Tomorrow morning I will be giving the sermon at the Church of God in Christ in Thomassin, Haiti. This is what I will be sharing with about 600 church members. Bishop Leon Pamphile will be translating.
I am most honored and humbled to be delivering the sermon today. I could not say “no” when my friend and teacher Bishop Leon Pamphile asked me to speak, but I must admit, I have been quite worried about what I would say. After all, so much of what I have done this week in Haiti, what all of us who came here from Pittsburgh have done, is learn from you. You have taught us so much that it will be weeks and months before we will fully understand all of the lessons you have taught us. What then I can share with you?
The central sacred text of the Jewish people is the Old Testament. It includes the stories of creation and of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the story of the time my ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt, our exodus from Egypt, and the 40 years we spent in the wilderness. The Hebrew Bible recounts the early history of Israel, the words of the prophets and many, many stories and teachings which help us understand our own lives.
Jewish tradition is based upon commandments, mitzvot in Hebrew, found mostly in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) but throughout the entire sacred text. The commandment that occurs the most number of times in the Old Testament might surprise you—it is not “honor your mother and father” (although we should do that). It is not “love your neighbor as yourself’ (something else we should strive for). It is—and some of you will know this, I’m sure, because you know the Bible very, very well….
The commandment that appears the most times in the Bible is, “Al tirah—be not afraid.”
At least 122 times in the Bible God commands individuals and/or the whole Jewish people, “be not afraid.” God tells commands Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses on several occasions, and Joshua, before the battle of Jericho, to not be afraid. God tells the entire Israelite people, “be not afraid,” as they crossed the Red Sea after escaping slavery in Egypt, and later as they prepared for their first battle in Canaan.
God says “be not afraid” to Jeremiah and others who are inclined to refuse the job of prophecy and then to Jeremiah when he is writing to the Israelites who have been cast out of Jerusalem.
God does not say “be not afraid” because there is no danger or that someone is not about to experience horror or pain. Rather, each time God tells one of our ancestors, or the whole Israelite people, not to be afraid, it is precisely because they are in a perilous situation, or it is a time of great change, or because they are about to take on a new and challenging responsibility.
The commandment “be not afraid” always comes at a time when it would be natural to be afraid.
Just as God told our ancestors not to be afraid, God tells us as well.
There are times in our lives, because we are human, when we will be sad and we will be lonely, when we will face major obstacles, when we will fail. And at each of those moments God will step in and say to us, the way God said to those who came before us, “be not afraid.”
How can that be? How can we not be afraid when we face disease or natural disaster, or when we are hungry or tired? One answer comes in the form of the name of a little girl we met at an orphanage on Friday—Emanuel—God is with us. We will not be afraid because God is with us in times of danger and in times of peril—and in moments of confusion and pain.
With God at our side, we can face danger and challenge, we can withstand pain, we can even face death.
On Tuesday morning some of us climbed the stairs to the church in Boutelliers to fit members of the community with reading glasses. We arrived to find the room filled with people waiting for us. And what did they do as they waited? They prayed. Of course, the prayers were in Kreyol, but one of them sounded familiar—not from the words themselves, but from the rhythm of the words. My translator confirmed what I somehow—in my soul—knew already: the prayer was the 23 rd psalm.
King David wrote the 23rd Psalm to remind himself and others that God, the Shepherd, guides us beside still waters and into green valleys and prepares a magnificent banquet in the presence of our enemies, and even leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, all so that each of us could say with him, “lo irah rah—I shall fear no evil.”
The Lord is our shepherd: Be not afraid.
Sometimes, as in Deuteronomy 31:8 God tells us “be not afraid,” and then adds another element, “be not afraid” and “be strong and of good courage.” This week some of the members of our group administered fluoride treatments to the students at the Kolege devays Pamphile school. On Friday, as we stood in the narrow courtyard of the school, we suddenly heard the most jubilant singing behind us. A circle of tiny children, preschoolers I think, were singing loudly and joyfully. I asked my translator what they were singing and he told me that the words of the refrain were “be strong.” The children were waving their little arms and kicking their legs, and at least on some level the song is about having a strong body, but I am sure that is also about facing the school day with courage. I could not take my eyes off the children, and my friends later told me they had the same reaction. The sweet voices of the children singing “be strong,” remind us to be strong when the world is harsh, they remind us to be strong because God is with us, they remind us to strive to live with grace and dignity each day; they remind us “be not afraid.”
Be not afraid, God tells us. Be not afraid, the children sing. Be strong, God tells us. Be strong, the children sing.
Much of our strength comes from God, but we—you and I—are here on earth to support and encourage; we are here to strengthen one another.
It is obvious that those of us who have traveled from Pittsburgh to work alongside you this week in the school and clinic are, in many ways, quite different than most of you. We are Americans, many of us are Jews, our skin is white, we speak English and little if no Kreyol. It is clear to everyone we meet that we are visitors in your beautiful country. But we are—in so very many ways—your brothers and sisters.
In Genesis 1:27, God creates human beings. The text tells us, “God created human beings in the divine image, male and female God created them.” That every person is created in the divine image means that every single person on earth is a reflection of God. And, this means that every single person on earth has a powerful connection to every other person.
A wonderful Jewish story illustrates this idea so beautifully. In order to understand it fully, you need to know that Jews say certain prayers at particular times of the day. That is, we have some prayers for the morning, some for the afternoon, and there are other prayers we say only at night. In order to say the morning prayers at the right time, it is necessary, for example, to know when the night is over and the day has arrived. This is the story:
A group of rabbis is discussing the answer to the question of when morning has arrived. A student tries to help. He approaches his teacher and says, “Rabbi, night is over and day has arrived when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that’s your house or the house of your neighbor.”
Another student responded, “night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or your neighbor.”
Yet another student offers, “Night is over and day has arrived when you can see a flower in the garden and distinguish its color.”
“NO, no, no,” thundered the rabbi. “Why must you see only what separates? And why are you focused on what is yours and what is someone else’s? No. Night is over and day has arrived when you look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that he is your brother, she is your sister; that you belong to one another, that you are one, connected, because each of you is a reflection of God. Then, and only then, will you know that night has ended and day has arrived.
This week, you and we have looked at one another as we have labored beside each other to heal and to teach and we have come to understand that we are brothers and sisters.
And on this glorious morning at the end of an extraordinary week, may we experience joy together and lift our voices in song together, remembering we need not be afraid because God is with each one of us—and with all of us together. May we know a world in which pain is bearable because God comforts us and because we comfort one another.
May we be open to the divinity in each and every human soul, and may we, together, search out the way toward dawn, toward oneness, toward a Sabbath of true rest and true peace for all.