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What Gives Me Hope this Thanksgiving - a sermon for the Bethel Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

Honi and the Carob Tree[1]

Honi the Wise One was also known as Honi the Circle Maker. By drawing a circle and stepping inside of it, he would recite special prayers for rain, sometimes even argue with God during a drought, and the rains would come. He was, indeed, a miracle maker. As wise as he was, Honi sometimes saw something that puzzled him. Then he would ask questions so he could unravel the mystery.

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, "How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?" The man replied, "Seventy years." Honi then asked the man, "And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?"

The man answered, "Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees."

Honi, a scholar from the 1st Century BCE was obviously a man of hope, faith and optimism surrounded by a changing world that saw the rise of a number of individuals claiming to work miracles. People are like that: when our world is collapsing under the weight of moral decay, look for signs of hope and optimism.

Friends, our own world is collapsing under the weight of indifference, cruelty, harshness, intolerance and willful ignorance.

Our airwaves and internet broad bands today are bloated with ugliness. Politicians cut their teeth by race and religion baiting; homophobic, bigoted and racist clergy gain national recognition by preaching intolerance; television and radio talking heads not only spout ugly racial, homophobic and religious rhetoric but encourage violence against those among us who are least able to defend themselves. Each day we ingest doses of what Oscar Hammerstein decried as “hate and fear … Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,” and whose word for God or worldview is different from ours. All Israelis are Nazis, all Muslims are terrorists, all priests are pedophiles … the list of our hatreds is endless. We have no boundaries with smart phones and the internet, and we too often painfully read about someone who chose suicide because of relentless bullying and “joking” from which there is no escape.

And then we look at ourselves, if we dare, and realize that we are all guilty. We are all sinners. “That’s so gay.” “Retard.” “Nazi.” We teach our children by omission. Just as my faith’s Yom Kippur service begins with the affirmation that we are permitted to - are obliged to - pray with sinners, we assume that we include ourselves among those ranks. We are all sinners, we have all failed ourselves, each other and the higher power of our individual understandings.

And yet, we must - we MUST - be hopeful. For where there is hope, there is life. We cannot shrug our shoulders and give up.

Where do we find hope?

In the 21st Century, some of us look to the vast expanse of ... no, not heaven ... the internet. GivesMeHope.com was founded in May 2009 in response to websites that encourage negativity. As the GivesMeHope website describes it, “On (other websites), people share stories explaining how their day was completely ruined. We're tired of hearing about what's wrong in this world. That's why we created GivesMeHope.com. GMH is where people share with the world their most hopeful, uplifting moments and allow others to draw strength from their experiences. It's like Chicken Soup for the Soul - the 21st Century, Twitter-style version. Because with all of the hurt and suffering in the world, who couldn't use a few more reasons to hope each day?”

An example of a GMH posting: In 8th grade, there was a girl with special needs in my class. One day while walking home, I saw some mean boys telling her that there was gold in a puddle of mud. She ran over to the puddle of mud and started splashing in it, and the boys laughed as she got dirty. Instead of laughing, another boy in my class went up and started playing in the mud with her. He Gives Me Hope. [2]

And some of us look to our scriptures, to our faith traditions. The Prophet Jeremiah purchased land for the future, even though he knows that this same land will be overrun by enemies. During the period of Israel’s captivity in Babylon, the Prophet Ezekiel gave them hope by pointing out that they could worship their God in Babylon as well as Jerusalem. The Prophet Isaiah promised a messiah to redeem the entire world. And whether you are waiting for the messiah to come for the first or second time, that hope - that belief in a better world - sustains men and women of faith in times of trouble and despair.

How can we ensure - indeed, can we ensure - that the world can be made better? Some faith traditions teach that mere belief is enough - faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains. And indeed, prayer is powerful, as we are taught: “Prayer invites God to let God’s presence suffuse our spirits, to let God’s will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.” [3]

And yet I believe that prayer and faith are not enough, as the rabbinic sages taught, “Acts of repentance, righteousness - as well as prayer - change God’s intent.”

We change the world - we make our hope tangible - by the actions we take and the choices we make. We are created by God with the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. We are given a moral conscience, an inner voice that reminds us of God’s law when we consider doing something forbidden. But we are also given a selfish nature, a desire to satisfy personal needs (such as food, shelter, sex, etc.) without regard for the moral consequences of fulfilling those desires. [4]

We make choices for good and for evil every day, and we are the only ones of God’s creations to be able to do so. We may be born little lower than - and are little less than - the angels, as we are taught in Psalm 8; but as we learn in Genesis, we were also formed from the dust of the earth. Our heads may be in the clouds, but our feet must be firmly planted on the ground.

On this Thanksgiving eve, when our hearts are full of gratitude, let me conclude with the following 13 paths toward becoming a person of goodness as taught by the modern scholar Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Rabbi Telushkin teaches, “As our sages (the Midrash) teach, ‘The Torah’s commandments were not given to humankind for any purpose other than to refine people’(Genesis Rabbah 44:1).”

How do we live good lives?

1. Do good deeds often.

2. Cultivate the friendship of people who are both good and wise.

3. Avoid people with bad character and unkind disposition.

4. Live up to the reputation to which you aspire.

5. See every act you do as one of great significance.

6. If you offer personal prayers to God for your own well-being and success, pray for others before you pray for yourself.

7. Cultivate and develop your moral strengths.

8. Keep a daily “character journal” focusing exclusively on the area in which you wish to improve yourself.

9. When trying to correct a bad trait, temporarily embrace the opposite extreme.

10. Avoid even sins that seem minor, because, as a rabbinic maxim teaches, “One sin will lead to another” (Pirkei Avot 4:2).

11. When confronted with a situation that leaves you uncertain as to whether you are taking the right action, ask yourself one question: “What is motivating me to act in this way, my good inclination or my evil inclination?” (understanding that both are created by God).

12. Look at your life from the future. Strive to leave a legacy of goodness.

13. Emulate God. Just as God clothed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:21), so should we clothe those who lack adequate clothing; just as God visited Abraham when he was weak (Genesis 18:1), so should we visit the sick. [5]

You are here today. And this, my friends, gives me hope. May we be blessed with a Thanksgiving of good intent and good choices.

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