Into the Heart of Darkness

SERMON DELIVERED AT GREATER CENTENNIAL A.M.E. ZION CHURCH

MOUNT VERNON, NEW YORK

SUNDAY, MAY 19, 2019

Good morning, Greater Centennial.  I am always so happy to worship with you and to bring our congregations together as we did just a few weeks ago when the Pastor spoke at WRT.  To Rev. Pogue, to Iris and their family, to all of the wonderful staff here at Greater Centennial, thank you for making Kelly, me, and our congregants always feel like we are part of your family too.

The Scripture I share with you this morning is taken from the Book of Exodus, Chapter 20, verses 18-21; notably, this passage comes immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai:

Exodus 20:18-21 (My Translation)

18 When all the people saw the thunder and lightning, the sound of the ram’s horn, and the mountain smoking, they became afraid and trembled and stood at a distance.  19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come only to test you, and to put the fear of God upon you, so that you will not go astray.”  21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

Moses walked into the darkness, because he knew that was the way to God.

And now I ask you the question that will be the theme of my remarks this morning:

Are you willing to walk into the darkness? 

Picture the scene:  Delivered from slavery—God having broken the chains of bondage only weeks ago—the Children of Israel have miraculously crossed the Red Sea escaped Pharaoh’s armies, their rampaging horses and chariots, arrived at the wilderness, and made their way to the foot of Mount Sinai, which is robed in smoke, quaking with thunder and lightning. 

The shofar, the ram’s horn, blasts louder and louder.  There, God speaks into being the laws that will be carved in tablets of stone:  the Ten Commandments.  There, the people stand, amid the thunder and the spark and the smoke.  The Hebrew Scripture tells us that the people could actually see the thunder, an experience of what scientists call synesthesia—when certain people, under certain circumstances, associate certain sounds with certain colors, or certain shapes or letters with certain smells or tastes. 

Mount Sinai must have been overwhelming!    

And the people are afraid.  They stand at a distance.  They say to Moses, “You go.  We’re fine over here.  We’ll just stay back and listen.”

Moses tries to reassure them—“It’s okay; you won’t die; God is just testing you.”  But the people do not budge.  And Moses steps forward, alone, into the thick darkness, where God is.

And so I ask you again:  Are you willing to walk into the darkness?    

This past New Year’s, Kelly and I visited Charleston, South Carolina which is nicknamed the “Holy City” for the number of church steeples dotting its downtown skyline.  Turns out, our hotel was just a half a block away from Mother Emanuel, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where, four years ago next month, Dylann Roof, a 21-year old white supremacist, murdered nine people during Bible Study, including their pastor, South Carolina State Senator Clem Pinckney. 

We thought we were just in Charleston on a charming little getaway—and there, we found ourselves standing in the heart of darkness.

Since Dylann Roof committed his atrocity in Mother Emanuel Church, the headlines have not stopped: 

Eleven Jews murdered in Shabbat prayers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh last October.

51 Muslims shot to death and 49 injured at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past March.

290 murdered in coordinated suicide bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.

A woman murdered and a rabbi injured three weeks ago in a synagogue shooting outside of San Diego, again by a white supremacist, this one only 19 years old… to say nothing of the countless mass shootings in classrooms, concert halls, theaters and public buildings all over this country. 

And where are we?  Are we standing on the sidelines, trembling at the darkness, terrified by the thunder and the spark and the smoke?  Are we waiting for Moses?

But what if no Moses steps up?  What if there is no way past the thick cloud, the smoke, the fire and the darkness— except through? 

For is it not written:  “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me…?” (Psalms 23:4, KJV)

There is no way around the Valley of the Shadow.  The only way out is through.  And when we walk, forward, through, into the Valley of the Shadow, how good it is to know that Thou art with me, O God.

Recently I returned from a week traveling in and around Berlin, Germany, with Kelly, my parents, and 40 other members of Westchester Reform Temple.  When we announced this trip, a lot of our congregants asked, “Why Germany?  Why would you ever want to go back there, after what they did to our people?” 

And, indeed, I was a bit hesitant about going back to the “scene of the crime,” to the place where, only about 75 years ago, men with advanced academic degrees, bureaucrats wearing expensive suits, gathered in a serene lakeside villa in a place called Wansee, thirty minutes outside Germany’s capital to devise what came to be known as “The Final Solution”:  the intended mass murder of 11 million Jews and millions of other human beings, including ethnic minorities like the Roma and Sinti (sometimes called “Gypsies”), people of color, the elderly and infirm, people with disabilities, and the gay population.  The Final Solution would allow the Nazi regime to mechanize murder like an assembly line—efficient and with a minimum of psychic strain on the perpetrators, who now could simply flip a switch on a gas chamber, rather than have to confront their victims face-to-face as they died.   

In Berlin, we met Margot Friedländer, age 98.  As a young woman she hid herself from the Nazis for 15 months while every one of her family members was rounded up and murdered.  After surviving, she moved to America and created a life for herself and her husband in New York.  As an 88-year-old widow, she decided to move back to Berlin to educate her home city—from young to old—about her experience during the War.  She refused to stand on the sidelines in a climate of rising antisemitism and hatred around the world.  She moved back to Berlin—to the very heart of darkness—to do God’s work, to teach of the worst of humankind, so as to make a better future for humankind. 

She walked into the darkness.   

There, we met young leaders of new Jewish communities who have returned to Europe—from Russia and the former Soviet Union, from conflict zones like Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, even from Israel.  They have come to rebuild.  They have decided that if Judaism is to have a role in the future of Germany then they must not wait for others to create it. 

And there in Germany, we reckoned with the wickedness of the past.  Unlike every other place in the world, in Germany, remembrance of the Holocaust takes place in countless moments, in countless places.  Engraved brass plates interrupt the cobblestones of the sidewalk wherever people were evicted from their homes and sent to the camps.  These are called stollpersteine—literally, “stumbling stones”—you cannot miss them.  They acknowledge the crimes of the past without mincing words:  “Here, Dr. Julius Hoffman, age 43, was taken from his home.  He was murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis.” 

Public memorials educate and force a confrontation with the past.  A monument to the murdered communities of Europe comprises 2,711 massive concrete pillars occupying two city blocks.  Pedestrians enter the maze of stones and quickly find themself encased in an imposing darkness.  Children run through and play hide-and-seek.  This is not a museum where you pay to get an education about the Holocaust.  This is public space where you enter, sometimes totally unaware of its significance, and then it dawns on you where you are.  This is all part of how Germany has made a choice, to confront the darkness and not to stand on the sidelines or run away.  This, I believe, also partially explains why Germany has led Europe in granting safe haven to asylum seekers from some of the the world’s worst conflict zones.  It recognizes that stepping into the darkness of its past also means stepping into some of the most difficult challenges of today’s world.

My friends, I wonder what America would look like if our country undertook the same approach to our past, particularly with regard to the crimes of slavery, our treatment of indigenous populations, and our history of disenfranchisement of people of color, women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ population.  I wonder what effect such a reckoning with our past would have on our actions today—on everything from how we deal with Confederate War monuments in public spaces, to immigration policy, to our accountability to refugees and asylum seekers, to our treatment of our own minority populations, including Muslims and Jews who are targets of rising Islamophobia and antisemitism.

I wonder what America would look like if we undertook a reckoning with our country’s obsession with guns.  Just last week, New York Times opinion columnist Charlie Warzel made the case for a broad effort to collect and preserve the “firsthand accounts of America’s mass shooting epidemic. Otherwise the horror, as witnessed by the victims, may be lost to the digital ether.”  He observes that during the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students live-tweeted, interviewed classmates barricaded in closets, and posted images of the devastation on social media—broadcasts from the heart of darkness that spurred a student movement into action.

Mainstream news has proved reluctant to show the carnage of mass shootings.  But at this point, our country seems so inoculated to the violence, so weary of gridlock in Congress, that whatever we’re doing is failing to disturb us toward real action.  It’s become: another day, another mass shooting – yawn.

Jamelle Bouie, who also writes for the New York Times, recently observed that

The fight to pass a federal anti-lynching law stalled for decades before it was propelled, in part, by gruesome images of Southern lynchings, printed in newspapers and circulated by black activists and sympathetic allies. The horrific violence done to Emmett Till, captured in photos and published for the world to see, helped energize the civil rights movement….  [I]mages of fighting and death [during the Vietnam War] played a real part in pushing some Americans from quiet disagreement to staunch opposition. Images from Abu Ghraib contributed to the wide sense among Americans that U.S. officials were condoning torture in Iraq.  And more recently, graphic videos and images from police shootings of black Americans have galvanized a broad protest movement and led to real change in public opinion.

There is, in other words, an important link between confronting, head-on, the most disturbing, dreadful, and disastrous deeds of which we human beings are capable, and changing the ultimate outcome. 

Those Israelites who escaped slavery knew the worst in us—they knew the slave-master’s whip.  They knew the torment of being treated like a farm animal, or, worse, like vermin.  It is understandable that when they came to a mountain enveloped in smoke, shaking with thunder, illuminated by lightning, they cowered at a distance.  This, after all, was a traumatized people.  I understand them.  I understand why they said to Moses, “You go.  We’re fine over here.”   

But God wanted them to move forward, into the darkness, to meet the storm, head-on.

God wanted the Children of Israel to enter the darkness.  For is it not written:  “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light?” (Is. 9:2, KJV)

Out of the darkness would come the light of law and justice and compassion.  Out of the darkness would come a new vision for human civilization—a new compact between God and the people, a covenant, founded on love of God, love of neighbor, and loving self-respect. 

Out of the darkness would come the dawn of a new day.

And so I ask you again: 

Are you willing to walk into the darkness?

God is waiting for us!

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