi took this small passage and then interpreted it by referring to a passage of midrash. Midrash, not only makes connections between different parts of the Torah, it also uses imagination in suggesting possibilities beyond what is written in the Torah. In this particular interpretation other rabbis made a very interesting suggestion about the story of Abraham and his meeting with Melchizedek.
The midrash suggested that while Melchizedek is identified as the King of Shalem, Abraham knew that city by another name. Abraham called the city Yireh. Two different names for one city. The midrash goes on to tell us God’s response to these two different names.
“Said the Holy One… ‘If I call the place Yireh like Abraham did, the righteous Shem will complain. However if I refer to it as Shalem, the righteous Abraham will complain. Rather, I will call it Yerushalayim, and that name will contain the way it was called by both of them: Yireh Shalem.’” (It is worth noting in this particular text Shem the son of Noah and Melchizedek are identified as being the same person).
Hopefully by this point you have made the connection, that this is a story suggesting how the city of Jerusalem came to have its name. More than that, the combination of two names from two different religious traditions suggests a great deal about God’s desire for harmony between all people. Even people with different religious beliefs.
So what does this have to do with Francis of Assisi you may be wondering. Don’t worry, while this may seem like a far cry from yet another sermon on the monk who preached to the birds, I assure you there is a connection.
St Francis never visited Jerusalem, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He made three attempts to visit the holy land all of which went awry for different reasons. On what would be his third and final attempt to reach Jerusalem Francis ended up in Egypt at a time when a Crusader army was preparing to attack various Muslim cities. Francis had accompanied the army out of a desire to meet Muslim people in the hope he would be able to introduce them to Christianity. Francis was so keen on this idea that he was willing to risk becoming a martyr.
The night before the crusaders were going to attack a particular city, Francis heard a warning from God that the Christians would fail and suffer a terrible defeat. Francis visited various commanders of the army asking to enter the city ahead of the army in order to seek a peaceful resolution and spare the lives of so many Christian soldiers. He was ignored, in fact he was laughed at, as the soldiers were so convinced of their impending victory.
Sure enough, the crusaders were defeated the next day. With no reason to hold back Francis decided he would enter the city after all. He was promptly captured, ridiculed and beaten. We don’t know exactly how long Francis was treated in this manner but it was some days before he was finally taken to appear before the Sultan of the city.
Despite his poor condition Francis set about trying to convert the Sultan to Christianity. The Sultan happily returned serve, and did his best to convert Francis to Islam. Both soon came to the conclusion that despite their difference, they each knew God. Francis went from being the Sultan’s prisoner to being his guest. For the best part of three weeks they continued to talk and engage with the other’s worldview. When Francis left, the Sultan gave him a gift of an ivory horn, which can still be seen in Assisi to this day.
While Francis never reached Jerusalem many members of his order did. In fact there has been a Franciscan presence in the Holy City since around the time of Francis’s meeting with the Sultan. In 1342 custody of the holy sites was entrusted to the Franciscan order by Pope Clement VI. In part the Pope’s reason for doing so was because he knew the story of Francis and Sultan and felt that because of this history of respectful exchange between Muslims and Christians, the Franciscans were the right people for the job.
Over the last few weeks we have been celebrating the season of creation a season that leads up to this feast day when we remember a saint who reminded all of humanity of the value and beauty of all the world. When we speak of creation we often think of mountains and valleys, rivers and oceans, native birds and endangered animals. But Francis’s love of creation also included love and appreciation of all human beings, be they Christian, Muslim or Jew.
As humans we are part of creation. More than that, each one of us is an utterly unique, one time, never to be repeated expression of God’s creation. When we make the mistake of cutting ourselves off from other human beings, we are restricting our own appreciation of the great diversity that God has called into being. God is clearly in favour of difference, because boy is the universe full of it.
The challenge to us is to resist colonising tendencies that assume that our way is the best and only way. What makes my ethics, my culture, my religion, superior to that of anyone else? Only my own desire to be proven right, which is not a very good answer to that question. What would Francis say to that?
My suspicion is that through his interaction with the Sultan, Francis discovered that dialogue and interaction were far more fruitful than monologues which simply aimed to convince another person of their mistakes. To really listen to another person is to appreciate that they, like you, are a unique expression of God’s creation. What a blessing that is, to be surrounded by so many expressions of God’s divine creativity. Thanks be to God.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant