Sermon for Bethel AME Service – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Commemoration on January 19, 2014

Good morning! Sally and I are so happy to be back with you, our Bethel AME congregants, once again. It is hard to believe but this is the thirteenth time our two congregations have worshiped together to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. We have changed much and grown together- mostly older. When I first preached here I weighed twenty pounds less, had lots more hair and no grey. I was also, however, less mature and less humble than I am now. Cleaning up regularly after two very big dogs is a fine way to keep me humble. There is, though, a certain amount of wisdom that accumulates over a lifetime of service. Let me share a bit with you.
For many of us, the number thirteen is highly unlucky. There is even a name for those who superstitious about the number thirteen- Triskaidekaphobia. Try to say that three times! There are several reasons why thirteen is unlucky. There were thirteen people at the Last Supper, with Judas Iscariot being the last to take his seat. According to Norse mythology, twelve gods sat down at a banquet when the evil god, Loki, showed up and took the thirteenth place. Traditionally, there were thirteen steps leading to the gallows. I can go on and on, but you get the point. In Judaism, however, thirteen is a lucky number. Yes, a lucky number. According to the Torah, God has thirteen attributes of divine mercy. We recite these attributes thirteen times on Yom Kippur. The great medieval sage, Maimonides, articulated the Thirteen Principles of Faith. There are thirteen laws of textual analysis that explain the Mishnah, our first digest of Jewish law. Thirteen is also the age of bar mitzvah, of majority. I must digress for a moment and thank Rev. Reid and the Bethel Nation for attending my bar mitzvah celebration this past April. I was delighted to see you. You honored me with your presence. On behalf of Oheb Shalom, I congratulate Dr. Reid and Bethel AME for Dr. Reid’s twenty five years of inspired leadership. As you will see in a moment, the twenty sixth year is even better than this one.
There is a very important Hebrew word whose letters, in Gematria, add up to thirteen. In Hebrew, every letter of the alphabet has a numerical equivalent, so the first letter, alef, is one, bet is two, and so on. The art of finding meaning in letter/number combinations is called Gematria. We can sometimes discover profound meaning through Gematria. The Hebrew word for “love” is ahava, spelled alef=one, hay=five, bet=two, and hay=five, which adds up to thirteen. Thirteen is the number of “love” in Hebrew. No wonder thirteen is a lucky number for us. When we combine the love between two people, we add 13 to 13=26. The number 26 also is the Gematria for the name of God, Adonai, yud, hay, vav, hay. We believe that when two people are in love, God is the third party in their relationship. God is present in the relationship between Dr. Reid and his beloved congregation. When a congregation loves its pastor as this one loves Dr. Reid, we know that God smiles.
God is part of every true meeting and every genuine relationship, whether that of individuals or communities. Over the last thirteen years, God’s presence has become stronger in the relationship between our two congregations. When we learn about each other and begin to care, then God is present. God is present in the relationship between Bethel AME and Oheb Shalom but God is not present in much of American society today. This country has not been more divided since the 1920s. We are politically at odds and economically stratified. The major issue dividing us today is not race but class. Our twenty and thirty something children are, for the most part, color blind. Young people of all races and ethnicities work together and socialize together as long as they are at the same educational and professional level. College educated young people see the world through rainbow colored lenses. In particular, Jews and African-Americans are getting along very well. The relationship between young Jews and Blacks in the entertainment industry is legendary, going back to the twenties and thirties and expressing itself today, for example, in hip hop. Inspired by black artists, Jewish artists such as Drake, Mac Miller, and Action Bronson recorded some of the most talked about releases in hip hop this year. In August, a YouTube video compilation went viral, showing rappers Kanye West, Cam’ron, Killer Mike, Gucci Mane and Jan-Z thanking their Jewish lawyers in songs. Star of David bling adorned the cover of Rick Ross’s latest “The Black Bar Mitzvah.” I know nothing about hip hop but I know that good relations between blacks and Jews mean God is still present in this world. Believe me- I am not naïve. Racism and anti-Semitism continue to plague us but in this country, and I emphasize this country, it is not nearly as pernicious as it was. Class is what divides us. We are separated into the very rich and the very poor with a shrinking middle class in between. Most of us here today are part of that shrinking middle class.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared a War on Poverty, a campaign which largely failed. The poverty rate has fallen from 19% to 15% in two generations, leaving 46 million Americans living in households where the government considers their income to be scarcely adequate for survival. To be fair, we are much better off today than we were fifty years ago. Yet economic stratification is more pronounced than ever before. If we are in the top five per cent of earners, we are doing very well. If we are not, we are having a hard time making a go of it. Even those of us who have good incomes see our children struggling to get jobs, pay off student loans, and find a place for themselves in a less mobile world. The American Dream is dying. The ability of those born into poverty to make a better life for themselves is drying up. People are born poor and die poor, even after a lifetime of hard work. The rich are not necessarily responsible for this. The major contributors are teen pregnancies, dropping out of high school, lack of low skilled jobs, drugs, and unstable families. These factors prevent young people from gaining the educational skills they need to advance in a highly competitive economy. There is a growing hopelessness and malaise that is gripping all parts of America. The lack of social mobility combined with the lack of hope for a better life leads to anger and ultimately to social instability. We know all too well where that leads. It took us forty years to recover from the Baltimore’s last riots.
So what are we to do? The challenges seem insurmountable. How can we make a difference? How can we change American society? The answer is may not be able to better the entire country but we can make a difference in Baltimore. We can make life better and bring more opportunity for hundreds and thousands of people. Is the task daunting? Is it overwhelming? You bet it is. The rabbis taught us in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers (2:16), “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to desist from it.” We need to recreate the American dream by giving our children every opportunity to succeed in this more complex world. How do we do it? The answer is simple, we do it together.
The rabbis tell us that Moses was in front of the Jewish people at the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was in the rear. Moses appealed to God for a miracle. “Save us,” Moses implored. God said to Moses, “We must work together. One of you must have the courage to jump into the sea. Only then will I part the waters. Finally, with the Egyptians coming even closer and those at the back of the column screaming with fear, one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the house of Judah, jumped into the freezing water. He walked and walked. The water got deeper and deeper. Finally, when it came just under his nose, the waters parted. The sea split in two and the Israelites walked through the sea on the dry land to the other side. Hence, we are taught to pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on us.
We need more Nachshons, leaders who are not afraid to jump into the raging waters and make changes for the better in Baltimore. We need many of you to emulate Nachshon, to become part of the Oheb Shalom-Bethel AME Taskforce called “Isaiah 61,” co-chaired by Rev. Dr. Lorraine Castain and Shelle Schnell, a task force that will not only bring our two congregations closer together but will help make life better for the people of this neighborhood, many of whom do not have a chance to make it in stratified America. Why is this task force named Isaiah 61? The prophet Isaiah, who lived about 2,600 hundred years ago in Babylonia, modern day Iraq, called upon the Jewish people to “bind up the wounded of heart, to proclaim release to the captives, and to comfort all who mourn.” We proclaim our love of God by offering our help to God’s children.
One of our major goals is to rebuild the Bethel Outreach Center, a 20,000 square foot structure that can house much needed services for this community. Our own Mark Levin has offered his architectural acumen for the reconstruction effort. We will at first be called upon to offer our labor to clean out the center so re-construction can begin. The center will eventually be a magnet for this community, providing health, legal, and educational services, housing a community grocery and a much needed café. We can help level the playing field and give many more young people the skills needed to advance in today’s economy if we work together. We just need many more Nachshons, those who are willing to take a risk and jump into the water. So, my dear friends, repeat after me, “Be Nachshon.” Once again, “Be Nachshon.” A third time, “Be Nachshon.” When we join together to work on behalf of this community, we help rebuild our nation. When we work together God is present. When we express our love for other human beings, God will bless us.
So, I ask that we express our love for God and one another by exerting our leadership and acting for God. When we do so, countless young people will have a chance to achieve the American dream. Be Nachshon- and help make America great.
May God bless us all.

Amen

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