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Hearing the Voice of the Lord Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, January 23, 2015

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to see the movie Selma. I imagine that many of you have seen it as well. There’s been a lot of coverage of the film and the awards for which it was and wasn’t nominated. People have pointed out its inaccuracies in its portrayal of President Johnson and the Jewish community has expressed concern about the lack of visibility given to the Jewish participants in the march and in the civil rights movement. Many of us were looking for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps the best known of the Jewish marchers, whose photograph, standing with the Rev Dr. King and Ralph Bunche is iconic.

I also thought there was a lost opportunity for educating the audience at the end of the film. When they updated the history of many of the main characters, they  didn’t take the opportunity to remind everyone about the gutting of the Voting Rights Act which took place with the Supreme Court decision in August of 2014. That would have fit right into the closing song with its reminder of the work yet to do.

But it was still a great movie. For me personally, one of the most moving aspects of the film was the portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King in moments of despair and discouragement.  Though the film begins with his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it focuses on how uncertain success remained for the civil rights movement. The film doesn’t flinch from the violence against African-Americans and their allies at that time- it forces us to see both the violence and its effects on the inner lives of all those involved.

One very striking moment in the movie was when Dr. King wonders around his home in the dark, alone. This was after he had been attacked by a white man while checking into a hotel in Selma, and following a difficult conversation with his wife Coretta. Dr. King is filled with self-doubt and there is a mood of foreboding, a sense of imminent doom. It is late at night when MLK picks up the phone and calls his friend, gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson. He tells her that he “needs to hear the voice of the Lord”. She rouses herself from sleep, and gently sings his favorite hymn, “Precious Lord”.

“Precious Lord” was a song that was sung at a lot of the rallies at this time. It was also played at the rally in Memphis just before MLK was shot, and was the song that Jackson would later sing at King’s funeral and Aretha Franklin at his memorial service. It was written by Thomas Dorsay in 1932 just after his wife and new born baby died from complications of childbirth.  As Dorsay struggled within himself to resume his life as a church musician, he composed this song as a way to fin his faith again.

At a moment of despair, we might have expected the Reverend MLK to open his Bible perhaps to a Psalm or to one of the prophetic texts he used so well in his sermons. We might have expected him to talk to his father, or one of the other great preachers of the older generation, the men who taught and mentored him. But instead he turned to music for the comfort and encouragement he needed and for the sense of closeness with God.

Sometimes when I am walking out of the hospital after a particularly difficult visit or leaving a funeral after the casket is finally fully covered, I find myself singing the big Esa Einai, Psalm 121, with which we begin our S’lichot Service. It’s not something I consciously do- it just sort of happens. Perhaps for you  it is Adonai Li, or Gesher Tzaar Me’od that you hear in your head, or the beautiful simple chant that my Hevrah in India sang so often,  Ozi VeZimrat Yah.  Sometimes the voice of the Lord we seek to hear, is not the thunder and lightning of Mt Sinai, but the still small voice that Elijah found in the stillness after the storm.

Of course there are other time for other music. Music can comfort and inspire us, but it can also be our expression of joy. Think of Shabbat Shirah  next weekend,  when we read about the crossing of the sea with Miriam and the women celebrating on the opposite shore. Expressive music, loud and lively, vigorous and perhaps not so decorous, also has a place in our worship.

This fall we began some discussions with the ritual committee and with a subcommittee of skilled religious musicians about the state of music in our worship. We know that different people like and are accustomed to different styles of music. All of the many surveys and focus groups done at Shir Hadash as part of the various long range planning efforts we’ve had over the years have uncovered great diversity in our congregation on every possible worship question- more English, less English, more Hebrew, less Hebrew, more new music, more Reform Classics, more traditional nusach and davening, more renewal music and chants. Our investigation this time, is not so much about these opinions, the likes and dislikes of the congregation, as about the workings of music on the heart and soul.

The Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, in a moment of despair, longed to hear the word of his Lord, and heard it in the music another man had written as he moved from loss to hope.  We are glad to see so many of you here today as we experiment with the guitar in the hands of a gifted guest musician as a means of reaching and touching our hearts and souls.


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