It may be hard to believe, but this is our eighth annual joint Martin Luther King service for St. Stephens and Kehillat Israel. It is also my last MLK service before I retire. I’m proud that we have created a new tradition, and I certainly hope that our two congregations will keep this tradition alive in the years to come.
I don’t need to remind you how important it is for us to pray together and to stand together at this time in history. Our faiths are being challenged by shrill voices of chauvinism, of intolerance masked as scriptural rigor. Our rights are under siege, as our adversaries invoke age old prejudices and stereotypes that justify our mistreatment by denying our full humanness. And even those of us who should know better are susceptible to the strategy of divide and conquer, as it sews discord and mistrust between Jews, Muslims, immigrants, persons of color, indigenous peoples, and disadvantaged white Americans.
Doctor King knew better. As he preached in Memphis on the last full day of his life:
We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.
Yes, Doctor King knew better. He preached that we cannot fight fire with fire, that we will never defeat our adversaries through vengeance or retaliation, that the antidote to hate is love, and that our greatest threat is not that others succumb to groundless hatred, but that we ourselves succumb to groundless fear.
When God called upon Moses to return to Egypt, to stand before Pharaoh and demand an end to slavery, Moses came up with a whole array of excuses: I’m not worthy of this assignment, I can’t persuade folks to follow a God when I don’t even know that God’s name, I don’t know what to do if people don’t believe what I say, I’m a lousy speaker, and finally, I just don’t want to do this; go find someone else. We’re talking here about Moses, the greatest leader in history, the most steadfast servant of God. But even Moses, when first called to act, demonstrated that he did not follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but rather the God of fear, powerlessness, and despair.
Moses’ great moment was not when he succeeded, but when he failed. He and Aaron went before Pharaoh, Pharaoh not only refused to free the slaves, he even increased their burden. The people all turned on Moses and told him to stop shaking up the apple cart. And Moses himself went back to God, whining about his failure. So why was this Moses’ great moment? Because despite it all, he did not give up. He took the risk, he stepped into the role, confronted pharaoh ten more times as God’s agent, and eventually his mission succeeded.
I can’t tell you what you will be called to do in the next year; you will know when the time comes. It may be to stand up for a friend at school who is being mistreated; or it may even be enough just to be a friend to that person. Let me confess to you that I am not really a political activist. I don’t do well marching or facing angry crowds or getting arrested. But in my years in the community I’ve learned that this is not my role. There are different ways to lead or to take action. So I try to use my limited time and energy doing what I do best.
Is it enough for the members of St. Stephens and the members of KI to pray together once a year, to get to know each other, to build friendships, to sit down to a lunch together that we all helped to create and, hopefully, that at least a few of us are willing to clean up after? Maybe. Maybe not. But either way, we are sending a powerful message into the community. We stand together. We demonstrate that everyone in our communities deserves respect and receives respect. I also know, if, God forbid, something disturbing happens in either a Jewish or an African-American community, we are there to offer each other support. We have each other’s back, as demonstrated by the touching messages Kehillat Israel has received from St. Stephens over the years.
Sometimes familiarity and friendship are all it takes to move a few mountains. To give an example, just a few years ago a huge majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, and for the most part gay men and women were feared, mocked, or harassed. Then the LGBT community decided to go public, to let folks know that they were good neighbors, responsible citizens, reliable friends, and outstanding parents. They communicated their need to marry because, like everyone else, they need and deserve love, caring, and stable family life. Once gay and lesbian folks were seen as friends and neighbors, rather than as strange and different, attitudes quickly changed, both among the public and among our lawmakers, and same-sex marriage became legal.
I’d like to close with a parable shared by Rabbi Jen Feldman for Martin Luther King Day, 2012:
One day, an old Sage asked his disciples the question,. “How do you know when there is enough light to see?”
One of them answered: “There is enough light to see when you can see the current of the river move through the morning mist.”
A second replied: “When you can tell an oak tree from a sycamore.”
The third said: “When you can distinguish the young lambs from the goats as they romp in the morning light.”
Then his followers looked at the Sage and were silent. Finally the old master raised his eyes and spoke quietly and with deliberation. “There is enough light to see when you can look into the eyes of another person and understand that he or she is your brother or sister.”
May all of us radiate so much light that even our adversaries can recognize us as their siblings.