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

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