Saturday, September 14, 2013

Listening to the Cries and Calls of Humanity - Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning - September 14, 2013 - Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, New Mexico

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
to banish war,
for You have filled the world
with paths to peace
if only we would take them.
We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease
for we might see the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them.
We cannot merely pray to You
to end starvation:
for there is enough food for all,
if only we would share it.
We cannot merely pray to You:
“Cast out despair,”
for the spark of hope
already waits within the human heart,
for us to fan it into a flame.
We must not ask of You, O God,
to take the task that You have given us.
We cannot shirk,
we cannot flee away,
avoiding obligation for ever.
Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to gaze
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.
So that our world may be safe,
and our lives may be blessed.
[From Mishkan  T’filah, World Union Edition, as adapted from Siddur Lev Chadash, as adapted from a prayer by Jack Riemer, in New Prayers for the High Holy Days, Prayer Book Press of Media Judaica, Inc., 1971 – from Rosh Hashanah Morning Service draft, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2011]

This reading written by Rabbi Jack Riemer over forty years ago calls on us to respond through word and deed to the specter of war, to the persistence of hunger in our world, and to people who are overcome by disease, inequality, violence and discrimination.  
The first step in taking action is hearing the cries of those who are in despair, who need our support to live in safety and freedom. 
Those calls for assistance often come first to the faith community, which is seen as a source of comfort and
an agent of compassion and change. 
    In the past year,  I have joined other religious leaders in meetings devoted to hearing those cries for help clearly and distinctly.
We have tried to determine in those gatherings how clergy and congregants can effectively step forward to offer the appropriate answer to people in need.   
  In those meetings, I personally have heard about the plight of farm workers in New Mexico who are ill-treated and underpaid for their back-breaking work.
   I have witnessed people lose their fight to keep their homes, where the bank chose foreclosure over the homeowners’ honest attempt to modify their loans.
I have spoken with members of communities where government officials had chosen to invest in jails rather than in schools.  
   Some of you have spoken with residents of Camp Hope who have a place to stay due to the good graces of the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope as they wait for the possibility of being matched with a new place to live to call their own.
    Donations flow from your hands to the Casa de Peregrinos food bank and El Caldito Soup kitchen every month, offering a gift of nutrition and warmth to local residents who depend on our generosity. 
    I have been in the presence of aspiring citizens seeking to be full-fledged Americans someday.  
     I attended a hearing at the immigration court in El Paso for a woman facing deportation who would have been separated from her children born on American soil.   Due to a flood of calls from people in our area and around the country, and the wisdom of the court, her case was closed and she can remain as a member of the local community.  
   Susan Fitzgerald and I had the opportunity to meet some of the participants in a 285 mile walk for citizenship in California from Sacramento to Bakersfield.  That walk ended by reaching its objective: a meeting with Congressman Kevin McCarthy.  Even with major disagreements during their conversation, the congressman indicated his intention to continue open dialogue with the group .  
    Some members of Congress continue to be focused on the “rule of law” in the current debate on immigration reform.
   We, of all people, should remember that it was the “rule of law” that kept thousands of Jews from finding a haven in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.  Due to the immigration quotas established in 1921 and 1924, the waiting list was years long for Jews who sought visas to gain refuge in America.   Some of them survived throughout World War II, but others perished in the Holocaust.
   In this day and age, it is hard not to hear the cries and calls of humanity for genuine concern, for an outstretched hand that can offer support and hope.
    The question is, what do we want them to hear from us?   What should be the response of religious congregations?  And how does Judaism shape our approach to the needs of society and the world?  
      One of my colleagues, Rabbi Dennis Ross, is a national advocate for reproductive choice.    In his book ALL POLITICS ARE RELIGIOUS,  Rabbi Ross characterized the voice of the faith community that he believes people would hope to hear.  Before laying out those principles, he described the type of statements from religious leaders that too easily find their way into the headlines.     Too often, he said, people link religion to the claims of certain clergy that a particular disaster, such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, happened because it was God’s punishment for a community’s moral failures.  We readily hear about religious groups insisting that state or national laws or the curriculum in our nation’s schools should match their own strict interpretations of biblical or religious law and values.   Rabbi Ross suggested an alternative religious message that can bring about positive change based not in strict judgment but in loving and open concern for all people.    He proposed these principles that could guide congregations in their work in the community:
·      caring for the powerless;
·      softening harsh justice with compassion;
·      affirming a positive vision for the future;
·      upholding our right to make our own moral decisions, without the interference of strict secular laws;
·      and strengthening the separation between religion and government, while encouraging a variety of faiths to contribute their views, but in an atmosphere of mutual respect. 
    Another leader in the American faith community supports Rabbi Ross’ idea of providing a new vision for positive change.  Rev. Jim Wallis is an evangelical Christian who attended a church in Detroit when he was growing up.  His church focused on personal atonement for each member of the congregation.   The inaction of his congregation in reaching out to help struggling neighborhoods across town led him to see the necessity of working for social justice and equality if he hoped to make real the message of the prophets in the Bible.    In his book ON GOD’S SIDE,  Rev. Jim Wallis asserted, like Rabbi Ross, that religion has an important role to play in public life.   Wallis explained that religion uses politics all too often to enforce its own viewpoint and its own interests, or tries to make its own beliefs and standards the law of the land.   Wallis asserted that religion is at its best when it leads and proactively sets the agenda for community action based in genuine concern for the welfare of all people.
   Wallis focused on a set of central religious teachings that can direct our work for social justice, including:
·    caring most about what happens to the poor and vulnerable;
·    protecting human life and dignity;
·     promoting the actual health and well-being of families.
·    lifting up the people who have no political influence, including immigrants who remain undocumented, low-income families and children, and the poorest of the poor globally. 
From his unique position, Rev. Wallis is able to see the value in both conservative and liberal perspectives on how people can improve their lives.   Wallis explained, “I believe the best idea of the conservative political philosophy is the call to personal responsibility: choices and decisions about individual moral behavior, personal relationships, fiscal integrity, service, compassion, and security. And the best idea of the liberal philosophy is the call to social responsibility: the commitment to our neighbor, economic fairness, racial and gender equality, the just nature of society, needed social safety nets, public accountability for business, and the importance of cooperative international relationships.”  To work for the ultimate goal, which Wallis calls the “common good,”  we need to be personally responsible and socially just.  Everyone needs to work together to combine the strengths of these philosophies in order to improve the quality of life for everyone.     
     Both Rabbi Ross and Rev. Wallis outlined values that resonate with people of many faiths as they seek to put their beliefs into practice in the greater community.  The Torah and Haftarah readings in our services this morning and this afternoon echo many of those very principles that can lead us to work for positive change. 
   The Torah reading for this morning from Deuteronomy Chapters 29 and 30 envisions all of the community standing together,  people from all walks of life, all levels of status and importance, in a moment of equality.  They were all commanded to choose “life and good.”   Today, we can choose to seek and work for “life and good” in our diverse community, focusing on human concerns for the common good that unite us.
     In the Haftarah,  the prophet Isaiah declared to his people that the fast that God wanted from them was not one where they meticulously fulfilled their ritual obligations and then oppressed their workers and sowed conflict among their neighbors.   Isaiah assured his people that their light would shine in the darkness, their night would be bright as noon “if they removed the menacing hand, unlocked the shackles of injustice and bondage, made sacrifices for the hungry and satisfied the needs of the afflicted.”
    In the Torah reading for this afternoon from Leviticus Chapter 19, we are commanded to be holy as God is holy through our actions that can further the common good.  This biblical “holiness code” directs us to honor our parents, share our food with the poor and stranger, judge our neighbor fairly, refrain from gossip, treat people of all ages with respect, practice honesty in business and love our neighbors as ourselves.   Verses 33 and 34 of Leviticus Chapter 19 proposed a universal version of the “golden rule”:  “When strangers live with you in your land, you must not oppress them.  The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”    This broadly based standard equated citizens and strangers in the context of a caring and welcoming community.  I would imagine that my grandparents hoped for such a welcome when they immigrated to the United States.   That principle from Leviticus can guide our approach to aspiring citizens who are now living among us. 
    The Haftarah reading for this afternoon further advocates for the values of openness and acceptance not only within a nation but also between nations and peoples.  The prophet Jonah refused to deliver a message to the people of Nineveh to repent and change their lives because they weren’t Hebrews like he was.   He learned the hard way, after spending three days in the belly of a DAG GADOL, a big fish, that God’s love and compassion extended to everyone, no matter who they were or from whence they came.
     The central values of today’s biblical readings form the core of our message to the world, creating a society based on honesty, equality, concern for all people, a willingness to listen and respond, and a sense that faith must lead us to extend a helping hand to offer timely comfort and action that can bring about positive change.   We do have our work cut out for us.
But I know that there are Temple members who are already involved in ongoing efforts to strengthen our communal safety net, to further equality, to eliminate prejudice and discrimination, and to assure that our city, county, state and country are welcoming enough to offer current citizens and aspiring citizens a sense of security and hope.  I believe that my role in the community, and the role of our congregation, is to apply the moral principles of the Torah and the ethical proclamations of the prophets to assure that our light will have a fighting chance to shine in the darkness, and our night will be bright as noon, because of the work we do for the common good of our fellow community members and of all humankind.
   The words we recite today from the Tanakh can lead us to a place of light, hope, balance and mutual respect if we continue to open our ears to truly listen to each other and to hear the cries of people who need our help and support.   The prayers of Yom Kippur continue to call on us to consider how we will be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life in the coming year. We have it within each of us to share the light inside our souls that will provide warmth to our community and to a world that needs our open hands and open hearts.
 Please join with me in a reading by James Conlon that calls on us to provide the world with healing and hope:  
I know
that poverty must cease.
I know this through the brokenness
and conflict in my heart.
I know
that protest is my most prophetic act
and that the world is longing
for a new soul, a new healing moment.
I know
that when we awaken to our origins
and become truly human
we bring hope to the children
and to the earth.
I feel called today
to bring the people together to break the bread
and tell the story.
I feel called today
to be a mystic in action,
aligned to the dynamics of the universe.
I feel called today
to give my gift,
to listen to the heartbeat of the broken world;
to heal the fragmentation of people and planet.
I feel called today
to celebrate the wonder of creation
and respond to sacredness and the
challenges of life.
I feel called today
to participate in the work of my time,
to fall in love,
to feel at home.
I feel called today
to be inflamed with enduring hope,
to be at one with the universe,
to be touched by God.
I feel called today
To compose a new paragraph for life.
[James Conlon, From the Stars to the Streets, Novalis, 2007 – in Rosh Hashanah Morning Service draft, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2011]

May the paragraphs we write in our Book of Life lead us to infuse the world and our souls with goodness, holiness, blessing and peace. 

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