Editor’s note: Authorities are investigating a hack that disrupted the MLK Shabbat sermon that the Rev. Raphael Warnock delivered on Friday night at a virtual service hosted by an Atlanta synagogue. In his speech, Warnock – the pastor at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and the newly elected United States Senator from Georgia – talked about the need for both the Black and Jewish communities to work together, to complete the unfinished work they started during the civil rights movement. He concluded his 25-minute remarks with an impassioned plea: “Regardless of your politics, will you pray for us?”
Here is a transcript of Rev. Warnock’s sermon.
My beloved, how good and how pleasant it is, for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity. It is as the precious ointment upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard that went down to the skirts of his garment. It is as the dew of Hermon. There God commanded the blessing, even life forevermore.
I am so very grateful for this opportunity for our congregations to worship together, again. During this Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service. I’m grateful to our friends at The Temple for inviting the people of Ebenezer to worship alongside you.
Even in this virtual space, it has been a tough year. But the name Ebenezer reminds us of the faithfulness of God, hitherto the Lord, has helped us. I’m grateful to my friend and brother, Rabbi Peter Berg, for his kindness, for the ways in which we have found opportunities, time and time again, to get in good trouble. Alongside our congregations, doing the work of justice, the work of truth telling, the work of love and mercy and compassion in the world.
Thank you, Rabbi Berg and those who work alongside you. I always look forward to our fellowship together, and I can’t wait until we can get together physically in the same space.
For while we do appreciate this worship service and the fellowship that we will have together virtually, I understand, even after this gathering, I’m still struggling, to be honest with you. I’m not sure how you have a virtual oneg. The folks at The Temple know that I look forward to their dessert reception after worship every Friday. So someone will have to send the pastor some goodies and some treats. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be with you.
I want to raise in your hearing a passage of scripture from the Book of Nehemiah, Chapter Six. Beginning with Verse 15, the text says, “So the wall was finished on the 25th day of the month of Elul, in 52 days. And when our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem. For they perceive that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.”
The wall was finished. And this work was accomplished with the help of our God. I want to talk for just a little while about unfinished business.
These are tough times. These are difficult days. We’ve all suffered under the thick fog of a global pandemic that has exposed longstanding inequities.
Work that is yet unfinished. The building of what Dr. King and others called “the beloved community.” And as we come once again to this moment, I am inspired by Nehemiah.
‘Faith is taking the first step’
Nehemiah, that bold, brilliant and trailblazing brother who set out during difficult days to rebuild that which was broken. He saw a big problem and decided to do something about it.
Thank God for Nehemiah, who was cupbearer to the king. And, therefore, he had a prize location. He was relatively comfortable – cupbearer to the king. He had a good government job. But he was concerned about those who were uncomfortable. Those who are unprotected.
And when he heard that the wall had been broken and the gates had been burned, and the city was no longer safe, and the children were no longer protected, he decided to take a risk. Stick his neck out and do something about it.
I submit that that’s what we need now, in our community, in our city, in our nation. We need folks who don’t mind blazing a new path in order to get a new result. And so while other folks were whining and wondering and wallowing in what was wrong, Nehemiah decided to get something started.
That’s a marvelous thing, because sometimes, depending on how badly a person has been bruised, depending on how badly a people have been beaten and battered, sometimes it can take a whole lot of faith just to get started. Sometimes in our own individual lives, it can take all that we can muster, just to get out of bed and put on our shoes and get started over again.
Thank God for folk who have the nerves just to get something started – not always aware of how they will get there and what they will do. But knowing that — as Dr. King said — that faith is taking the first step even when we cannot see the full stairwell.
‘It takes clarity of purpose to finish’
So we thank God for folks who have what it takes to finish what they started. The text says: so the wall was finished on the 25th day of the month, in 52 days.
And I want to ask my brothers and sisters gathered as we are virtually this night. I wonder: Can you finish? It takes passion to start, but it takes clarity of purpose to finish. It takes temerity to start, but it takes tenacity to finish. It takes a decision to start, but it takes real discipline to finish. It takes inspiration to start, but it takes perspiration to finish.
God is asking: Do you have a clear sense of purpose? Do you have enough tenacity and discipline? Are you willing to sweat until you finish? The race is not given to the swift nor to the strong, but to the one who endures to the end.
And so we gather once again to celebrate our brother, Martin Luther King, Jr. Our great leader, our great freedom fighter. We celebrate Dr. King, this time of year. We we ask ourselves:, Wwhat would he be doing right now? We are so inspired by this man who rose, star- shot across the galaxy of our minds and our lives, and settled all too soon in the distance, but leaving behind him a legacy that inspires us to this moment.
And so Dr. King was committed to finishing. His work was addressing the triplet evils of racism, poverty, and militarism. And he was committed to finishing, and finishing strong. Yet he knew that given the nature of his prophetic vocation, in a hostile world, he would not himself live very long. He would finish his work — his work – but the full manifestation of his mission would be left to us.
I want to suggest that our life’s project ought to be longer than our lifespan. Our life’s project ought to be longer than our lifespan. We ought to give ourselves over to something that is larger than ourselves nowadays.
Folks have a way of saying: I got to go find myself. And we go on some adventure trying to find ourselves. Might I suggest that perhaps if you give yourself over to something larger than yourself, you’ll find yourself in the process.
‘He was faithful’
Dr. King learned how to be faithful. How to finish. And God blessed his efforts in the process in ways that he could not have imagined. He stood up when Rosa Parks decided to sit down – he was faithful. He left the comfort of a pulpit and made the whole world his parish – she was faithful. He taught us to meet brute force with soul force. To harness indignation to discipline. To protest with the creative weapon of love and non-violence – faithful.
He dreamed a dream for America believing that one day the country would gather enough courage to dream that same dream for itself – faithful. He led the civil rights movement until the law became an instrument of liberation. And the walls of segregation came tumbling down. We celebrate Dr. King once again because he was faithful.
He fought for a voting- rights law because there is no right more sacred than the right to choose one’s nation’s direction and its destiny. He was faithful.
He argued that the nation ought to use extraordinary resources in waging a valiant war against poverty at home, rather than waging a senseless war against the poor, abroad – he was faithful. He campaigned for the poor, and defended garbage workers. Dr. King was faithful until the very end.
‘It is left to us to finish’
And I just want to suggest to us tonight, that it is left to us to finish. Thank God for this brother who died doing what he did best – defending the weak, the poor, the dispossessed. He died working for the highest and the best within us.
He was planning a poor people’s campaign when he got a call to come to Memphis. There he was taken from us, but we should never forget why he went to Memphis in the first place. He went there to stand up for workers, stand up for garbage collectors. There was a local movement. People were fighting for their basic dignity, and it was a movement that had its starts and its fits.
Then two garbage collectors – Echol Cole and Robert Walker – had their bodies literally crushed in the machinery of their own garbage trucks. Because in 1968, four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Law of 1964, these black garbage collectors – Echol Cole and Robert Walker – could not be inside of the cab of the truck to shelter themselves from the rain.
But there was no protection from the harsh rains of Jim Crow segregation. And there they were trying to shelter themselves and we don’t know exactly how it happens, but their bodies were literally crushed in the machinery of their own garbage trucks.
And it drew a weary Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis and there emerged those signs that have become iconic. “I am a man, the declaration of one’s own personhood and dignity as a child of the living God.”
Dr King died saying that all of God’s children are somebody – red, yellow, brown, black and white. We’re all precious in God’s sight. He died affirming that we will either learn to live together as sisters and brothers or die separately as fools. He died standing up for the best in the human spirit, and that’s an awfully big project.
My beloved, he knew he would not finish. He finished the work, but the mission is always passed to the next generation.
‘Let us rise up from this moment’
I think about that text in the Book of Judges when it says that Joshua died and all those in Joshua’s generation died. They were gathered up to their ancestors and there rose another generation, which did not know Yahweh, nor the work which the Lord had done for Israel. They forgot.
The struggle for freedom, the struggle for our faith and our freedom is always one generation from extinction. And so we have to pass it on from one generation to the next. This is the work that we are called to do.
And maybe that’s why Dr. King used to talk all the time about Franz Schubert’s unfinished symphony. It is a classic symphony, but it only has two movements. Most symphonies have four. Dr. King liked to talk about Franz Schubert’s unfinished symphony, He said that in a real sense, that’s how life is, in a real sense. That’s how a life’s project is – it is unfinished.
And so, my beloved, let us rise up from this moment. Let us continue to do the work that God has called us to do. I’m so very proud of the legacy that we celebrate tonight. It is the legacy of a commitment to freedom and justice that transcends every kind of tribalism, every form of religious bigotry, any kind of narrow chauvinism that does not recognize the ways in which we are tied together.
This global pandemic, this COVID-19 pandemic, has reminded us of the ways in which we are tied together. We should have known before a deadly virus that we needed our neighbors to be covered, to be protected. But now we have a deadly airborne disease. My neighbor coughs. She may be sick, but I’m imperiled by her cough.
That doesn’t make my neighbor my enemy. That just means, as Dr. King said, that we are tied in a single garment of destiny caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I’m just saying we’re in this together. And so let us rise up, continue the spiritual call of building together that which is broken.
‘We have to stand together’
And I’m so proud of our two communities. The Ebenezer Baptist Church and The Temple. I believe that the ancestors are cheering us on in this moment. Thank God for Rabbi Rothschild, who stood by the civil- rights movement in a dark and difficult period when it was risky to do so. He stood on behalf of what was right.
The Ttemple was bombed. But there was a kind of fire inside of the human spirit. Stronger than any bomb, stronger than any effort to destroy the Rothschilds and the Kings standing side by side. Sugarman, then Roberts, rabbi and pastor standing side by side doing the work.
Now Rabbi Berg and yours truly. And all who work beside us must take up this work.
Human trafficking, mass incarceration, poverty. We found so many wonderful ways to work together. And for that I’m so grateful. Each community recognizing the challenges faced by the other. Dr. King standing up, not only against racism, but standing up against antisemitism, and saying that Israel’s right to exist is incontestable. Talked about it as an oasis of freedom in the midst of a desert.
And in a real sense, that’s what we must do, my beloved, in this moment. In this dark moment in which some folks are trying to divide us, we have to stand together. And be an oasis of God’s love and compassion and freedom in the world in order to bear witness to God’s dream for the world.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, when he marched alongside Dr. King, said that he felt like his legs were praying. We need praying lips. And we need praying legs.
As we marched together toward the Ppromised Lland, which looms always in the distance. And it is our job, our sacred duty to keep on marching, passing it on from one generation to the next.
Now, may I say this: And it really isn’t a political affirmation. I am so grateful for this moment. And I hope you can see it regardless of your politics. Thank God for this moment. Because the election is now over and we’re standing together.
You have the pastor of Ebenezer Church, where Martin King stood. A kid who grew up in public housing, standing alongside a young Jewish man, son of immigrants, son of an immigrant, on our way to represent this state in the Senate, Regardless of your politics, will you pray for us?
We must build together this beloved community. And it takes all of us.
‘Geese fly together’
Let me close in this way: Sometimes in the midst of these challenges, I grow tired, I grow weary, I grow worn out and I just look up. I’m a preacher, I look up. And I’d like to say to you that when I look up, I see something profound. The hand of God writing in Hebrew across the Milky deep. The truth is, all I see is birds flying by.
But I like to see geese fly because geese fly in a V-formation and one out front is working the hardest. Because you can’t lead the people unless you love the people. The one out front is actually working the hardest.
Geese fly together. Pelicans flap their wings faster, but they don’t go as far because pelicans fly solo; geese fly together. But when the one out front gets tired, he just moves further back into the formation. And another one just moves in, into his place.
And geese do that without a fight. They do it without becoming violent. They do it without shutting down the geese government. They do it without a schism. Because geese understand that my individual location is not as important as our collective destination.
And so we’ve got work to do. Let’s rise up from this moment in which we’ve had to deal with a global pandemic, in which we’ve had to deal with an economic turndown, in which we’ve had to deal with racism and bigotry and antisemitism and xenophobia. Let us stand up in this moment and continue the work so that we might rebuild in the midst of the rubble and all of God’s children might be safe.
Oh gracious God: Give us wisdom and courage, for the facing of this hour, for the living of these days. Send forth now your dream for humanity, the kingdom of God imbued with love and justice. In the name of the God who loves us and of freedom and frees us into loving.