Monday, June 18, 2012

Thank You

This past Shabbat we offered thank yous to our friends at the Brookville Reformed Church for hosting our congregation these past sixteen years.  What follows is my sermon marking this occasion.

Let me begin my remarks by first reassuring our friends at the church. We are leaving here for one simple reason. We need larger space. You have only made us feel most welcome. In fact we stayed longer than either of us ever imagined we would. This could only have happened because of the generosity of spirit that you extended to us. I hope and pray that we will remain friends, that our congregations will continue to work together. I pledge to you this evening that we will continue as we have for the past sixteen years, to purchase the Advent candles that you use to count the days toward Christmas. My heartfelt prayer is that although we will no longer be regular guests here at the church we will continue the spirit of brotherhood that we have forged here.

I will miss you. I will miss in particular my friend, Allan Ramirez. I will miss coming to the church. I have learned a great deal here. I will miss its quiet and serenity. I will miss being alone here after services, when our ner tamid (eternal light) illumines the sanctuary. I felt a keen sense that my cleaning up mattered for the services you would be holding on Sunday. (I do have to thank Rigo for sharing in these efforts. It was he who lovingly spread our blue tapestry on the table and wheeled our Ark into the sanctuary every Friday evening.) Here I have learned the true nature of sanctuary. Here we were always made to feel welcome that we could pray as we wanted and as our tradition dictated. This I have learned is the meaning of sanctuary. It is a refuge for the spirit.

I will miss especially the bells. There were times to be honest when they seemed to interrupt our prayers. But I will miss their gentle reminder of the gift we have received. I will miss what these bells have come to signify. Many times we have gathered as a congregation to recall past sufferings. We have done so here, at the Brookville Reformed Church. And the bells have often punctuated these observances. While sufferings and persecutions have not ended throughout our world, in this little corner, in these seats we have never seen the likes of what we recall on those days. Our children have experienced something far different. Here we have taught our children more than just the meaning of being Jewish. Here they have also learned a powerful lesson.

Despite what we learn about in history, and despite the threats that continue throughout our world, it is possible for Jews to count it as ordinary to pray in a church. Although it might be unrivaled in Jewish history, our children deem the extraordinary ordinary. It is possible for Jews, Christians and Moslems to not only be friends but share a home. They can worship differently in one place. Here is a church that welcomes our prayers, that invites us to place our prayerbooks in its pews.

What is virtually unparalleled in Jewish history we have grown to accept. We dare not forget this message. Even though we will soon be praying elsewhere this message must remain in our hearts. There is a danger that when surrounding ourselves with only like-minded individuals and people of the same faith we begin to grow suspicious of those who are different. We begin to look down on others. That is why we must always hold what we have learned here in our hearts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, offers these words in his famous speech about interreligious cooperation. The speech is called “No Religion is an Island.” In it he argues that no religion, no community can exist in isolation. We must learn from each other. He concludes:
What, then, is the purpose of interreligious cooperation?
It is neither to flatter nor to refute one another, but to help one another; to share insight and learning…and, what is even more important, to search in the wilderness for wellsprings of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for man. What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures forever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring abut a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, Moses sends the spies to scout the land. Ten of the spies return with a worrisome report. They are afraid of what they see. In their eyes everyone in the new land is a giant and they see themselves as grasshoppers. Our being here should forever remind us that this must never be the case. No one else should ever appear like menacing giants. And we should never imagine ourselves as small as grasshoppers. To be sure the world can at times, or maybe even often, appear threatening. The world can appear as the spies indeed saw it. But here in this place we have discovered another truth.

We have learned here that while we must remain true to our own individual traditions, we must as well remain faithful to all of humankind. With faith and hope nothing can break our spirits. Together we can accomplish far more than alone.

The prophet Jeremiah declared:
Thus said the Lord: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these [buildings].” No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow…only then will I let you dwell in this place. (Jeremiah 7)
These are words that we share. No building will ever define who we truly are. It is how we treat one another that we will forever define us. That will be our most lasting testament. And that I have learned here, in this place, from our friends at the Brookville Reformed Church. That message we dare not forget. We pledge to forever teach this to our children.

May we continue to hold this message in our hearts. Let us march forward as Jews, carrying in our hearts what we have learned here, in this church, throughout our journey.

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