The Fierce Urgency of Now: Wading in the Waters of Activism

Sermon at the The Ministers’ Fellowship Council of White Plains and Vicinity along with the White Plains Religious Leaders
3rd Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Joint Worship Service
Calvary Baptist Church of White Plains, 188 Orawaupum Street, White Plains, NY, 7pm, 1/15/17

I first want to thank Reverend Trollinger and Pastor Dalton for giving me the opportunity to address this honored assembly this evening. Each year, as I remember Dr. King’s Legacy by joining with others for worship, rededication to our shared values, and volunteering to help those in need, I am recharged for the year ahead.
This year however seems more challenging. Regardless of your political affiliation, it is a dark time because we as a country are particularly divided today.

Only half of the country voted in the election, and less than half of those people who voted chose the person who will serve as our president for the next four years. Additionally, there are sick people in our country who are terrified that they will lack health care, and young people who are very scared that they will be deported. I can’t possibly mention every marginalized group who feels afraid at this moment but we all either know someone or are someone who is currently living in fear.
That is why it is particularly important this evening that we join together in song, prayer, and words of hope. Because when the world seems bleak and devoid of hope we remember what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us- that “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” Tonight is not about focusing on the darkness. We can read the newspaper for that. Rather, tonight is about seeing past the darkness and witnessing the shining stars. And if we really hear the message clearly, we realize that those stars are in each of us- just waiting to be seen and gathered together. Our challenge is to see those stars in our neighbor and share in the mission to help bring that light to confront the darkness.
This past weekend, in synagogues around the world, Jews just completed reading the book of Genesis. We read about the end of Jacob’s life, those peaceful, easy days in Egypt when Jacob lived with his children, including his favorite son, Joseph, whom he thought had been dead all those years. And yet, we know that the most significant moments in Jacob’s life, the ones that earned him the title of patriarch, were not those quiet days of satisfaction. Rather, they were the troubled years of his life, that Jacob became worthy of acquiring the name Israel. Israel means struggle and when we are actively working to build a better world, we are fulfilling our task as Israel. It makes us who we are- because in the face of injustice, our tradition reminds us never to remain silent. To remain silent is contrary to our existence.
In fact, the Talmud, our Oral Tradition, teaches, If the community is in trouble, a person must not say, “I will go to my house, and eat and drink, and peace shall be with me, …” But a person must share in the trouble of his or her community…He who shares in its troubles is worthy to see its consolation.(Taanit 11a)
And as we finish the book of Genesis, a conclusion which speaks of blessings, life, and hope, we recognize our vulnerability and the challenges that we face as we turn the page and face a new book in the history of our people and in the current era. Yesterday morning, at the moment my congregation finished reading the book of Genesis we said three words together- Chazak Chazak venitchazek- Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened. These words help us to move forward knowing that there will inevitably be challenges that we face- but if we face them together with resilience, with courage, and with love. And in doing so we will strengthen one another.
In the transition from Genesis to Exodus, we see the challenges of the road ahead. Early on in Exodus we read that Pharaoh is scared of the Hebrews who are growing in number and is afraid they will rise up to attack them. We witness a change from a Pharaoh that knows Joseph and his virtues and Joseph’s family’s worthiness to a Pharaoh that does not know Joseph- and decrees that all male Israelites babies should be thrown into the Nile River. This is a Pharaoh who is fearful of people that come from a different heritage. A Pharaoh who feels threatened when there is no threat and uses violence to scare and to suppress, turning neighbors against one another. That is the danger our ancestors faced and the danger we face today.
So if I had Pharaoh sitting in the pews tonight I would quote for him from Dr. King’s speech Beyond Vietnam- A time to Break Silence, which he delivered at Riverside Church in April of 1967-
“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
Dr. King’s wisdom is encouraging us to know our fellow neighbor- and to recognize his or her shared humanity- because even when society deems us to be rivals- as it did during the war in Vietnam, it doesn’t mean that we can’t find it in ourselves to offer compassion, to be curious, to assess our current position and to consider our options without being swept up in our fear and distrust of the other.
Ultimately our healing as a nation will come if we put aside our preconceived notions and open up our eyes to the humanity of another. Seeing and knowing another’s vulnerability and having an awareness that deep down we all suffer, we all hope, and we all strive for better lives can bring us greater unity.
My introduction to this beloved community in Westchester came in August this past summer with a gathering of clergy and members of various churches, synagogues, and mosques as we gathered together on the 9th of Av to take on a fast together commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and setting an intention to rebuild what is broken in our society.
We, a diverse group of people listened and shared about race, racism, and privilege. Living in Westchester, we experience deep contrasts- those that have excess and those that are lacking what they need- these contrasts can sometimes feel like seven years of plenty and seven years of famine rolled into one time and place– and we reflected on our challenge to build bridges of care and concern for one another while utilizing our resources and access to power in order to reduce suffering.
And we shared words of our various religious teachings and we prayed. It was a beautiful first step in our new relationships and my colleagues and I are hopeful to continue this effort in the coming months. Because it is only through knowing one another that we can reduce fear and distrust and open the door to see the stars.
The Torah knows that it is easier to oppress someone that you don’t know than someone you do. In fact, it reminds its readers 36 times that we should not wrong the stranger, because we were strangers in the land. And yet, even after that initial decree by Pharaoh, there were a few brave women who acted through non-violent protest to support the Israelites.
Two heroic midwives, Shifra and Puah, are known in Hebrew as ha-meyaldot ha-ivriyot. The Hebrew is ambiguous. It is not clear whether they are Egyptian or Hebrew. In fact, it is a debate among commentators. Those who argue that they are Egyptian reason that Pharaoh would have not issued a decree to throw Hebrew babies into the Nile unless he believed that the midwives would follow his instructions. To do so, they would need to be loyal Egyptians and not Hebrews. And even in opposition to their own King’s law, they lie to Pharaoh and save the babies.
The fact that they are Egyptian gives us an example of what it looks like to take a stand against an immoral decree by seeing the humanity in the people that Pharaoh is trying to annihilate. They ignore the method of survival of protecting your own by hurting someone who is different than you.
And when confronted by Pharaoh they lie and say the Hebrew mothers birth them quicker than they can reach their homes. What was it that opened the Egyptian midwives eyes to the fierce urgency of the matter at hand? Why was this the moment to act? Why not tomorrow or the next day?
Perhaps they were extraordinary. Can we expect others to live this lesson whenever they see an injustice occur and they can make a difference? How can we attune our ears and eyes to respond to the suffering of our brother or sister who is different than we are? How can we gain the conviction and courage to be upstanders and not bystanders and speak out against hate?
Pharoah’s daughter, interestingly, offers us an answer. She sees an opportunity to save a life before her eyes and acts. While bathing in the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter sees a basket among the reeds, and sends her servant to fetch it. She takes pity on it and sees that it is a Hebrew child. (Exodus 2:5-6)
One question that bothers our commentators is why does the daughter of Pharaoh go to the Nile herself? Can’t she just ask her servants to bring the bath water to her? Why all the hassle? The 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, imagines that until Moses’ basket floats past her, she has no concern for the Israelites. Only when she sees Moses in his vulnerable state she recognizes that, although he is an Israelite, he is human as well. This encounter helps her recognize the value of his life and the connection between all people regardless of ethnicity or race. Without seeing the basket, she perhaps would not have woken up to this harsh reality.
Or perhaps, she was already at the Nile because she cared and was moved to take action. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai suggests that perhaps Pharaoh’s daughter disagreed with her father’s harsh decree against the Israelite children and was bathing in the Nile to show her solidarity with the Israelites as well as to wash herself clean of her father’s evil command. It is through that action of moral clarity even in the face of opposition that she puts herself in a position to earn the opportunity to help an entire nation by rescuing its future redeemer..
This text urges us to challenge ourselves to ask ourselves- how and when are we moved to action? Do we respond only when we see something that passes us by and it changes the way that we see the world? Or do we set ourselves up to make a difference by taking strong stances on important issues and putting ourselves out there to help others? The fierce urgency of now reminds us that it has to be the latter. We cannot afford to let the baskets of redemption and freedom float up to us in our oblivion. We must be awake and vigilant. We must wade in the waters of activism and advocacy, even when the waters are rough.
Dr. King reminds us that “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” Tonight reminds us of the urgent need to get busy and step up to the plate. As we leave tonight, let’s make it a point to commit to doing something to further our goals of knowing one another in deeper ways. Introduce yourself to at least one person that you don’t know. Commit to attending another interfaith gathering to live out the legacy of Dr. King, and allow ourselves to know someone else’s story and their passions and commitments. Schedule a time to volunteer in a new place where your service can directly affect someone’s life.
It is only then that we can realize the potential of our country to envision its destiny as a land of equal opportunity no matter how far off it seems. Because like Dr. King, it is worth it to dream. Last week First Lady Michelle Obama described this vision of citizens recognizing the importance of advocating for our neighbor- She passionately asserted that “Our glorious diversity, our diversity as different faiths and colors and creeds, that is not a threat to who we are- it makes us who we are.”
As we commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, it’s clear that we have much more work to do to fulfill the dream that he articulated throughout his life. But we cannot refrain from taking on the task. We owe it to him, to ourselves, and to our children to wade in the waters of activism and advocacy, even when the waters are rough.

May we find the strength to strengthen one another.

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