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Power and Solidarity in the Face of Disaster

Remarks delivered at a vigil organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh on October 19. 

Thank you for the gift to be with you, pray with you, hope with you, and for your trust to address you in public. In my tradition we often begin by saying grace and peace to you.

In the Book of Esther from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jews found themselves under (yet another) mortal threat of a pogrom.

Esther is a story about power:

Who has power.
Who exerts power.
Who wants power.
Who has power for life.
Who has power to wield death.

On my ordination day as a pastor, the Scripture text we read was from Esther’s story. Though Jewish, Esther had been increasingly promoted to a position of high admiration in a foreign king’s court. Yet, Esther’s cousin came to warn her about a plot by an evil, power-hungry man also in the court, who planned to kill every Jewish man, woman, and child in the land. Not even Esther would remain. So, her cousin came to speak to her and wondered aloud, “Who knows why you have come the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

The pastor who offered an explanation about Esther’s story at my ordination described that power is typically wielded by crown, shield, sword, scepter, military, and decree. “Yet,” he pointed out, “that’s hardly real power in God’s kingdom.”

Then he handed me a toilet plunger — an (unused) toilet plunger that remains on my office desk to this day. He announced, “This, pastor, is the scepter of real power.”

As Esther’s cousin pointed out, and we recall these days: God’s call, God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s palpable presence is found as we climb down into the difficult, dirtiest, sweatiest, hope-draining, most painful circumstances our neighbors might suffer.

When I study the holy things of God, when I read God’s words in Scripture, when I prepare to lead services or visit a member of my church, or a meet a colleague, I look at the plunger on my desk and remember Esther’s cousin’s wondering: “Who knows why you have come [here] for a time such as this?”

The answer is this: I am called here to plunge fearlessly into life together with you, my neighbors. My friends. My colleagues. To sit with the suffering. To help clean up the mess. To comfort the grieving. To watch for hope. To bring whatever is needed for life.

Last week, over 1,400 Jews were horrifically murdered and over 200 violently taken hostage by a brutal terrorist organization. Babies and children; women and men; young adults; disabled people and grandparents. I attended multiple services at Pittsburgh synagogues this last week, and nearly every person present personally knows someone who has been wounded, slain, taken, on standby for military deployment, actually deployed, or wondering how to find safety. Our Jewish friends and neighbors are frightened, grieving, and fearful.

Yet, after the largest organized pogrom of Jewish people since the Holocaust, there has been silence.

Sure, there have been some statements released by church, organizational, academic, and political bodies. Yet, many seem incapable of acknowledging that the deadly massacre of Jewish civilians was consummately wrong as they accompany statements with caveats and half-hearted equivocations:

Yeah, but …
But their history …
If they’d just have …
We might stand with them if …
But you have to consider both sides…

There are no “sides” here. God’s Decalogue says, “You shall not murder.” God is on the side of life. To that end, as I have heard from Jewish colleagues, neighbors, and friends, we do not have to choose between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a false choice. Rather, we are called to side with God’s commitment for life.

As many of us here in the United States understand, governments and political leaders often make decisions that do not reflect our personal preferences. To vociferously support Jewish people in Israel at this terrible moment is not to deny the humanity of Palestinians. God grieves the loss of life in Israel and in Gaza; a grief that knows no political boundaries.

All of that to say to you, my Jewish brothers and sisters: I am sorry. I am sorry for the silence from many Christian church bodies, leaders, and people. I am sorry for the “Yeah, buts” and the “Well, it’s complicateds.” I confess that we have harmed you in the past, and our reticent silence hurts you today.

Therefore, we seek to repent for a time such as this. To turn a different way. I am here with the people of my church to plunge alongside you into the grief and uncertainty these days bring. We are with you; we are for you.

Throughout Holy Scripture, God has a habit of plunging deep into the earth. God begins by getting God’s hands dirty. God forms humanity from the dust of the earth. God plants a garden. God performs rib surgery to make a second human. God takes a walk in the cool of the evening. God sews fig leaves to clothe God’s frightened people as they exit the first garden into the world. God does not sit in faraway throne rooms, waving scepters and donning crowns to demonstrate power.

The attack in Israel began on Simchat Torah, as Jews end one full cycle of reading Torah and begin anew. Torah itself begins with bereshit, God coming to speak; with God getting God’s hands dirty.

Let there be light.
Let there be sun, moon, and stars.
Let there be sky.
Let there be seas.
Let there be fish and birds.
Let there be creatures.
Let there be humans.

We are here this evening reflecting the way that God plunges deep into the earth from the very beginning to say:

Let there be neighbors.
Let there be friends.
Let there be Jews.
Let there be you.
Let there be me.
Let there be us.
Let there be all of us, plunged into life for the sake of life now and life in the world to come. Because that is where God is.

Our God gets dirt under God’s fingernails, and we are called to do likewise, since we are each made in God’s image.

Why am I here for a time such as this?
Why are members of my Christian church here for a time such as this?

To be your neighbor. To be your friend. To ask about how you feel. To consider what you need. To stand beside you. To look for hope ahead. To fearlessly plunge into the difficulties of these days. To get dirt under our nails together for the sake of life.

Our God is the God of life, and to that end:
God is with you and God is for you, and so are we, and nothing will ever change that.

The Rev. Canon Natalie Hall is rector at Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A powerful show of support. As a member of Tree of Life and the Jewish community I thank you Rev. Hall for your consolation and comfort.

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