A Sign From God
Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein
Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel
Memphis, Tennessee

(This sermon is also available in audio.)

One major difference between Jews and Christians, of course, is whether or not the Messiah has been here. We Jews are still waiting for the Messianic Age when pain and hunger, depression and war, are no more, and you Christians are waiting for Jesus to come back. One minister commented, "So the question we'll have to ask the Messiah on his arrival is, "Have you been here before?" "At which point," the minister continued, "I would advise the Messiah to say, "I don't remember." In the meantime, we are all to do our share as God's helping hands to help bring about the Messianic Age for which we dream and pray.

My dear friends, each of us is drawn to Calvary on this day for a variety of different reasons. We are drawn by tradition, by the food at the Waffle Shop, by a necessary break from work. We are drawn by history, by family, by faith. We are drawn by some "yearning we can't quite define." "Lent," as my dear friend and colleague Doug Bailey explained, "is a season in which I give special and in-depth attention to my spiritual journey and my authentic relationship to God and others."

Part of the Lenten draw, I believe, is this season's underlying message of renewal. This season is meant to remind Christians and anyone else who will listen, that it is never too late to start over again. It is never too late to turn things around. One of my favorite stories illustrating this idea was shared by the Honorable Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, Emmanuel Cleaver. As Mayor Cleaver tells the story, he and his wife flew to San Francisco for a three-day trip and then rented a car to visit friends in a suburb of the city. Mayor Cleaver, like most men, always bragged about his sense of direction. "It is in the genes of men," he said, "to be right when we are driving." The drive to Daly City was supposed to take fifteen minutes. But after about thirty minutes, Mrs. Cleaver turned to her husband and said, "Honey, I think we're on the wrong freeway." Mr. Cleaver replied, "No, we're not, I know where I'm going." He continued on and on until he saw a sign which read, "San Jose, 35 miles." By then, Mrs. Cleaver was biting her lip on the far edge of the passenger side. Mr. Clever, who is also a minister, knew he was wrong, but he also knew that he was too proud to admit it. He kept driving until suddenly, out of the blue, he saw it -- "the most beautiful, gorgeous and transformational sign he had seen in years." The sign had big bold black letters which read, "U-turns Are Permitted"!

The U-turn is a sign from God. God accepts U-turns in Judaism and Christianity, and especially during our holy seasons. No matter how far down the road of life we travel, whether the road be personal, professional, religious, or simply an ill-advised path, U-turns are permitted. When taken carefully, thoughtfully, and purposefully, U-turns can steer us in the right direction. At the very least, they can help us find a better route than the way we were previously headed. This forty-day Lenten period is the Christian time designated for rethinking and reconsidering the road we've been on, and not being afraid to change directions. It's a time to take a look at the spiritual road we've been traveling, and entertain new possibilities for personal growth, a deeper relationship with God, better relationships with those we claim to care about, and more love for the least lovable among us, because they need it the most.

This season of death and rebirth, of being spiritually reborn, gives us reason to pause and reflect on the life we have lived up to this point. "What would you say about the life you've made for yourself and the life you have given to others? What would you want said about you?" "What would you turn around if you had the chance?" I go through this same exercise during the Jewish holy season each fall, and what I would want said is, "He was a fine rabbi, but he was a much better father, husband, son, and friend." No matter what our profession or walk of life, I think we all want pretty much the same thing...to be the best spouse, parent, child, and friend we can possibly be.

The good news is that we can turn things around in our lives for the better. God has given each of us that power. It is never too late. Just think of the people you know, whose resilience, persistence, courage, and will to live, have transcended all the hardships, losses, and tragedies they have faced. Life has a way of imposing its own U-turns, sometimes unpleasant ones, which is why the ability and example of people who live with their losses and find a way to return to life is so inspiring and amazing. Some of the most inspiring examples I know are in this sanctuary today, and it is they who teach all of us that it is never too late to feel again, to love gain, to hope again, to live again, and to believe in eternal life again.

Not that it is always easy to turn things around. Some of us may be feeling distant from our faith and families. Others of us may be in physical or emotional distress. But if we can muster the strength to turn things around spiritually, it's amazing how bearable and better life becomes. The story is told of a young woman who was experiencing great stress. Her doctor prescribed anxiety medication and asked the woman to come back in a few weeks. When the doctor saw her again, he asked if she noticed any difference in herself. "No," she said, "I don't. But I have observed that other people seem a lot more relaxed." As we examine our own stress levels and personal priorities, as we reflect on our home life, our careers, our inner life, our relationship to God and others during this Lenten season, let us resolve to emerge at Easter and Passover even better persons than we are today, for if we are not better people tomorrow than we are today, then what good is tomorrow?

My dear friends, the purpose of this Lenten season and my tradition's holiest season known as the high holydays, is not simply to give something up or take something on. The purpose of this Lenten season is to turn ourselves around in some significant way. Judaism and Christianity share the theological idea that God always gives us another chance to turn ourselves around and common rituals likefasting are merely a means to that higher end.

Even the stirring words of the prophet Isaiah on fasting are meant to call us to live more responsible, compassionate, and purposeful lives. Fasting, Isaiah tells us, is an empty ritual unless it motivates action. What God really wants is not simply our fasting, but our willingness to turn around and change directions through tangible acts of caring and sharing. We learn from Isaiah that fasting, and all ritual for that matter, must be inextricably linked to ethics, to give us leverage to examine our lives and make us conscious of what we must do to improve the world.

William Arthur Ward said it best for Christians and Jews when he urged us to, "Fast from words that pollute; and feast on phrases that purify. Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude. Fast from anger; feast on patience. Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism. Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation. Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness. Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others. Fast from discouragement; feast on hope. Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire. Fast from shadows of sorrow; feast on the sunlight of serenity."

Whether you are Jewish or Christian, Muslim or some other religion, the quality of your faith is not dependent on your fasting. It is ultimately dependent on your actions. My tradition teaches that where you stand with God depends on where you stand with other people. Where you stand with God depends on where you stand with other children of God. Surely, God wants us to get our priorities straight, to get our acts together, but only we - not God - can choose whether or not that happens. So let your faith help center you and your family's life. Let your faith make your life sweeter and more meaningful. Let your faith improve your overall health and the well-being of those within your reach. Let your faith help peel off the layers that keep you from returning to your true self. That is what our faiths stand for, and that is what we are all here for, to make the changes we need to mprove our lives and those we love for the better, and to join hands with those from other churches and synagogues in search of that same spiritual goal.

Mayor Cleaver's U-turn driving story is about more than the highways in Northern California. His story reminds us of this Lenten season, and one of the most quintessentially Judeo-Christian messages of all. We can always change directions. It is never too late. Positive U-turns are always permitted in our respective faith traditions, and the best time to start is today. Why not? It's a new day. Amen.

Copyright 2001 Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein
Excerpted from a sermon delivered at the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series, Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, March 5, 2001

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