Sermon by Student Leader Florence at Pembroke College Chapel, Oxford’s interfaith service

Posted Fri, 03/13/2020 - 16:15 by MCS

What an amazing privilege to hear the readings said by a Jew and a Muslim.

First, we heard about Daniel, known best for his later fame at having survived the lions’ den. This is the very first part of his story – he’s an Israelite, a young adult, who, along with his peers, has been taken to Babylon nearly a thousand miles away. The translation we heard just now doesn’t render particularly well exactly what it was that Daniel and his companions were studying, but my Bible with a more modern translation describes it as language and literature. (I study French and German here!). Here we have a story about young adults, youths without blemish(!), living together far away from home, studying language and literature… this is about as close as we get to a Biblical description of what those of us who are students are doing here.

But very quickly they run into a problem with the catering team. They’re getting served luxury food every day – but, because Daniel and his friends are Jews, they’re not able to eat it – it would be going against a very ancient Jewish law that scripture attributes to God’s revelations to Moses. This is the kind of thing that back in Jerusalem everyone would have observed, it wouldn’t have been a problem – but now they’re a minority amongst those who do things very differently, they have to navigate what to do. Any of us who have been a minority at any point in our lives should be able to sympathise with this dilemma – how much to assimilate, and how much to retain our own identity. The four friends choose to stick by their faith on this question, and their attempts to negotiate different dietary requirements are successful. The point is clear: continuing to observe our religious practices, in spite of the society around us, is the right thing to do.

And then the New Testament reading – a letter from Paul to the early church in Rome, a multicultural community in the ancient world if ever there was one. And again, food is a problem. The Christians with Jewish roots continued to observe their dietary customs, and the non-Jewish Christians (Gentiles) did not want to adopt them. We have to understand that this was a massive controversy. And Paul, in trying to respond to this debate, comes about as close to supporting interfaith as the Bible gets. Verse 4 “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” Verse 5 “Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind”. The point being, there are multiple ways of respecting, worshipping, loving God, which can appear to be polar opposites to one another, and yet all of which can be right and good.

Both readings tell us that religious difference can cause problems. They affirm that we should absolutely continue the faith practices that carry personal meaning for ourselves, and yet at the same time that we should respect those whose practices are different.

That’s what we try to do at our Scriptural Reasoning group. We’ve oohed and aahed over one another’s ritual objects, religious clothing and most recently, places of worship. We’ve read excerpts from one another’s scripture about particular topics, including prophecy, fasting & restraint, and tradition & innovation, and we’ve delved into philosophical conceptions of God. With every theme, we have a speaker from each of the three Abrahamic traditions who gives a short presentation, and then we open up a discussion. The aim is never to convince anybody to do as we do or think as we think. It’s to enjoy learning for learning’s sake – as Daniel did, and as this university constantly encourages us to – and hopefully, in sharing what can often be quite personal, we become friends.

What, then, have I learned from interfaith this year, both from events I’ve coorganised and those I’ve merely attended? I joined Open Friday Prayer with Islamic Society this term, and experienced the immense spiritual significance of taking off one’s shoes to pray and bowing right down to the floor. My own faith traditions, both in the Anglican Choral setting we’re experiencing this evening and in the silent worship of Quaker meeting, are incredibly still, and although stillness has a lot of spiritual meaning for me, I’ve come to appreciate the power of others’ reverent devotion to God through movement.

I’ve been amazed, sometimes, by how much we have in common, something that became particularly clear in our theme of “Permanence and Transience” – we all envisioned God as permanent, and this life as ephemeral. (!) At other times, it’s been fascinating how much more certain Christians have in common with Jews and Muslims than they do with other Christian groups with regards to certain issues. The lovely Franciscan who came to talk about religious clothing on the Christian side back in 4th week echoed so much of what our Muslim speakers said, while other Christians among us like me, who have never so much as worn a crucifix, were amazed to discover a whole dimension of religious experience we’d never previously considered. Praying with reverent movement, the notion of how what I wear could more openly reflect my beliefs: hearing these things challenges me, it gives me food for thought. So, interacting with people of other faiths has definitely deepened my own.
But the other thing I’ve learned through organising events with people of other faiths, is a wide range of practical aspects of life made more difficult by being a religious minority, which the rest of us need to bear in mind if we want to include them.

Many Oxford Jews turn off their internet on a Friday evening for 24 hours – so don’t expect a reply from them then, and don’t organise a party on the Sabbath if you want them to come. Muslims pray five times a day, and in doing these prayers they have to observe very specific timings relative to sunrise and sunset – so if you want to include Muslims in an event, know when these times are and either plan things so they won’t clash, or organise for a quiet, ideally carpeted space they can retreat to at those moments. And, if you’re preparing food, like the Babylonian court were, be aware your guests may have dietary requirements and ask them directly how you can cater to them – and not just about the food itself, but also its preparation, and the cutlery and crockery it’s served on.

University vacations are planned so that the Christians among us can observe our holy days without causing a nuisance. But for Jewish students, freshers this year was a nightmare, three weeks solid of religious holidays in 0th, 1st and 2nd week, just at the point when you’re settling in and trying to make friends. One of our recent Muslim speakers at Scriptural Reasoning, a current first year, told us he’d done all his public exams to date during Ramadan – that means no water, no food.

Nothing of what I’ve told you here I knew nine months ago. It’s so, so easy for those of us who aren’t a minority group to make things very difficult for those who are, just because we don’t know these incredibly basic things.

I’ve been talking from a Christian perspective here, just because that’s what I am, and I’ve only mentioned two religions other than Christianity, just because those are the only two that I can talk about with any degree of knowledge. But this applies more broadly than to Jews, Christians and Muslims. This applies to the religious groups in Oxford and elsewhere that we haven’t yet found a way of bringing into the conversation. And some of the lovely people who have come specially to listen this evening wouldn’t consider themselves religious at all – and this applies to you too. Whatever is right for you – stick to it, like Daniel did. Whatever is right for other people – make the effort to learn about it and find ways to cater to those needs. And come to Scriptural Reasoning next Tuesday.


Florence Butterfield 

Oxford Student Leader