RS Goes to Mother Bethel AME: A Sermon from Rabbi Kuhn

It is such a great honor for me personally, as well as our members who are here from Congregation Rodeph Shalom to be able to worship  with you this morning.  I’d like to thank your Rev. Mark Tyler for inviting us and thank all of you for welcoming us so warmly to share in this fellowship with you, as we hope to deepen our relationship between these two historic congregations in our City.  We are so blessed to welcome Rev. Tyler and your wonderful choir and so may of you to our congregation each year in January, as we share in the celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday weekend.  That service is one of the real highlights of Rodeph Shalom’s year, because I believe it is so important for our two congregations to build on our friendship and our meaningful relationship, as we work together to make our City a better place.

I am proud that we have ongoing dialogues, Bible Study, and that we work together on POWER and more.  This partnership is good for our congregation, and I hope you find it meaningful as well.  I bring greetings from Rabbi Maderer and Rabbi Freedman, who are not able to be here today, but who love the Mother Bethel/Rodeph Shalom relationship.   We join together today in prayer, just a few days after the 47th anniversary of his assassination on April 4, 1968.  I believe it is so important for us to celebrate Dr. King together because I believe his life points out how many similarities there are between the African-American and Jewish experiences.  While there are differences, we certainly have more in common than not.  And the life of Martin Luther King is an inspiring example of how we do share so much.

But I must admit I feel somewhat inadequate to come here and tell you how much we have in common.  Not long ago, I left our synagogue one evening on my way to a meeting.  I was running late, so I quickly drove through some of the back streets of North Philadelphia, when I came to a 4-way stop sign.  I was in such a hurry that I admit I only came to one of those Philadelphia “rolling stops,” when I went through the intersection.  Much to my surprise and chagrin, there was a Philly police car waiting to cross at the intersecting stop sign.  Next thing I know, I saw the blue lights flashing in my rear view mirror.  So I pulled over and the policeman came up to my car and saw that I was a somewhat graying gentleman, so he politely asked for my Driver’s License.  I handed it to him.  He went back to his car, and then came back and handed me a ticket.  Of course, I deserved it.  He left, I left.  All without incident.

As I sat there, I thought about Rev. Tyler’s sermon he delivered at our congregation in January, in which he told us about his own personal experiences with just such routine traffic stops.  And he wasn’t treated so well.  And I thought about all of the news we have heard recently about routine traffic stops which turn into tragedy, like the latest one last week in North Charleston, S.C.

Here I was, on a dark night, on a back street in a big American city, and I was treated the way every American citizen should be treated.  But when one of the city’s most prominent African-American ministers is stopped, he is treated differently, just as I am sure many of you have experienced in your lives.

So when I think of this, I really feel that I do not deserve to come here and preach to you.  But I can tell you that I am with you, in my thoughts and prayers, and my empathy and compassion.  And I know I can speak for our congregation when I say that we want to help.  We want to work with you to try to improve our city and our nation.  This is part of who we are as Jews.  We are a people long acquainted with grief and suffering.  Jews have experienced thousands of years of oppression, and our Bible constantly reminds us that we must work to remove the shackles of injustice, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

So we can, and do feel the pain of others who suffer oppression, racism, bigotry and discrimination.

But it would be much easier for me, and people like me to say, “Well, this is not my problem.  Why should I care what happens to those people?  That’s their problem.”  But, to be a Jew, to be a real Jew, we cannot have that attitude.  We cannot separate ourselves from the community.  Community involvement is part of the very fabric of Judaism.

We share this tradition, we Jews and Christians.  We come from the same belief system,  so when the ancient prophets of Israel challenged us to correct the wrongs of society, they weren’t just speaking to people many centuries ago, they are speaking to you and to me, to all of us.

When the prophet Amos condemns those who keep silent in the face of evil, he is speaking to you and to me.

When Isaiah cries out in the wilderness to warn us of the moral state of the people, he is speaking to you and to me.

The prophets told us that even if we are not personally guilty for the ills of society, we are all responsible.

A modern 20th century prophet, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma with Dr. King 50 years ago, taught us, “In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned with God and every human being, crime would be infrequent rather than common.”  [The Prophets, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Harper & Row, NYC, 1962].

We share these hopes and dreams with you.  Not only because of the ideals we inherit from our ancient prophets, but because of the inspiring example of a modern day prophet – the life and teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  His message was universal.  His words soared above any particular issue of the day, and have entered into the canon of among the loftiest prophetic visions ever uttered.  Deeply religious in nature, his rhetoric was on the lavel of the great Biblical prophets of Israel.  And like the prophets, I believe Dr. King was speaking the very words of God.

And we know from Dr. King’s writings, that he took much of his inspiration from Moses, the hero of the Jewish “Torah” which is the fist five books of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament.  Moses led our ancestors, the Israelites, out of slavery and on toward the Promised Land.  But if you think of the incredible courage it took for Moses to become this kind of leader, you will see so many parallels to the leadership of Dr. King.

Moses felt that God was his co-partner, that God was leading him and helping him each step of his way, as I am sure did Dr. King.  Remember the scene in the Bible when Moses first paid a call on Pharaoh and said to him, “Let my people go!”  Here was a lowly shepherd who stood up to confront the King of Egypt, the most powerful man in the world at the time, and just imagine the courage, the inner strength that it took for Moses to say those famous words, “Let my people go.”  And you will understand that Moses could not have done it if he did not believe with all his heart and all of his strength and all of his soul that God was with him – and that he was doing the right and moral thing to do.

And we will also understand what it took for Martin Luther King to stand up to the Pharaohs of his day, to the powerful forces of the institutionalized racism that existed in the states and cities and hamlet throughout the South, and throughout this country at that time.  And when Dr. King said, “Let my people go,” he knew that God was with him and, like Moses, he knew it was the right and moral thing to do.

When God first proposed to Moses that he confront Pharaoh, Moses responded to God saying, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and free the Israelites from Egypt?” [Ex 3:11]  But God said, “Fear not, for I will be with you.”

And of course, God was with Moses as he stood up to Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go!”

What must Martin Luther King have felt when he found himself in a similar situation, standing up to the powerful forces of his day, forces that would not allow African-Americans to have equal rights, or to live with dignity or respect.  Of course, it must have been terrifying for him to confront the sheriffs, the police, the angry mobs who were all too willing to resort to violence.  Yet Dr. King stood his ground with courage and led his people, always in a non-violent manner.  In words that could have come from Moses’ mouth, he said, “We need to go to those who are oppressing us and say, ‘God sent us here to say to you that you are not treating his children right.  And we’ve come here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment where God’s children are concerned.”

Moses and God, finally convinced Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and they wandered in the wilderness for forty years on the long path toward freedom.  In our country, black human beings were forced into slavery, and only after many years of struggle, the Civil War, Emancipation, and decades of legal battles, did slaves become free.  But we know that theirs was not complete freedom.  In fact, they wandered in the wilderness for much more than forty years.  It was not until the 1960’s when Martin Luther King became, like Moses, God’s co-partner, that real and meaningful change took place, including the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and all the progress that has been made since then.

But we know that there is much work yet to be done before we can say all human beings are truly free in our nation.  The tragic events of this past year alone – in Ferguson, Staten Island, and last week in North Charleston, S.C. – these events, and so many more, come to challenge us and remind us, much like the words of the prophets, that we still have much work to do.

Like Moses, and like Dr. King, we are not yet in the Promised Land.  We may peer into it and dream of what it might look like, but we must continue to move forward, hand in hand toward that sacred goal of a better world for all.  The point of studying Moses’ life and Dr. King’s life is not just for a history lesson.  We must be inspired by their courage, and each of us must know that we too have the power and the obligation to change this world for the better.  Let us pledge that we – African Americans and Jews – will work together to bring about that day when all God’s children will live as one.

These must be more than words.  We must work together for the sake of peace.  There are conflicts waiting to be resolved, and there are children waiting to be tutored and mentored.  There are hungry waiting to be fed.  There is grieving and suffering waiting to be relieved.  There is evil waiting to be conquered.  There are hearts waiting to be loved.  There is truth waiting to be spoken.

Let us reach out to each other and overcome whatever small differences there are between us, and we will walk hand in hand, O God, we will walk hand in hand.

Then will we know that Dr. King’s dream is the same as the dream of the Jews, and the same as the dream of all humanity.  To treat each other with dignity and respect and to live together in harmony, and in peace.