[Note: The following is the sermon delivered by Rev. Owen at Temple House of Israel as part of our second pulpit exchange. She addressed the congregants at Temple House of Israel, and I spoke to congregants at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Staunton on Sunday morning, 3/1/15.  — Rabbi Joe ]

Sermon at Temple House of Israel

Rev. Shelby Ochs Owen
Shabbat Zachor: Ex. 27:20-30:10; Deut. 25:17-19 and 1 Sam. 15:2-34

February 27, 2015

Today is Shabbat Zachor, a Sabbath of remembering. How is your memory these days? I read recently that one of the keys to happiness is a bad memory! I find that remembering for me has become more of a group activity than something I fully do on my own any more. At first I worried when I couldn’t remember certain words or names the way I once had. Once I accepted that things were changing though, I decided this was an opportunity to rely on my fellow human beings. And that has turned out not to be all that bad! For now I realize I am usually not the only one who can’t remember certain words or names.

One of the reasons people gather together for worship is to remember – together. That is one of the chief purposes of Scripture — to help the people of God remember their story and remember who they are in light of that story. In the Exodus reading we have a description of the beautiful clothing of the high priest. On the ephod’s lower hem, we hear of “pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns…with bells of gold between them all around.” (28:33) And there is a description of a rosette of pure gold that is to be fastened on the front of the turban, that shall be on the priest’s forehead. It is to have an engraving on it that says “Sacred property of the Lord.” One of the roles of the priest was to be a bridge or interpreter between God and humanity, especially when that relationship had been wrecked. A priest could offer a sacrifice to God to re-create a shattered relationship (Rowan Williams). Speaking of shattered relationships…

Shabbat Zachor is a time to remember Amalek and the Amalekites attacking Israel in the wilderness. There had been a history of enmity between the two groups. In Judges we are told that whenever Israel would plant crops, the Amalekites would destroy the produce, thereby impoverishing Israel. In this remembering of tonight, the name of Amalek is blotted out, erased; the evil the Amalekites have committed is eradicated from the face of the earth. We remember so we can forget? Remember so we can be delivered from evil that has a way of rippling into our lives.

From the Samuel reading, King Saul is confronted by the prophet Samuel. Through Samuel God instructs Saul to “punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing Israel when they came up out of Egypt.” Saul is to utterly destroy the Amalekites and all their possessions, their livestock, and their men, women and children. When Saul spares the Amalekite King Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fatlings and the lambs and all that was valuable, Samuel the prophet calls him to task on his disobedience. Samuel goes so far as to tell King Saul that this disobedience has made God wish he had never made Saul king. When Saul tells Samuel that he did do what God commanded, Samuel, like a parent confronting a disobedient child, says, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of cattle that I hear?” Samuel asks him, “Why did you swoop down on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?” Saul deceitfully responds that he was saving all of the best goods for sacrifice to God. And if things aren’t already bad, they go downhill from here, pretty fast!

Would God want any of his creation destroyed or is it the evil itself God wants destroyed? The larger message of Scripture, the ultimate destination of Scripture, is love. So how do we move toward that ultimate destination? What in these scriptures can help us get where we need to go? Shabbat Zachor…. Sabbath of Remembering… remembering that the role of the priest was to be a bridge between God and humanity….what if we engage the priestly role within each of us to be bridge builders between humanity and God, to offer some healing, some reconciliation where the relationships between God and God’s creation have been broken, where relationships have been shattered, where goodness has been corrupted.

You may have heard about the synagogue attack in Copenhagen two weeks ago. In response, just a week ago, over 1,000 Muslims in Oslo, Norway formed a circle of peace around Oslo’s only synagogue. My sister’s colleague is married to a Rabbi Melchior, who wrote about his experience there in Oslo, “As Shabbat ended yesterday evening, all us attending synagogue in Oslo that day had a very moving experience. A group of eight Muslim teenagers decided to ignore their fears, to show contempt for prejudice, to put aside all the pressures and previous notions they may have held and to take action following the terror attack in Copenhagen.

The young Muslims encircled the synagogue, in which we were praying with a human chain in order to convey the message to terrorists that if they want to harm the Jewish community in Oslo, they would have to go through them first. These young people created a Facebook group entitled, “Circle of Peace” in which they invited Muslims to join the initiative. Contrary to the expectations of all the skeptics and people “in the know”, their Facebook call was shared by hundreds of Muslims, and as I left the house and was walking to evening prayers at the synagogue, some 1,400 Muslims, mostly young people, had already collected along the narrow street.”

The young people chanted “NO to anti-Semitism” and “NO to Islamophobia.” Their faith allowed them to initiate a circle of peace even when the circles of violence are so powerful and prevalent in our world. In faith they stood up to evil and obliterated it by banding together in the name of humanity. They had the courage to wage peace where Muslims are in the minority at about 175,000 in a country of over 5 million. And yet the Jewish population is only at about 1,000, a much smaller minority. What these young Muslims did took courage and yet they were willing to risk their own lives to guard and protect a smaller and even more vulnerable group of faithful people.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Ch. 11), Atticus Finch says, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

These young Muslims “won” in the best sense of the word. Through their actions they were responding to the holiness of God in themselves and to the holiness of God in the Jews they protected, responding out of the deepest and most genuine roots of their faith. Can’t you imagine on the foreheads of the young Muslims as well as the Jews they protected the engraved words, “Sacred property of God”?

You are sacred property of God. Today we remember that God does deliver us from evil, the evil of Amalek and the evil that still ripples through this world. But for evil to be eradicated, to be blotted out, we must respond to the deep call of God to be priestly bridge builders, to be truth tellers, to be peace makers in the world, whether out in public or in our own homes. This is the sacred identity of the people of God. We remind one another and keep reminding one another why we are here, to serve God, to love God and to love God’s creation. Amen.


(c) Rev. Shelby Ochs Owen 2015  Used by permission