Sermon for Bethel AME
Commemoration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday
January 16, 2011
“Hinei Mah Tovu U’Manayim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad,” “How good and pleasant it is for family to be together,” begins a favorite Hebrew song. When Oheb Shalom comes to Bethel AME we feel like family. We feel, in so many ways, that Bethel is our home. Since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, we have developed a close and abiding friendship. A relationship that began amidst the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has only grown stronger over this last decade. So it may not be a coincidence that we are now here, just one day after the Reid and Schmoke families buried their dear mother and grandmother. Mrs. Reid was an important part of what made this congregation great. Her energy, love, and commitment radiated beyond her family to her greater family, Bethel AME, the African-Methodist Episcopal Church, and the people of Baltimore. She will be greatly missed. On behalf of Temple Oheb Shalom, Sally and I offer the Reid and Schmoke families our most sincere condolences.
A few weeks ago, Rev. Reid and I met for breakfast. I was concerned about him because he did not look well. He was on a special diet which caused him to lose thirty pounds in one month. His greater concern, however, was his step-mother, who was then in Sinai Hospital. I was deeply touched when he asked me to visit her. I went later that afternoon to see her. Mrs. Reid was feeling quite well and was preparing to go home. I remember that we both did a lot of laughing, mostly to the stories she told me. She told me that she had accepted her fate, was grateful for the good life she had, and was completely prepared to make the journey to the next world. Her faith was palpable. It was one of the most pleasant and enjoyable hospital visits I have ever made in the thirty-two years I have been a rabbi. I left her room feeling a lot better than when I entered it. As I was walking down the hall, I did hear her say to the nurse, “That was Rabbi Fink. My rabbi came to visit me. Wasn’t that nice?”
During each one of our services, we pray for those who are in need of healing. While we do know that congregational prayer has great power, our prayers cannot cure cancer or reverse ALS. Our prayers do not lead to miracles. One of my favorite readings in our prayer book speaks to this. “Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirits, God’s will to prevail in our lives. Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city, but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” Prayer may not be able to change things in the physical world, but prayer can bring us strength and consolation. Prayer can give us encouragement and hope. Prayer can help us do things that we would not otherwise be able to do. When we let God into our lives, amazing things can happen. That is the topic on which I will speak for the next seven minutes, and 43 seconds.
Miracles can occur when God and people act together in partnership. Our Torah portion for this past week speaks of this relationship between God and the Jewish people. Pharaoh had just allowed the Jewish people to leave Egypt. Moses led them out of Egyptian bondage to the Sea of Reeds. The Biblical text tells us (Exodus 14:19-22), “And the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind the Israelites. It came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night. Then Moses held out his arm over the sea, and the Lord drove back the see with a strong east wind all that night and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” “The Israelites have just come out of slavery, are now on the run, and do not know where they are headed, other then through the desert. Only in the chapters before this text was it made clear that the Israelites were having trouble believing that they could be saved, and now they are supposed to simply throw themselves into the sea whose waters could close in on them (as it eventually did on the Egyptians)? Moreover, what were the people doing all night while they waited for the sea to split? And, how could they possibly have waited all night if the Egyptians were hot on their heels? The rabbis try to answer these questions in the Talmud, written about 1500 years ago.
The Talmud, (Sotah 7), offers an interpretation that captures the tension that the Israelites likely felt in the moments waiting for the sea to split. The Talmud says “Rabbi Meir said: ‘when the Israelites were standing at the Sea, the twelve Israelite tribes were arguing with one another. One said I will go into the sea first; the other said I will go first. No one had the courage to take leap into the cold and dangerous waters. According to the rabbis, it was not until one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah, jumped into the sea and the water was up to his nostrils that the waters actually parted.
It seems that the Talmud is truly capturing the essence of what it means to live in a world where prayer and God intersect. Imagine for a moment how Nachshon must have prayed to God. Perhaps he said, “Dear God, You have already performed many miracles for our people. I have faith that You will perform one more. Give me the courage and strength to jump into this sea. Help me be a leader of my people and risk my life for You. I pray that I can be a partner with You in saving the Jewish people.”
Would God have parted the sea without Nachshon taking such a risk? We do not know. Was God waiting for a human partner, one who trusted Him and who would act with the conviction of his prayer? Perhaps God needed a special person to reach out to Him, one who was willing to trust that a miracle would occur. Fortunately for Nachshon and especially for us, God found His one special human partner. If no one had prayed that hard, if no one was able to summon up the courage, the miracle of the sea may not have taken place. Then, my dear friends, we would not be here today.
Where would we be today if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not able to reach out to God, to pray for the knowledge that what he was doing was right? Dr. King changed our world through the power of an idea that all people are created equal and should be treated equally. He lived at the intersection of prayer and action. He was God’s partner. He rightly believed, as he said in his own words, “Human progress comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of social stagnation and irrational emotionalism. We must help time and we must realize that the time is always right to do right.”
The time is always right to become God’s partner. The time is always right to allow God to enter into our hearts. The time is always right for God to help us to do right. The time is always right for miracles to enter our world. Let us live at the intersection of prayer and action. Let us pray that we can act with conviction and courage. Let us be like Nachshon and risk for our families, our communities, our city, and our world. If we let God in, God will not let us down.
“God does indeed bring miracles into the world, and allows for human participation in the enactment of those miracles.” Think for a moment about the miracles that have occurred around us- the bond between two very different congregations, the friendship that exists between two people, a congregation’s devotion to their pastor and his family in his time of need, the comfort we receive following a loss, all of these take place at the intersection of prayer and action. We can create miracles through our partnership with God. Finally, “I pray that we can be like Nachshon ben Aminadav and allow ourselves to risk being nose deep in the cold water of the sea in order to participate in God’s miracles.”
I conclude with a poem by William Arthur Ward:
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk being called sentimental.
To reach out is to risk involvement.
To expose feeling is to risk showing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before the crowd is to risk being naive.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risk must be taken, because the greatest risk in life is to risk nothing.
Those who risk nothing do nothing, have nothing, are nothing and become nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they simply cannot learn to feel, and change,
and grow, and love, and live.
Chained by their servitude, they are slaves; they have forfeited their freedom. Only
people who risk are truly free.
The greatest hazard in life is to not be ready when God calls us. Let us be like Nachshon and Dr. King who were ready to risk everything to be in partnership with God.