Friday, February 28, 2014

Shaping a Holy Community to bring God close - D'var Torah for Parashat Pekuday - February 28, 2014 (with reflections on the PICO Convocation)

Leading singing with Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews to begin
the PICO Convocation
    Earlier this week, I represented CAFé of Southern New Mexico at the convocation of the national organization PICO, People Improving Communities through Organizing. 
   We gathered for a two-fold purpose. First, we created a new body of leaders that will act as a liaison between local affiliates and the national leadership.  The group will engage in visioning to guide the entire network in non-profit advocacy of pressing issues facing the American people, especially those who may not feel empowered to speak for themselves.
    The other reason we gathered near Atlanta was to seriously discuss the topic of race and how it affects our work.  We tried to make sure that our relationships are giving people of all backgrounds in our network the opportunity to share their concerns and act on their values. 
CAFe Executive Director Sarah Nolan discusses the topic
of race and leadership
   The content of our discussions was really not unlike the reading “May the door of this synagogue” that we recited earlier in the service.  That prayer expresses principles that should direct us in how we treat each other, how we welcome newcomers into our space, and how we can give every person among us a chance to discover meaning inside this sanctuary that can be made real in daily life.
Our first-night communal circle at the PICO Convocation
    One of the speakers at our event, Pastor Antoine Barriere of New Orleans, has worked hard to improve education in his city and to prevent the spread of local for-profit jails that only thrive when they are full, and where laws are passed to make certain that such is the case.   Pastor Barriere spoke about how we need to adopt “God goals” for our work in the community.  He related our efforts to bring about change to the story of Joshua leading the Israelites.  He explained that God had already given the people the land.   To “seal the deal,” so to speak, they just had to take it through their own actions and power.  
     Also this week, the Union for Reform Judaism offered a webinar presentation, led by Rabbi Peter Knobel, that explored biblical stories of redemption.   Rabbi Knobel focused on examples when God and human beings partnered to bring redemption, borne out especially in the tale of Moses as well as the story of Jonah. 
     He also cited examples of human redeemers for whom God barely seemed present, if at all.   Joseph gave credit to God for putting him in the right place to save his family, but God did not act overtly in that story.  In the Book of Esther,  Mordechai and Esther saved the Jews of Persia on their own.  Of course, that book doesn’t mention God even once. 
    One verse in the Torah reading for this week seems to make the point that we need to act with reverence and holiness before we will experience redemption and, ultimately, God’s presence.  I will be reading from the Torah the section that describes the pillar of cloud that would guide the Israelites by day and the pillar of fire that would lead them at night.  If the pillar moved, they would set out on their journey.  If not, they remained where they were.  
     What is important to note is the verse preceding that passage.  Moses was busy putting the finishing touches on the Tabernacle, the Israelite center for worship.  The end of Exodus Chapter 40, verse 33 declares, “When Moses completed the work,” and the next verse continues, “the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting.” 
    It appears to be a pretty simple equation:  no completed work, no divine cloud and fire. Had Moses not finished the tasks of creating a space to commune with God, God would not have come.
     These days, we don’t see God among us as a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire.  When we pray, however, we speak about godliness, or “God goals,” in terms of reverence for all creation, love, and cooperation in building a society based upon justice.  We think of God when we recognize and enhance the holy moments of our lives, when we approach life with gratitude, and when we make peace inside and outside of ourselves.
When we practice these values of our heritage, they, in turn, offer us guidance for the future, serving a role similar to that of the pillar of cloud and fire for the Israelites. 

    This holy space at Temple Beth-El, in which we recite sacred words, can offer us direction if our hearts are open to that possibility. As we heard in the reading that began our service, “May this synagogue be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.”  And, in the words of that prayer, may we help those who have “cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture” not only among us here, in this place, but within the greater community and throughout the family of humanity.   That is how we can make God and godliness real in time, in space, in our experiences, and in our souls. 

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