I don’t preach very often anymore and so don’t have sermons to post.
But last Friday I was deeply honored to be asked to speak at the Shabbat service at Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA. The service was also the Installation of their new Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Jason Nevarez, who has been a friend and colleague for nearly 20 years. This is what I said….
First things first.
Jason, thank you for the invitation to be a part of your Installation and to share in this special Shabbat service with you. I am honored. And, Congregation Beth Israel…thank you for your welcome and for your hospitality in having me here to share this moment with you. I believe it matters.
Probably like yours, our home is filled with pictures.
Curious about how many there were, I began to count. I stopped at 200…and that does not include the digital picture frame in our living room with its new picture every 15 seconds. But, what caught my attention, as I counted and looked, again, at the pictures hung on our walls and in frames on our bookcases, was a scrap of paper my wife found somewhere and placed above one grouping of pictures hung on the wall at the top of the stairs.
It reads, “The picture is only half the story.”
I invite you to think about that for a moment.
For me, at least, and maybe also for you, the pictures in our home reach back or down and pull into the present both wonderful and poignant memories. Some capture those everyday moments which add up to a lifetime like the picture of our youngest son when he was 5 or 6 with his foot on his soccer ball and a huge grin on his face. Or, the one of us standing on the beach and watching the waves. Other pictures are reminders of more poignant moments. Like the picture of our son holding his son for the first time. Or, the one of our whole family taken after having had dinner together. The last time we were all together before my father passed away.
The picture is only half the story.
The important part…
Tells the story of our lives.
What we remember and reminders of who we are and of what we value.
And, of those transformative moments which shaped and continue to reshape who we are.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Because, while we might not take an actual picture this evening, right here and right now might be one of those moments worth remembering and holding on to. A mental snapshot, if you will.
Here you are.
Together again after being apart for so long.
Congregants and friends.
Here in a beautiful sanctuary which holds its own fair share of memories and in which prayers whispered long ago still echo.
Gathered to celebrate the installation of your new Senior Rabbi.
A Presbyterian pastor.
A Christian minister.
Standing before you on the Bima.
Having been asked to deliver this evenings’ reflection.
I don’t know about you, but for me, it is a first.
And a moment, in what it represents,
For Rabbi Nevarez.
That I believe is worth remembering and holding onto and lifting up as one small step towards that which God intends.
As I thought about what I might say this evening (besides my reflection on pictures), I found myself thinking about why Rabbi Nevarez asked me to be here and to speak.Maybe it’s because we have been both friends and colleagues for nearly 20 years.
His faith encouraging mine, helping to make me a better Christian.
And, I hope, my faith encouraging him, helping to make him a better Jew.
As, together, we worked to make our communities better and safer not just for us and for our congregants, but for each and every person.
Feeding those who were hungry.
Providing a safe place to sleep for those who would otherwise be huddled outside during the cold New York winters.
Sitting with elected officials and school superintendents to discuss how best to respond to anti-semetic graffiti found at one of our schools.
Doing our best to be a presence and a voice and a witness for welcome and inclusion and respect in the communities in which we lived and worked. Side by side being a witness for the best of our faith traditions.
Or, maybe it was because our congregations worked together for many years in Nicaragua building homes for families who had been living in shelters made of scraps of wood and metal and plastic. There we were a Rabbi and a Pastor; Christians and Jews working side by side. But it was not just the homes which were important. There was and is also this. Rabbi Nevarez trusting a Christian pastor to help the youth from his congregation deepen their understanding of tikkun olam and what it meant and means to live in such ways as to help heal the world God has entrusted, now, to our care and keeping. Just as I trusted him to help the youth from my congregation learn what it means and what it takes to see and to treat the other as neighbor, whoever that is in our communities, and so better learn what it means to love God.
Or, maybe I am overthinking this.
And…where did I put it? [A New York Yankee’s baseball cap]
Maybe he just wanted someone else to be here who is a New York Yankees fan.
But, in all seriousness…
Remembering so many of those moments and what they meant and how they shaped my life pushed me to think about it all a bit more. What was the reason behind all of what we did?
As I tried to find words for what I was thinking and feeling, I found myself turning here. To the opening chapter in Genesis. Nobody has asked or will ever ask for my opinion, but I wish the opening chapter of Genesis was labeled Prologue rather than Chapter 1 because I believe it was written and placed where it is in order to provide a lens through which we are to read the whole rest of sacred text. Written in the midst of the existential crisis of the Babylonian exile after Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed and the King killed and the people exiled from what they understood to be the Promised Land, the question was “Where is God in the midst of all this?” And out of that crisis and struggle emerged this incredible affirmation of faith.
“And God saw that it was good.”
I find myself wondering…
Jason, is that a part of what we were holding onto as we did what we did?
Knowing we are not there yet, but trusting that the promise and the possibility still lies before us.
That God’s intention for creation…
The goodness, often covered up, but still there is worth believing in and holding onto?
And, for today…
Is that how you and I are called to live?
Is such an affirmation a part of what is needed?
The lens through which we are, not just to read scripture, but to see each other and to look out onto the world
Especially in the tumultuous days in which we live.
And, as that opening Prologue of Genesis 1 comes to a close, we read these words.
And God created humankind in God’s own image.
Male and female God created them.
I have to admit I hold my breath a bit in offering a reflection on a verse from the Torah which all of you probably know far better than I. But what stands out to me in this verse is the word image. As I understand it, this word is related to the word used for what a sculptor makes. The likeness created by an artist capturing something of the essence of the subject.
Here is what that means to me.
You carry in your being a piece of the image of that which we know and name as God.
And, so does the person next to you.
And, so does the person next to them.
So, when you both…
When you all recognize and affirm that, a bit more of God becomes present in our midst.
Then, multiply that by all who are here.
And then by all in the communities around you.
And then outward into the world God entrusts to our care and keeping.
How much more of the Holy becomes visible and present and transformative when we see and acknowledge and claim that promise for ourselves and for all others?
Jason, for me at least, but maybe for you as well, these words are among those which provided the hope and the courage and the strength to do all of what we did together and more.
So my prayer for you and for Congregation Beth Israel is this…
May these words from sacred text continue to turn you in the direction of what might be and of what God intends, and continue to be the vision and the hope and the strength and the courage you need for the work God places before you.
And, if I may, this…
A 60 second postscript.
An additional reminder and challenge for both you and your congregation.
I turn from the Torah to the prophets, and to this verse from Micah.
God has told you, O Mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice
To love kindness
And to walk humbly with your God?
For most of my life I thought doing justice and loving kindness and walking with God all happened in parallel. All at the same time. But lately I have come to think of this verse as sequential.
One imperative building on the other.
First, do justice.
And, love kindness.
Then, as a result, you find yourselves walking with God.
So my charge to you…to all of you…is this.
So that you might find yourself blessed and walking with God into the world God continues to love so very much.