On the Sunday of Martin Luther King’s Birthday weekend, I had the privilege of preaching (no other word for it!), as I have for the last several years, at Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts, under the spiritual leadership of Pastor Shane Scott. Pastor Scott is a master preacher and I make no claims that my “preaching” was in any way like his.
Here’s my the sermon I gave in honor of Dr. King. Please imagine the congregation shouting out exclamations of encouragement (Thanks, Macedonia, it felt great!):
Good morning! And isn’t this a good morning! This is precisely what the Sabbath is supposed to look like. This is what the world will be like when the Messiah either comes or comes back, depending if you’re a Jew or Christian. No matter; the world will look the same! As Dr. King said, it will be a world in which “all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing…: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” Well we’re not there yet, not really even close. But looking out at this vision, as I did Friday evening at Beth Shir Shalom, I get a glimpse, I get a fleeting image. And it’s beautiful. This is what it looks like.
When I marched for a day with the NAACP from Selma to Washington, D.C. this summer (I re-iterate, just a day, not the whole thing!) we would shout out from time to time to encourage each other and to tell onlookers what we were doing, “This is what America looks like! This is what equality looks like! This is what freedom looks like! This is what justice looks like!” That’s what you look like, today.
If it’s hard to believe that such an America, such a world of equality and freedom and justice is possible, you won’t be the first people to express their cynicism and doubt. This week’s Torah portion (and we Jews read a portion of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, in order, Genesis through Deuteronomy, in a weekly year-long structure) tells of the Jewish people standing trapped between the Sea of Reeds, also known as the Red Sea, and Pharaoh and every single chariot unit in the Egyptian army.
Understandably frustrated, but a little bit intemperate in their comments to their leader, Moses, the Jewish people say (Exodus 14:11-12),”Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.” Wow! They just were liberated from Egypt after four-hundred years and they already want to go back? Liberated from slavery and they accuse Moses of purposefully taking them out into the desert to die and saying they prefer slavery to freedom?
Although the text itself doesn’t say so, Moses, apparently complains to God, to which God responds (Exodus14:15-16), “Why do you cry to me? Speak to the people of Israel that they go forward; and lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the people of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.” OK, let’s picture this: The people, quite rationally but with some hyperbole, express their concerns about their apparently ominous situation, either drowning in the Sea of Reeds or being killed by the Egyptians. In turn, Moses steps aside to ask God for help. God says, “Why are you asking me?! Go help yourself! Stretch out your hands and hold up your rod. See what happens.” Now let’s imagine that we are the Jewish people looking at Moses as he stretches out his hands over the water and…nothing happens, not right away anyway. He’s standing there with his arms outstretched over the sea, holding fast to his “miracle” staff which doesn’t seem to be making any miracles at the moment. And we, the Jewish people, what do we do?
There’s a rabbinic notion that all the miracles that would ever occur aren’t really miracles at all because they were woven into the fabric of the Universe just as the Sun set on the sixth day of Creation. Each of them “sits” there frozen in the fabric of time and space waiting for the perfect conditions for them to release themselves from their immobilized state and impact history and society. And what are those “perfect conditions” under which these seeming “miracles” take place? It’s when we stop believing in or hoping for miracles. It’s when we do something.
In our Torah portion, when God exclaimed to Moses, “Why are you asking me?” God was saying, “Don’t wait for me! Don’t wait for a miracle! Do something!” The rabbis imagine that in that moment between Moses raising his hands and the sea splitting open, a man named Nachshon with presumably others following, walked into the water to their nostrils. That’s when the sea split!
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Dr. King’s dear friends and trusted confidants said, “We do not have faith in deeds. We attain faith through deeds – Deeds, not just thoughts or intentions.” So did Nachshon believe in what Moses was doing, standing there holding out his hands? Not yet. He probably didn’t even believe in God at that moment. He didn’t believe in miracles either. Nachshon and those who followed him knew something about miracles. They realized that this was a moment to act – not out of faith, but to boldly leap toward faith, faith in God, faith in Moses, faith in miracles and faith in themselves to be active participants in making and changing history.
Gandhi didn’t wait for a miracle! Rosa Parks didn’t wait for a miracle! Dr. King didn’t wait for a miracle! The Jewish people, before and after World War II, didn’t wait for a miracle to re-establish Israel! President Obama didn’t wait for a miracle for at least some meaningful restrictions on guns! They all walked into the water. They split the sea. They unfroze miracles they didn’t even know were there! Those miracles were there not because these people believed, but because they acted. As Heschel said, belief, faith, happens after we act, not because we think about acting.
Moses must have looked crazy standing there with his hands over the water! He was waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled. Little did he know that what he was really waiting for was Nachshon and a group of others to act audaciously and walk into the water. What they did made Moses’ outstretched arms audacious as well because leaders can’t take risks alone; they need others to go with them. You know, others like, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Jim Lawson, John Lewis, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maurice Eisendrath, then the head of Reform Judaism, the Freedom Riders, the Montgomery Bus Boycotters, every clergy person who broke with the convention of their denominations and marched with King anyway and the hundreds of thousands of ordinary miracle makers who marched, too, and changed history.
Who knew that in this week’s Torah portion God would say, “Don’t believe in Me; believe in yourselves!” Well, we know that now. Let’s go make miracles. Amen.