This year I was honored to be invited to give the invocation and benediction at the annual Martin Luther King Day banquet held at the South Puget Sound Community College. It was an inspiring evening, honoring the life of Dr. King by invoking his legacy, by honoring local educators and awarding scholarships, and hearing from inspiring speakers including our Congressman Rep. Denny Heck and especially the keynote Tamika Mallory, one of the organizers of last year’s Women’s March. These are the words I shared:
Thank you, it is an honor to be here with you tonight on this sacred occasion.
In the Jewish liturgical tradition, we read the entirety of our sacred Scripture, the Torah, the first five books of the bible over the course of a year. Beginning in the fall, each week on the Sabbath we read a section, beginning with Genesis and ending with Deuteronomy.
There is a meaningful confluence this week between our Jewish liturgical calendar and our civic calendar. For on this weekend, when we as an American society celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are reading chapters 6-9 of the Book of Exodus, which tell the story of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery, the story which we know inspired Dr. King, and continues to inspire us to day.
Specifically in these chapters, we read of Moses’s first confrontation with Pharaoh. Having been called by God at the burning bush to return to his people, to be God’s messenger, to be the one who will lead this uprising against an oppressive power, Moses goes to the halls of power and makes the demand that his people should be freed—“Let My People Go.”
And we know, at first, it doesn’t go over well.
But Moses is supported by God, who brings, with each demand for freedom, a plague. A symbol of divine power, a symbol of the rightness of Moses’s claim, a show of force against a ruler, a tyrant whose heart, as the text states, “was hardened.”
There are 10 plagues in all, 10 times that Moses returns to Pharaoh to demand freedom. First turning the water of the Nile into blood.
When the blood didn’t work, there was an infestation of frogs. When the frogs failed to convince, lice descended on the land. When the lice was ineffective, wild animals came to roam. When the power structure still did not change boils appeared, then hail, then locusts, then darkness—each plague increasing in severity until with the final plague when it literally becomes a matter of life or death.
And he won.
As Moses did in Scripture, as King did in his day, and we do in ours, we confront tyrants and systems of oppression. And we return again and again demanding change. First we sign petitions. When the petitions do not work we write letters. When the letters go unanswered we make phone calls. When the phone calls fail to convince we sit in protest. When we are done sitting we rise. After we rise we march. When we march we sing. When we are done singing we shout. And we return time and time again until it becomes a matter of life or death.
And we win.
Scripture teaches, and King demonstrated, that it is possible to challenge and change structures of power and privilege, that we can overcome oppression, that we can right the wrongs of the past. Through persistence and perseverance, through continuous action, by returning again and again we can live up to our highest ideals, and create a society that is just and moral and built on love.
And, there is always more work to be done.
So let us pray.
Source of All Life and Blessing
First, thank you for the food we are about to eat. Thank you for the earth and its abundance that produced it, thank you for the skilled hands who harvested and collected, shaped and prepared it, thank you for the dedicated service of those who bring it to us.
We thank you for the gift of community. For all of those gathered here tonight who join together in common cause and who in their own way work for the betterment of our society.
Thank you for this evening, for this opportunity to gather in remembrance and celebration, honoring the past, and envisioning the future.
Thank you for the life and legacy of Dr. King, for the work he did and continues to do through inspiration. Thank you for all of those who are our leaders and activists, who rise up, who speak truth, who challenge what is and show us not only what could be, but should be.
Source of All Life and Blessing.
May we be blessed with the gift of insight and vision.
May we face the future with open eyes and ears, hands and hearts.
May we act only out of love and compassion.
May we be vigilant in the face of hatred, vocal in the face of silence.
May we have the strength to rise up and return, and remember that dictum of the ancient Jewish sages: It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
In the name of all that is holy, good, and true we pray.
And let us say, Amen.