Sermon in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK Sermon Fellowship Presbyterian Church

I am so grateful to be given this opportunity to speak to you this morning.

it is a rare opportunity to be able to address such an amazing audience and i want to say that being with your Reverend – Rev. Gregory Bently at the Temple this past Friday evening was a wonderful honor.

We are taught in the book of Deuteronomy: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue. Deuteronomy 16:18.  This verse is particularly hard living in a world today where 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 51 years since the Civil Rights Act and countless acts of civil non-violence and protest since the Civil War culminating in the Civil Rights movement, we still see and experience as a country the scourge of racism.  52 years ago Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke at the first US Conference on Religion and Race in January of 1963, he said:
“the exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” (From AJ Heschel speech at Conference on Religion and Race, January 1963)
The recent deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and so many others whose names never made it into the press are painful reminders that Heschels words still ring true today.  In an era where one in three black men born today will serve time in a prison, where whites have about six times more net-worth than non-white families, where access to educational resources still leave minorities “separate but not equal” and lastly where black Americans are more than twice as likely to die as a result of gun violence as whites leads me to wonder if Justice is blind like she is depicted in the statues around courthouses or if we simply do and live as humans do with all of our biases around us all the time.

We are imperfect beings created only in the image of God, a mere shadow of Divine perfection.  As beings we can only live our individual experiences and see things through the lens of our own life.  We all have stumbling blocks which exists and are a part of ourselves which we may not even be aware of.  There are parts of ourselves which we do not like, appreciate or even want to acknowledge.  This prevents us from seeing who we are and from loving all aspects of our-self.  When a Hindu says “Namaste” what they are really saying is: “The divine self in me loves the divine self in you.”  Yet our own blindness prevent us from really seeing the divine in the “other” person in front of us.

I am speaking specifically and painfully to the concept of privilege.  The concept of privilege is a concept which is both challenging and informative because it allows us to discover the many fascists about ourselves that we are both comfortable and uncomfortable with.

I should therefore share with you more about who I am.  I am, a feminist, Jewish, mother and wife.  I am also the granddaughter of holocaust survivors… I am white, I am middle class and I am well educated.  I am a northerner living in the South and loving it.

Because I am at the intersection of many things: sex, class, religion and being an outsider to some extent from the local community, this allows me to have a slightly different perspective than others as to what are the problems here.

A few years ago I had the privilege of traveling to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis TN.  My experience there forever changed me.  I went there as an unscheduled stop on my trip to Memphis.  When I stood on the balcony of the Loraine Motel where Dr. King was murdered I felt as if I was witnessing something that was so profound and sad at the same time.  Dr. King was murdered for standing up and saying we are all create in the image of God, we all have inalienable rights and need to be treated with respect.

Better, in his own words from the Letter he wrote from the Birmingham Jail:

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider …” (Letter from a Birmingham jail)

I had a congregant who was African American, she wanted to convert to Judaism.  In the time that I knew her over the course of two years she:

  • had issues finding employment
  • was stopped multiple times for Traffic violations
  • went to jail because she did not have the extra money to pay for the traffic ticket and had to place her 4 year old son in the care of a stranger while she spent 3 days in jail to “pay the city” for the fine.
  • experienced sexism and was nearly assaulted

Her story is probably a familiar one.  Yet to me, i was shocked.  I went from hearing statistics to seeing them living out in front of me inside of a person who was simply struggling to live, put food on her table and see the world for what if could be – a place of justice and equality.

I questioned what were the circumstances which systematically prevented my congregant from succeeding?  What were the Pharaohs blocking the redemption of a people enslaved?

Then I realized my answer: me

I perpetuate that system because I benefit from that system.  I have been pulled over twice in my life.  I had the money to pay my ticket and not think about it.  I had the ability to access a mortgage and buy a house in a great neighborhood.  I was not questioned when i show up with my children in a restaurant that we might need some extra assistance.  There is no one judging me for a screaming child.

The truth, my truth, is that we are all victims and oppressors in our own way – all the time.

We are all insiders, outsiders, members of the community and other at the same time.

Let me ask you a question, please raise your hands if you have ever:

  • been pulled over for a traffic violation?
  • had difficulty accessing health care or finding a doctor willing to work with you?
  • struggled as a result of your race/gender/ethnicity?
  • experienced sexism?
  • been physically assaulted or otherwise exposed to violence?
A majority of the people in this room have raised your hands. You have also been given the opportunity to be and see the world for what it is – opportunity.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

To rebuild our world…we must rebuild ourselves.  When Moses said that we had a decision to make between life and death, and that literally the commandments were in our hands should we decide to engage with them.  But failing to engage with them and with the world around us prevents us from being a co-creator with God in completing the work of creation.   By engaging in the “blame game” we fail to take into account our contributions to the problem and the possibilities which rest inside all of us to assist with the solution.

Rabbi Heschel spoke at a speech on Race and said: “By negligence and silence we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge,[and] to chastise…. An honest estimation of the moral state of our society will disclose: Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” (From AJ Heschel speech at Conference on Religion and Race, January 1963)

we are all responsible for the current situation. and we are all obligated to fix it.

the problem with Israel is that Israel is accused in the Palestinian conflict of being the sole cause for the problems that the Palestinians face and experience.  There have been so many UN resolutions against Israel and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement has grown and become successful in incorrectly labeling Israel and apartheid state. Yes, Israel has engaged in actions which i find troubling against the Palestinians.  But they are not an apartheid state – far from it.  Accusations of such limit dialogue and discussion and prevent relationships from being formed which can move forward a process so staled as to prevent peace from ever being reached.

Both sides have contributed to this problem.  So have all of the other nations in the Middle East by using the Palestinians as pawns in a political game. Some are guilty, but all are responsible.

Dr. King famously and amazingly had a dream which he shared with us in Washington DC.
He said:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

I too have a dream, though this dream has it origins over 2,000 years ago:

“for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” Isaiah (56:7)

When we stop to see the other, when we start to say i will be a part of the solution, when we start to engage with one another and see the Divine piece that rests in each other then we can start to make that dream of community a reality.

We are obligated to grapple with these problems, we are obligated to see the problems inside of us first and engage in Tikun Etzmi (the repair of ourselves) before we engage in Tikun Olam (the repair of the world) so that we are able to see what needs to be repaired.

The solution exists in educating our youth…bringing them to Memphis, Selma, Birmingham and Atlanta to see and walk in the footsteps of past generations so that history won’t be repeated.  We must go to Dachau, Auschwitz and Treblinka, Rwanda, Darfur and Bosnia so the results of genocide and live the words: Never Again.  We need to develop and enhance in ourselves a level of compassion and empathy where we see one another, see the divine the rests there and are grateful to be in each other’s presence.

By engaging in the challenging work of repairing ourselves we set the the example to those around us and those who will come after us.  It is for this reason that my daughter goes to a AAA magnet school where diversity is valued.  It is for this reason I reach out to the Huntsville Islamic Center to end Islamophobia.  It is why i have worked hard to work through my own personal prejudices and preconceived notions –  I admit that I am nothing more or less than a work in progress.

Let us join together, Let us join together in reforming the justice system, closing the income gap, bringing equality to those in search of a good education by ensuring everyone has access to the same resources.  Let us work together: white, black, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Israelis and Palestinians; let us come together.

Dr. King knew that our survival demands action:  “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”

I pray that we are able to stop seeing “the other” and start seeing fellowship, friendship, peace and harmony.  that the dream that Dr. King had is one which we will all feel that we must work for together.

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