Today begins our season of Stewardship. It’s a time when we reflect together on our mission as a community of Jesus’ followers and how we’re going to support that mission in the coming year, particularly with our financial gifts. Our stewardship theme this year is “Like a Tree Planted: Past, Present, Future.” The sermon I wrote for today explains the theme.
Then yesterday, a man entered a synagogue with an assault rifle and three handguns and opened fire. Today, 11 people who had gone to their place of worship to participate in a bris, among the most joyous occasions of worship in Jewish faith, are dead.
Certainly, there’s a lot we can learn from the prophet’s metaphor of the tree planted by streams of water. In the wake of yesterday’s shooting, though, I think it more important to focus not on trees as a metaphor for stewardship, but on finding some hope in the tragedy at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The sermon I wrote for today will keep. We’ll hear it next week. Today, I want to share with you part of a sermon I wrote three years ago for Easter. I know. An EASTER sermon on the day after a mass shooting in a synagogue? Here’s the thing. If our Christian faith doesn’t show us how to relate to our sisters and brothers of all faiths—especially in times of tragedy—it’s not much of a faith, is it? So, what might it mean to be an Easter People, we who follow Jesus, in a world where our Jewish sisters and brothers still are not safe?
On my last trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2006, I walked by a group of people, standing in a circle, hands joined, praying. As I passed, I heard a prayer that God would help all these Jews see their way to accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Yeah. That ain’t it.
If the heart of the Easter story is about how love triumphs over evil, how hatred might kill the body, but love always is stronger, then imposing Christian faith on people who practice other faiths doesn’t seem very Easter-y, does it?
One of the Scripture texts read each Easter comes from a sermon from Paul in the book of Acts. “I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” Isn’t that a terrific text for Easter?
For Paul, the Easter message of love’s triumph over evil meant extending the good news of God’s love through Jesus to people outside the Jewish faith—contrary to what many Jews thought, Paul was saying one need not be Jewish to be Christian. After nearly 2000 years, hopefully, our faith has evolved some. I propose we interpret these verses to mean that one need not be Christian to be loved by God. In 2018, perhaps the best way to live the Easter message of love’s triumph over evil is to extend God’s love to all people, no matter what faith they practice, even if they practice no faith at all.
So, I want to share with you one of the best Easter stories I’ve ever heard…except for the original. J It comes from Pete Hamill’s novel, Snow in August.
Thirteen year old Michael lives in New York City in 1947. Just two years after World War II has ended, Michael is still adjusting to the loss of his dad in the war. One Saturday morning on his way to serve as altar boy at his church, Michael approaches the neighborhood synagogue. As he passes, a man leans out the door and motions to Michael. In halting English, the man says that, because it’s Sabbath, he is not allowed to turn on the light. If Michael could get the light for him, he’d be so grateful.
That first encounter turns into a weekly ritual. Every Saturday morning, Michael stops by to flip on lights for Rabbi Hirsch. Soon they add weekday sessions, where Michael teaches the rabbi English and the rabbi teaches Michael Yiddish. They share stories. Michael tells the rabbi about losing his father in the war. Rabbi Hirsch tells Michael about losing his wife.
Folks in the neighborhood aren’t always kind to the rabbi or to the synagogue’s dwindling membership. Post-war anti-Semitism runs high. Like African Americans in the Jim Crow South, or Jews in pre-war Germany, Michael’s friend, Rabbi Hirsch, lives in fear.
That fear was evident in the cry Michael heard as he walked to Easter mass one morning. “How could they do this? Who could do this?” Michael rounded the corner and saw Rabbi Hirsch, his face gray with anger and grief, violently scrubbing at one of a dozen ugly red swastikas that had been painted on the synagogue’s front walls and doors.
Taking in the scene, Michael said, “Wait here,” and ran “all the way to his church, where he caught Fr. Heaney as 9:00 mass was ending. After relating what had happened, Michael said, “We’ve got to help him!” “Why should we get involved, kid?” the priest asked. “Because Rabbi Hirsch is a good guy!” Skeptical, the priest asked, “How do you know?”
“Michael exploded. ‘How do I know? I’m the Shabbos goy at the synagogue! I help him turn on the lights every Saturday morning. I’m teaching him English. He’s teaching me Yiddish. And his wife is dead and he’s alone and he doesn’t need some Nazi painting his synagogue! My father died fighting the Nazis. You saw all kinds of guys die in the war…”
“Fr. Heaney’s eyes opened wider and he stepped back a foot, as if the words had pierced a part of him that had been numb for a long time. He reached for his coat. “Come on,” he said.
“He walked out into the church, pointed at a few men and gestured for them to follow him. He grabbed one of the altar boys from the previous mass, a tall Italian kid named Albert… Mr. Gallagher, who owned the hardware store across the street, arrived late and was searching for a seat when Fr. Heaney took him by the elbow and guided him back outside.
“At the foot of the church steps, Fr. Heaney started giving orders like the military man he’d once been. He slipped two dollars to Albert, the altar boy, and sent him to buy some coffee and buns at the bakery. He convinced Mr. Gallagher to open the hardware store and hand out rags and scrubbers and solvents. On the corner near the schoolyard, he saw Charlie Senator, who had left his leg at Anzio, limping toward the church. He whispered a few words to him, and Senator gave him a small salute and fell in line.
“Then all of them were marching down the avenue, carrying mops and rags, pails and solvents. People in Easter finery looked at them in surprise. A few more men joined the march, with Fr. Heaney and Michael out front as the platoon turned into Kelly Street.
“When they reached the synagogue, Rabbi Hirsch was still poking with his mop at the first swastika. ‘Rabbi, I’m Joe Heaney,’ the priest said. ‘I was a chaplain in the 103rd Airborne. Most of these men fought their way into Germany two years ago, and one of them lost a leg in Italy. They are not going to let this kind of thing happen in their parish.” “Please,” Rabbi Hirsch said, “I can do it myself.” “No, you can’t,” Fr. Heaney said.
“They went to work. Mr. Ponte, the stonemason, fingered the texture of the bricks, while Mr. Gallagher examined the paint… Together, he and Mr. Ponte mixed the solvents in a steel pail. Others peeled off their Easter jackets, removed their ties, rolled up their sleeves, and grabbed rags and mops. Albert, the altar boy, arrived with buns and coffee, then grabbed a cloth. Michael hung his jacket and tie on the fence and joined in the scrubbing.” The men and boys worked together in silence until the job was done.
“Rabbi Hirsch walked back and forth, examining the walls.” “The men had finished cleaning their hands and pulling on their jackets and neckties. Most were sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes and wolfing down the buns from the bakery. They looked awkward now, saying little, staring at the wall or the sidewalk or the sky… The synagogue was as strange a place to them as it had been to Michael on that first morning. He saw Rabbi Hirsch flex his fingers as if to shake hands, but his hands were covered with paint.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” the rabbi said hoarsely. “I wish to the synagogue you all could come, to have a big seder together, but food we don’t have here, just tea, and matzoh, and..” “It’s all right, Rabbi,” Fr. Heaney said. “Some other time.” The rabbi bowed in a stiff, dignified way.
“‘I’ll see you, Rabbi,” Mr. Gallagher said, and grabbed the pail, emptying the solvents into the gutter, nodding to the others to retrieve the mops. ‘Let’s move out,’ he said.”
“Charlie Senator glanced at his watch and then at Fr. Heaney. “Well,” he said, “I better go do my Easter duty.” Fr. Heaney replied: “You just did.”
What might it mean to be an Easter People in a world where our Jewish sisters and brothers still are not safe? As Easter people, we affirm the lives of our siblings in faith. As Easter people, we actively support our Jewish neighbors. As Easter people, we actively oppose anti-Semitism. As Easter people, we live our belief in life after death…in light amidst darkness…in love beyond hatred.
As followers of Jesus, we loudly proclaim with our voices and our lives that “God shows no partiality, that any person of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” As Easter people we grieve with our Jewish sisters and brothers and do what we can to act them into wellbeing. If we don’t do that, if we don’t grieve with and pray for and support our Jewish friends, then I fear we have missed the point of Easter all together.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2018 (2015)