SUNDAY SERMON FOR REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR’s BIRTHDAY
RABBI NEIL COMESS-DANIELS
DELIVERED AT MACEDONIA BAPTIST CHURH, LOS ANGELES
JANUARY 19, 2020
Halleluyah! Mazal tov, Macedonia, you just spoke a Hebrew word. We have much more in common than that one word and much more in common with one another than separates us. Ahhh, but we know that already. We’ve experienced it together. We’ve lived it with each other these many years. Both of our peoples refer constantly to the Exodus from Egypt because we consider that event as core to what we are, say and…sing! Moving from slavery to freedom is our common spiritual journey. Liberating those who are not yet free is our common sacred task. Both of our communities know that, as the book of Deuteronomy says, אין אוד מלבדו, there is nothing but God. Christians might turn it around when they say it, God is everything, meaning, there’s nothing more important than God! Here’s something else that we say in opposite ways. Listen close…Christians say, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Jews say, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Either way, we consider these key expressions of our faiths. Except…there’s no “faith” in either of these statements. There’s no God there. There’s no Jesus there. There’s no Baptism there. There are no commandments there. There’s no Christmas. There are no High Holy Days. There’s no Easter. No Passover.
When our two consecrated paths are stripped down to their most basic essence, it’s not a theology that we have, nor customs and ceremony. Neither is it food and dress and it’s nor art and music. What we articulate most loudly as Christians and as Jews is that we have an obligation to be decent with one another. I saw a great bumper sticker the other day (It’s amazing how we find so much inspiration on the back of someone else’s car.). The bumper sticker said, “We don’t have to agree on anything to be kind to one another.” One of the values of my tradition, one of the details of not doing to others what is hateful to us, is to quote something without attributing it to the person who first said it. Sadly, I can’t find it when it comes to this bumper sticker. I will just say that I am grateful to whomever put this bit of wisdom so succinctly.
Can we do that between now and November 3rd? Can we disagree with each other and be kind to one another at the same time? Sounds like a long time to hold on to being nice, doesn’t it? Well, we must and here’s why. Neither the Jewish nor the Christian declarations about being basically civilized with one another are merely statements. They are mandates; they are “musts”. That’s how they’re worded and that’s something else that we have in common. We stand for something. We are principled. We have ethical and moral standards. We really believe what the Bible says, each one of us, even our most bitter enemy, is created in God’s image, in an All-Encompassing image. That’s what it meant when African-American marchers during the Civil Rights movement strode down the streets and highways with signs that said, in the politically correct parlance of the day, “I am a man!” Similarly, and with a similar limited gender vision, one of Judaism’s major teachers, Hillel the Elder, from whose wisdom legacy it is said that Jesus learned, instructed us, “In a place where no one is (acting like) a man, try to be a man.” Today we would substitute the word “person” both on the sign and in Hillel’s directive. In Yiddish, we would say mensch, which, as Merriam-Webster defines the word, means “a person of integrity and honor.”
Striving to be a “person of honor and integrity” is a standard for a good, positive, contributing human being that we both share. It is a standard by which we judge ourselves and evaluate others, especially our leaders.
Between now and November 3 that evaluation is our job, as the American citizens that we are. We must always remember, that in this great democracy, that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and countless others fought and died for, our leaders act on our behalf. They are an extension of who we are, not the other way around! Neither of our traditions allows us to shirk from the responsibility of finding leaders who will be true reflections of our values, because both of our traditions demand that we act righteously, “Do unto others…” and “Do NOT do to others…” aren’t suggestions. Both expressions are a shout from the very Core of the Universe that says we MUST act this way. “Do not deviate,” it says. “No sidestepping! No shortcuts. No nice-tries.” If we our workout clothes can urge us on to a good workout or athletic performance by being emblazoned with the phrase, “Just do it,” how much the more so must we “just do it” when it comes to our moral and ethical behavior. If we expect this of ourselves, we can also demand it of our leaders. The Universe screams at them as well. It says, “A hard day’s work deserves a livable wage.” “No one should have to scrounge for affordable and quality health care.” “Every child, because they are all created in the same image, should have the opportunity to learn what s/he needs to enable him/her to have a little bit of prosperity, a little bit of satisfaction and stability in his or her life.” “No person is illegal!” “Everyone deserves a handout until we can give them a hand up.” “Poverty is slavery.” “Inequitable incarceration is obscene.” “Inequitable opportunities for employment is persecution.” “Gender discrimination is a sin against a genderless divinity.” “Criminalizing homelessness is moral blindness.” “Part-time work with a poor salary and no benefits is entrapment that creates intractable levels of economic inequality in our society.” “To prevent people from casting a ballot because of the color of their skin, religion or financial status is bigotry – period.” “To assume that every member of one people is a threat to society because a minority of that people act immorally is the ugliest stereotyping.”
The Universe itself doesn’t really scream all these things. The Universe doesn’t really have a voice, but we do. The Universe itself doesn’t have hands; we do. The Universe doesn’t have eyes and ears, but we do. The Universe doesn’t have a heart and a moral conscience; we do. The Universe doesn’t choose our human leaders; we do. It is a grave and deep insult with unending echoes to those who were and are denied the right to vote for any of us to stay home on November 3. The insult deepens if we vote and don’t make sure that our family members and our friends and our neighbors and the person in line with us at the market do the same. The insult exacerbates if we base our vote on November 3rd merely on a candidate’s gender, ethnic or religious background or skin color. Go into that voting booth and vote for the best mensch you can find. Vote for the person who will feel mandated to NOT do to others what s/he wouldn’t want done to him or herself. Vote for the person who would “Do unto others” in a way that respects that “others” integrity, dignity and complete humanity. Don’t vote for a Jew or a Christian because they’re a part of your team. Vote BECAUSE you are a Jew or a Christian and you stand for something.
We stand for decency, honesty and peace. We stand for the planet and awareness of how our actions and inactions affect the climate. We stand for a safe and nonviolent present and future for our children in which they can go to a school where they be fed a nutritious meal and have no fear of guns. We stand for a welcoming embrace for the people at our borders whose future in their homelands is desperate. We stand for a country in which no one is so economically distressed that they must choose between healthcare and food. We stand for justice and a justice system that treats all our neighbors fairly, regardless of their skin color, land of origin or religious dress or beliefs.
Friday night, we heard Pastor (Shane) Scott (the spiritual leader of Macedonia Baptist Church, Los Angeles) read Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety with deep passion. On that momentous day, Dr. King was not trying to motivate us to dream. He was trying to get us to turn his dreams and our dreams into reality – to pray, to sing, to march, to canvas, to vote, to lock arms together, to defeat those who refuse to act upon these dreams, to not be deterred or distracted and stand for what we believe and stand our ground.