On December 24, 2016, members of Holy Cross Episcopal Church and Jewish Congregation B’nai Tikvah hosted a joint service of worship for the First Night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve. Rabbi Ben had the idea, and our leaders were supportive. Rabbi Ben, Cantor Larry and I met several times to carefully plan the worship. We hoped for 100 at the most, and were expecting around 70. In the end, 193 people came! A few stood for 90 minutes. I can’t begin to know why so many came, but some came because we invited them! Others read a notice in The San Diego Union Tribune. Many wanted to experience community. A UT reporter and photographer came to report the story of Jews and Christians praising G-d together. Little did we know that the story would be on the front page of the UT on Christmas morning.
We celebrated Christmas, we celebrated Hanukkah, we sang, we linked arms, we lit candles and saw one another in the light of G-d. And the amazing thing, the miracle, is that the divisions present – male, female, Jew, Christian, old, young, member of a faith community or not, and people of different races, cultures, gender identities and political opinions – those differences were present, not negated, but rather held in one space.
One who came — a member of Congregation B’nai Tikvah named Malka — survived the Holocaust. Many members of her family did not. When she entered the room, Rabbi Ben asked everyone to stand. And we all did. And you could feel the love. And when so many left that night, they said things like, “Thank you for welcoming us.” “You serve a wonderful congregation.” “We will never forget this night.” And Malka said, “I waited 94 years to see Christians and Jews come together.” Her story is available for purchase on amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Always-Good-Needle- Journey-Redemption/dp/1512378232/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490213377&sr=81&keywords=always+good+with+a+needle
Following is a homily from that night that I pray will have meaning in these troubled and troubling times.
The week I was called to be rector of St. John’s Episcopal church in Odessa, TX in 1996, a prominent church member died. Mrs. Johnson was 83 years young, and a proud Episcopalian. The kind of lady who wore a hat to church every Sunday. A character! Upon hearing news of her death, I phoned the Senior Warden – like the President of a synagogue. She was also a matriarch of the parish. I expressed condolences. “Sorry to hear about Mrs. Johnson” I began. Ann said “Yes, it’s so strange. She was here Sunday and perfectly well. She died yesterday, so suddenly. It must have been too much for her, the news that we called a female priest.”
I begin with the kernel of truth that Ann spoke, at a place where Mrs. Johnson might have been in her mind when she left this life. At a place where some might feel tonight. We are different. And differences are challenging. They can bring great discomfort, and even fear when they are used to hurt others. Yes, we can be so different that it can be painful, and at times, almost unbearable, if we’re being honest. In today’s world, people are divided like North and South poles along lines of race or culture, class or religion, party or politics.
We don’t celebrate differences in today’s world – at least not on a large scale. We too often let them divide us. Yet tonight’s side-by- side celebration of Christmas and Hanukkah invites us to honor differences, the source of which is the One, Holy and Mighty God. Today more than ever we need to recognize that our differences can be gifts in God’s world. Because when we respect one another as people of God, we glimpse something of the wholeness of creation from its very beginnings. That same wholeness or shalom exists for the world here and now – if we give ourselves to it as we are doing tonight.
It seems to me the most relevant question people of faith can hold up today is not “How are we to live?” a valid question answered by major religious traditions. But rather, “How are we to live together?” In an increasingly global, technologically sophisticated and pluralistic world, where we can connect in an instant with someone around the world but be deeply disconnected from G-d, ourselves and one another, we do well to reflect on what it means to connect with others more deeply as we work to overcome the differences that divide us.
Consider the word reconcile. The root of that word means to ‘become other,’ to exchange places with another, so that we might begin – just begin — to understand a perspective different than our own. How risky it is to open oneself to reconciliation. But as we experience tonight, sometimes the risks can be worth it. Here in a context of mutual respect, we are pointed to G-d, the great reconciler of all.
Jews and Christians each have stories of redemption to celebrate side by side tonight. Let’s remember that we have another story to tell, a story of how four years ago we fell upon an opportunity to share space – something mutually beneficial to both communities – and how we are beginning to discover that there is a divine aspect to the story. How strangers are made neighbors, by G-d’s grace. In burning bushes and mangers, G-d came to our people. Through messengers like Elijah and Isaiah came G-d’s message of redemption. Through Jesus came G-d’s own life and love, for ever changing the world. Through us, strangers made friends, come new opportunities to bear witness to the reconciling G-d.
Tonight we answer a calling. Not mine or rabbi Ben’s or Cantor Larry’s. But G-d’s calling to us all – to BE G-d’s people. To bear witness to unity in a world filled with division and hatred. No doubt, in this world, there are many stories of human relationship rooted in difference that result in war and enmity. Our relationship rooted in difference has been graced by unity at many turns.
May it be enough – dayenu — for us to acknowledge that we have known G-d in relationship with others not like us. And may we praise G-d for the times when meeting the other has changed us for the better. May G-d’s love continue to shape our lives, individually and collectively, that the world may see and know “how good and pleasant it is for G-d’s people to dwell in unity.” (Psalm 133)