Here is the sermon that I delivered yesterday at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago. If you would like a copy of “Steadfast Hope,” the study guide to which I refer in my remarks, click here.
I am so pleased to be here with you this morning – and so very honored to have been invited to preach to you today. I want to especially thank Dean Joy Rogers for the invitation and to St. James for hosting me so graciously.
I’d also like to thank my very dear friend, Father Cotton Fite of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, who I believe had no small part in making my visit here a reality. Many members of my congregation have come to know Father Cotton well – in addition to our friendship, he has become something of a mainstay at our Shabbat morning Torah study group. I value my friendship with Cotton quite deeply – and I’d like to think that our the work might provide a model for a new kind of interfaith action. Indeed, this very model is at the heart of my message to you this morning.
I’d like to start properly: with this Sunday’s Episcopal lectionary selection from the Hebrew Bible: 1 Samuel, chapter 3:
In an earlier chapter, we’ve already read that Samuel was born under somewhat remarkable circumstances. Before his birth, his mother Hannah had promised to dedicate him to divine service if only God would only bless her with a child. In chapter 3, the young Samuel is now serving under Eli the priest at the temple in Shiloh. We’re told that in those days, “the word of the Lord was rare; prophecy was not widespread” – clearly a literary clue that this all about to change.
Samuel is sleeping in the temple, next to the Ark of God. In the middle of the night, God calls out to Samuel, and Samuel, who thinks he hears Eli calling him, runs to the priest, and says “Hineini – Here I am.” Eli replies, “I didn’t call you – go back to sleep!” This happens again, and Eli, presumably with even greater exasperation in his voice now, sends Samuel back to bed.
When it happens a third time, Eli finally realizes what is going on. So he instructs Samuel, “If it happens again, say ‘Speak Lord, for Your servant in listening.” When Samuel is called yet again, he follows Eli’s instructions. God then reveals to Samuel that Eli’s priestly house is about to be punished, due to the corruption of his sons and his unwillingness to rein them in.
The next morning, Eli asks Samuel what God said, adding “please do not hold anything back.” And so the young Samuel tells Eli everything: “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” if you will. Painful though it must have been, Eli accepts God’s word as delivered by Samuel.
At the close of the chapter, we learn that Samuel grew up and “the Lord was with him.” As the text puts it, “(God) did not leave any of Samuel’s predictions unfulfilled.” Thus, Samuel quickly gained a reputation through Israel as a trustworthy prophet. He would go on, of course, to be one of the greatest prophets in Israelite history.
Now on the surface of this story, there is sort of a endearing slapstick quality to the young Samuel’s discovery of his prophetic abilities. Because of this, I think it’s too easy to misunderstand the real source of Samuel’s greatness. What made Samuel a great prophet? Was it because he was promised to God by his mother? Was it because he had the ability to hear God talking to him when no one else could – not even Eli the priest himself?
No, I believe the key to his prophetic greatness lay in what came next. Samuel learned a harsh and painful truth about a very powerful man – a man who also happened to be his spiritual mentor – and he was willing to speak that unvarnished truth to him. He did not shrink from his prophetic responsibility, although the chances were probably strong that Eli could cast him out for delivering such a message.
This is, after all the essence of being a prophet. A prophet isn’t someone who can tell the future – and a prophet is certainly not special for being chosen to deliver God’s divine message. No, the essence of being a prophet lies in one’s readiness to speak painful, difficult, often public truths to power.
We will soon learn a great deal about the wages of power in the book of Samuel. The Israelites will eventually come to Samuel and tell him they want a king of their own, telling him they want to be “governed like all the other nations.”
Samuel is grieved by this request – like all prophets, he takes it very personally. But God tells him, “Don’t fret. It’s not you they are rejecting, Samuel, it’s me. They’ve just never understood where the real source of power in the world lies, despite my attempts to demonstrate this to them over and over again. If they think that putting their faith in military and political power will save them, fine. But they will soon find out where that path will lead them.”
And of course as they come to discover, kingship in Ancient Israel doesn’t go so well for the new nation. It becomes focused on militarism, becomes incorrigibly corrupt, splits in two and eventually gets overrun from within and without. During this period, it is only the prophets who continue to speak the hard truth to power, who rail against the toxic ambitions of Israelite empire, who warn that this path will eventually be their downfall. And so it becomes.
When I asked Dean Joy for some advice on what I should say in my sermon to you today, she advised me to share my own spiritual vision with you, to speak a bit about the values that drive me as a spiritual leader. So I will say that, personally speaking, prophetic religion is my primary spiritual inspiration as a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a human being. I am driven by religion that speaks hard truth to power. By faith that holds unmitigated human power to account.
I fervently believe that when religion advocates the cause of the powerless, when it stands with those who are victimized by the powerful, when religion proclaims that God stands with the oppressed and seeks their liberation – this is historically when religion has been at its very best. And conversely, when religion is used to promote empire, when it is used as by the powerful to justify their rule, when it is wedded to militarism, nationalism and political power – this is, tragically, when we witness religion at its worst.
I cannot help but read Jewish tradition with prophetic eyes. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to empire. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision. That there is a power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora. It is a quintessentially Jewish vision best summed up by the prophetic line from the book of Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”
And as a 21st century American Jew, I cannot help but view the world through prophetic eyes as well. Painful though it is, if I am to be true to my understanding of my spiritual tradition, I cannot simply look away when I see my own country going down the road to empire, when I see our nation enmeshed in a state of permanent war around the world with economic disparity growing ever larger here at home.
To be sure, these are not issues of concern for the American Jewish community alone. And in my own interfaith activism, I have been deeply inspired by my clergy colleagues and other people of faith who share this prophetic vision. For me, this is the most critical aspect of the interfaith relations – the movements that are created when faith traditions come together to hold power to account in a time of unacceptably growing gaps between the wealthy and poor, the privileged and the exploited, the powerful and powerless.
However, in order for this coalition to truly thrive, more specifically, in order for Jews and Christians to truly work together, we are going to have to find new ways to talk to each other. We must not park our prophetic values at the door whenever our conversations grow difficult. And one of the most difficult conversations has to do with the issue of Israel and Palestine.
In my opinion, the issue of Israel – Palestine is the one area in which true interfaith cooperation tends to break down. However, if we are to use the prophetic model as a guide for Jewish-Christian relations, then our communities cannot shirk from sharing hard truths with one another.
Just as the Jewish community does not hesitate to hold the Christian church to task for its anti-Semitic oppression of Jews and Jewish communities throughout the centuries, I do not expect the Christian community to shrink from fully speaking its mind on the contemporary issue of Israel – Palestine. We cannot and should not dance around this issue. To my mind, there is simply too much at stake.
This is, needless to say a painful issue for Jews to talk about amongst themselves, let alone with others. But I would like to emphasize that there is by no means a uniformity of opinion on this issue in our community. While I have strong feelings about this subject, I do not pretend to speak for my congregation or the Jewish community at large – nor should any Jewish leader.
In this regard, I want to your church to know I am profoundly appreciative of the Episcopal publication of “Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace,” the report that originated in the Presbyterian Church. I’m glad to know that your church has been studying it together these past few weeks and I’m so happy to be able to join your study session here after our service this morning.
More than the content itself, I am truly inspired by this study guide because it represents an authentically prophetic statement. It is faithful, forthright, and unflinching. Rather than paper over the difficult issues, it shines a light on them. And in the end, these are the places where real dialogue must ultimately start.
I have no doubt that “Steadfast Hope” is being attacked angrily by some in the Jewish community and elsewhere. But that is, of course, the nature of prophetic witness. You don’t shy away from speaking your truth because you’re worried about hurting feelings, you can’t dwell on the prospect of being labeled any number of names, and you shouldn’t allow yourself to be bullied or cowed into silence. On the contrary, acting prophetically means speaking your truth knowing full well that there will be strong opposition, but with the faith that there will also be those on the other side who are ready to hear your message and ready to work alongside you in your struggle.
So I’d like to suggest carving out a new place for interfaith relations between our respective communities. Not one that seeks dialogue for dialogue’s sake, nor one that engages in political bartering, but one that finds common cause in prophetic witness.
Indeed, I hold on to this hope for my own community as well – and here I’d like to return to our lectionary chapter once more. If we read this story carefully, we may well discover that Samuel is not the only hero here. There is also Eli the priest – who is able to hear powerful rebuke, along with a prophecy of terrible consequences for his family.
What does he do? He has the wisdom, the humility and the strong sense of self to ask Samuel for the whole truth – and when he hears it he is able to accept it. He is able to hear this difficult, harsh, prophecy and not react with anger or defensiveness – for he knows it comes from a place of truth and righteousness.
I believe that Eli’s response to Samuel’s prophecy provides a powerful model for my own community. While I fervently hope that we find the strength to offer prophetic witness, I also pray that we find the courage to accept it as well. To overcome the fears that keep us from finding true partners in the struggle for liberation in our world.
So let us come together by facing down the glorification of corrupt power. Let us work together to affirm loudly that it is not by might and not by power but by God’s spirit alone that we will create God’s kingdom here on earth. And let us find a common worship in the God that stands with the oppressed, the marginalized and the vulnerable.
I look forward to working together with you in this sacred work and, once again, I thank you so very much for inviting me to join you in worship this morning.