Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 6, 2001


Who Do You Think You Are?
Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein
Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel
Memphis, Tennessee

(This sermon is also available in audio.)

A student in search of God traveled to the town of Kotsk to study with the great rabbi there known as the Kotsker Rebbe. Wanting to make a good impression, the student decided to be as honest and direct as possible. "Rebbe," the student said, "I have come to Kotsk to find God." The Rebbe lifted his eyes from the text he was reading, and staring straight into the student's eyes, he replied, "So go home, God is everywhere." The student was crushed, his first conversation with the great Kotsker Rebbe was falling apart. Not knowing what to say, the student asked, "But Rebbe, if God is everywhere, then why should I have come to Kotsk?" "Ah," the rebbe sighed introspectively, "To find yourself, my son, to find yourself."

This Lenten season is when Christians are to find themselves again by liberating the potential goodness and divine compassion in each of us. This church, my Temple, and other sacred houses of worship, are the places that help get us back to who we really are. And when we get back to who we really are, we can become the blessings we were meant to be - to those we love, and to everyone we meet along life's way. But just how does each of us get back to our essential self? Jewish legend, known as midrash, emphasizes the importance of every person's innate uniqueness. All humankind, the midrash notes, is created in the image of God, and yet, no two people are exactly the same. A coinmaker, they add, uses the same mold to stamp every coin, and the coins are all the same. The Holy One Blessed Be God, however, uses the same mold to create every person, and yet no two people are ever exactly alike. This church and my progressive religious movement known as Reform Judaism celebrate differences among people as much as any two paths to God I know. We both attach highest priority to being faithful to one's true self, and to the unique blessings we were meant to be. But which is better, Judaism or Christianity?

In the twelfth century, Don Pedro, King of Aragon, was confused about Judaism and Christianity. The king, of course, was a Christian, and had heard of a wise Jewish sage in his own land whose name was Ephraim Sancho. Don Pedro sent messengers to bring Ephraim Sancho to the royal court. When Ephraim arrived before Don Pedro's throne, the king asked him an alarming question. "Tell me," he declared, "which faith is superior, Ephraim - yours or mine?" Upon hearing the king's question, Ephraim was thrown into an agonizing dilemma. He said, "Your Highness, our faith suits us better, for when we were slaves in Egypt, our God, by means of many wondrous miracles, led us out of bondage into freedom. For you Christians, however, your own faith is better, because by it you have been able to establish your rule over most of the earth."

When Don Pedro heard this, he replied in anger, "I didn't ask you what benefits each religion brings to its own believers. What I want to know is this: which faith is superior, yours or mine?" Again, Ephraim was troubled. He thought to himself, "If I tell the king that his faith is superior to mine, I will have denied the God of my people, and I will truly deserve punishment. On the other hand, should I tell him that my religion is better than his, he will be sure to burn me at the stake."

Ephraim deliberated at great length and finally responded, "Your majesty's question requires much reflection. If it please the king, let me ponder it for three days. At the end of the third day, I will return with my answer." Don Pedro consented and said, "Let it be as you say. I shall expect you in three days." For three days the spirit of Ephraim was torn within him. He neither ate nor slept. He put on sackcloth and ashes and prayed for divine guidance. But when the time arrived for him to see the king, he put all fear aside and went to the palace with his answer. When he appeared before the king's throne, he looked very despondent. "Why are you so sad, Ephraim?" the king asked him. Ephraim replied, I am sad for good reason, because without any cause whatsoever, I was humiliated today. Please be my judge in this matter, your highness." "Speak" said Don Pedro.

Ephraim Sancho then began. "A month ago on this day, a neighbor of mine, a jeweler, went on a distant journey. Before he departed, in order to preserve the peace between his two sons while he was away, he gave to each of them the gift of a costly gem. Each of the gems was equally beautiful and dazzling, even though each of them was distinctly different from the other. Only today, the two brothers came to me and said, 'Ephraim, give us the value of these gems and tell us which of them is the superior of the two.'

And I replied, your highness, 'Both these stones are priceless possessions. Your father himself is a great artist and an expert on precious stones. Why don't you ask him which is superior? Surely, he will give you a better judgment than I.' When they heard this, your highness, they became enraged and despised me and insulted me. Judge then, O King, whether my sadness is just."

The king shouted, "Those rogues have grossly mistreated you without cause. They deserve to be punished for such a crude and vulgar outrage!" When Ephraim Sancho heard the king speak in this way, he rejoiced, "O King," he cried, "your words are indeed true and just. Like the two brothers, each of us also has received a precious gem. Our Father has blessed us both with a priceless possession. You have asked me, O King, which of the two gems of faith is superior? How can I give you a proper answer? Send a messenger to the only expert of these gems - to our heavenly Father, the Holy One Blessed be He, the God of all creation, let HIM tell you which is superior."

The presence of a rabbi in a church during Lent, is also a way of proclaiming the precious quality of each gem we cherish as our faith. People waste their time debating the relative merits of one or the other, and wondering which is "better?" What difference does it all make if they are both gifts to God?

The danger we face in an age like ours, are exclusive theologies which triumph one faith over another, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, computers and advancing technology which endanger whatever uniquenesses and distinctions exist among us. One more fitting story attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav for this Lenten season. It is fitting because it summons us to measure the quality of our own integrity and to examine who we think we really are. Even more than that, it increases our reverence for the integrity of others and to know that we cannot ever strengthen somebody else and at the same time violate their integrity, or who they think they truly are. The story is not nearly as naive as it may sound. If it does sound that way to you, listen on a deeper level. It is a message you can hardly afford to miss.

Once upon a time, the story begins, there was a kingdom of great abundance. In the kingdom, the fields grew crops twice the size of normal fruits and vegetables, the cows gave cream instead of milk, and the people were productive and happy. The pride of this kingdom was the young prince, the only child of the king and queen. The hopes of everyone were pinned on this promising young man, and when he walked in the street, people murmured to one another, "How perfect he is in every way. What a perfect king he will make someday!" The prince spent almost all his time studying with those who were teaching him how they thought he could be the perfect king. Every day they taught him what to say and what to do and what to wear. They told him what to eat and when to sleep and how to work. They even told him when to smile and when to scowl, what to believe, what to like and what not to like. All went well in the kingdom until one day the prince could not be found. Courtiers searched all over the palace. The distraught king and queen ran through all the rooms of the palace calling the prince's name. There was no answer.

Eventually a little servant maid, sweeping the Great Hall, happened to look under the banquet table and saw the prince there. He was stark naked. "Sire," she gasped in alarm, "What on earth are you doing under there? Where are you clothes?" "I am a chicken," the prince told her, "I do not need any clothes." Upon hearing this, the maid ran shrieking to the king and queen, telling them how she had discovered the prince and how he had gone mad.

The entire castle gathered in the Hall to see this tragedy for themselves. People tried to persuade the prince to come out from under the table, or even just to put on his clothes, but he refused. He just kept saying, "I am a chicken." Eventually, the little servant maid scattered a handful of corn under the table which the prince ate gratefully. The kingdom was in chaos. The king sent out a call for wise men to come and heal the prince's madness, and many responded. One by one, they spoke to the prince, trying to convince him that he was not a chicken, and one by one they left defeated. The prince just kept telling them all, "I am a chicken."

At last, the supply of wise men was exhausted, and the king did not know where else to turn. One day, an old farm woman asked for an audience with the king. "I will cure your son," she told him. The king looked dubious. "You, a farm woman, can cure my son? How can you? Are you a wise woman?" "No," she said. "A scholar?" "No, I am not a scholar." "Then how on earth," the king asked, "can you possibly cure my son?" "I will cure your son," she said, "because I understand chickens." What is the harm, the king thought. Nothing else has worked. So he commanded a page to show the old woman into the Great Hall. As soon as she entered the Hall, the old woman removed all her clothes, crept under the table, and sat down next to the prince. The prince looked at her and said nothing. In a little while, a servant came and scattered a few handfuls of corn, and when the prince began to eat, so did the old woman. They sat together in silence for some time longer. Finally, the prince said to the old woman, "Who are you?" "And you?" she replied, "Who are you?" "I am a chicken," said the prince. "Ah," said the old woman, "I am a chicken too." The prince thought about this for several days. Gradually, he began to talk to the old woman about the things that are important to chickens, things that are different from the things important to people. She understood as only another chicken could understand. They spoke not about the world as it is, but about the world as it could be. The became good friends.

After several weeks, the old woman called to one of the servant girls and told her to bring some clothes. When the clothes arrived, she dressed herself. The prince was horrified, "You have betrayed me," he shouted, "you told me you were a chicken!" "But I am a chicken," said the old woman, "I can wear clothes and still be a chicken." The prince thought about this for some time. Then he turned to the pile of clothing and dressed himself also. They continued their conversation as before and ate corn together as before.

After a few days more, the old woman called to one of the servant girls and told her to bring a fine meal and set it on the table. When the meal arrived, she crawled out from under the table and, sitting, in a chair, began to eat. The prince was appalled. "You have lied to me!" he shouted, "You told me you were a chicken!" "But I am a chicken," said the old woman. "I can sit at a table and eat and still be a chicken." The prince thought about this for some time. Then he too crawled out from under the table and joined the old woman. They ate in silence for some time. Then the prince began to laugh, and for all we know...he is still laughing. The story, of course, has a very happy ending. The king went on to become the greatest king the kingdom had ever known. Under his rule, freedom grew in the kingdom much the same way as peaches and potatoes had grown in the past. Each person became free to become the person he/she was meant to be, and the people who had once been productive and happy also became wise. The king was thrilled with the old woman's success. He called her to him and offered her any reward she wanted if she would only tell him how she had convinced the prince that he was not a chicken. "Oh," she said, "I don't expect any reward. You see, he's still a chicken, and he always will be." And she thanked the king and left the palace.

If this story teaches us nothing else, surely it must be a deep respect for the unique shape of every human life, including our own, and a passionate belief in the importance of achieving the necessary freedom to live authentically with it. That task is difficult enough for each of us to be the persons we truly are. How much the more so in dealing as parents with our children, as workers with our co-workers, as teachers with our students, or simply as ordinary people with our friends and the rest of humanity. Perhaps in the end, we are all different kinds of chickens. The only question is whether we can ever find the courage to live like the one we really are!

This is the time in the Christian calendar to stand for who you really are, and to stand for a new beginning, a new beginning of better understanding and appreciation for who we are and what each of us cherishes most. A new beginning for restoring the broken fragments of our community and world, and restoring them to the sense of wholeness we call "shalom." This is the time to stand for a new beginning of mutual respect for all that divides us as well as for all that unites us. This is the time to stand for a new beginning of projects, programs, and dialogue to end forever the mutual fear and suspicion and recrimination which separated Christians and Jews for too long. This Lenten season is the time to stand for a future in which the ideals of love, compassion and forgiveness, which exalt both Judaism and Christianity, are no longer reserved for the world to come, but govern the world that already is.

This Lenten season can indeed become a time when we will hasten the coming of the Messianic Age, not just with our prayers or the words of our mouths, but with our lives and the work of our hands. I stand for that kind of community and that kind of world. ...I hope we all do no matter which gifts to God we bring - Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or any other spiritual gem? I hope we all stand for that kind of community because I think God is waiting until we decide to do what it takes. Amen.

Copyright 2001 Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein

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