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“The Center of the World”

Rev. Stephen Milton
May 5th, 2024
Lawrence Park Community Church
Psalm 98

Today’s psalm sounds like a victory song. The backstory isn’t entirely clear. It sounds like God has rescued Israel from its enemies. This is cause for rejoicing for Israel, but also for others. The Psalm tells us that all the world should rejoice, including the mountains and the rivers . Everyone, of every nation, should sing a new song to celebrate this victory. 

But why? If some other nation had conquered Israel, why should they be happy about being defeated? Shouldn’t they be upset about this, especially if it was God who rescued Israel? Why should all the world even care what happens to this small country, which is not even an empire? It seems very strange. And why should all the earth, even mountains and rivers be singing in exultation? What’s so important about Israel?

In our times that question may sound naive. Of course Israel matters. Just look around. The current invasion of Gaza by Israel has sent shudders throughout the entire world. College campuses are up in arms in a way not seen since the 1960s. Countries all over the world are taking positions for and against Israel’s actions in Gaza. In Ontario, an independent MPP was barred from the legislature for wearing a Palestinian scarf.[1] Jews in Canada are understandably worried about their safety as anti-Israel protests take place in our streets.  Synagogues and bookstores owned by Jews have been defaced with graffiti and sometimes surrounded by chanting protesters. Of course Israel matters. What happens in Israel affects the whole world.

True. And I want to talk about that again later in this sermon. But to get there, I would like to return to this psalm again, for it contains an insight that can help us understand our current predicament. The psalm imagines all the world’s nations streaming to Jerusalem to be with God and the Hebrews. They will celebrate because the Israelites are at peace again, and God has saved them. 

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, there is this idea that Jerusalem, the holy city, is the center of the world. Here’s how it is expressed in Ezekiel:

5 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. ( Ezekiel 5:5)[2]

In other places, Jerusalem is called the “navel of the world.” (Ez 38:12). Throughout the Hebrew scriptures we are told that what happens to the Israelites and Jerusalem is not just about some small tribe, but about the fate of all humanity. The Israelites are the center of the human drama because they have a direct relationship with God. It is often fraught, but it is always important. Until a working relationship with God can be worked out, humanity is spinning its wheels. So, the Israelites’ story is presented as everyone’s story. And their holy city, is presented as the center of the world.

This idea, that one place is the center of the world is not unique to the Israelites. A month ago, I went on holiday to Mexico after Easter. Most of the time I was just relaxing with books and sitting around at the beach. However, I wanted to stay in Cancun so we could go see some Mayan ruins. The biggest of all is about a two hour drive away. It is called Chichen Itza. Back in the 900s, it was a city of some 35,000 people[3], the capitol of the Mayan empire in this part of Central America. The city was surrounded by farms and rainforest.[4] And in its center lay some very impressive buildings, of which 26 remain.[5]

Chichen Itza

This is the most important temple, known as Chichen Itza. It is a step pyramid, 9 stories high. [6] On each side, there are 91 steps facing each of the cardinal directions. They lead up to a central platform.  Only the chief priest was allowed on these steps, and today tourists are not allowed to climb it. 

The temple is aligned to be at the center of the four directions, north, south, east and west. At the spring and winter equinoxes, it casts perfect triangular shadows, showing that it was built to be aligned with the sun and stars. If you add the number of steps on the 4 staircases to the top platform, you get the number 365, the days of the year.[7] To the Mayans, this was where the chief god of the sky, the feathered serpent, met the priests each year. This was the center of the world.[8]

Anthropologists have found this idea in many cultures. Most major religions think that their faith has a special relationship to God, and there is usually a place that is considered the center of the world. 

Ka’ba slide
Among Muslims, the center of the world is the Ka’ba in Mecca, which each Muslim is called to visit at least once in their lifetime. 

Among some Australian Aboriginal tribes, the center of the world is Uluru, formerly known as Ayer’s Rock.[9]

Among Christians, the center of the world is the cross on which Christ was crucified.[10] This is why we carry crosses around our neck, create churches that look like crosses, and why Jerusalem is so important to Christians. 

Religions all over the world see themselves as the center of the relationship between humans and the divine.  Our challenge today is how to get all these religions to co-exist. Each of them thinks that they are the center of the world, the right way to worship. Each one chants “we’re number one!” But, we do not all see God or the divine in the same way. So, how can we deal with this? For a long time, the Christian way was to conquer other religions. We led attacks against non-Christian nations, often Muslims, and we persecuted Jews. When Christians came to the Americas, we demanded that Indigenous people convert, and we sought to prevent them from practicing their own religion. This sense of Christian superiority led to the horrific execution of six million Jews by the Nazis, who justified their actions based on a twisted reading understanding of Christianity. 

This shocked the world, and led to a new dialogue among the world’s religions.[11]  Over the decades, there have been many conferences held between the major religions, trying to find a way to co-exist.  In the 1960s, the Roman Catholics made major strides in this direction with Vatican II, renouncing its condescension towards Judaism and other faiths.

Today, it is not unusual to see faith leaders from different religions on the same stage with each other, sharing their wisdom. 

Dalai Llama and Tutu
Here’s a picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the Dalai Llama; 

Pope and Hindu leader
here’s Pope Francis  with a Hindu leader in Sri Lanka.


These meetings would have been impossible in earlier centuries. 

Although things are not perfect, more and more, world religious leaders have agreed to peaceful coexistence. Our scriptures may tell us that each faith is the center of the world, the only way to God. But in practice, we have come to realize that there are many centers of the world, and many paths to God. This is progress, and I suspect that God is happy to see us getting along better, especially because we have many differences.

But while all this was happening, a new development was happening in the West. More and more people are leaving religion. They are still concerned with morality and justice issues, but they have little or no interest in religion. Yet, when they take up positions on political issues, they do so with religious fervour. They act as though their position is the only correct position. And like traditional faiths, these political activists behave as though their view is the center of the world, with a monopoly on truth.

This week, we saw this in action on university campuses. In the United States and here in Canada, students against the war in Palestine have set up encampments. They have argued that the war in Gaza is genocide. They have demanded that universities divest of any investments they hold in Israel. In the papers this week, student leaders at both McGill and U of T have said that they set up the tents because they had no other choice. Nothing else had worked to change the university’s mind.[12]

That kind of reasoning is a big problem. It is the adult version of a temper tantrum. If we don’t get our way, we will shut everything down. That reasoning was voiced on January 6th by the insurrectionists in Washington. It was used by Hamas when they justified the October 7th attack on Israel. Nothing else had worked, so we’re justified in extreme action. Hamas has said it wants Israel to disappear, to be erased, from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea. 

When student protesters at U of T hang up signs “From the River to the Sea”, they are declaring that the time for debate and discussion are over.[13] Israel should not exist. The Jewish people should disappear from their homeland. How can Jews in this city feel safe as long as universities tolerate that kind of idea on campus, particularly when voiced by an illegal encampment?  Would it be okay for right wing protesters to set up an encampment to protest gay rights on campus? Or the right of trans people to exist? Universities are supposed to be places for the learning the art of persuasion, and engaging in a free flow of ideas. We are living in a time when activists on both sides of the political spectrum are acting with religious fervour, but without religious restraint.  

It is time that political activists catch up with what world religions learned the hard way. Dialogue and respect are more important than pretending that any one group has all the right answers. Every major religion calls for respect of all human beings, even when we disagree. Every one of us is a child of God, deserving of respect. We hold that human beings are never totally right, we never have all the answers. That kind of perfection can only be found in the mind of God, a kind of knowledge which is not available to mere mortals like us. Humility, not certainty, must always temper our views and actions. Absolutism and certainty are always risky, and often end with violence and destruction. 

In today’s psalm, when humanity and God draw closer to each other, we are told that the mountains sing, and the rivers clap their hands. It is a wonderful, poetic image of voices from different kinds of beings joining in song. In today’s terms, we could say that they are singing in harmony, where each sings a different note as part of the same song. As we have heard this morning, singing in harmony produces a sound that is richer than when everyone sings the same notes. God calls on us humans to sing in harmony. Many voices, singing different notes, in a song that celebrates human dignity, the beauty of the natural world, and our relationship to our creator. The song’s beauty, its harmony, comes from the fact that we sing it in different ways. That is a strength, not a weakness. May we all sing together for an end to violence, for respect of the dignity of all human beings, and the right for every being to thrive in God’s wonderful world.