Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving thanks in perilous times

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” 

So began the proclamation establishing an annual day of national Thanksgiving. You might think you know the origins of these words, or you might be surprised to find out.

 It is true that the first thanksgiving feast on these shores was done by English settlers, the pilgrims. But they did it only once.

George Washington declared a day of Thanksgiving after the nation won its independence. But it was done only once and only in a few places.

Rather, the origins of an annual day of Thanksgiving came in a particularly horrific chapter of our nation’s history, and in a particularly awful month in that chapter.

 The date the proclamation was signed – Oct. 3, 1863 – was a bare three months after the Battle of Gettysburg, and a mere two weeks after another ferocious battle, at Chickamauga, Tennessee.

The idea for an annual observance of thanks came from Sarah Hale, a widow with five children who was penniless. She caught the attention of the President of the United States who agreed with her. Sarah Hale, by the way, went on to become an advocate for the education of girls and an famous author. You know her best as the author of “Mary had a little lamb.”

 In this, the darkest hours of our national existence, in midst of a terrible civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, the proclamation she inspired implored the nation to count its blessings, and earnestly asked God to bind our wounds.

That our ancestors would pause to give thanks, in spite of everything they had experienced, was extraordinary. They set a selfless, generous for us. We too live in perilous times. With fires raging in Ferguson, with horrific violence in Iraq and Syria, with religious conflict in Israel-Palestine, and with the recent horrors that have come to light right here at the University of Virginia, it would be easy to slip into despair or slide into willful ignorance.

 We should do neither.

Instead, on this Thanksgiving, I believe it fitting and proper to once again pray for the healing of our nation and world; pray that violence will end everywhere; and pray that we will, with God’s grace, become instruments of healing, reconciliation and justice for all.

Like our ancestors, we must begin by giving thanks for our blessings: the food on our table tonight, the love of family and friends, and the work we are given to do that each of us might make a difference.

And so hear again this proclamation, from the pen of the great man who signed it:

“To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God…” 

 “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. 

 “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens, and I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, 

 “And fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

 “In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.” 

Signed, Abraham Lincoln

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King Sunday: Changing the culture of sexual violence at the University of Virginia

Credit: Rolling Stone magazine
Today is Christ the King Sunday, a day preachers (including me) usually spend time explaining why Jesus, this anti-monarchial Jewish rabbi, is the "king of kings."

The big time hint comes in the gospel lesson from Matthew 25:31-46 when Jesus says he is the one who is hungry, naked, thirsty, and in prison. He is the king who is with those who are in despair and in the low places.

We are in one of those low places now here in Charlottesville. Rolling Stone magazine published this week a lengthy article about the culture of sexual violence at the University of Virginia, and it has sparked a long overdue reaction. We've posted a lot of the statements and reactions on our St. Paul's Facebook page, and I won't post that here. But I want to share with you my sermon from this morning, which is my public statement on this.

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Last week broke very cold, and not just the temperature outside.

This was among the most challenging, and chilling, weeks I’ve experienced in the nearly seven years since you’ve called me here.

This is not an easy sermon today.

As you may know by now, our community was rocked by a Rolling Stone magazine article detailing a culture of sexual violence and alcohol abuse in fraternities that are only a few yards from this church.

The article is a very tough read, and I had to put it down several times. The details are shocking – horrific – and I cannot comprehend how any human being can treat another human being this way.

Then, later in the week, came news of another student suicide, Peter D’Agostino, the second student to die this way in a semester that was already marked by the murder of Hannah Graham.

Good Lord, enough already.

I must confess I have struggled to find the words to present you this morning in this pulpit. You may rightfully ask, why talk about this at all in church? I’ve asked myself that. My answer is, this parish was founded a century ago with the specific mission of serving and ministering to the students of the University of Virginia. We have an obligation to talk about it. And the gospel today – the Word of God – compels us to talk about this.

So I begin with this gospel lesson from Matthew that maybe captures some of the feelings of helplessness right now in our community:

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Like you, I have struggled to know how to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and protect the most vulnerable among us – especially our kids who come here as students.

All week, there was much conversation among students, faculty and staff, and in the wider community, and among those of us who work here in this church.

University officials have clearly struggled to find their feet, and respond in an appropriate and caring way.

The Charlottesville clergy is also struggling, especially those of us who pastor to our students.

Nearly all of the campus chaplains, of many faith traditions, will gather here at St. Paul’s tomorrow for a special meeting to try to figure this out together.

There are many questions for all of us, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. How do we clothe those who are vulnerable and violated? How do we bring them out of whatever prisons of despair and depression they may dwell? How do we see that justice is done?

And how do we turn our anger into making sure that no young woman will ever be attacked again? How do we declare “No more of this” and make it stick?

The Gospel of Matthew takes us today into a very low place, but then brings us to high place, and reaches beyond despair.

Today is also called by the Church, “Christ the King Sunday,” when the Church proclaims that Jesus is the Lord, the king of all.

Here in this gospel lesson, we find out what kind of king of kings he truly is – the king who goes into the places of hunger, and fear, abuse, violence – prison itself – to heal us – and proclaim no more of this.

If we look, we will see this already happening right here.

Start with the students themselves – they are living beacons of hope, and they have much to teach us if we are open and listening.

On Friday, something extraordinary happened at St. Paul’s. A diverse group of students organized what they called “Turkey-pa-looza.”

They gathered up unused food from the UVA dining halls, brought it here, and then cooked and packaged meals in green bags for needy families in the community. If you go to our website or Facebook page, you will see photos of them in our kitchen.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

I want to give you another example: We are supporting a group of students who are launching “Buddies on Call.”

These students will be stationed in our church late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights to escort other students who are trouble and need help getting home.

Meanwhile, student leaders have stood up and demanded to be heard. They have built a website with resources for students, and links to give University officials their wisdom on how to change this culture.

Let me quote from the student letter:

“It is easy to hate, to cast whole communities in doubt, to deny, or to hide. But if we respond to hard times with hard work, if we respond to division with unity, if we respond to efforts to tear us down by building each other up, then we'll look back on this moment as the time we stood up to answer the call.”

And there is something more.

Today we are baptizing a baby, Christian, into God’s One Holy and Apostolic Church.

Christian, you may not have quite thought of this yet, but you and your parents have been waiting since the day of your birth, four months and 14 days ago, for this day to arrive: The day of your baptism.

But God has been waiting since the foundation of the world for this day to arrive. That means this is a way bigger day for God than it is even for you or your parents. The world is never going to be the same again because you are being baptized today – and God rejoices and takes delight in you.

We need you here. We can’t wait to see you baptized, and we can’t wait to see what you will bring into our world.

We pray you will have a long and healthy life. We know you will certainly go your own way on many things, and you probably will put a few gray hairs on your parents’ heads.

But today is yours. Today you will be marked as “Christ’s own forever,” and that is no small claim.

Christ will never let go of you, not ever.

And you are stuck with us, and we welcome you to the deep end of the baptismal pool.

Christian you already have much to teach us. What we do for the least among us we do to Jesus. Help us to figure out how to do that with you.

We can start with our hands outstretched in thanksgiving – and give thanks for the gift of our life, thanks for the people we love, and thanks for the time we are given on this earth to make a difference.

We can show our thanks with our grateful giving, and we can show our thanks with our service to each other.

It is right that we begin every prayer with thanks, and ground our life in the sharing of bread and wine in our Holy Eucharist – words that mean “the Great Thanksgiving.”

God has very ambitious dreams for us – serving our community, serving each other –and here in this place by making our university community not only a vibrant center of learning, but also a safe environment so that everyone who comes here can thrive.

When we care for the most vulnerable among us, we are caring for Jesus himself. In the gospel lesson today, Jesus proclaims that when we care for the most vulnerable, we will see the very face of the Risen Christ in the face of each other.

Those moments are truly holy moments.

One of these moments comes right now, when we baptize Christian. We will renew our baptismal covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and we will pledge to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

And then let us go from here to make our promises real in our lives, with our prayers, with our service, with our giving, and with our actions. Welcome to this extraordinary life, Christian. AMEN

Monday, November 17, 2014

Rabbi Dan Alexander's sermon at St. Paul's

We had a terrific Sunday at St. Paul's, with Rabbi Dan Alexander of Congregation Beth Israel giving the sermon (I preached at his synagogue Friday evening, see post below this one). Rabbi Dan also was our guest at the adult forum, and fielded many questions with skill and good humor. Here is the text of this sermon, and the audio can be heard on our website HERE.

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Of Sweetened Words and Theological Humility
November 16, 2014

I am honored and grateful for this opportunity to preach in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Memorial Church this morning. Standing here brings back fond memories that extend back to 1979, when in my first year as Director of the Hillel Foundation at UVA, I met the Rev. David Poist. I count David and also Paula Kettlewell among the clergy I have known the longest and whose acquaintance and friendship I have valued so highly over the years. Your current rector, the Rev. Jim Richardson fills the shoes of his esteemed predecessors with great distinction and, as he does, brings honor to your church through his leadership in the general community, especially in the arena of social justice. His friendship sustains me.

In preparing to speak to you this morning I first thought I would challenge myself by reacting to one of your lectionary readings, not an easy one from the Scriptures we hold in common but one more difficult for me, from your Scriptures and then to see what I might bring to an encounter with a text sacred to Christians but not to Jews. But, as it happened, that encounter led me back to my own tradition and in particular to a rabbinic text, a midrash, that when unpacked reveals some core elements of Jewish self-understanding. My goal in all of this is to make a modest contribution toward better understanding between our two communities. I will speak on the theme “Of Sweetened Words and Theological Humility.”

As you probably all know, Matthew 25:14-30 records one version of the Parable of the Talents. I read the parable, thought about it, discussed it with a few folks, investigated some commentaries and then decided you would be better served if I leave its exposition to teachers from within your faith community while I simply note that the literary form of the passage, a teaching by means of parable, bears similarity to many midrashim, those long or short literary compositions which were delivered in synagogues as homilies during the century when Jesus lived, as well as before and after. In the remarks that follow, I exit the realm of your Testament for the more familiar arena of rabbinic literature in the service of my goal of cultivating the ground of mutual understanding between our faith communities.

What is a midrash? From the Hebrew root meaning to seek or inquire, a midrash is a genre of imaginative rabbinic literature, that is to say fiction, that begins with an inquiry into some aspect of Scripture, some curiosity that arises from an encounter with a passage or a phrase or a word or a letter in the sacred text, some itch that calls for a scratch. The midrash is the literary scratch, so to speak, but a scratch that can shed significant light on the perspective, values and sensibilities that inform the worldview of the author. And one more thing: midrashim (the plural of midrash) fit within the general category of Oral Torah or Oral Tradition, a catch-all term for the sacred literature of the Judaism that arises when the priest and sacrifice-oriented religion of the Second Temple period gives way to the synagogue, rabbi, prayer and mitzvah-oriented religion we now recognize as Judaism. That is, midrash can be fanciful but it occupies a place of high honor and seriousness in the Jewish library.

I chose the following midrash (which was collected in several Medieval anthologies that in turn draw on older sources no longer extant) because it addresses the very nature of Torah. Torah in turn is the Jewish equivalent of Jesus. For it is the Torah, in the sense of the revealed word of God, that contains and represents the covenant by which we Jews derive our identity, our sense of unique calling and our purpose. As we read and unpack this midrash, we will see that it begins with a slight misdirection as it presents itself as a commentary on a verse from the Song of Songs, one of the stranger books of the Hebrew Bible. In its plain sense, the Song of Songs comprises a series of fairly racy love poems. I would like to know which Biblical editor allowed this stuff to pass the canonical screening?! I would like to shake his or her hand.

Well, it would appear that in ancient Jewish circles, these love poems made the canonical cut because prominent rabbis of the day interpreted them as metaphors for the love not between human lovers but the one that characterizes the relationship between the Creator of the Universe and the people Israel whom the Creator chose for covenant. That is certainly the assumed interpretation behind this midrash and the third century rabbis who are quoted in it. The midrash, Part I:

"His mouth is most sweet" (Song of Songs 5:16). It is said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: The moment Israel at Sinai heard the word "I," their souls left them, as is written, "My soul left me when He spoke" (Song of Songs 5:6).

Of course, in the un-interpreted Bible, the sweet mouth belongs to the speaker’s kissable lover. However, to the rabbis it belongs to the Master of the Universe and specifically describes the nature of God’s speech to the people Israel, the sweet words of Torah spoken at Mount Sinai. The word “I,” you probably know, is the first word of the Ten Utterances. By the way, the first letter of the first word Anochi is the silent letter aleph. In some versions of this midrash, the drama begins as the soon as the silent letter reaches the ears of its human recipients. Of course, in the Bible, “My soul left me when he spoke” describes a swooning lover, not revelation at Mt. Sinai, but you are getting used to the rabbinic interpretive move by now. Back to the midrash:

At once, the Word returned to the Holy One and said: “Master of the universe, You are ever alive and enduring, the Torah is ever alive and enduring, yet You are sending me to the dead? THEY ARE ALL DEAD!”

So, for Israel's sake, the Holy One went back and sweetened the Word, as is said, "The voice of the Lord is powerful, the voice of the Lord is stately" (Psalms 29:4), which, as Rabbi Hama bar Hanina explained, means that the voice of the Lord was powerful for young men and had measured stateliness for the aged…. Rabbi Levi said: “Had it been written, "The voice of the Lord is in His strength," the world could not have stood it.” Hence Scripture says, "The voice of the Lord is fitted to the strength" (Psalms 29:4). That is to say, to the strength of each and every person, the young according to their strength, the aged according to their strength, the little ones according to their strength, the sucklings according to their strength, the women according to their strength.

Now it is apparent what drives this midrash, the itch that invites the scratch. In weaving together verse fragments from the Song of Songs and from Psalm 29, the rabbinic authors seek to address the paradox of divine revelation, the odd notion that the One who Creates everything, the Omni-everything Diety would see fit to encounter a band of scruffy former slaves gathered around a mountain in the Sinai peninsula and communicate to them in a manner that results in a book. Does an elephant speak to an ant? Do we humans speak to bacteria? Incommensurate scale and incompatibilities of many sorts make these encounters nearly impossible to conceive of. Along the lines of this kind of thinking, it should be nearly impossible for God to speak to us and even more difficult for us to receive the divine phone call. It shouldn’t happen.

But, as a core concept of Jewish faith, the revelation did happen and did result in a revealed, sacred text, regarded sometimes more narrowly as the Ten Utterances and sometimes more expansively as the entirely of Torah, both in its written /Biblical manifestation and also in its oral, unfolding, post-Biblical sense. But, in the imagined view of this midrash God at first did not, as it were, know God’s own strength. God forgot, one might say, the puniness of the creatures to whom the divine speech was being addressed.

Beyond the humor embedded in this image of a God who does know His or Her own strength, an important point of theology is being made. An implication of this account of revelation that strikes me as significant is that the revelation that results from the human-divine encounter at Sinai, the only one that could allow humans to come away intact, requires a do-over with a necessarily altered version of the Word, a Word subsequently made palatable for human consumption through well modulated sweetening; that is to say, the Word that can be successfully received by finite, mortal, delicate humans is decaf and not full strength and, therefore, no longer the full and unimpeded Truth with a capital “T.” It seems to me that in conflicts over who has the better or truer or only version of God’s word, a humble acknowledgment that no one really has it might help soften the tone of discourse. No one has it because, in the view of this midrash, no one could receive it fully and live to tell the tale. The midrash offers its own variant in parable form, as follows:

Another exposition of "His mouth is most sweet" (Song of Songs 5:16): The Holy One was like a king who spoke so harshly to his son that the latter fell into a faint. When the king saw that he had fainted, he began to hug him, kiss him, and speak softly to him, saying, "What is it with you? Are you not my only son? Am I not your father?" So, too, as soon as the Holy One said, "I am the Lord your God," then and there Israel's souls left them. When they died, the angels began to hug them and kiss them, saying to them, "What is it with you? Be not afraid--'you are children of the Lord your God'" (Deuteronomy 14:1). At the same time, the Holy One repeated the Word softly for their sake as He said, "Are you not My children, even as I am the Lord your God? You are My people. You are beloved unto Me." He kept speaking gently to them until their souls returned. [Song of Songs Rabbah 5:16, 3; Exodus Rabbah 5:9 and 29:4 as quoted in The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah by Bialik and Ravnitzky]

In this anonymous retelling of the midrash, after seeing the effect of the sternly spoken “I am the Lord your God,” God turns into a loving parent. As a parent, I can certainly recall the unintended effects of my harshly spoken words to my children whose fragility when they were young I sometimes forgot. Perhaps after seeing how mere words affected the Israelites, God, as imagined in this version of the story, summons nursing angels to caress them back to health. Here, the anonymous rabbinic author responds to a persistent Jewish anxiety over the experience of abandonment and distance, an anxiety here situated in the very moment when divinity was presumably closest, when the Word became manifest as Torah, first harshly and then sweetly. To conclude: a midrash is a fiction, a product of human imagination. But, this one, as I ponder it, contains some potential guidance for Jews and Christians as we continue to navigate our sometimes fraught and intertwining spiritual paths, each seeking to authentically heed the divine call we receive through the mediation of our distinct traditions. As we continue on those paths, may we do so in honest recognition of the asymmetries and commonalities which divide us and bind us.

May we all come to recognize the sweetened, do-over nature of the Word as we each define it, the Word revealed uniquely to Jews and the Word revealed uniquely to Christians.

May we cultivate our theologies and engage one another in humble recognition that no one possesses the Truth with a big T.

And may the One whose speech brought forth the world and all that is in it continue to speak to all of us gently and sweetly. And let us say, “amen.”

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bury the dead! Raise the living! The common roots of Jewish and Christian social justice

Congregation Beth Israel, Charlottesville

Lori and I were guests at the Friday evening Shabbat service yesterday at Congregation Beth Israel here in Charlottesville. And it was my privilege to be the invited speaker.

Truly, it was one of the great honors of my priesthood to preach in a synagogue. I am very grateful to my friend Rabbi Dan Alexander for inviting me; we've been talking about this "pulpit trade" for months, and he will be preaching at St. Paul's on Sunday at 10 am.

Before the services, Lori and I enjoyed dinner with Rabbi Dan and his wife before coming to the synagogue. I am also very grateful that quite a few folks from St. Paul's came to the synagogue Friday.

All of us were made to feel very welcome, and we will reciprocate the welcome Sunday.

Here is the text of the sermon I gave Friday:

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Shabbat, shalom.

Good evening. I am very grateful for the invitation from my good friend, Rabbi Dan Alexander, to speak to you tonight. Thank you so much for welcoming my wife, Lori, and I into your congregation.

We have been looking forward to this for many weeks. While I am accustomed to preaching, I have never done so in a synagogue before, so this is a new experience for me.

As Rabbi Alexander has probably mentioned, he will be preaching in my church on Sunday. We are both hopeful that our “pulpit trade” will foster new understandings, and new friendships between our congregations, and deepen our personal friendship.

Rabbi Alexander asked me to talk about social justice from a Christian perspective. Before I can even attempt to do that, I must acknowledge that to speak as a Christian about social justice strikes me as presumptuous.

I must begin by confessing that my own religion, in the name of Jesus Christ, has perpetrated so much social injustice in this world that I would blame no one for not listening to anything Christians have to say.

I am also mindful that this past week marks the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I am especially mindful that supposedly good Christians participated, or stood by and did nothing. So for me to even try to speak of social justice, I must first stand in a place of atonement.

That brings me to the second place I must stand. I must ask you to recognize that I don’t speak for the entirety of Christianity.

I can speak only from my own experience and perspective, and only from one corner of the Christian tradition. Allow me to tell you a little about my corner.

I was born into, and I am a priest of, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, which has its roots in the Church of England, forged in the religious wars in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

The Church of England, through 300 years of much bitterness and bloodshed, eventually found its way to the Enlightenment experiment of religious tolerance. The Church of England said, in effect, believe what you want to believe as long as you pray in a common way.

That did not exactly mean full tolerance for Jews and Muslims, or Catholics for that matter, but it was a start.

The American Episcopal Church broke away from the Church of England in the American Revolution, yet not completely.

As a founding partner of the Anglican Communion in the 19th century, we still consider that the Archbishop of Canterbury is our spiritual leader, but there is a great deal of tension in that relationship.

Although the Episcopal Church is relatively small in the United States, the Anglican Communion is the second largest Christian sect in the world. Only the Roman Catholics are larger.

A few days ago, we proudly celebrated the feast day of one of our archbishops of Canterbury, William Temple, who denounced Nazism in the 1930s, and became the first archbishop of Canterbury since the middle ages to go into battle when he landed with the troops at Normandy.

And that brings me to the topic that Rabbi Alexander asked me to preach about: social justice in our own time, and in our own community.

Someone once asked me to define the mission of social justice. Here is how I put it: If you see people drowning in the river, you pull them out. That is the mission of mercy. But at some point, you might want to walk upstream to see why they are falling in. That is the mission of social justice – changing the institutional and societal structures so that people won’t drown in the rivers.

Rabbi Alexander also asked me for a title to this talk, but Episcopalians don’t usually do titles. But I used to work for newspapers and I can write a headline, and so I came up with this: “Bury the dead! Raise the Living! The sacred roots of social justice.”

This title came to me when I looked at the Torah passage appointed for this Shabbat. It is a rather long section of Genesis that begins with the burial of Sarah and goes quite a distance into the marriage of Isaac.

It is not a passage in the Episcopal cycle of readings, or lectionary, so it would not be heard on a typical Sunday in my church.

In the reading, Abraham goes to the Hittites and asks for a place to bury Sarah. The Hittites give him the choicest of land. Abraham wants to buy it but they say no, please, this is our gift. Then Abraham, surrounded by the Hittites, and presumably by his children, takes Sarah’s body to a cave.

Abraham buries Sarah with great care. Her remains are so sacred that she is buried in a special place. Many come, even strangers, even the Hittites, to see her buried. Sarah matters. Sarah is sacred, even in death.

Right here, in the burial of Sarah, is the common root of social justice for Jews and Christians. How?

We hold in common that all people are sacred, created in the very image of God – sacred even in death.

The great Hebrew Bible is the story of a great people, through many travails and triumphs, many joys and tragedies. It is also the story of individuals, like Sarah and Abraham, and how each of us – you and I – are sacred beings in the eyes of our creator.

And if we hold that the dead are sacred, how much more must we hold that the living are sacred? Yes, we bury our sacred dead, but we must also raise up the sacred living to places of justice, dignity and peace.

We fall short when we fail to see the sacredness in each other, or worse, violate that sacredness in others – and in ourselves.

Yet we live in a world where the living are often seen as anything but sacred and life is cheap. We live in a world dominated by fear, power and greed; where coercion, violence, revenge and death are the ultimate solutions seemingly for everything.

Armies, prisons, capital punishment, war, terrorism, jihads, crusades and fundamentalism of every stripe have become the default position for just about every problem.

But that is not our common tradition rooted in the sacredness of God’s creation. Our common tradition is the harder path – the path of healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and building one sacred living stone at time for a better world to come. Ours is the sacred path of shalom.

Every time we resort to coercion, violence and death as tool – even when we must do so to fight evil itself – there is a cost to the sacredness in ourselves. And yet, even then, our Creator calls us back to the better path, the path of shalom.

This path is right here in this community, in this synagogue, in my parish.

One of the reasons I came to Charlottesville six years ago is because our faith communities here cooperate in social justice work through IMPACT, which stands for Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.

Rabbi Alexander is one of the founders of IMPACT, and in fact, he came up with the clever name. IMPACT is extraordinary, and I want to tell you why: As you know, we live in a world that is being torn to pieces by hatred, religious violence, power politics, and bigotry of every sort.

Yet here in Charlottesville, Christians, Jews and Muslims come together to hammer out solutions to the hardest problems in our community.

Instead of being torn asunder by our differences – and those differences are real – we’ve found a way in common to change the structures of injustice in our community.

And, yes, we haven’t always gotten it right. We’ve been harsh and times, and had many miss-steps.

Yet we’ve had notable successes, most recently with convincing the University of Virginia medical system to create a job-training program for unskilled young people in our community.

What we do together has implications far beyond Charlottesville and our immediate issues. We are beacons of hope for how the rest of the world could be.

Rabbi Dan asked me to speak about social justice from the Christian tradition. I’ve done that only partly. To complete this task, I must speak of Jesus of Nazareth, but not the Jesus who has been used as a bludgeon for persecution, or the Jesus of endless philosophical debates about the essence of his nature, divine and/or human.

Rather, the Jesus I speak of was a rabbi. That is what his followers called him – rabbi. The name “Jesus” wasn’t really even his name – Jesus is a bad Germanic translation from the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua.

This rabbi Joshua – Yesou – stood with the Hebrew prophets who warned the people to not put their trust in earthly rulers, but to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul – the shema – and to love our neighbors at least as much as we love ourselves.

This means, then as now, caring for the poor, the outcasts, the strangers, the orphans; the homeless, the drug addicts, the mentally ill – and being bold enough to love those who would do us harm, even our enemies.

A well known Baptist preacher, someone you’re familiar with, Martin Luther King, Jr., called it “the strength to love.”

This truly is our sacred path that we share, and it is the path of the Creator of all that is, and was, and ever shall be.

Shabbat, shalom.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux