A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 12, 2017
Esther 3:1-11 GNT
There is so much troubling news these days. And there are so many things going on in the world that cause us to question, to shake our heads in disbelief, that break our hearts, and sometimes just make us downright angry. And I think that sometimes we are justified in getting angry. Even Jesus got angry on occasion.
But today we certainly can’t consider all the things in the news that cause us to question, to shake our heads in disbelief, that break our hearts, and make us downright angry. But there is one issue that I felt inspired to focus on today that has touched my heart and, I have to admit, makes me a bit angry.
I am talking about the recent attacks on American Jews. On Monday, February 20, the Gordon Jewish Community Center of Nashville received a bomb threat. The sad news is that it was not the first such incident; it was the third such bomb threat the Nashville Jewish Community Center has received this year, and it was just one of a total of eleven bomb threats made at almost a dozen different Jewish community centers around the country on that same day. As of the end of February, Jewish community centers and schools across 30 states had been evacuated after receiving bomb threats, totaling at least five waves of such incidents since the beginning of the year. On February 28, The Wall Street Journal reported that in total, 90 bomb threats had been phoned in to 73 different Jewish community centers and schools. The FBI, who is investigating these incidents, has deemed these bomb threats a hate crime. USA Today reported that another wave of such threats occurred just this past week, pushing the total number of such bomb threats over the 100 mark.
The Jewish Community Center Association has “called on federal officials to ‘speak out – and speak out forcefully – against this scourge of anti-Semitism impacting communities across the country.’”
But that is not the end of it. A number of Jewish cemeteries have also been vandalized and desecrated since the first of the year, like the large Jewish cemetery in University City, Missouri. Vandals damaged over 150 tombstones there. So not only are living American Jews being terrorized; but the dead are being disrespected and their resting places desecrated as well. Oh, the things that men sometimes do!
All of this disturbing news makes us want to cry out, “What on earth is going on? Why this renewed wave of anti-Semitism and Jewish hatred? What is wrong with our world?”
But, sadly to say, there seems to be a revival of religious and racial bigotry and hatred in America today, indeed, in the world at large. Bolder lines have been drawn, separating one religion and one race from another. Bigotry, persecution, and even violence based on religion and race seem to be more prevalent and even more acceptable these past few months. Such a turn of attitudes and events surely is cause for alarm.
For some reason, the Jews have long been the target of persecution and violence. Such is illustrated in the ancient Hebrew story of Esther. As the book of Esther tells the story, a number of Jews were deported to Babylon (or Persia) in the 6th century BCE. Haman, one of the Babylonian officials, plotted to have the Jews of the Kingdom annihilated. So he concocted a plan that would condemn all who did not fall down and honor him. The Jews in the story refused to fall down and honor Haman or anyone else, as it would have been a violation of the Jewish Commandments to honor and worship God alone.
However, one of the beautiful Jewish women who ended up in Babylon had become queen to the Babylonian King. And we all know the story of how Esther put her own life on the line by revealing to the King that she, too, was a Jew who had been transplanted to the Kingdom. And if the King carried out Haman’s plan of killing all the Jews, she would stand condemned as well. By her bravery, Esther saved her people. It is from this story that the Jews celebrate the festival of Purim, which, coincidentally, was this past Thursday. However, the point here is the fact that the story illustrates that for some reason the Jews have always been subject to persecution, violence, even the threat of genocide.
I pulled a past article from the Internet from the Jerusalem Post in which the author states, “The scapegoating of Jews has been a widespread phenomenon for over two thousand years.” He notes that over the centuries, many Christians have persecuted the Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus. A verse from Matthew’s gospel has been used to justify such persecution, where Matthew records the Jews as saying, when Jesus was condemned to death, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25). Many Christians have even gone so far as to refer to Jews in general terms as “Christ Killers.”
Whether Matthew’s gospel was responsible for the persecution or not, at various times in history, Jews have become the scapegoats for what was wrong in the world; as, for example, the plague in Europe during the Middle Ages known as the Black Death. And at times they have been blamed for the cause of global financial crises and financial recessions. Millions of Jews were targeted and killed during the Holocaust. Oh, the things that men sometimes do!
Sadly, such anti-Semitism and Jewish hatred just seem to never really go away. We may go through brief periods when we think that such religious and racial bigotry have gone away; but in reality, it seems, it is just sleeping or lying dormant, only to raise its ugly head again in uncertain times. And we seem to be living in uncertain times again today. As our Gov. Bill Haslam stated this past Tuesday during a Holocaust remembrance ceremony at the state capitol, “The hatred doesn’t go away. . . The point of remembering is to know that, [the Holocaust] can happen again. The point of remembering is to make sure that it doesn’t and to realize though that we are capable of that.” Well, that is the bad news.
However, there is good news and there is a ray of hope. Soon after that Jewish cemetery in Missouri mentioned earlier was vandalized, spiritual support and promise of solidarity and financial help started coming in to help restore the broken, desecrated gravestones. And among the support that was given was from a group of Muslim Americans who formed a campaign to raise money for the damaged Jewish tombstones. The goal was to raise $20,000. But the campaign went viral, and in no time at all $160,000 – eight times the goal – was raised. A Muslim spokesmen said, “the political climate has brought members of the two religions closer together in recent months.” As the statement put it, “Muslim Americans stand in solidarity with the Jewish-American community to condemn this horrific act of desecration.”
But the gesture toward solidarity has gone the other way as well. When a Florida Muslim mosque was burned in an arson attack recently, financial donations began to come in to help repair the damaged mosque. Some of the donations that started coming in were in odd numbers. They were in multiples of $18 – 18, 36, 72, and so on. The Muslim responsible for receiving and keeping record of the donations couldn’t understand why such odd dollar numbers. Then he realized the multiples of 18 were coming from names like Cohen, Goldstein, Rubin, and so on – Jewish donors. Jews donate in multiples of $18 as a practice which holds the symbolic meaning of wishing the recipient a long life.
Now, when I read of such positive examples of inter-faith cooperation and solidarity, it gives me hope – hope that things can be different in the world. Oh, the things that men sometimes do – from a positive standpoint! But such cooperation between Jews and Muslims also causes me to ask why there aren’t more positive stories involving Christians and Jews and Muslims. Why aren’t Christian groups making the news more for positive relationships with Jews and Muslims? On the contrary, it seems that much of the news we hear about regarding what those who claim to be Christians are doing toward those of other religions and races is negative. We who claim to be progressive Christians – we who hold that the heart of Christianity is compassion, kindness, tolerance, and justice – need to take the lead in working toward better relations with our Abrahamic cousins, since all three of us – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – trace our roots to Father Abraham and Mother Sarah.
As often is the case when I am working on a sermon, a passage appeared at my fingertips at the right moment on the very topic at hand. This week it was a passage from 20th century Trappist Monk, contemplative, and writer Thomas Merton. In his book, An Invitation to the Contemplative Life, Merton says, “I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. Still, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc.
“If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”
And so, as I have already said, Oh the things that men (that people) sometimes do! If we are going to do anything, let us not do anything that is going to contribute to the hatred and religious and racial divisions in the world. Let us determine to seek to find common ground; let us do what is going to foster more goodwill, cooperation and harmony among all, including those of other religious traditions. As Merton points out, we don’t have to sacrifice our own beliefs and convictions in order to look for common ground with others. And this, I believe, is what Jesus would have us do – to seek common ground with those of other religious traditions, rather than contributing to greater divisions. May it be so. Amen.
Works Cited: NewsChannel5Nashville; The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 28, 2017; Jerusalem Post; Knoxville News Sentinel, March 8, 2017. www.launchgood.com; Thomas Merton, An Invitation to the Contemplative Life. Frederick, Maryland: The Word Among Us Press, 2006.