Something Worth Fighting For
[Delivered at Stateseville Avenue Presbyterian Church, November 12, 2017. Based on Isaiah 2:4.]
As this is Veteran’s Day weekend, I thought I’d open with a cute story about a little boy who was in a synagogue sitting outside the sanctuary staring at the memorial plaques. The rabbi approached the little boy and explained that the plaques represent all the veterans, all the people who died in the service. Soberly the two stood together for a moment when the little boy broke the silence asking quietly, “In which service did they die rabbi, the morning service, the afternoon service or evening service?”
Here at Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church with your vibrant music and passionate spirit, no one would die of boredom in services.
I have two boys, Maxwell and Alec, who are just about to turn 16 and 18. When they were younger, like the boy in the opening story, they could have imagined someone being bored to death in services.
When my boys were younger, sometimes they would fight. When they did this in public, I was often greeted with a surprising response by other mothers. They would say either with words or with facial expressions, “Thank God, it’s not just my kids, Rabbi Judy’s kids fight too.”
My friend, Dru, raised four boys. Just imagine that. The youngest one would often wear a t-shirt that I love. It says, “It’s my brother’s fault.” In fact, they have a family picture with all four boys wearing the exact same shirt.
Brothers fighting and not taking responsibility for each other goes back to Biblical times – to the first siblings Cain and Abel. Cain could have worn that “It’s my brother’s fault” t-shirt. After, out of jealousy, he murdered Abel, God called out to him asking, “Where is your brother?”
“I do not know,” Cain responded and added the renowned question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
No answer was necessary. It was obvious to God and to the reader of every subsequent generation.
In the Scriptural reading from the Torah that Jews around the globe read this week, we find two brothers, twins, Jacob and Esau fighting. Jacob first took advantage of his brother, Esau. When Esau was famished, Jacob sold him soup in exchange for his birthright. Then, when their father, Isaac faced his death, Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. While Jewish tradition paints Jacob as being more worthy of the birthright and the blessing, Jacob’s actions nonetheless let to strife.
At times, brothers fight. At times, nations fight. And when they do, it is dreadfully painful.
This Veteran’s Day weekend, we think about those who have fought for our country and we honor and thank them. In 1918, ninety nine years ago from yesterday, at 11:00 o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, World War I ended. It was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.”
It was meant to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
In 1919, when this holiday was created it wasn’t called Veterans Day. It was called Armistice Day. It was a day of ceasefire and or peace. But sadly World War I was not the war to end all wars. There was World War II. My father fled Nazi Germany only to return in the Tenth Mountain Division and fight in that war, earning a purple heart and bronze star. And many of us, as we watch tensions rise in North Korea and in the Middle East, sometimes fear a World War III.
Brothers fought in ancient times. Brothers fought a century ago. Brothers are fighting today.
Isaiah had a vision of what Jerusalem and of what our world could be. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks,” he said then.
And Isaiah might say now, “They shall turn their semi-automatic rifles into rakes, their pistols into pruning tools.”
Yet sadly shots continued to be heard. Massacres are being experienced on so many fronts and in so many places: on sidewalks of our cities, at concerts from Las Vegas to Manchester, even in sanctuaries.
Isaiah’s vision for peace not only opens the Biblical book in his name, this vision for peace is etched into the magnificent wall of a garden across from the United Nations. The vision for peace echoes through our songs in this sanctuary.
A week ago, when your Pastor Reverend Barbee, asked me for a sermon title, I looked at the calendar and at the Jewish Torah reading of Jacob and Esau in turmoil and suggested that the title should be, “Something worth fighting for.”
Before opening my Bible further, I opened my Facebook page and asked “What is worth fighting for?”
I got over 30 thoughtful responses!
To save a life, safety of children, gun control, mental health access, education, justice —
just to name a few
And then came a note from a veteran, Barry Ross, a Temple Beth El member who left his family with two young children to serve two tours in Iraq – from 2004-2005 and from 2008-2009. Overall, he served our country for 25 years.
“Rabbi,” he wrote, “I believe there are two categories of responses to your questions. One category is the abstract and the other category is the concrete. 99.5 of the US population operate in the abstract. The remaining .5% of the population hates the idea of a fight but always stands ready to answer the call no matter the challenge. In fact, those brave .5ers raise their rights hands on behalf of the other 99.5 to pledge their lives in defense of this great nation. When we swear the oath it is not to any man or woman, it is not a flag, it is not a president, it is not a statue, it is not to a religion, or court or a political party. No, the .5ers raise their hands to defend the “Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic… So help me God.”
“The Constitution, the greatest document ever conceived of or written by mankind is worth the fight. Without the Constitution and without the .5ers, this country and all of the wonderful ideas espoused by other commentators [on your Facebook page] are just a futile intellectual exercise.”
Today, first and foremost, we thank and honor our soldiers for fighting and for being ready to defend our Constitution, our freedom, our democracy. That is the most important category of things worth fighting for.
The second category surrounds the fight for the American society we want. One marked by justice, equality, civil rights, safety, and human rights for all.
We have so many battles on this front to fight. We have the fight against mass incarceration, systemic racism that leaves so many so far behind, gun violence with mass shootings to which we tragically have become too accustomed, the global rise of hate, intergenerational poverty, the opioid crisis.
What are our best weapons for this fight?
Our faith – it grounds us and guides us, teaching us that all human beings are equal created in God’s image. It lays out the foundations for justice and peace.
Our second weapon is our partnerships.
My favorite quote of all time is from Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist and artist, who said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Our collective redemption requires partnerships.
Ecclesiastes so beautifully taught about the power of partnership: Two are better off than one, in that they have greater benefit from their earnings. For should they fall, one can raise the other; but woe betide the one who is alone and falls with no companion! Further, when two lie together they are warm; but how can one who is alone get warm? Also, if one attacks, two can stand up to the attacker. A threefold cord is not readily broken! (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12)
We can learn about the power of partnerships from the Civil Rights movement. People from all backgrounds and parts of the country came down South to protest and protect, to march and to move our country forward on the road to equal rights.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was one such partner. He was a professor of religion at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He took temporary leave from his role to march in Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in March 1965. Heschel wrote, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Were it not for national partnerships and interfaith partnerships, the voting rights act and school desegregation would not have been achieved. Because we have not maintained those strong partnerships of organizing and action for justice, others have chipped away at these rights. We are regressing.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s daughter, Dr. Suzanna Heschel, was gracious enough to write the forward for my new book (that is just being shipped from the printer to Temple Beth El as I speak). She opens my book quoting her father, “Let there be a grain of prophet in every person.”
Our third weapon needs to be modern day prophecy. Prophets spoke truth to power. Prophet left their places of sanctuary to work in the world. Prophets brought comfort where there was pain.
Fighting for change in our country does not require weapons and war. It takes organizing and getting out of our houses to work together to change our legislation and our institutions that oppress.
Yesterday was Veteran’s Day. Today we celebrate those who fought for our freedom. Freedoms which the prophets of old envisioned. Freedoms for which we pray. Freedoms for which our American soldiers continue to fight. Freedoms for which all us need to work to maintain.
It is a painful and sad paradox that we have to fight for peace, but we do — with our voices, with our vision, and sometimes, historically, with our lives.
As a parent, it hurts when our children fight. When Rebecca, the Biblical matriarch was pregnant, her twins, Esau and Jacob, were fighting in her womb. She cried out to her husband, “If this is so, why do I exist?”
And she was told by God, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
It hurts when our children fight – our own children and those of our nation. The American novelist Tom Clancy wrote: The U.S. Military is us. There is no truer representation of a country than the people that it sends into the field to fight for it. The people who wear our uniform and carry our rifles into combat are our kids, and our job is to support them, because they’re protecting us.
Our military are our country’s kids. They are our kids. Those who fight today and those who fought in decades gone by.
A 20th century American author and poet Archibald McLeish wrote this poem honoring our soldiers.
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.
They say, We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say, We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.
They say, We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.
They say, Our deaths are not ours: they are yours: they will mean what you make them.
They say, Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing
we cannot say: it is you who must say this.
They say, We leave you our deaths: give them their meaning:
give them an end to the war and a true peace: give them a victory that ends the war and a peace afterwards: give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.
We can best honor our soldiers by giving meaning to their work and by fighting for the values of equality and freedom and peace for which we yearn – with our faith, with our partnerships, and with our prophetic voices and vision for change.
Let them beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks,
let nation not lift up sword against nation, let them study war no more.”