Sermon for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2014
I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to the Martin Luther King Jr. Association for allowing us the great privilege of hosting this annual event, as well as the enormous and humbling privilege of being allowed to share a few thoughts on this significant occasion; an event of even greater significance as we mark fifty years since the mare on Washington.
I also want to mention that members of my team, Rabbi Smiley, Cantor Novick and Mike Kenny, our building supervisor, are with twenty of our local high school students in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, spending this weekend remembering Dr. King by working to restore homes in that still ravaged area. They are also engaged in fellowship with a number of New Orleans churches with whom we have built a relationship. This is the seventh year in a row that students from Temple Emanu-El have chosen to spend the King weekend in New Orleans and we are justifiably proud of them and the work they are doing in memory of Dr. King.
Now I want to begin this afternoon by mentioning that in the synagogue, we are currently reading from the Book of Exodus, specifically the portion of the Book of Exodus that deals with Moses’ ascent to the top of Mount Sinai. I am sure that many of you are familiar with this well-known story. Moses, accompanied by his servant, Joshua, ascends the mountain; the people gathered at the foot of the mountain are granted the awesome privilege of hearing the voice of the Lord, as God proclaims the commandments to all humanity. That’s right as the Jewish tradition sees it. The commandments spoken by God are available for all humanity, not just the ancient Israelites at the foot of the mountain. The Bible simply says, “And God spoke all these words”. The Ten Commandments are not addressed to some people, but to all people who might listen. Not just the leaders of the people, the elite of the people, but to poor and the oppressed. Not just to men, but to the women as well. Not just to the adults, but to the children. Not just to one race, but to all races, setting out the blueprint for a just and equitable society in which all persons are granted the right to rest from their labors, to protection under the law, to a system of justice that strives for justice. This is not meant for some people, but for all people. God spoke all these words not to one person, not to one people, but to all people.
That is at least how our tradition understands it. Now this moment on the mountain, the moment of hearing God’s voice, was the highest moment ever for a people and their God. A people gathered in community, hearing the voice, feeling the presence of their God and imprinting God’s words on their hearts and souls. Never again, would the Israelite community have such a moment of spiritual and moral rapture and perfection; and of course, you know what happens next. Moses descends the mountain with the tablets written with God’s own hand and sees the people dancing around the golden calf; and he smashes the tablets to pieces. But what does Moses do? After his anger and his sadness begin to fade, he begins to climb again. He ascends again, despite the failure and the setback, he ascends again. But this time, the climb is even more difficult because he climbs alone – Joshua is not with him. This time the climb is even more difficult because he is climbing with the taste of defeat and disappointment and despair in his mouth. This time the climb is even more difficult because he is forced to cover ground he has already conquered to life himself over obstacles that he has already mastered. He knows the bitterness of having to climb over the same ground again, but onward he climbs; onward he climbs until once again he has the precious tablets in his hands.
I think this story is instructive to us. Today, fifty years after the march on Washington and forty six years after the death of Dr. King; because looking back on those astonishing years, we realize that Dr. King and those who fought and marched at his side had conquered a mountain – climbed insurmountable obstacles; known every manner of suffering, including death and martyrdom, and yet they emerged from their climb up that mountain with precious rewards in their hands. The Voting Rights Act, the crumbling of open segregation and legal discrimination; no longer would the law support condemnation of one race to inferiority.
We emerged from the climb with the insistence that our society would no longer accept the presence of people living in lifelong poverty in the midst of wealth and bounty. Dr. King and those at his side, climbed long and they climbed hard, but they emerged cradling tangible gains. But then our society chose to build the Golden Calf; chose to worship at the altar of wealth and money and power. To choose to ignore the poor and serve only the wealthy and the politically connected.
We have created a society in which the gap between the rich and poor is wider than it has ever been in our history; wider than it is in most industrialized nations. We have decided to create a society in which the chances of a poor person breaking out of their poverty is less than it has ever been in our history as a nation. We have created a society in which over 20 million children go to bed hungry every night. If 20 million children decided not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance tomorrow, we would be outraged, but 20 million children go to bed hungry and no one says a word.
We are creating a society where more and more of our elected representatives feel empowered and free to say that the reason people are poor is that they are lazy and don’t understand the virtue of hard work. What nerve – what chutzpah – to hear this from congressmen who work about an average of what – 100 days a year?
We have created a society where in many states, it is now harder for a poor person or a college student, or an older person to vote than it was just a few years ago. We are creating a society where the Supreme Court has said there is no more racism, therefore, no more need for voter protection. We are creating a society, where open hatred of a black president, hatred couched in racial terms is now acceptable and common.
I’m not saying that life in America is worse than it was in 1963 or 1964. My father is from the south, and he tells me time and again, that I cannot even begin to conceive what life was like. He has said to me, “Son, until you have seen a water fountain or a movie entrance marked ‘coloreds only’, you cannot know”.
I am saying that as a society, having stood at the mountain and heard the call for justice and equality, heard it clearly and unmistakably, we allowed our society to build the golden calf, and now we have to climb the mountain again – and yes, as part of that climb, we have to surmount the same obstacles we thought that we had already conquered so long ago:
The right to vote freely.
The right to live without the curse of prejudice and discrimination.
The right to better ourselves economically.
The idea that we are all equal under the law, regardless of the wealth we possess, or the political influence that we have bought.
So 50 years after the March on Washington, 46 years after Dr. King declared “That I have been to the Mountaintop and seen The Promised Land”
50 years later we have to climb again, and in some ways, the climb will be harder because we have tasted bitterness and setback, and we have seen obstacles painfully surmounted become obstacles again in our path.
But we will make it to the top because we know what awaits us at the summit – the same thing that awaited Dr. King. The reality of a country which truly lives by its creed, that all are created equal, that all are treated as equals, and that justice serves every person with impartiality and fairness, and that we learn to see one another as equal children of God.
I want to end with a story told by the Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, who tells of a man who goes to the wicked city of Nineveh, and he walks the streets of Nineveh every day with a sign that says repent of your wickedness. And one day, a group of Ninevites come to him and says why do you walk, don’t you know that you will never change them. And he says “I know – I walk now, so that they will never change me”. So, even when the mountain seems impassable, climb anyway, if only so you will not change. Even when the obstacles in your path seem too great, climb anyway, so you will not change. Even when the rocks and precipices are frightening and seem too high –
Climb anyway, so you will not change.
Climb anyway, and we will not change and we will reach the summit.
Climb anyway, and we shall overcome.