MITZVAH DAY PULPIT EXCHANGE
Liturgical Reading: Psalm 111
I am very grateful for the invitation to be with you this
morning and I am grateful as well for all that our two congregations
are doing together in partnership in creating again, a day of
mitzvah, a mitzvah day, a day of being active in our communities
and working together to improve our world. And, as I am each
time I join this congregational family in this beautiful sanctuary,
I am very grateful for the beautiful music, in particular the
setting that Alan Lewis prepared of Psalm 111, which is such
a beautiful piece of Biblical poetry. And as beautiful as is
the musical setting, is that in the original Hebrew, Psalm 111
is an acrostic. The Psalm has 22 stanzas, each one of which begins
with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And, if that weren't
enough, the message and the meaning of this Psalm, I think, is
so appropriate for today.
But there are those who, when they come across a piece of
Biblical poetry or Biblical literature in narrative or a set
of laws, wonder not only about the meaning the selection may
have for us today, but about the original source of the Bible,
and where it comes from, and who the writer is. Traditionally
the Psalms are credited to King David, but there are others who
propose that they may have a different author. Was the Bible
itself, written by God? Or is it God's direct word? Or are there
others through whom God wrote the material that we call sacred?
Is it possible that either one is right? Or that perhaps neither
is? Or is it possible even to ask whether two truths can exist
I would propose that in recent days, if you've been following
any of the press accounts that religion has received in any of
the popular press, these are not the only questions asked of
religion. Although, certainly these are among the first and easiest
to throw out, always there is the question of religions veracity.
The question that asks after religions claim to an historical
I refer you to just two stories you may have seen. I'm speaking
of the stories that have come out about the discovery of a fifth
gospel concerning Judas, and I'm thinking about the fish that
seems to represent the missing link. The fish that was discovered
recently in fossilized remains which seemed to betray the early
makings of a wrist, which would, at last, finally put that piece
of the puzzle that has so long been missing into place. It would
seem that with this fish we could actually prove that there are
those, perhaps even in my own family, perhaps in yours, who crawled
out of the water, out of the slime, and now walk erect.
There are those who would propose that this fish delivers
the bludgeoned death knell to those who believe in creationism
or intelligent design. Yet for still others, this new discovery
only reaffirms their faith in God.
And what of that fifth Gospel? Was Jesus not, in fact, betrayed
by Judas? Was he in on the deception? Would you be more likely
to believe one way or the other if a scholar or a historian were
standing in this pulpit this morning? Even eye witness accounts,
we know, can not always be relied upon.
But it is not just religion's veracity that has been assailed.
Also in recent press accounts, there have been stories about
religion's flexibility and its ability to be current and to change
with the times. Such stories have been rife. There has been a
lot of talk recently about religion's adaptability to present
day life and to our current reality, and I have, again, two stories
I'm speaking first of the recent coverage that the Conservative
Jewish movement has received when discussing its position on
whether the Halakhal, the Jewish legal system for making decisions
whether it is flexible enough, or broad enough to allow
for the ordination of gays and lesbians as Conservative rabbis.
And as my co-recipients engage in this discussion, the Conservative
Jewish movement's leaders' positions have been splashed across
the pages of, at least, the Jewish press.
And I'm, of course, speaking of the recent story in The New
Yorker about the Episcopal Church's pitched fight over the articles
of Episcopal faith given the relatively recent election of Bishop
This fight, if you did not see it, was splashed across a
twelve-page spread in The New Yorker under a big headline titled,
"A Church Asunder," and came complete with a caricature
of three bishops one of whom is Pittsburgh's own. Yes,
we have seen and heard much talk recently of religion's inability
to see the world as it truly is to be flexible and more
inclusive than some of those in positions of religious authority
would like it to be.
Yes, religion's adaptability has been under siege recently,
but it is not only religion's veracity and adaptability that
have been assailed, and here I conclude the five stories that
I'd like to cite from the press, with the one that most readily
came to the mind of at least some of you and that is the
much-touted, $2.5 million Templeton Foundation Study in which
scientists divided 1800 persons into three groups, so that the
effects of prayer, offered on their behalf, could be evaluated.
According to the reports of that study, one group of patients
was told that strangers would pray for them, a second group was
told that strangers might or might not pray for them, and a third
group was not prayed for at all. The results were mixed. Among
those who did not know whether they were being prayed for, as
well as among those for whom no one prayed, half of all patients
suffered additional complications.
But the study's most scintillating results was the fact that
the third group did the worst. Among those who knew they were
being prayed for, some 59% developed further problems. Yes, religion's
utility has been under siege.
Now each of the stories I refer to, and much of the press
coverage religion has received recently, has been generally accurate,
and in some cases, has even undergone a scientific method. But
in each case, the event or the discovery or the disagreement
has been spun in such a way so as to make religion out to be
a wedge that reasonable folks ought to understand should rightly
divide people, and perhaps, should even polarize us. And that
I propose to you, is the exact opposite of what our common enterprise
But in the same breath, I propose to you this morning that
the shared Mitzvah Day activities between our congregations,
make of this flawed understanding of religion a lie! Asking after
religion's veracity is the wrong question. After all, responsible
people of faith, you and I, do not deny that science can certainly
undermine particular factual claims made by religion, such as,
the notion that the world was created in six, twenty-four hour
periods, and that there were actual figures in the Bible who
lived hundreds of years.
Only in the past few weeks as we have marked our two community's
Passover and Easter, there has been a plethora of articles about
religion. But in going through my files as I prepared for our
Passover, I came across a yellowed article I cut from The New
York Times truly ten years ago the dateline is April 4,
1996, and the headline reads, "Hatching a Novel Theory About
the Ten Biblical Plagues," and then the article proceeds
to recount the scholarly work of an epidemiologist in Greenwich,
Connecticut, who had published a paper entitled, "Epidemiological
Analysis of the Ten Plagues of Egypt A Humanity Journal
for Medical and Health Sciences."
So even what were once seen as miracles, these too, may be
explained away or excused by science by those who are wont to
do so. But it should be far less clear that science can in anyway
challenge religion's general metaphysical claims claims
that religion puts forward about meaning and purpose about
morality and loss about guilt or pride about forgiveness
or love. Indeed to suppose that a kind of physics can undermine
a kind of metaphysics is to commit what philosophers call a category
And such is the case with questions over religion's ability
to, respond to what your presiding Bishop Frank Griswald said
is, and here I paraphrase, "our current understanding of
a human person," an understanding of the human psyche
and personality, of human physicality and yes, our sexuality,
that is "more sophisticated, possibly, than the understanding
held once by the Biblical authors."
These questions too, of religion's adaptability, while provocative
and fair, and fairly interesting, (and I can imagine at times,
for members of this community, fairly frustrating and exhausting,
ennobling and determinative all at the same time) the good questions
in and of themselves, questions about religions veracity or adaptability,
to my mind, obscure what our shared understanding of religion's
rightful role in our lives ought be.
And such questions surely obscure why religion is so important
to individuals and to families, and why our communities and our
world need responsible religious people to offer more of themselves
in every way. And the same can be said of the questions raised
about religion's utility, questions about the utility of prayer
offered on behalf of a person who we see is suffering.
That a recent study now indicates that prayers do not appear
to improve a patient's physical condition is really no big surprise.
That scientists and physicians have determined that, though laughter
may be, prayer is not the best medicine, should not surprise
us. For according to the understanding of prayer we hold in the
Jewish community, prayer is understood to be an expression of
empathy that strengthens a caring community and brings comfort
to those who are suffering. And we believe that both the one
who lies on a bed of pain over whom a prayer may originally be
offered, as well as the one who suffers for the one who hurts,
both are comforted by the prayer offered.
And indeed in Hebrew, the word for prayer is L'hitpalel which
is a reflexive verb which suggests that there is as much action
that comes from the prayer upon the one who offers it, as we
would ever hope that prayer would achieve as it is delivered
to someone distant. And here I'd like to quote one of my heroes,
Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who just passed away in recent
days, who use to say, "When there are those who suggest
that prayer is nothing more than a crutch, they should ask themselves
whether they themselves aren't limping."
So the questions we ought to be asking about religion, particularly
if we are going to have these kinds of conversations in public,
are not questions about religions veracity, nor its adaptability,
nor its utility. Rather we ought to be concerned with the relevance
of religion! For religion is much more than a collection of ancient
fables of which we cannot be certain. And religion is much more
than a set of ancient rules that are inerrant, and therefore,
immutable. And religion is much more than a collection of transcendental
and untestable assertions. And there is nothing in religion which
science will overthrow.
After all, religion is a collection of beliefs and behaviors
that bring people together, that coordinate our activities and,
in the end, allow groups to accomplish tasks that would otherwise
be impossible. Religion is one of the most powerful forces on
earth. And as we know all too well, and are too often reminded,
religious power is not always benign but powerful religion
is! And, therefore, no new scientific study, or newly discovered
sacred text will undermine our faith in this: the power we possess
in every generation to bring healing to one another and to our
world and to labor for freedom and dignity for all of God's children.
For this was religion created: to improve our lives, to help
us improve the lives of others and to partner with God in helping
to heal our fractured world.
Religion is at its best when it brings people together, recognizing
in every woman, man and child the visage of God. And this is
why Mitzvah Day is so special, and it is also why, if you'll
permit me, to return to where I began, before I got into this
long diversion it is why I believe it so appropriate that together
we sang Psalm 111, the beautiful, Biblical acrostic irrespective
of who wrote it.
You see, in that the acrostic requires every letter of the
alphabet in order to be complete, we are reminded of the Rabbinic
teaching, the midrash, if you will, that tells us that when the
Hebrews left Egypt, they numbered some 600,000. And if you were
to count the letters and the spaces in a Torah scroll, which
contain the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,
Numbers and Deuteronomy; if you were to add up all the letters
and spaces in the Torah scroll, they too, we are told, number
some 600,000. And if any one letter of the Torah scroll is incomplete,
or is omitted, then the entire scroll is inoperable for use.
So too if a member of our community is left out or is left behind,
our community, likewise, is incomplete. And the acrostic, too,
if anyone of those letters were to fall out, it also would be
The message then each letter, every person every
good word we offer, every life we touch each and every
mitzvah we perform is significant and meaningful and full of
purpose, and divine grace, and mercy just as the Psalmist has
Religion is relevant irrespective of the claims assailing
its veracity, adaptability and utility. Religion is true, and
relevant and ultimately meaningful, because we make it so
you and I one day one relationship one act
one word one mitzvah at a time.
I congratulate all those who have worked to put this day
together. In one week's time, as you well know, our two congregations
will gather to engage in a day of mitzvah with over twenty different
agencies and opportunities for individuals and families, young
and experienced alike, to share together. I congratulate all
those who have put that together and I thank all of you who will
be participating in Mitzvah Day.
I'm grateful that we have opportunities to create Mitzvah
Days each and every day.
SERMON PREACHED BY
RABBI AARON BENJAMIN BISNO
OF RODEF SHALOM CONGREGATION
AT CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH,
ON THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
23 APRIL 2006
"The Real Question is Religion's Relevance"