Spiritual Revolutionaries: Making Religion Meaningful in the 21st Century

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On December 1 and 2, 2018, I participated in an interfaith “pulpit swap” with my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Hollie Woodruff, of Seventh Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond. She preached to my congregation on Saturday, and I to hers on Sunday. Below is the script of the sermon I delivered at Seventh Street on Sunday, December 2, 2018 (coinciding with the first Sunday of Advent and the eve of the first night of Hanukkah):

In June of 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian and civil rights advocate, sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy that I’m eager to share with you. A few months before, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders were arrested for protesting against segregation in Birmingham. Religious leaders — Christians and Jews — in Birmingham objected to King’s presence, organizing, and action there, prompting King to author a reply, which we now know as his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The next month, Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor unleashed fire hoses and police dogs on African-American protesters, including women and children, while many if not most congregations and clergy continued to remain silent about the mounting injustices. Heschel wasn’t having it. He wrote to President Kennedy:

I LOOK FORWARD TO PRIVILEGE OF BEING PRESENT AT MEETING TOMORROW AT 4 P.M. LIKELIHOOD EXISTS THAT NEGRO PROBLEM WILL BE LIKE THE WEATHER. EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT IT BUT NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. PLEASE DEMAND OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS PERSONAL INVOLVEMENT NOT JUST SOLEMN DECLARATION. WE FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO WORSHIP GOD AS LONG AS WE CONTINUE TO HUMILIATE NEGROES. CHURCHES SYNAGOGUES HAVE FAILED. THEY MUST REPENT. ASK OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS TO CALL FOR NATIONAL REPENTANCE AND PERSONAL SACRIFICE. LET RELIGIOUS LEADERS DONATE ONE MONTH’S SALARY TOWARD FUND FOR NEGRO HOUSING AND EDUCATION. I PROPOSE THAT YOU MR. PRESIDENT DECLARE STATE OF MORAL EMERGENCY. A MARSHALL PLAN FOR AID TO NEGROES IS BECOMING A NECESSITY. THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY.

Heschel’s point was that religion means nothing if it does not respond clearly, forcefully, and directly to the greatest moral crises and challenges of the day. Faith fails — and deserves to fail — when it is not a progressive force for social transformation.

It seems to me that this is the good news in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:5-25).

Luke takes care to set his scene in a particularly dark moment in Jewish history. He tells us that his tale occurs during the reign of King Herod. Setting the story during this period puts the narrative at the height of the Roman consolidation of power over the Jews of Judea: a zenith of Roman imperial grandeur, and also of tyranny and of subjugation.

But Luke doesn’t tell a story about Roman oppression. He doesn’t need to. His audience knows all about the injustices and brutalities of the Empire. Instead, Luke tells a story about religion; specifically, he tells a story about the role religion ought to play in challenging and changing the status quo.

Luke juxtaposes his dour backdrop — a world plundered and terrorized and subjugated by an insatiable militaristic and materialistic Empire — with a pristine and serene picture of Jewish worship in our ancient Holy Temple (ironically and importantly the very Temple that, Luke’s original audience would have known, the Romans ruthlessly destroyed just a few short decades after Jesus’ death).

The ritual is happening exactly as it is supposed to, everything “according to the custom of the priesthood” (Lk 1:9). In other words, the world is on fire, and the response of the Jewish religious leadership of the time, along with, in Luke’s words, “the whole assembly of the people” is to simply go about its normal business, sacrificing incense and praying, without paying much mind at all to the broken world just outside the retaining walls of the Temple Mount. These are religious leaders and practitioners who have a lot to say about ritual and liturgy, but nothing at all, apparently, to say about the brokenness of their world.

My teacher Rabbi Sharon Brous once called this phenomenon “brunching at the edge of the abyss.” In coining this term, she was referring to a passage from the Book of Genesis — a passage, in fact, that my congregation read in synagogue this week, and about which Rev. Hollie preached yesterday — in which Jacob’s sons grab their younger brother, Joseph, strip him of his technicolor dreamcoat and cast him into an empty pit. After perpetrating this violent crime, the older brothers sit down together to enjoy a meal (Gen. 37:25).

“Brunching at the edge of the abyss” is about going about your life as if everything’s fine when nothing is fine; it’s about ignoring  profound injustices because you’re doing alright, and because getting involved would just rock the boat too much; it’s about pretending something is not broken because it would be too much of a disruption of your comfortable status quo to do something about it.

To Luke, the Jews of Judea, epitomized by the priest Zechariah, are brunching at the edge of the abyss. They offer sacrifices — to a God who their tradition (my tradition) celebrates for overthrowing the ancient world’s most iconic tyrant, securing freedom and justice for a band of poor, foreign, slaves — while doing and saying nothing about the Pharaoh of their time. They content themselves with the sweet smells of burning incense and comfort themselves with priests who, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” while the world burned and their people suffered.

In this observation, Luke echoes the critiques of the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, who centuries earlier lambasted Zechariah’s ancestors for showy sanctimony decoupled from moral action (cf. Isaiah 58, Amos 6). Slyly and subtly, Luke indicts the religious leaders and practitioners of this period. How, he wonders, could they carry on business as usual in the Temple while the world was burning just outside?

It is no coincidence that when this serenity is disrupted by the angel Gabriel — a figure who, in Jewish tradition, represents God’s attribute of justice and supremacy over human power — to announce that the time has come for a new generation of leaders who will inspire people to reconciliation, righteousness, and repair, Zechariah refuses to believe and is struck dumb. In response to the true spiritual crisis of his time, to God reminding him of the real-world needs of his oppressed people, and to his awakening that the hour was calling for changing hearts and transforming the world, Zechariah is shown to literally have nothing to say.

My friends, I fear that the challenge facing communities of faith like yours and mine in the 21st century is that most people look at us and see what Luke described. They see in our clergy the priest Zechariah: well-meaning, hard-working, and earnest folk who quite literally have nothing to say about the profound and pressing challenges of the day. They see in our congregations the Jews waiting in the Temple courtyard, unmoved by and apathetic to the cries of the oppressed just outside the sacred precinct. They see religion that talks a big game — as do the traditions that both you and I share — about toppling Pharaohs, about righteousness rolling down like waters and justice like an unfailing stream, about a God who demands of us that we love both our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves, about making of our communities a sanctuary for the indwelling of the Divine presence, about being a blessing to all we encounter, while the leaders and the practitioners of those faiths stand silently and idly by in a world wracked with oppression, injustice, poverty, pollution, hatred, and violence. They see us occupied with small questions — which hymn should we recite this week, or how to change the seating in the sanctuary — while unconcerned and unengaged with the major issues that threaten God’s children and God’s world. They see us “brunching at the edge of the abyss.”

The people who are increasingly turning away from congregations like yours and mine, and from our religious traditions altogether, are by and large those who came of age in the last twenty years, the Gen-Xers and the Millenials —my generation. We have inherited a world more technologically capable than any in human history, and yet it is filled with war and violence, increasingly irreversible ecological devastation, deepening inequality, growing authoritarianism, and rampant, unrelenting, oppression of the most vulnerable. We feel that the repair of our broken world is within reach and yet, ironically and frustratingly, more elusive than ever.

In this time of turbulence and anxiety and creeping despair, in which the moral call of our ancient traditions is so urgent and so necessary, our religious leaders, institutions, and communities are, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., too often “more cautious than courageous,” remaining “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” No wonder so many have looked at our worship and have found it wanting. No wonder so many have deemed us irrelevant and have walked out the door.

Recognizing this, Luke beckons us to embrace the charge of John the Baptist in a world of Zechariah’s: We, too, are called from birth to be prophets of the Resistance, rather than pastors to the Empire; to be filled with the spirit of Elijah — the prophet who took the lonely and unpopular path of rebellion against the powerful and the privileged of his time to turn people back to the path of righteousness; to be the people who work “to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke is telling us that, like John, this is what we, too, are born to do; and what religion, when it is doing its job, catalyzes us to do.

Forgive me if I come across as presumptuous here, but is this not ultimately what the season of Advent is about? Preparing for goodness and righteousness to erupt into our broken world, for compassion and justice to disrupt a world filled with cruelty and oppression, for peace to interrupt a world replete with violence, for light to dispel the darkness drenching our world? Like John, this has always been our calling, each of us from before we were born; and this season, this moment, now more than ever, beckons us to fulfill it. The world is waiting for us. For you.

And it is fortuitous that this beginning of Advent coincides with the onset of my community’s holiday of Hanukkah. Hanukkah similarly invites us to bring light to all the dark places in the world. It is a celebration of a small but determined band of Jewish priests whose faith compelled them to fight for what was right, even though it could have cost them everything, even though the odds were against them, even though it was impolitic and uncouth and controversial and angered all those deep-pocketed Greek and Hellenistic donors.

We, too, are called on this holiday to embrace the spirit of those Maccabees, heeding the real-world urgency of our faith, refusing to defang its moral message and decouple it from the realm of politics and social change; being able, when necessary, in the words of Heschel, to embrace high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. For we only deserve the right to worship God when we have worked to build a world that reflects God’s glory.

The other day, my four year-old son, Shemaya, was telling me what he learned about Hanukkah in preschool. “The king broke the Temple,” he said. “He was a bad guy.”

“So,” I asked him, “who were the good guys? Who saved the day?”

“The Jewish people,” he replied.

“Wow,” I said, “Did you know that you’re also Jewish?”

Without missing a beat, he fired right back: “Yeah! I can save the day, too!”

We Jews and Christians are heirs to traditions that remind us we can be heroes. And not only do our faiths claim that we can save the world, they also insist that we must. Judaism and Christianity not only offer us the promise of redemption, but also demand of us to ourselves be saviors. And if our religions are to remain meaningful in the 21st century, we must embrace our sacred charge to be spiritual revolutionaries. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. The only question is, how will we respond?

Wishing you a Happy Advent and a Joyous Hanukkah. Shalom.

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