Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Think On These Things

Think on These Things
Sermon delivered March 5, 2017
Peace and Justice Sabbath
Wesley United Methodist Church
Rabbi Alan S. Cook
Rabbi, Sinai Temple; Chair, Interfaith Alliance of Champaign County

            It is truly an honor to be with you today and to share in worship as we think about peace and justice.  The current climate in our country, exacerbated by an extremely contentious election and vitriolic rhetoric that has not diminished since, would have us believe that the sole safe course of action would be to isolate ourselves and only seek interactions with those who are exactly the same as we are.  I am glad to have the opportunity to reach beyond the pulpit of my own congregation, for I believe that the key to peace in these troubled times is engagement with others.  The educator Vivian Gussin Paley, one of the first people to teach in a racially integrated kindergarten class, wrote in her book White Teacher, “Homogeneity is fine in a bottle of milk, but it has no place in a classroom.”  I would argue that it also has no place in a society that desires harmony, for only in celebrating diversity; by appreciating others who differ from us in race, religious expression, gender identity, socio-economic status, and so forth, can we achieve understanding.

            It feels particularly good to be here on a Methodist pulpit today.  I owe my education, in no small part, to the Methodist church, for it was in 1851 that John Evans and other Methodist leaders established the school that would become my alma mater, Northwestern University.

            I have fond memories of my time at Northwestern.  During my four years there, I am sure that I encountered the university logo and its motto hundreds of times.  It was emblazoned on the pennant that hung on the wall of my dorm room, it graced t-shirts and sweatshirts, and could be found in some form on most university buildings.  But because I never formally studied Latin, I managed to spend four years in Evanston without ever knowing the meaning of quaecumque sunt vera.  I found out at graduation.

The citation, which we read as one of our scriptural recitations this morning, comes from the fourth chapter of Philippians, and, in full, proclaims: “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are beautiful, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

            The Epistle to the Philippians is ascribed to Paul (and Timothy) and is dated to around the year 60 of the Common Era.  Paul sends encouragement to the Church at Philippi, one of the first churches established in Europe.  So, in the context of the letter, those true, honest, just, and pure things that readers are asked to contemplate are undoubtedly meant to be those things that can be found if one embraces the teachings of Jesus and the early church.  The founders of Northwestern University, good and devout Methodists, may have seized upon this motto precisely for its philo-Christian undertones.  But I think that modern-day students, alumni, and faculty of the university learn to find truth and honesty and these other qualities in their intellectual pursuits.  Moreover, I think that if any of us contemplate Paul’s language, we will discover that we have many reasons to “think on these things.”

            What things are true and honest and just?  I think we can find many.  The Interfaith Alliance of Champaign County was founded on the true and honest idea that people were interested in a way to connect with their neighbors of other faiths and to build bridges of understanding.  We begin each meeting with a relational component, seeking to learn from one another about our hopes and dreams, our fears and regrets.  We discover that what we have in common far surpasses that which divides us.

            Since the beginning of the year, bomb threats have been phoned in to more than 80 Jewish Community Centers, Day Schools, and other institutions throughout the country.  Some of these organizations have been the recipients of repeated threats.  More than 500 gravestones were toppled in acts of vandalism in historic Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis; Philadelphia; and Rochester, New York.  Swastikas and other hateful symbols have been found on college campuses and other public buildings.  Racial epithets were found at some historically black colleges.  At least four mosques in the country have suffered arson and other vandalism. Srinivas Kuchibhotla was murdered in a hate crime in Kansas by a gunman who shouted, “Get out of my country.”  A Sikh gentleman was shot in his own driveway in Kent, Washington by a gunman professing a similar ideology.  And certainly there have been other incidents and microagressions unfolding throughout our nation.  I am grateful for the beautiful messages of support that have been sent in recent days to the synagogue from members of Wesley.  I am buoyed by my friendship with Imam Ousmane Sawadogo of CIMIC, who also sent a letter expressing solidarity between our local Muslim and Jewish communities.

We have witnessed upsetting and alarming acts of terrorism.  They are designed to dampen our desire to engage with others out of fear for their motives.  They could drive us to the sort of dystopian xenophobia that already prevails among a segment of our country’s population.  But what is true and honest is that so many Americans are refusing to be cowed.  We are standing up and embracing one another, for we understand all too clearly the ominous warnings of Pastor Martin Niemholler (which exists in numerous iterations): “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” 

We must stand together.  We must speak out.  We are all—regardless of religion, race, or gender—blessed and valued children of God and our lives can only live up to their true potential for holiness when we lend our hands, our hearts, and our being to holding up one another.

            Now, what is pure and lovely?  Certainly, love is- not only the intimate love that we share with a spouse or partner, but also the love that we extend to family and friends.  In these dark times, we are nevertheless hearing incredible stories of strangers who are giving of themselves to one another, without anticipating any reciprocation: the Muslim veterans guarding Jewish cemeteries to prevent further vandalism; the congregations welcoming refugees and pledging to provide sanctuary if needed; the attorneys doing pro bono work at O’Hare and at airports across the country to help immigrants navigate the administration’s travel restrictions.  Such acts are pure and lovely, and I believe they are helping to preserve the best of what America has to offer.  More significantly, as a person of faith, I think it could fairly be said that the prophets of old—from Isaiah and Jeremiah to Jesus and Mohammed—all would have engaged in and encouraged similar acts as a way of ensuring that God’s love would prevail within our society.

            For the Sabbath that just ended, the Jewish lectionary cycle prescribed the reading of the portion of scripture known as Terumah, corresponding to chapters 25-27 of the book of Exodus.  It tells of the construction of the Tabernacle, which served as the focal point of worship as the Israelites made their way through the wilderness.  Chapter 25, verse 8 reads, “Let them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell amongst them.”  The Hebrew word for sanctuary, mikdash, is derived from a root meaning “holiness.”  So, in a sense, God is saying, “When you create an environment of holiness, I shall dwell in your midst.”

            When we do pure and beautiful acts for one another and with one another, we become worthy of having God dwell in our midst, and we begin to sense God in the hearts and hands of our neighbors.  Then we help bring fulfillment to the words of Isaiah, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL peoples.”  In every place where faithful people commune—synagogues, churches, and mosques, yes…but also parks, grocery stores, public spaces and private homes—let us celebrate the prayer and spirit of every individual and build houses, physical and spiritual, for ALL peoples.

What is of good report?  Well, Paul and Timothy clearly intended to refer to the Gospels’ testimony about the ministry of Jesus; the word “gospel,” of course, literally means “good news.”  But I think that there is other good news to reflect upon today.  I think we can celebrate the fact that two millennia after Paul and Timothy, Jews and Christians can sit here side by side, respectful of each others’ faith, and share in worship, song, and fellowship.  I think that it is good news that we recognize that we have much to be thankful for, and that we lift our hearts and souls to the Creator of all, in gratitude for all of our blessings.

Sometime around 1875, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise had to select a slogan for his institution of higher education.  The Hebrew Union College, my alma mater for my professional training, was established to ordain American rabbis who would appreciate the modern sensibilities of American Jewry.  Of all of the inspirational texts in the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Wise chose the phrase “Haboker Or”, from Genesis 44:3, to serve as the college’s motto.

            I’ll let you in on a secret…Nobody is entirely sure what Rabbi Wise had in mind when he chose those two words.  Some have suggested that he was not a skilled Hebraist, and so, under pressure, he selected the text at random.  But others see beyond the apparent simplicity of these words to appreciate a deeper meaning.

            Haboker Or means, “In the morning there was—or ‘there will be’—light.”  In its original context in the Torah, it merely sets the scene: Joseph’s brothers, the eleven other sons of Jacob, have come to Egypt to procure food during a famine, not knowing that their brother has risen to a position of prominence.  Now they prepare to take their leave as the next day has dawned. 

Perhaps, however, Wise meant that a new light had dawned for religious expression.  His Judaism would be an American Judaism, adaptive to the changing means of society.  Adherents of this Reform Judaism would not reject God or the traditions of their ancestors, but simply confront them in a new—and, Wise hoped, enlightened—manner.

            We, too, may proclaim, “Haboker Or.”  Tomorrow there will be light.  And if not tomorrow, then the next day.  The road may be long, and during this Lenten season, the liturgy makes us particularly mindful that we may be met with temptations that would seek to divert us from meeting our intended goal.  But let us continue to work toward the light, and greet that light revitalized by our shared sense of community, by our hope for the future, by the promise of what this world can become if we all continue to do our part, working in partnership with God for the betterment of our society.  These are important ideas.

            So if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, then, my friends, let us think on these things.