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Psalm 121

Psalm 124

Tikkun Olam

(For the Healing of the World)

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still to retain the ability to function.”  The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still to retain the ability to function.  Well, I must have a second or third rate intelligence, because I have been struggling mightily with multiple opposing ideas this week, and I’m going to guess you have as well.  I have found myself this week standing in solidarity with the people of Israel, indeed with Jews everywhere following the war and terror launched against the Israelis by Hamas.  Almost as heinous has been the venom of antisemitism in our own nation.  In neighboring Rhode Island a Providence synagogue received a credible bomb threat two days ago, and security has been beefed up in synagogues and temples across the country and around the world.  Both Tufts University and Maine’s Bates College hav been struck by vandals spreading antisemitic flyers and graffiti across their campuses.  And yet at the same time I can support Israel, I also feel the pain and suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank who have been forced to live as second and third class citizens in their own land, with access to basic necessities like food, water, electricity and health care severely constricted if not shut off completely by the Israeli government.  Is it inconsistent to support the right of the Palestinians to live safely and securely in their own neighborhoods and to defend the right of the Jews to defend themselves against terrorism even as that defense comes at the cost of Palestinian lives?  Maybe it is and maybe it is not; or maybe it is only inconsistent if our first response is that we have to choose a side in the first place.  What if we choose neither side? What if we choose both sides?

I’ve stayed in touch with Rabbi Marci Bellows at Congregation Beth Shalom for most of this week.  On Tuesday I checked in with her to see how she is doing, how her congregation is doing, and offered her my full-throated support for her and her congregation.  In fact I asked her permission to steal some of her words and ideas for my sermon this morning which I’ll share in a moment.  And at our Valley Shore Interfaith Clergy gathering last Thursday I and my colleagues were able to provide her with a safe space to talk about what her congregation is dealing with in these days, and to pray with her and for her folks.  I’m grateful that Chester’s synagogue knows they have an ally in the United Church and so many local congregations.

In some of her writings this week Marci echoes Fitzgerald.  “We human beings have complex minds,” she wrote. 

“We are able to hold many opinions and points of view concurrently in our heads, especially when situations become complicated.  Things are never black-and-white, as much as we may want them to be.  In wars in the Middle East, it is never simple.  It is humane and sensible to care for the human rights of the Palestinians, and to pray for their safety and their release from tyranny.  They are victims of Hamas too.  And we can be shocked to the core by the inhumanity and cruelty with which the terror attacks on Saturday against Israel took place.”

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this week about the response to Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel, both Christian and Jewish sources, and one of the things I’ve come away with is how both turn to the same place to find wisdom and comfort and encouragement and blessing, and that is the book of the Psalms, a book at the heart of both Jewish and Christian faith.  “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” Daphne read from Psalm 121, “from where will my help come?”  Those of a certain age may remember a slightly different wording from the King James Version, “I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help.”  Funny thing about the ancient languages; most of them don’t have any punctuation.  So what then does this first line mean?  In the New RSV that Daphne used, it reads as a question:  “I lift up my eyes unto the hills – from where will my help come?”  But it can just as easily be read as a declarative sentence, “I lift up my eyes unto the hills – from where my help will come.”  So which is it, a question or a declaration of faith.  I wager if you were to ask that question of any rabbi, the answer would be, Yes.  Yes, it is a question; Yes it is a declaration, an assertion, an affirmation of faith.  How very Fitzgerald of the rabbinical tradition.  It stands as both a cri de coeur, a cry from the heart, and a solid declaration of belief.  “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth…  The Lord who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”  It is a powerful line that was borrowed by composer Felix Mendelssohn for his oratorio “Elijah,” “He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.”  And the psalmist goes on to reassure the reader, “The sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all evil; the Lord will keep your life.”

If Psalm 121 wonders where the care and protection of the Lord comes from, Psalm 124 finds the answer in Israel’s own experience:  “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side –“ and then, for emphasis, the psalmist invites the congregation to make that assertion for themselves:  “Let Israel now say!” That is, repeat after me:  if it had not been the Lord who was on our side when our enemies attached us they would have swallowed us up alive… the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us, over us would have gone the raging waters.”  But.  But.  They did not, because God was on their side.  “Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.  We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers…”  In spite of it all, in spite of it all, God’s people know they can trust their Lord.

The phrase tikkun olam, which I’ve borrowed for my sermon title today, is a Hebrew phrase meaning “For the healing of the world,” and in these days, dear friends, the world is sorely broken.  It is not just between Israel and Gaza that the fault lines run.  It runs between Ukraine and the Russian border.  It runs between Armenia and Azerbaijan, straight through the narrow corridor of Nagorno-Karabakh.  It runs across the straits of Taiwan, and along the DMZ and yes, it runs through cities and towns in the US as well.  Ours is a broken world in desperate need of healing, and the Jews know and the Muslims know and you and I know that health and healing come from the one who neither slumbers nor sleeps.  God never promises an absence of conflict, but God does promise to be present in every time of trouble.  As Psalm 46 reminds us, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble.”

And one of the places God is most clearly and unmistakably present is in our presence among each other.  Noah Cheses is rabbi at Young Israel Synagogue in Sharon, Massachusetts, and spoke about guiding his congregation through this time of fear and turbulence when antisemitic activity is again on the rise.  Cheses said, “I’m a firm believer that we need to lean into our relationships with our neighbors, with town leadership.  Those relationships are what provide security.”  Notice he did not talk about armed guards and locked doors and security checks, although sadly too many synagogues have had to resort to these.  Rather he speaks of the ways relationships and community can provide a sense of security.  It is one of the reasons I reached out to Marci and her congregation.  Just knowing that we, you and I are here for our Jewish siblings means more than you and I, who are threatened by very little, could imagine.  Marci asked if she could share my words of solidarity and support with her congregation, just as I asked if I could share hers with you.  “If we could just remember that all of us are truly created in the image of God,” she wrote me, “then so many of these terrible situations and events would not be taking place.”  So as I wrote on Friday, reach out to your Jewish friends and neighbors ask if they’re OK.  Tell them they are in your hearts and your prayers.  This is one of the most concrete ways you and I can both experience and express the presence of God, is to be that presence, to be present for those who are anxious and hurting in our community.

Maren Tirabassi is a UCC minister, poet and writer.  We were briefly colleagues when she was pastor of a small UCC church in Beverly for a few years, but she is best known around the denomination for the hymns and poems and prayers she has written.  I have a book of hers titled Touch Holiness, a collection of prayers and worship materials that I, and we, have used often together.  Maren also turned to the book of Psalms this week in the wake of the brutal attack by Hamas, and offers up her own timely version of the 23d Psalm, which, providentially I think, is one of the lectionary readings for this morning.  Let me know what you think about Maren’s 23d psalm:

God is the shepherd of Israel and Palestine,

a people who want peace and fear war.

God is a child desperate for water,

and a family terrified for precious hostages.

God is in all souls.  God waits on every path.

This week the valley of the shadow of death

is crowded with God’s children,

and they have no comfort

but our prayers,

the prayers of the world,

for a table where enemies may sit down

to speak healing words,

receive an anointing of truce,

and shatter the cup of death

before more is poured out

on those who are innocent.

Goodness and mercy will follow us,

even in these days of fear and grieving,

until we build a house of reconciliation

and dwell in it together.

There is one more piece of Fitzgerald’s observation about holding two contradictory ideas at once.  Listen to the last line in particular:  “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still to retain the ability to function.  One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless, [and] yet be determined to make them otherwise.”  While much of the world cannot be blamed to gaze upon its own brokenness and despair of its healing, perhaps we can marshal our God-given first-rate intelligence and determine to be the otherwise, to be the hope, to be the healing of the world, to embody in ourselves as individual people of faith and in ourselves as the United Church of Chester, the tikkun olam.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


From the South: Take CT Route 9 North to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn Right; we are .8 miles on the right.

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