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Remarks at Synagogue Memorial Service

Categories: Devotional Thoughts

Here are Pastor Bob’s remarks at the memorial service that Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington hosted for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

Pittsburgh Synagogue Memorial Service

(Congregation Beth Shalom, 10-30-18)

(Introductory comments) Thank you, Rabbi Besser, for the honor of sharing in this memorial service.  I want you to know that on Sunday morning our congregation prayed for your congregation, the members of the Pittsburgh synagogue and for those around the world who are affected by anti-Semitic violence.  

When I was a child we had a saying that we used to repeat when we were insulted by another.  Sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never hurt me.  I didn’t Google the origin of those words so I don’t know the source, but I wonder why we used them.  Maybe we thought if we said them over and over again that the words would become trueWe certainly said them because those words were encouraged by others, even the adultsNo matter who encouraged us they were among the most foolish words that we ever used.  Why?  Because words are powerful, they can be hurtful and many times they are more harmful than sticks or a stonesMore than that, it is hateful words that initiate a series of actions that lead to violence.

There is a wise saying that has been attributed to multiple authors: Be careful of your words because words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character, and character becomes destiny.  I wish that wise saying could inform our adult culture.  Words do matter!  Indeed according to the ultimate teacher is my religious tradition, the heart and the words are actually connected.  As Jesus said, For out of the abundance or overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.

We seem to have forgotten those wise sayings or even worse we have chosen to ignore them.  Somehow in our contemporary world we have come to believe that speaking words with conviction is the same as a torrent of hateful words.  We are now accustomed to viewing rhetoric as synonymous with violent language.  But today, my friends, in this sacred place we are here to illustrate foolishness of that idea.  We stand together in diversity and unity.  I am a Christian pastor speaking in a Jewish synagogue.  The Rabbi and I are friends with deeply held religious convictions that are not exactly the same – that should come as no surprise to anyone.  As religious leaders we are called to speak with conviction and integrity concerning the faith of our respective communities.  But that does not mean that we are against one another.  Our different religious convictions concerning the doctrine of God do not imply that we are enemies.  We are called by our mutual faith traditions to engage in charitable dialogue about God and humanity.  It is our calling as Jewish Rabbi and Protestant Pastor to speak with conviction but it is even more important to live with compassion.  To summarize one of our great teachers,  St. Paul, Our words about God and our spiritual insights or knowledge of God are virtually meaningless without love.

Our charitable dialogue and community association implies that we need one another.  We need one another to live in peace and harmony.  We need our diversity so that we can exercise charity.  I am a Christian who believes that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living God, with all that implies.  But, that does not mean I have a perfect understanding of God.  We need one another because none of us has a perfect understanding of God.  We are constantly stretching the edges of human understanding to embrace the mystery of a God that is beyond the limits of our finite comprehension. We do not all believe the same thing and thank God for that.  What a bland, boring, monolithic, impoverished culture it would be if that were true.  In the midst of our differences we must speak with conviction, live in compassion and renounce hateful language and the violence it creates.

For us to have a peaceful and civil society these principles must be reinforced at every level and within every community.  It must be exemplified at the highest levels of political office.  It must be preached in every religious community.  It must be taught in every school.  It must be discussed at the dinner table and embraced in every living room.  However, as much as we despise the hate speech and the violence all around us, we cannot become like those that we hate.  In my tradition we do our best to follow the words of Jesus:   Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Those words are counterintuitive and countercultural – especially in our current national environment.  They are difficult to comprehend and even harder to follow.  But there is a profound implication in those words.  When we are overcome with hatred for our enemies we ironically become more like the very thing that we despise.  I believe that we were all made in the image of God.  Furthermore it is my conviction that we are never more like God than when we love.

I end with a confession and a commitment.  My religious tradition, both Protestant and Catholic has a sordid history of hateful speech and violence.  We have burned people at the stake, impaled them on poles and drown them is rivers. The incongruity between the words of Jesus and our actions is stunning.   I cannot describe to you the shame and humiliation I feel to admit that to myself and to you.  I cannot change the past but I can evaluate the present.  I commit to you and others that I will take a fearless moral inventory of my heart and life.  I will examine the ways in which I have contributed to wicked malaise that seems to be engulfing our world.  I will examine the attitude of my heart.  I will evaluate the language of my preaching.  I will consider my speech with others.  I will do my part and I will challenge my religious community to do the same.  And I will pray that a compassionate God will have mercy upon our souls and heal our land.