Faith and Faithfulness: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

From my sermon this past Rosh Hashanah eve:

How do we discover the true meaning of spiritual commitment in our lives? Perhaps the first step is simply taking a closer look at our lives themselves. Maybe, just maybe, the source of our emunah is much closer than we think.  On Rosh Hashanah we say in our liturgy “Hayom Harat Olam” – on this day the world is born.  Your entire life has been leading up to this moment. Take the time to look back. What has led you here to this place tonight? Who are the people who have helped to guide you on your journey? What are the memories and experiences that you continue to hold sacred? And, finally, how will you transform them into faithful action? How will you commit to them honor them in the coming year and the years after that?

Click below for the entire sermon:

Every Friday morning, in the Broadview neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, a group of nuns gathers in front of an Immigration detention center.  It’s an unremarkable brick building – nothing about it would tip you off to its actual purpose. The Broadview center is the last stop for undocumented immigrants. This is where they receive their final processing before they are sent to O’Hare airport to be deported.

Friday is deportation day.  And so every Friday, the Sisters of Mercy come to the facility. They begin to arrive at about 6:45 or so.  As they arrive, they congregate with others on the sidewalk in front of the center. At 7:15 sharp they take out their beads and begin leading the assembled in the rosary. At least once during their vigil, a large barbed wire-topped gate will roll open and a bus will pull away from the center.  As this happens, the Sisters pause in their prayers, look up, and wave with a smile to the passengers inside.

The Sisters of Mercy gather at Broadview every week without fail. It doesn’t matter if the rain is pouring down, if there’s a blizzard, if the wind is whipping in off the lake. Every Friday morning at 7:15, this is where they can be found.

It seems to me they do it for several reasons. They do it because they want to convey to these prisoners, most of whom are being separated from their families, to know that they are not forgotten. They do it to voice their prayerful protest against our nation’s broken and unjust immigration policy. Mainly, though, I think they do it because they don’t believe that they have a choice.

From time to time, I’ll join the Sisters in their prayer vigil – often bringing several JRC members along with me. But I will confess to you: there have been more than a few Friday mornings in which I’ve had every good intention of going, but just couldn’t quite pull myself past the snooze alarm. Yes, it’s true: there have been times in which the prospect of an extra forty minutes in my cozy bed actually trumped driving to the West Side to stand in the freezing rain with the Sisters of Mercy.

Now don’t get scared. My Rosh Hashanah message this year is not that we should all leave at the end of services tonight and join a nunnery.  However, I am interested in what is takes to demonstrate this level of faith. I’d like to explore the unique kind of faithfulness that is modeled by people such as the Sisters of Mercy. I want to examine the meaning – and the challenges – of spiritual commitment. And most importantly, this Rosh Hashanah, I’d like to ask if this level of faith something we might aspire to together.

I’d like to start by taking a closer look at the word “faith” itself. What are we actually talking about when we speak of our faith?  Does it merely refer to our denominational affiliation and nothing more? Is faith about the official tenets of organized religion? Is it only about what we believe – or is faith something else entirely?

I would personally argue that faith has less to do with religious belief than it does with how our beliefs inform our commitment. After all, when we say that someone did something “faithfully” (or “religiously”), we mean that it was done in a regular, dependable manner. If we say that someone is being “faithful” to his/her spouse, we’re talking about the active upholding of a marital commitment.

I would suggest that being religiously faithful is not about signing on to a set of religious beliefs. Religious dogma may differ from tradition to tradition, but true religiosity, it seems to me, is universal. It resides not in faith, but faithfulness. It’s less about what we believe than how we act upon our beliefs. In the end, I think, living lives of faith means making and following through on the most essential commitments in our lives.  It means having the willingness to devote our lives to spiritual values that are greater than ourselves.

Jewish tradition, as you might expect, has a great deal to say about faithfulness. The Hebrew word for faith is “emunah.”  Many scholars, however, have pointed out that a more appropriate translation of this word isn’t “faith” but “trust” or “trustworthiness.”

There are, for instance, numerous Biblical examples in which God is held up as a paragon of emunah – instances in which God demonstrates God’s commitment to us.  It also abounds in our liturgy. In the Modeh Ani, for instance, the traditional prayer that we say every morning as we awake, we end with the words, “rabbah emunatecha” – “how great is your emunah.”  Whenever we say this prayer, we make a daily acknowledgement about God’s faithfulness to us and to the world.  In other words, as we awaken each and every morning, we thankfully affirm the divine rhythm that dependably rouses us to new life.

There are also descriptions in the Torah of human emunah – human faithfulness toward God.  Abraham, in particular, is typically held up as a paragon of faith.  As you may remember, when we first meet Abraham, he demonstrates his emunah by following God’s instructions to leave his family home and head out to parts unknown with nothing but the promise of future blessing.

We often laud Abraham for his unshakable belief in God – and particularly for his recognition that there was only one God in the universe.  However, I would claim it goes even deeper than this. I would say that Abraham’s greatness doesn’t come from passive belief, but from his willingness to transform his faith into action. To put his trust and allegiance in something beyond himself, beyond his family, beyond anything he could see or hear or touch or feel. Something truly transcendent.

It is this very same challenge that is laid before us every Rosh Hashanah.  So as we gather to greet another year together, let’s give ourselves the space, the permission to explore these questions honestly and openly. What is going to get us out of our cozy beds at 6:00 in the morning?  What are the values, what is the purpose to which we are prepared to be faithful no matter what?  What are the commitments that we have no choice but to commit to? And perhaps most important: where will we find the strength to follow through on them?

There are, of course, no simple answers to questions like these – but I’d like to make a few practical suggestions that might help us get started.  One thing that occurs to me is that our faith often seems to be connected to our own life’s journeys in ways we don’t often fully understand.  Think about it for a moment. As you look back over the course of your own lifes, doesn’t it often seem as if it was just one simple experience: an interaction, a meaningful relationship, a chance encounter, that gave you a sudden sense of purpose – maybe without you even realizing it at the time?

Of course many of us don’t have to look too far to discover such moments. Some of these turning points are patently – or even painfully – obvious. Too often, these turning points are the result of crisis or loss.  I’m sure we all know of numerous instances in which individuals were able to find meaning in their own personal tragedy by transforming it into a commitment to a higher purpose.

It’s certainly not something we would wish on ourselves, but I do believe that if there can be any meaning at all in the tragedies that befall us, it is in the way our pain can make us more faithful people – the challenges in our lives can commit us that much more deeply to making a difference in our world and in the lives of those around us.

No, at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our faith is a product of conscious choice. More often than not, I think faithfulness is something that finds its way to us. The sources of our devotion seem to be indelibly wrapped up in the places from which we come, the families to which we are born, the people we are fated to meet, the seemingly random occurrences that befall us along the way.

How do we discover the true meaning of spiritual commitment in our lives? Perhaps the first step is simply taking a closer look at our lives themselves. Maybe, just maybe, the source of our emunah is much closer than we think.  On Rosh Hashanah we say in our liturgy “Hayom Harat Olam” – on this day the world is born.  Your entire life has been leading up to this moment. Take the time to look back. What has led you here to this place tonight? Who are the people who have helped to guide you on your journey? What are the memories and experiences that you continue to hold sacred? And, finally, how will you transform them into faithful action? How will you commit to them honor them in the coming year and the years after that?

Tomorrow is the only time of the year in which we will be asked to proclaim our ultimate faithfulness. At the end of the service will come our acknowledgement of Malchuyot: God’s sovereignty over the Universe. This is the moment in which we are commanded to literally get down upon our knees, and show our faith in a Power that exists far beyond our own. This is the challenge we will present to ourselves: Where do our ultimate loyalties lay? To what higher purpose will we be faithful?

I truly believe you don’t have to live in a nunnery or be an Abraham or a Sarah to aspire to this level of faith. Rosh Hashanah comes every year to remind us that we all carry this potential within ourselves.  We just need to remember the things in life that are truly worthy of our loyalties.  To hold tight to what makes a difference in our lives; to what ultimately matters in our world.

But Rosh Hashanah offers us the reminder – the rest will be up to us. It will be up to us to drag ourselves out of bed when we’d rather just hit the snooze. Or, to go forth into an unknown future when it would be much more comfortable to stay home with everything we already know.

Hayom Harat Olam. Today the world is reborn. Let us greet it with faith and renewed commitment. And may we give one another the strength to remain true to all that is good and right and enduring in our world.

Amen.

2 thoughts on “Faith and Faithfulness: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s