A sermon preached at Temple Israel, Columbus, Ohio by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, May 12, 2006, 14 lyyar 5766, dedicated to my wife Susan E. Sitler, to Elliot Abraham Snay as he is called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah, to the faithful people of Temple Israel, to my friend, Rabbi Misha Zinkow and always to the glory of God!
Leviticus 21:1-24:23, Ezekiel 44:15-31
Thank you for this generous opportunity to preach this evening. I am deeply honored. This Sabbath, the readings are for the week of "Emor." They are Leviticus 21:1-24:23 and Ezekiel 44:15-31. Chapters 21-24 of Leviticus speak to laws governing the priesthood (21:1-22:33), the calendar of Sacred time (Lev. 23:1-44), and then a collection of laws including kindling the M'Norah (24:1-4), how to bake two rows of bread (24:5-9), and finally this Torah portion ends with laws on blasphemy (24:10-23).
The final verse of the blasphemy section ends with a gloriously gory description of how to stone a person to death who comes from outside the community and attempts to pronounce the name of the Lord. Leviticus 24:23 reads: "Moses thus spoke to the Israelites and they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord had commanded Moses."
I have two hopes as I enter Leviticus tonight. First, I hope beyond hope that you are not scriptural literalists. I also hope (and believe) that Our God has a great sense of humor, let us pray and I promise not to be cavalier in my pronunciation of YHWH's name. There are jewels in this text which will help us get along and lead us to "The Kindness of Justice."
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
In today's texts, the kindness of justice emerges in three ways: kindness in civility, kindness in the face of disability and kindness of the edges of life.
During Emor and this season of your life together, you are counting Omer. As you know, the word "omer" means sheaf. It is a dry measure of grain originally brought to God to anticipate the new barley harvest. In Leviticus 23:15-16, we read, "And the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation (omer) - the day after the Sabbath - you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete - you must count until the day after the seventh week - fifty days." While Jews count the days from Passover to Shavuot, that is from liberation to God's giving the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai, we Christians are counting, too. We are counting the days between Easter to The Pentecost, that this the season between the resurrection of Christ and God's giving the Holy Spirit to the church - thus the birthday of the church.
In what should be a happy season, the joyous anticipation of the law coming, Omer has become a period of traditional mourning. Rabbi Michael Singer, Rabbi of Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida asks why this has happened. Rabbi Singer points to the Talmud in which the story appears that during the period of the counting of Omer, the 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva perished in one day (Yevamot 61b). The initial reason the Gemara gives is that they did not have Kevod ( honor or respect) for one another. The Gemara then presents the opinion that they were struck down by a mysterious plague.
But, aren't both reasons right? A lack of respect and civility is a plague in itself. When civil discourse breaks down and respect for one another is lacking, a plague comes upon us - even now. And with this plague, a sadness pervades these days of counting - whether counting Omer or Easter - because there can be no joy in the law given at Sinai or in the Holy Spirit given in Jerusalem where the people of God bicker, battle and plague one another with distrain and discord.
Some of you are aware that in recent months, I have felt called to found a new group called We Believe - now known as We Believe Ohio, because of chapters forming in Cleveland - and soon Akron and Cincinnati. This movement started in November with a simple question I e-mailed to pastors serving local churches - "Is the faith you are now seeing in the public square reflective of the faith you have come to know in Jesus Christ?"The answer came back a resounding - NO! Six months ago, we gathered to pray, worship, and reason together around this and other pressing questions of faith, life and politics. We were black and white, Protestant, Pentecostal and Catholic. By the end of the first meeting, 50 pastors decided to open our group to rabbis, cantors, and imams - thus staying within the monotheistic, Abrahamic circle of faith.Since then, our circle has widened even further - to all people of faith.
Our name emerged from a conversation with my dear friend, Cantor Jack Chomsky, of Congregation Tifereth Israel. He said, "The religious right tells us all the time what they believe is what all of us should believe. But we have beliefs too! We Believe in our own deep-seeded religious faith and traditions beliefs which they will not acknowledge." Now our simple declaration in We Believe says:
YES to justice for all, NO to prosperity for only a few;
YES to diverse religious expression, NO to self-righteous certainty;
YES to the common good, NO to discrimination against any of God's people;
YES to the voice of religious traditions informing public policy, NO to crossing the lines that separate the institutions of Religion and Government.
We are seeking to add a voice of civility and pluralistic hope to the public square. In our times, a very serious danger threatens pluralism and justice for all. In too many places in too many ways, we have seen the loss of respect for those with whom you disagree. Rabbi Singer continues in his parashah commentary:
This loss of dignified discourse destroys the ability for differing perspectives to coexist and hinders the free exchange of ideas. We can become so enraptured by the premise that one side (read "our side") may hold the only "truth" or the "morally" correct option, that it leads to the condemnation of any opinion or idea which is in opposition (The Jewish Theological Seminary, Parashah Commentary, May 13, 2006, 15lyyar 5766).
Could it be that Rabbi Akiva's students, so long ago, lost their lives because they lost track of the importance of Kavod? In losing track of each one's dignity, they lost track of life itself and ultimately in reverence for God. Ironically, one of Rabbi Akiva's later students, Rabbi Eleazar Ben Shamua wrote this:
"The dignity (kevod) of your student should be as precious to you as your reverence of your teacher; Kevod of your colleague should be as precious to you as your teacher; your reverence for your teacher should be as great as your reverence for God" (Pirlei Avot 4:15).
Civility produces reverence for God.
Leviticus also shows us the need for kindness in the face of disability. In Leviticus 21:17-21, Moses, speaking to Aaron, shares some disturbing rules about the priests and their qualifications to serve the people. The text reads:
No man of you who has a defect shall be qualified (to offer the food of his God): no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long, no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or has a growth in his eye (and on continues a detailed list of defects too painful to mention). No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest, who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord's gift; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. (Leviticus 21:17-21)
We all understand that the political and historical realities of those times effect the ritual laws of those times. With this in mind, we can acknowledge the reasons given for disqualifying disabled kohanim from officiating in public. Perhaps their disfigurements would distract the worshipers from concentrating on the ritual and, like the offering of the blemished animal, would compromise the sanctuary's image as a place of perfection reflecting God's perfection. (Reference from Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, The Jewish Publication Society, NY, NY, p. 719)
Nevertheless, it is disturbing to think that disability of any kind disqualifies anyone from serving God's people anywhere. In truth, it is in our brokenness and in our imperfections that God's light shines. It is is in our cracks that God's presence emerges. Later in scripture the Psalmist confesses that God uses the ones broken in body and spirit because they have been cured of the sin of arrogance. As such they are specially welcome before God. "True sacrifice is a contrite spirit; for we know, O God, you will not despise a contrite and crushed heart" (Psalm 51:19).
Sensitive to the frailties of the human being, and knowing that priests should be "perfect" as the sacrificial offering, Simchah Bunem cites a story from the Midrash in which Moses was shown future generations of Israel's leaders. As Moses looked out into the future, he saw a blind rabbi - Simchah Bunem - leading Israel. He was shocked and surprised. He cried out,"How could a blind old man lead Israel?!" Simchah Bunem spoke to Moses. He reminded Moses that leaders are really only functions of and relative to those who follow, for where there are no followers, there can be no leader. The rebbe told Moses, "with such holy followers as these, the blind, such as me, may be flooded by light and still lead Israel." Thus, the followers become the eyes of the rebbe. In essence, they become the eyes of God in their community of faith (drawn from Sparks Beneath the Surface, Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky, Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, NJ, 1995, p.152).
I pray that you follow this example. In the places of Misha's brokenness and need, may you become the eyes of your rabbi. Show the kindness of God through your ability to follow your leader.
Kindness and justice overcome blindness and other disabilities. Truly disabled people are those who lack the spirit of God, not those who lack certain physical qualities. As you are able to admit your own imperfections - perhaps physical, emotional, or spiritual in nature - you become the vessel through which God's light, life, and love shine forth - just as Simchah Bunem did before you. Kindness in the face of disabilities is the justice of God alive and well in our universe.
Finally the kindness of justice is found on the edges of life. In Leviticus 23:22, the text says:
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 23:22).
With this passage, provisions are made to care for the poor. This speaks of kindness offered on the edge of the field to those who live on the edges of society. As you know, the word kindness comes from the same root as "kin" and it means "related to." Kindness acknowledges that we are related to each other. You and I are kin for we have been created and redeemed by the same God. Kindness matters. The Talmud puts it this way: "If you give liberally, but unlovingly, and wound the heart of the poor, what good is your gift? If you give little, but give with your heart, your deed in blessed and you are blessed" (Quoted in Day by Day, by Rabbi Chaim Stern, Beacon Press, Boston, 1998, p. 207).
Each day I encounter people on the streets of Columbus living on the edge of life. They find their way to the doors of First Church in downtown Columbus. One day recently, as I was running fast to something that seemed very important, I passed a man hunched over and grumbling about how poorly he had been treated by someone in our building. It stopped me in my tracks. I turned and engaged him in conversation. I asked what upset him. He told me how he had been ignored by one of our ministers. Now, he really had my attention. We agreed this was wrong. I asked him to describe that man to me. He lifted his head and said, "you are the man." He was right. I had ignored him. I had not seen him hungering on the edge of life. I apologized for my behavior and offered to help. He responded with a smile, "All I needed from you was an apology. God will provide my every need." I hugged him and moved on. When I turned around to look, he was gone.
I had offered this man nothing from the edge of my field. Like an angel of the Lord, he offered me everything with his forgiveness. As you seek to live life in the kindness of justice, carry these words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with you, "If you treat me as if I were what I ought to be and could be, I will become what I ought to be and could be." May God bless you and may God shower the kindness of justice upon you. Shabbat Shalom.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church