2012 Sermon Award

Jerry Davidoff Sermon Contest

Sermons that best illustrate or exemplify the contributions of Jewish theology, thought or culture to our liberal faith tradition:

First Place:  ”Sound the Shofar”, by The Rev. Aaron McEmrys, delivered to the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, September 19, 2011.

Sound the Shofar

A Sermon by the Rev. Aaron McEmrys

Delivered to the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, September 19, 2010

For thousands of years now, our Jewish sisters and brothers have been sounding the shofar, especially now, during Rosh Hashanah.

The shofar is a kind of horn made out of the hollowed-out horn of a ram.  The Mishneh Torah tells us that its loud blast cries, “Wake up from your (moral) sleep. You are asleep. Get up from your slumber. You are in a deep sleep. Search your behavior. Become the best person you can. Remember the One Who created you.”

The shofar then, is a kind of spiritual alarm clock, “WAKE UP, WAKE UP, WAKE UP! It’s time to wake up!”

One morning in 1944, a Rabbi named Zvi Hirsch Meisels woke up in Auschwitz, just as he had for many mornings before.  But this was the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

In his memoirs he writes, “With the grace of HASHEM I was miraculously able to bring a shofar into the camp.  On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I went from block to block, shofar in hand, to sound the tekiyot.  This revived the spirits of the shattered camp inmates and gave them some peace of mind.”

When he had finished his rounds the Rabbi felt lucky to still be alive. After all, Auschwitz was a place where it was very dangerous to draw attention to oneself at all, and yet he had spent most of the morning walking through the single most dangerous place on earth blowing blast after bellowing blast through the hollowed out horn of a ram.

The boys in the terrible locked block that led to the crematoria had somehow heard about the smuggled shofar and the Rabbi writes:

“I heard shouts and entreaties emanating from their block imploring me to come to them and sound the one hundred blasts of the shofar so they could fulfill this precious mitzvah in their last moments of life.

I was beside myself and completely confounded, because this involved a tremendous risk since it was nearing twilight, a dangerous hour, and the Nazis would be coming to take them. If the Nazis were to suddenly show up while I was in there with the youngsters, no doubt they would take me to the crematoria as well.

My dear son Zalman Leib stood next to me, and he too entreated me with bitter sobs. “Father, father! Don’t do this and endanger yourself because this may turn me into an orphan, and leave me stranded and alone. Father, father! Don’t go, don’t enter that block. You already blew the shofar so many times, and each time you risked your life. You have done more than enough.”

When I gazed at my son, pity and compassion welled up in me and I saw that he was, in a certain sense, correct.

I reached a decision. Come what may, I cannot turn the boys down. I will ignore the pleas of my dear son. I immediately started negotiating with the vile Kapos. I thought soon it will be too late, and I won’t have another chance to blow for the boys. So as quickly as possible a sizeable bribe was collected and the Kapos acquiesced, but warned me that if the bell at the gate sounded, meaning that the S.S. were coming, then my fate would be sealed along with the boys in the block.

Where is the pen, and where is the writer who could possibly put on paper my feelings when I entered the block? It is a miracle that my heart was not splintered into pieces when I saw the dozens of youthful eyes and heard their terrible sobbing. With tears burning and voices beseeching to the heavens, they pushed to reach me, to kiss my hand, to touch my clothes.

The Rabbi, tears streaming down his face, reminded those children that even there at the mouth of the ovens, wholeness, integrity and love were not beyond reach.  He reminded them that the Talmud teaches, “Even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair.”  Even in Auschwitz it is better to live and die awake, truly awake, then to do so in fog and forgetfulness.


And then he sounded the one hundred blasts of the shofar.

What is so important about the shofar?  What could possibly be so important that it’s worth smuggling into Auschwitz in the first place, where even a smuggled locket, book or possession of a moldy potato was punishable by death?  What could possibly be so important that a Rabbi would go to the very doors of the ovens for boys whose last wish was to hear the shofar blasts?

The shofar is so much more than an instrument.  Its purpose is to jolt us, to wake us up, especially as we begin a new year.

The one hundred notes of the shofar are also a kind of spiritual history.  The initial resonant long notes remind us of the loving wholeness from which we come.  Then the sharp, piercing and oh-so familiar staccato rush-hour blasts remind us of how easily we forget, becoming fragmented and discordant.

But just as the series of sounds ends with a simple, straight, resonant note, held as long as possible – so too can we always return to wholeness, even when a sharp sword dangles above us; the crooked made straight, the fragments knit back together, the sacred brought close.

To remember this is worth any risk.

Our lives are full of things that make us spiritually sleepy and forgetful.  Our incessant busyness and the exhaustion that accompanies it; the complacency and narcissistic self-focus that stems from false pride, our love of comfort, which can become an addiction as deadly as any drug; the despair, and then the apathy, which come from living a life that is not your own or from living too long without love.

All of these things, and countless others, lull, seduce, distract or bludgeon us into a state of forgetfulness when we need clarity; fragmentation, though our native state is wholeness; and narrow me-first alienation, when it is the generosity of love that is our birthright.

If our hearts beat, but we are not awake, then we are not really alive – more like a person sleeping their life away after being bitten by a tsetse fly – living only a dream life, at best.

The shofar wakes us up.  Jolts us back into ourselves and reminds us what living really is.

Life does this to us all the time, if we’re paying attention and sometimes even when we’re not.  The unexpected often does it: a brush with death like cancer or a truck that barely misses you as you cross the street – or a brush with life, like the first time you see a baby on the ultrasound, feel it kick or wrap it’s tiny fist around one of your fingers – such a fierce holding!

All of these things, tragic and joyful alike, are a kind of grace, for paradoxically it is when we most need to wake up that we sleepily hit the snooze button, put the pillow over our heads and fall back to sleep, missing the final exam, the job interview, the special, life-changing person we could have, would have, should have met on the subway.

So thank goodness for whatever hard or soft grace it is that wakes us up when we need it, whether it be a shofar or your mother, who won’t stop pounding on your door until you get up and go to school!

We need this, no matter who we are.  Even the good and wise Rabbi Meisels needed to be jolted awake, and the cries of the boys in that terrible block at Auschwitz – they were the shofar blasts the Rabbi needed to hear.


We all get sleepy.  Sleepiness is natural, and there’s nothing wrong with it – unless in our drowsiness we forget that the purpose of sleep is to prepare us for waking, unless we come to mistake, or even prefer, our dream life to our waking life, as all too many people do.  We get lost, we forget who we are, what we love and what our lives are for.  Amnesia is the great Achilles heel of humanity.

This is why our Jewish sisters and brothers blow the shofar.  While it’s great that life sends graceful wake-up calls now and then, they do not wait for some divine alarm clock to go off – there’s far too much at stake, far too much living and loving to do – so thousands of years ago they built a jolting, invigorating and not-entirely pleasant wake-up call into the ritual fabric of their collective life.

My brother in law, Chris, has his own daily version of this.  Every night he puts a big jug of water in the refrigerator.  Then, early in the morning, long before his kids get up, he groggily gets out of bed, stumbles into the kitchen, takes out the jug of very cold water, goes out into the backyard, and douses himself.

From the first splash of clean, icy water, he is awake, every atom and nerve open and singing.  Then he rinses and scrubs himself: feet, legs, chest, arms and face always in the same order.  Then he does Tai Chi.

Then when his children wake up, they find their father fully awake, alive and ready for them, really ready – every single morning.

When I am in Portland, he often invites me to join him in his early morning ablutions, but to be honest; I’ve only done it once.  Morning came so early and the water was so very cold.  But I’m grateful he sticks with it, because then, after the kids get up, I get up – and my brother is fully awake and alive for me too.

It is hard to wake up in the first place, but to stay awake is even harder.  I cannot begin to count the number of times I have resolved to start my mornings with prayer or meditation, only to find a thousand-and-one reasons why I should start tomorrow instead of today.

It feels ridiculous to say it, but my biggest excuse is that I am too busy, that my life is too full, to set aside even fifteen minutes a day, much less thirty, much less an hour – to do something that wakes me up, that brings me back to myself, that helps me be truly present!

How on earth can I be too busy for fifteen minutes of that?  What could possibly be more important?  The answer, of course, is nothing – and yet here I am.  Even this morning, of all mornings, when I am preaching about the shofar – I did not start my day in prayer as I meant to.  Instead I slept in.

Living authenticity, intentionally, requires a special kind of discipline, a faithful kind of discipline that is far from easy. And to make matters worse, the process of waking up is often uncomfortable, disorienting and even a little scary.

Every great artist knows this.

Think of how, in every truly great piece of music, there will be a moment when something jarring or unexpected happens: the key changes from major to minor, the tone turns dark, a melody breaks, percussion or brass or fuzz bass jars, knocking you out of your reverie – your ears perk up, you sit up straight in your chair – you are unsettled in the truest sense of the word – what’s going on here?  And then, now that you are fully present once more, the music brings you back again, minor returns to major.

Just think about Handel’s Water Music.  There they were, the King, the Queen and all their Court, floating gently on barges on the Thames, as a floating orchestra played.  Handel, we are told, saw the whole Court drowsing off during the composition he had worked so hard on – and then BAM, in comes the blazing brass and the booming kettle-drums – and suddenly everyone was more wide-awake than they had been in months!

Powerful forces in popular culture are always and unceasingly trying to persuade us that ease and comfort should be our great goals in life (how nice to fall gently asleep on the Royal Barge on the gentle Thames as a floating orchestra plays) – and even though we all know better on some level, we often allow ourselves to be lulled and persuaded by this terrible lie.

Sometimes discomfort in life really does mean you’re on the wrong track, like the warning-pain that tells you you’re too close to the burner, but often discomfort, whether spiritual or otherwise, just means that you are alive, and awake to being alive.

Our Jewish sisters and brothers around the world sound the shofar this week to wake them up so that they can prepare for the New Year.  You start getting right with yourself, seeing your whole self clearly and honestly, the good the bad and the ugly.  It means getting right with one another, asking forgiveness and doing our best to put things right.

Everything wears and frays in life: like an old flannel shirt or a familiar rug we unravel and wear inside and out – and this is nothing to be ashamed of.  Life is hard and we are delicate.

The fabric of our lives requires care, and sometimes mending, resilient as it is.

For only when we have restored our inner integrity can we restore loving integrity to our relationships, and only when we have restored authenticity, love and justice to our relationships can we rediscover the incomprehensible wholeness and boundlessly universal love that we sometimes feel within and between us and which is in fact undergirds, permeates and animates all things.

This is why the shofar sounds.  This is why Rabbi Meisels risked leaving his son an orphan to blow the hundred notes at Auschwitz.  Because any day, any year that passes that we are not awake to our lives is a day, a year, a life in which important things go unsaid, the tapestries of our lives go unmended and Allah knows how many precious and fleeting opportunities to love are lost.

I have sat in hospital rooms, at deathbeds, where even then, at the end of everything, the man in the bed still refuses to forgive his brother (or himself) for something that happened forty years ago. Rooms where a bitter daughter cannot bring herself to say, “I love you” to a mother whose heart is about to stop.  Rooms where sisters and brothers are already so divided about how to divide up the estate that they can barely look at one another, while other children do not come at all because they are “too busy.”  Rooms where a suddenly desperate woman tells me the things she wishes she had said or done but didn’t, as the lights slowly dim.

To die like this, asleep, is a terrible fate, but to live this way is even worse.  “Wake up!  Wake up!” The shofar sounds!

What is your shofar?  What is your cold water?  What wakes you up and makes your heart beat fast?  What recalls you to yourself?  What is it that can ready you for the life you can lead, the love you can feel and the wholeness that is your birthright?

Whatever it is now is the time to let your shofar sound.

“Tell me”, the poet asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”


Honorable Mention: “The Unexpected Visitor”, by Kate Landis, ministerial intern at First Parrish in Sherborn, MA on April 17, 2011.

The Unexpected Visitor 4/17/2011

The unexpected visitor pushed through the heavy door of the youth room, head down, long purple hair falling across her eyes and over her mouth.  It was the middle of January, and powdery snow was covering the slick ice outside- invisible, slippery danger everywhere. So the youth group that usually had ten or so teenagers this week only had four.  I hadn’t expected anyone to come at all, but I got four rambunctious freshman boys, practically hanging from the ceiling in their desire to get out their manic energy.  Too many snow days off of school. I was running through a mental list of games, searching for the ones with the most exhaustive potential, the most opportunity to sprint around, to jump, to roll, when Rose pushed the door open.

Rose was new to youth group.  Her step mother attended church regularly, and I could picture her face, but Rose and her Dad never came.  Rose pushed open the door, announced her name in a grunt, and said “I saw in my step-mom’s church newsletter that youth group was meeting tonight.  And my step-mom has been bugging me to come. So I thought I would check it out.  If that’s okay.  Or whatever. There is nothing else to do in this awful weather.  I mean, it’s supposed to be an open group, right?  I mean, it’s not a club or something. Whatever.  So can I sit down?”

The visitor named Rose plunked heavily into a seat, hair still covering her face, arms crossed, head down.  She sat for the next half an hour, while we blathered on about an upcoming service trip.  Rose didn’t say a word, but her silence wasn’t inhospitable.  She’s just the quiet type, I figured.  Finally she interrupted me and neutrally she said “You sure like to talk.”

I burst out laughing, as did the boys.  The girl knew what she was talking about!

“What, I wasn’t trying to be funny. I’m just saying you seem to like to talk.”

“Thanks Rose, thanks a lot,” I said sarcastically, laughing.

“I don’t know why you are all laughing, I wasn’t trying to be funny.  I don’t know what is going on.  Are you laughing at me? What is going on?!” Rose pummeled the arms of the couch with her fists, then curled her legs to her chest, making her body into a small ball.  The laughter quickly fell away.  The boys looked at each other nervously.

“Rose, sweetie, what’s going on? We aren’t laughing at you, we are laughing at me. Because I talk so much.  Rose? “ She tilted her head so that the long purple hair again covered her face.  I wondered if she was crying.  I had no idea what was going on.

Rose? I slid softly onto the seat next to her and squeezed her arm.  She roared to life. “Don’t’s call me sweetie. And don’t touch me! I am not your sweetie.”   Exhausted, she said, “I have to go home. I have to call my Dad.  I have to go home. Please let me go? She glanced up at me through wet, apologetic eyes.

Before I could answer she had pushed up to standing and was out the door, into the hallway, cell phone in hand. “Dad,” I could hear her say, “Dad, I am having a hard time. A really hard time.  Please come and get me at the church.”

A pause and then ”Kaaaate. Kaaate, can you come out here, my dad wants to talk to you.” I took the phone from her, and Rose’s dad unraveled the mystery.

Rose’s dad Rob explained that Rose didn’t tell him she was going to youth group, just slipped out of the house.  He explained that Rose has Asberger’s syndrome, a kind of Autism, and that she has a hard time reading social cues.  That she is always very honest, and has trouble understanding when she has said something unintentionally funny or inappropriate.  And she doesn’t like to be touched, or even looked at too long, and she hates nicknames.  I struck out on a lot of counts. Rose has anxiety attacks and when things get too bad she calls her dad for help.

Rob came to pick Rose up, and later in the week we met to talk about Rose and figure out how she could have a better time at youth group.  A lot had to change to be more Rose-friendly: instead of the prior method of unstructured youth group, we needed to have definite start and stop times for different activities.  Social action debate, 6-6:30. Games, 6:30-7. Worship 7-7:30.  And if we were a minute late Rose became agitated.  That was hard for me- it took extra work to plan everything out so carefully.

Big events needed to be planned out far in advance as well.  If Rose was going to go on an overnight, she needed months to mentally prepare. If we were going to go canoeing I needed to let Rose’s dad know the name of the canoe rental place so they could go check it out ahead of time.  Just seeing where we would be relaxed Rose enough to make participation possible.

Lots of little changes, too- I needed to make sure that I was clear in communication.  No sarcasm, Rose didn’t understand it. No offhanded remarks- I needed to only say what I really meant.  No last-minute schedule changes, or Rose would call her Dad in a panic.

It was hard. And tiring.  And to be truly honest, sometimes I resented it.  Because it forced me to change, to be intentional.  And the scariest, biggest change- it taught me that congregational life isn’t really accessible to everyone. The changes were work for me but the truth was if I didn’t make them, Rose couldn’t manage youth group.  How many other people were we leaving out?

In three days it will be Passover. And this Thursday we will observe the Passover Seder meal here.  6:30. Please come.

The Passover observance is based on an ancient story, one you might know, and that you will see relates to Rose, if you will stick with me for a minute. The Hebrew Bible tells us that the Israelites were living under the rule of the Egyptians, living as an occupied people.  The Egyptians enslaved them, and they were beginning to lose their identity as Israelites.  There was no holy temple for their faith, no church to come to and be reminded of what was important.  And so Moses, leader of the Israelites, worked with God to free the Israelites.

This was no easy task.  9 times the Pharaoh had promised to free the Israelites, and had changed his mind. The tenth time he said they could leave Egypt, they got ready in a hurry, not even allowing the bread to rise before leaving.  They had to leave before the Pharaoh changed his mind again.

The Pharaoh did change his mind, but by then the Israelites were long gone, free people in a new land.  In celebration of this daring escape, Jews celebrate the Passover every Spring with a Seder meal.

There is a lot of beauty in Passover- the underdogs winning out, the slaves freed,  but my favorite part is that at every Passover supper a seat is left vacant for the prophet Elijah.  The last Passover I observed was in a crowded apartment living room, around a few folding tables set up in a row.  The dishes didn’t match, there weren’t enough napkins or wine glasses.  Most of us enjoyed our wine from juice cups or old canning jars, but despite everything being in short supply, Elijah had a proper wine glass.  Elijah had a seat at the crowded table.

Why?  Why keep a seat for a prophet who, physically at least, isn’t there?

There is a seat for Elijah because Elijah is the visitor. Elijah comes to teach us, to tell us, to prophesize.

In the Jewish story-telling tradition, Elijah is always showing up to people unexpectedly. One story involves a very rich man who finds Elijah in his living room one morning.  Elijah, he says, when will the Messiah return?  When will the Messiah return and make the earth into a paradise?

Elijah tells the man that the Messiah, which literally means ‘the one we have been waiting for’, is with the lepers, at the gates to the city.  The man rushed from the house and breathlessly arrives at the gate just minutes later.  However, the only person at the gate is an old man, covered with sores and wrapping his feet in filthy, old bandages.  The rich man returns home and demands that Elijah explain why the Messiah wasn’t there.

I bet you can guess how this one ends.  It is a popular story: there is a Hindu version, with Lord Krishna, and a version with the Buddha.  Jesus appears to people in a similar way.  And what we learn from all of these stories is that the Messiah is the sick elder at the gate.  The messiah is the unexpected one, the dirty one, the one wrapping his feet in filthy bandages.

And in every story that person is ignored, or turned away- the rich man doesn’t want to talk to the old man with leprosy, he doesn’t’ even want to make eye contact with him.   But if he would, Elijah tells us, if he would he would learn so much.  He would learn that the promised time of peace and justice will not come to the earth until every person can learn from the unexpected visitor.  Until every person realizes the wisdom in the stranger.

Rose walked into the youth room a stranger, a stranger with wisdom for me.  And I learned so much- to be organized, to be a clear and coherent communicator, and mostly to strive for a religious community that is accessible to people who are different than me. A community open to people who learn in different ways, who express themselves in different ways.  Who have different gifts.  From Rose the visitor I received sweet redemption, I received a new view on a weary world.

When we planned the youth-led worship service Rose said there was no way she would read from the pulpit- she doesn’t want to stand up there and talk!  But she is a phenomenal guitarist.  She has perfect pitch and can play any song after hearing it once.  She can practice for hours without getting bored or unfocused.   So Rose played all the hymns on the guitar, and she played a haunting version of John Lennon’s Imagine that she made up on the spot.

When I welcomed the visitor I found the truth, I learned important lessons.  Who is the visitor in your life?  Who is standing at the gate ignored, waiting to give you news that will change your life?  Who is waiting to redeem you? It might be work- it might require changing.  But wisdom is all around us when we recognize the stranger in our midst.  Think about the Dar Williams quote in the order of worship:  “The closest thing to God I’ve had, is when I knew I did not have the final word”—we don’t know it all.  And the moments when I realize my gaze has been too narrow- when I realize I do not have the final word- that is when I feel closest to the Divine.

Sometimes the visitor doesn’t wait at the gate, sometimes they come to the door and enter in. When I was a child my family volunteered with the Interfaith Hospitality Network at our downtown Baptist church, and even though I was only 6 or 7 I remember it so well- sitting at a table eating fried chicken and scalloped potatoes, watching my mom spooning out second helpings, eyeing the kids at the table, wondering if they wanted to be friends.  After dinner we played freeze tag, chasing around a little girl my age, tripping and knocking us both over, both laughing so hard, rolling around on the floor. I started to cry when it was time to go home because I didn’t want to leave my new friend, not letting go of her hand.  I wanted her to sleep over, to come home with us.  But my mom said she had to sleep here tonight- sleep here? At the church?  Who sleeps in a church? On our way home my mom explained that she was homeless- that little girl, she didn’t have a house like us, she lived in churches and in shelters. I had a lot of age-appropriate questions- where did she keep her backpack?  Where did she store her ballet shoes? How do you go trick-or treating if you’re homeless?

Before bed I started to cry- but Why didn’t she have a place to live?  She was my friend, she was my playmate- she was so nice. It wasn’t fair. What about her brother, a tiny, gurgling baby- how can a baby be homeless? It wasn’t fair. My mom told me not to worry, that it was a problem for grownups to fix, and if it wasn’t fixed when I grew up then I could worry about it them.

My beloved spiritual companions, it isn’t fixed. This past week our congregation participated in the Interfaith Hospitality Network.  People who are homeless slept in our offices and the Alliance room.  On Tuesday I arrived for work and found neatly made air mattresses greeting me in my office. Our homeless guests had left for the day, but there were sad reminder’s everywhere- a spider man action figure with a leg twisted backwards, little-girl barrettes, fresh child-sized head indentations on pillows.  Mommy, who sleeps in a church? Why don’t these children have a place to live?  The grown-ups haven’t fixed the problem- people, including lots of children, are homeless.  This week visitors came teach us- there are little children just like ours, with nowhere to live.  No where to put their backpacks and ballet shoes.  A visitor, in my own house of worship, reminded me that there is still so much work to be done.  So much justice to be sought. Reminding me to be thankful, so grateful, for the roof over my head, for the place I can store my back pack and dancing shoes, and hand out Halloween candy.

Sometimes the visitor waits at the gate for us to come, like the Messiah waiting for the rich man.  Sometimes they come into our own neighborhood, our own house of worship, to remind us that the current system isn’t working.  That the promised time of peace and happiness won’t come until we welcome every visitor at the gate as if they are the Messiah, listening to what they have to teach us.

Toward the beginning of the Seder meal we say a prayer that announces that our homes are open to visitors, to guests, that we want to share the Seder meal with anyone who comes to teach us. And the prayer laments that this year, as every year, there are slaves, there are homeless people, there are oppressed people. And finally, we pray that next year, please Spirit, next year, let it be different.  Let there be justice.

We pray this Passover season for a world without oppression, for a world where no child, woman, or man is homeless.  We pray for houses of worship open to people different from us. Houses of worship open to purple-haired teenagers who don’t like to be looked at. People who don’t have a place for their ballet shoes. And we pray that our hearts and our meals remain open to these visitors with a lesson for us.  Who is the visitor in your life?  Who is standing at the gate ignored, waiting to give you news that will change your life?  Who is waiting to redeem you?

Let them in.  With an open heart, let them in.

May it be so. Blessed Be.