Remarks at the Historic African Episcopal Church of St Thomas

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Such an honor to speak at this historic church!

On Sunday, January 18th, I was honored to be a guest preacher at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, a historic church founded in 1792 as the first African-American Episcopal church.  Here are my remarks at their service honoring the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Good morning. It is such an honor to be here – to be a guest on such a historic pulpit on such an important weekend – and such a privilege to worship with this community this morning, to be welcomed so warmly by this holy congregation and joined by several members of my congregation as well. It is especially an honor to be here with your distinguished rector, Father Shaw, whom I am so pleased to have gotten to know recently, and with Minister Muhammed, to whom I wish blessings of strength, wisdom, and success as he begins this next stage of his leadership with the NAACP.

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With Fr. Martini Shaw, Rector of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas

At a time when our society is, in many ways, so polarized, and when peace and religious toleration can feel all too elusive in our world, it is inspiring to me that you have opened up your worship on this sacred morning to hear from two clergy of other faiths. Thank you for this invitation and for the opportunity to mark this weekend’s observance together.

As Father Shaw has described, this weekend is a fitting occasion for us to come together as an interfaith community. One of the important stories of the struggle for civil rights was the ways in which people of different faiths came together to stand up for the idea that the spark of God within each of us cannot be distinguished by the color of our skin.

My denomination, Reform Judaism, was actively engaged in the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s, and we are proud of the black-Jewish partnership that played an important role in the Civil Rights movement. When I teach the children in my congregation about Jewish history, and about what it means to take the words of our Torah, our Scripture, seriously and transform them into action, I teach them about the legacy of the rabbis who marched alongside Dr. King, the legacy of the Jews who made up almost half of the white volunteers of the Freedom Summer of 1964. Two of my professors in seminary were among the 16 rabbis who were arrested alongside Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida. Before I went to seminary, I worked at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, our denomination’s social justice department, whose building was the site where the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act were drafted. The rabbi emeritus of the congregation which I am privileged to serve, Rabbi Henry Cohen, fought for civil rights alongside African-American leaders in Wynnefield, and opened a bicultural black-Jewish preschool at our synagogue. Minister Muhammed, I am especially proud that leaders of my denomination, like Kivie Kaplan and Rabbi Stephen Wise, were involved in the founding of the NAACP, and that Rabbi David Saperstein, the outgoing head of our Religious Action Center, is a member of the NAACP’s national board of directors.

I share this history because part of Dr. King’s legacy is the lesson of what we have achieved together in the past – not so that my community, which enjoys so much privilege, can be self-satisfied with those achievements, not so that any of us can abdicate responsibility for all of the challenges that face us today – but rather, so that in the face of the distance that too often exists between our communities today, we might remember that it was not that long ago we walked hand in hand, and so that in face of the vast challenges to equality facing our country today, we might be inspired by what we were able to achieve together.

This week, Jews around the world read a passage of the Torah that happens to be particularly fitting for the weekend when our country honors Dr. King’s legacy. Just as Moses stood before Pharaoh, so too did Dr. King speak truth to power, and insist that oppression could not endure forever. “Sh’lach et ami!” Moses declares in God’s name to Pharaoh, in the Hebrew language of the Bible. “Let my people go!”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), marches at Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian.

On Friday night, at my synagogue’s Sabbath service, I shared with my congregation a sermon by a rabbi who spoke about this Biblical verse 52 years ago. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Holocaust survivor and one of the foremost theologians of contemporary Judaism, whose understanding of the Hebrew prophets and whose experience witnessing the persecution of Jews in Europe led him to become a strong voice for justice and a friend of Dr. King’s. Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King in Selma – you can see him in photos, the rabbi with the long white beard, arm in arm with Dr. King and the movement’s leaders. But they met for the first time, 52 years and 4 days ago, at the 1963 National Conference on Religion and Race. These were the words with which Rabbi Heschel began his remarks on that occasion:

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.’ While Pharaoh retorted: ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’

“The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed … What we need is a total mobilization of heart, intelligence, and wealth for the purpose of love and justice. God is in search of man, waiting, hoping for man to do His will.”

And yet, Rabbi Heschel writes, we come up with so many excuses, so many justifications, so many distractions.

“There are several ways of dealing with our bad conscience,” he continues. “(1) We can extenuate our responsibility; (2) we can keep the Negro out of our sight; (3) we can alleviate our qualms by pointing to the progress made; (4) we can delegate the responsibility to the courts; (5) we can silence our conscience by cultivating indifference; (6) we can dedicate our minds to issues of a far more sublime nature.”

In other words: God demands freedom, God demands justice, God demands that every human being be seen for his or her full humanity: and yet, like Pharaoh, our hearts are stubborn.

The great medieval rabbi Maimonides explains that when the Bible says that God stiffened Pharaoh’s heart, we should understand this as a great insight into human nature. The first time Pharaoh’s heart becomes stiff, Maimonides points out, it is Pharaoh himself who makes that choice. It is only after Pharaoh sets himself on the path of cruelty and callousness, stiffening his own heart against Moses’ plea, that God gets involved in stiffening Pharaoh’s heart on subsequent occasions.

And this, as my colleague Rabbi Shai Held explains Maimonides, is an insight and a warning about human nature. Every human being has free will, Maimonides explains, but we are also creatures of habit – and those habits can become difficult to break. At some point, our habits become so deeply ingrained that it can feel almost impossible to change our ways. God gives each person the freedom to choose to take responsibility, to do her part for justice, to to cultivate empathy and outrage instead of indifference – but for every time that a person blames someone else instead of taking responsibility, for every time that he closes his eyes within his own safe bubble, for every time that any of us allows indifference to dwell in our hearts – it becomes that much harder to choose the path of righteousness.

And so our task in coming together today is to change just one habit, perhaps: to come together when we are accustomed to staying apart; to speak out when we are accustomed to staying silent; to have hope when we are accustomed to feeling despondent. If we can change one habit, we will be closer to being able to truly choose freedom, to truly act for justice.

And so we pray today, God, that you might stiffen our hearts. Not as you stiffened the heart of Pharaoh against children of Israel’s plea – but rather as you stiffened the heart of Moses, who wouldn’t take no for an answer, and as you stiffened the heart of Dr. King, who endured so much and believed so strongly. Stiffen our hearts God, to break ourselves of the worst of our habits, and strengthen our resolve to do what we know is right.

May God stiffen our hearts to reject broken education systems, broken prison systems, broken health care systems, and broken relationships between our police officers and our communities.

May God stiffen our hearts to relieve the crushing burden of poverty, and the shamefully widening gap between rich and poor in our country.

May God stiffen our hearts to stand up to the challenges to our democracy, the fundamental right to vote, the corrupting influence of too much money in politics, and the extremism that kills thousands from Paris to Nigeria.

May God stiffen our hearts to fight discrimination in all its forms, the bigotry based on race or religion, sex, ethnicity or age, sexual orientation or gender identity; the barriers put before those of us with disabilities; the hidden racism of so many small assumptions.

Or zarua latzaddik, ulyishrei lev simcha, the Psalmist wrote. Light will be sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright of heart.

May our hearts be upright, may our hearts be stiff for justice, and
may light and joy await us.

Shalom Aleichem – salaam aleikum – peace be upon all of us.

The choir at AECST

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4 thoughts on “Remarks at the Historic African Episcopal Church of St Thomas

  1. Janice Asher

    Dear Rabbi,
    I intended to be present for the January 18 service. As I’m sure you remember, there was terrible snow and ice that morning, and I decided that it wasn’t worth risking my life to be there. Now that I’ve read the text of your sermon, however, I realize that I made a mistake: I wish that I had, in fact, taken the risk. You are remarkable.

    Janice Asher

    Reply
  2. Jodi Sussman

    I don’t get to services as often as I would like, but I’ve just been reading your blog and it has helped me get to know you a little better. Your words and thoughts are powerful and inspiring, especially your remarks at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Your Supplement to the Seder about bitterness was also wonderful. I intend to use it next year (this year’s Seder was a bit more unconventional than usual!)
    Thank you!

    Reply

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