09 November 2014

Being Present As Neighbors Together

Guest Sermon
Old First Reformed Church
Delivered for their Consecration Sunday
November 9, 2014

My teacher Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory, always demonstrated to his students the need to love words.  Study sessions with him were often opportunities to relish the construction of language and the varieties of evocations that words brought forth from we mere humans in our hopefully humble and sometimes, all too often hubristic seeking of the Divine.

Consecration.  Now there’s a word.  The shared experience of the sacred.  The “being present with another” for the experience of “the holy.”  Consecration.  

Its meaning is clear to us from the Scriptural readings you have chosen for today’s service here at Old First.  The Psalmist’s aspirational language--to articulate the past so that future generations might know the face of God--makes the claim that in the mindful and persistent telling of the story of the deeds of our Mothers and Fathers, in their awareness of the goodness and the kindness of the God of our Ancestors--we reify, we make real again and again and again, the covenant of Truth and Justice and Peace.  

Consecration.  Being present with the past, in the present, for the sake of those generations which will arise in the future.  

This idea is rooted in the reading from Joshua as well.  Lofty, heroic, battle-tested Joshua.  A man who actually knew Moses, obeyed his command, and received from Moses, who would lead the people to the border but never enter the Land of Israel, therefore necessitating the generational passage of leadership, the gift of ordination, the consecration of service, the duty to demand of Joshua, the next generation, that which they are obligated to do.  In Judaism we call this the Shalshelet--the Chain of Tradition.

Joshua’s time, like ours, was a transitional time.  He was aware that the project of Freedom, Justice, and Redemption was at a critical moment.  A crossing over from slavery to freedom was one thing; developing a society rooted in such values and therefore worthy of God’s continued blessing was quite another.  Whether it is the Biblical Exodus from Slavery to Freedom; the Dutch Reformed Church of Brooklyn’s role in the Underground Railroad; and the call to address poverty, hunger, homelessness, education equality, access to housing and work in our own day--it is what we do with the world we inherit that is the very measure of our lives.  Maybe they got it wrong in that movie, “Field of Dreams” when Kevin Costner heard a voice that said, “If you build it, he will come.”  Joshua offers another view, saying, “We came.  We’re here.  Now we must build it.  And therefore, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.”  

“WItnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.”  Boy, if that doesn’t capture one of the quintessential spiritual challenges of our age, I don’t know what does.  Choice.  An an embarrassment of riches of choice.  An App for every impulse and desire.  From the endless varieties of choices available to us during every waking moment, Joshua reminds us that we have agency, we have power over our choices; and in choosing the right path, to serve, together, one another, those in need, and the God who animates our very existence, in choosing the right path, the covenant is renewed.


In Emden, a founding city of the Dutch Reformed Church, Jews were welcomed by Dutch authorities.  Many Marranos, those who had fled persecutions and the Inquisition in Spain, found refuge there.  In fact it wasn’t really until the annexation to Prussia in the 19th century when Jews faced persecution in Emden; and in Kristallnacht in 1938, the beginning of the Holocaust, the synagogue of Emden was burned and destroyed.  In the Berlin of that time, Rabbi Dreyfus’ grandfather-in-law, Rabbi Leo Baeck, head of the Berlin Jewish community, was facing deportation to Theresienstadt.  As he was led away by the Nazis, a Christian neighbor, at risk of her own life, stepped out of a line of witnesses and gave bread to Rabbi Baeck for the journey.  Years later, when his rabbinical students asked him how he could go back to Germany, which had been so cruel to our people, he said, “If there was only one good person willing to do good, that’s reason enough to return.”  

The consecration of shared service in suffering; of being together in times of great need; of being witnesses against ourselves for doing what is just and right and true.

I remember the first time that I met your Reverend Daniel Meeter.  I had just assumed the pulpit at Congregation Beth Elohim and in my first week in the job, Daniel invited me to lunch.  “Let’s be friends,” he said.  We shared Mexican food and prayed together before we ate agreed to serve as witnesses against each other in our own traditions of making the sacred real.  When it was clear that as New York City continued to grow and thrive in wealth certain sectors but that many countless others continued to suffer, increasing homelessness across the city, our houses of worship opened temporary respite shelters.  When our ceiling collapsed at Beth Elohim, Daniel was standing on our front step, offering us your sacred space for our holy days worship.  When your ceiling collapsed--prompting from your rabbi the only appropriate response--”Jesus Christ!  What is happening here?” Beth Elohim offered your church its worship space for the holy days.  And when Sandy struck our city, we cooked, delivered and fed thousands upon thousands of people across Brooklyn and Queens because together, in consecration, our communities held each other accountable, as witnesses, to do what is right and just and true.

From the simplest of meals to the most sublime spiritual service, our friendship together bears witness to what we are called upon to do.  And each of our communities here in this ever-renewing spring of eternal hope, in one of the most fortunate neighborhoods, truly, in human history, the voices of our ancestors calling upon us to serve so that we may be, in awe and humility, that spring of inspiration and hope for future generations to carry out deeds of lovingkindness and peace in their time as well.

The rabbis of our Tradition, more than two thousand years ago, in the shadows of the Great Temple that stood in Jerusalem, conceived of the notion of what they called the “Mikdash Me’at--the Miniature Temple.”  This was the true, intimate place where men and women would find God--at the locus of the most Intimate Divine.  On the Bimah of neighborhood synagogues and the Pulpit of neighborhood churches, to be sure.  But not only there.  The Mikdash Me’at was a table where a meal was served and blessings were spoken.  Where learning was shared and where family and friends and neighbors could articulate their loftiest of dreams and aspirations for better lives and a better world.  “Where two or more sit and share words of learning,” our Sages taught, “the Shechinah--the Divine Presence dwells.”

God the Most Intimate.  God who dwells in us and among us.  Who connects us, Who binds us in Covenants of Love and Peace, Who consecrates us, together, as One.

May this Sacred Community of Old First Reformed Church and its pastor, Reverend Daniel Meeter, know only blessing and goodness from its neighbors as witness to the goodness and blessings that emanate from this house of worship; and may this sacred community know and receive God’s abundant gifts of kindness and love.


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