A Rabbi at the Christian Pulpit

Forgive me, but I typically dread public worship. I grew up Southern Baptist, which meant fire and brimstone sermons and the oh-so-literal fear of God. I grew up scared of the Big Skipper and have spent much of my adulthood ducking church and talking to my Creator in private.

Every now and again, I find myself in church as the guest of someone I love. There I sit, a backsliding Baptist, ill at ease and terribly unschooled in such matters as “kneelers,” the giving of the peace, and actual wine in the communion chalice.

For years I’ve waited for someone to stand at the pulpit and declare there is only one God, the God of all people, the God of every denomination of every faith in the world. And then, just last Sunday, it happened, an interfaith miracle in a Christian cathedral in downtown Portland, when a rabbi came to the pulpit.

Rabbi Michael Cahana, the religious leader of nearby Congregation Beth Israel, was invited to give the homily during the installation of his friend, the Very Rev. Nathan LeRud, as dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

He knocked it out of the park.

 Photo by Danny Bronson, courtesy of Dan Bronson Photo

Photo by Danny Bronson, courtesy of Dan Bronson Photo

Here are the words Rabbi Cahana spoke:

What an honor it is to be invited to give the homily on this auspicious occasion – the installation of the third Dean of this magnificent cathedral. To me, it is quite significant that all three of these Deans have been friends of the senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel. And I get to claim two-thirds!

It is, to say the least, humbling to have received this invitation from my good friend, the Very Rev. Nathan LeRud. This is the second time I have had the honor of preaching from this lectern. And you asked me back, so I must not have messed up too much. The last time was when I joined you in honoring our then shared organist, John Strege, upon his retirement. And now, how lovely to be here to welcome another shared friend on his installation. It is a singular honor. And I can only imagine how ancestors of mine, rabbis of a very different era in interfaith relationships, could view this moment. Most, throughout our history, would have walked into a church under only the most dire of circumstances – and rarely received with the grace and welcoming that I feel today. They would have been preached to – not invited to be the preacher. They would have been informed of the errors of their ways, not asked to be the teacher. So I am humbled and grateful for the friendship I feel both personally and historically. Thank you. And forgive me if I let my voice ring out a bit.

But it is this voice – the voice of this pulpit - which I am reflecting on today. I am a guest for this brief time. But this pulpit, this platform, this rather raised dais is a symbol of responsibility. The leader of a community, the preacher, is given this place to stand for a reason. And the power of that privilege should make one humble. In fact, anyone with common sense would shut up immediately. Which is why I am going to keep talking.

When Dean LeRud extended the invitation to me to speak today, I asked him about the service and what I should expect. He said he did not know, he had never been installed as Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral before. I told him I hadn’t either. But in honesty, he asked me to reflect on the role of the Cathedral in the community. As a friend and yet an outsider, how can I see this wonderful community in its role outside this magnificent structure? How do we build coalitions as a faith community across all the lines which ordinarily divide us?

And so, I thought about the bells.

My office, you may know, is just a block away. On many occasions, as I am sitting and thinking there, I hear the sounds of your bells. The Clarion which sounds its lovely notes from its tower through the air enters into my space and into my heart. Sound knows no bounds. It does not depend upon the light of day or the cool of evening. We can be facing the other direction, unaware of its source – and the crystal notes will still enter our hearts. The call can be demanding – “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land!” More often, though, it comes softly and welcomely and reminds us of its presence and the joy that is within these walls.

Sitting in my synagogue office, I sometimes hear the bells from your tower and the single note bells from St. Mary’s Cathedral a further short distance away. One can imagine that I would indulge a shofar blast to wrap these sounds together. That would be a beautiful interfaith melody! Perhaps I’ve given an idea to your Canon for Cathedral Music. You are welcome, Bruce Neswick.

Hearing these sounds, the clarion bells, bring three things to mind for me. (Yes, rabbis, like reverends, always speak in examples of threes!)  The first is when I visit Jerusalem. The images most people have about Jerusalem are of interfaith strife and even violence. But for me, my favorite moments are very peaceful: standing at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, and hearing the Muslim call to prayer and the bells of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre mixing with the wailing prayer of the Jewish worshipers. I stand there in profound appreciation. Sometimes we cannot see each other – there are too many walls. But sound knows no bounds. Before we see, we hear. And though we all too often close our eyes to the needs of others, we cannot shut our ears. The sounds of prayer enter our heart. Can compassion be far away?

The second image that comes to me when I hear your bells is a stained glass window. As many of you know, when my congregation dedicated its structure in 1928 it had overcome a recent tragedy as its beautiful downtown sanctuary had burned to the ground. Perhaps it was an accident, perhaps it was more nefarious. But it was known in that era that Jews were not always welcome neighbors. But worshipers entering their new synagogue were greeted by a surprise: among the biblical images in the stained glass windows, was one modern element showing two hands shaking. A gift, I am told, from St. Mary’s Cathedral – and this, your Trinity Episcopal. On it are the words of the prophet Malachi: “Have we not all one Father, hath not one God created us?”

When I see that window, and point it out to guests as I invariably do, I am reminded of the embrace spoken in the prophet Mica’s vision: “But they shall sit every one under his vine and under her fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”

But what the clarion bell really reminds me of is something entirely different. And this is the image I offer for my friend the Dean. I noticed that there were two biblical texts offered in today’s service: one from the Old Testament and one from the new. I hope you will forgive if this rabbi chooses to focus on the Old Testament text. I can speak with perhaps a tad more authority. [Editor's note: Rabbi Cahana got very big laughs here.]

Now many of you perhaps thought that the texts from Exodus 28 which focuses on the vestments of the High Priest were chosen by our Dean because of his wonderful fashion sense. Or because it is appropriate to his new vestments as befits his new station. But in fact, he told me that this is typically text read at Evensong service which comes monthly. If it is new to you. . . well, I’ll let your Dean do the guilt thing.

And while the formal robe of the high priest is described in some detail in this biblical test, there is one element that has always stood out for me. The bells.

And beneath upon its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, around its hem; and bells of gold between them. A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe around it. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and his sound shall be heard when he goes in to the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, that he should not die.

This magnificent outfit, majestic in its presentation before the people, containing the sacred mystery of the Urim and Thummim, is trimmed on its hem by little tinkling bells. What an anti-climax! The poor guy can’t go anywhere without being announced.

And that, of course, is exactly the point.

The medieval rabbis understood these bells as a practical warning that no one should be present when the priest enters the Holy of Holies. And in fact it was a way of knowing that he was going about his duties in his sacred, holy isolation – and had not died in the Great Presence. But there is more. The sound of the anointed one in holy communion was a call to the people: “Let the sound produced by a holy man, wearing pure golden bells awaken you to the imperative to seek out holiness yourself” a commentator said.

As always, the one who is given the honor of leadership, must serve at all times as an example. One cannot hide from this destiny, my friend. You are a leader. And yet, there is humility as well. The bells were not alone, they were muffled by the wool and linen pomegranates. You had to listen carefully for the sound. And the bells were attached to the bottom of the robe – a reminder of how close to the ground we are, how we should consider any honor as ultimately trifling. We who are given the honor of leadership are reminded of our responsibility and to keep ourselves humble in its presence.

And yet, the bells are not for the leader alone. With the sound of these bells, your leader is calling out to you – calling you to be called together. Sound has no bounds. Neither does goodness, honesty and compassion. Your new Dean has these qualities in abundance. He can ring the bells all that he likes. I can even hear them in my synagogue. The question is, what will YOU do when you hear them ring? Will you be called to seek holiness within – and to perform deeds of holiness without. Or will you attempt to shut your ears and allow the distractions of the world drown out their humble yet persistent sound?

Come together. Let the bells inspire you. Every step brings a new sound, a tiny muffled plink. But I know your Dean. Humble, soft voiced. But his bells will be as insistent as G-d’s own call to you. For as the prophet Elijah discovered, G-d’s voice was not in the wind, nor the shaking of the earth, nor in the fire. We preachers are far too accustomed to fire and brimstone. No, G-d’s words were in the “still small voice.” It was in the tinkling bells on the hem of robe. My prayer to you, my friends: follow your selected leader as he makes his way within your cathedral, within your heart and within our shared community. Follow him as he gently guides and as he reaches out to make your Cathedral a holy place for all. A leader in our community. A partner to all who seek to make our world more holy. Let the sounds mingle together so that we know we are separate, but joined in holy work. Let the sounds echo holy partnership and welcome – like clasped hands. Listen to the bells. May they inspire us. Together may we amplify their sound with good deeds – actions of hope and goodness – actions which know no bounds.

Amen.