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Rabbi Sharon Brous: “Religion is the Oxygen that Gives Us Fuel to Breathe”

When our lives are shaken, “we have a physical and spiritual shortness of breath,” Rabbi Sharon Brous told the congregation at the 9:15 a.m. Ecumenical Worship service Friday in the Amphiteather. “The question at the heart of our spiritual and political lives is: How do we get our breath back?”

Rabbi Sharon Brous

Her sermon title was “I Need You to Breathe,” and the scripture text was Exodus 6:1-9. Brous said that when Moses told the people of Israel that God was ready to free them from bondage, they were too breathless from hard work to hear him. After 400 years of slavery, they could not fathom release.

Religion suffers in the modern world. First it suffers from religious terrorism, from those who wave the banner of religion in an obscene way that makes a mockery of what religion stands for. Second, it suffers from empty religiosity that is barren of life. Both of these sufferings, Brous said, are alienating a generation that defines itself as spiritual but not religious. The third way religion suffers is through religious escapism — religion as a pacifier.

“This is ‘our thoughts and prayers are with you’ religion,” she said. “We send thoughts and prayers to victims of hurricanes but will not deal with the climate change that is causing them. We send thoughts and prayers to the victims of shootings, but let’s not talk about gun control because that will politicize the tragedy.”

Religion is our oxygen, Brous said, “it is our fuel to breathe in a breathless time.” Brous asked why God had chosen Abraham to be the father of the faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“What was so special about him?” she asked. “Well, every superhero has an origin story.”

To illustrate her answer, she told the story of a traveler who saw a palace consumed by flames. The traveler asked “Who is the caretaker?” The owner poked his head through a window and said, “I am the owner.” Abraham, Brous said, saw the world on fire and asked who the caretaker was, and God said, “I am the owner.”

Brous said she loved everything about this story. The traveler was a person on the go who looked up from his cell phone and saw the palace on fire. As a person just passing through, he would have plausible deniability to say it was not his problem and keep going.

But the traveler stopped “and demanded to know who the caretaker was, who was responsible,” she said. “The man in the palace said ‘I am the owner. You, who noticed the fire, are the caretaker. Now it is your problem.’ ”

The descendents of Abraham must be awake in the world. There have always been palaces on fire, but we have to see, to notice, to be wakeful and respond with willful opposition, Brous said.

“We have to show up as pursuers of righteousness and justice in defiance of unjust power structures, to challenge God and man,” she said.

There is an ambiguity in this story, she said. Was the palace burning down, or was it radiant with light? The traveler might have stopped and asked “Who is responsible for this beauty?” The owner might say, “Thank you. Let’s work together.”

Abraham might have seen a world radiant with light and stopped in wonder. The Irish poet John O’Donohue said that we have a “huge interiority within us,” she told the congregation.

“What is going on in this sacred place, where people eat on their porches, invite neighbors in for a drink, go to the ballet and symphony, helps us remember our huge interiority,” she said. “It is impossible not to be swept up in what is breath-giving.”

When the heart is constricted, “awe” stretches the heart back out. There is a sense of wonder in the presence of altruism and compassion, and when we suffer from shortness of breath and spirit, we can’t hold onto beauty and ecstasy, she told the congregation.

“Is the palace burning down, or is it radiant with light? It is clearly both,” Brous said. “If all we see are the fires, we need to rediscover the beauty. If we only see the beauty, we need to be reminded of the brokenness that needs fixing.”

In our hour, she told the congregation, we need prophetic resistance to hold together the wonder and heartache, grief and grandeur.

“This is not an escape,” she said. “It is to be awake to the brokenness, and breathe life back into the world to usher in the world that could be.”

The work of Chautauqua begins when people leave “to bring ‘awe’ back into the world,” she said. “I beg you to remember there is beauty everywhere and you cannot forget to see it. Our culture trains us to see what went wrong, but we also have to train ourselves to see what is beautiful.”

Brous said she re-reads Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning every year. A survivor of Auschwitz, Frankl wrote that to live is to suffer but that “in some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” Frankl told a story that one night he was already in his hut with other prisoners, and a fellow prisoner came in and told them to run to the assembly ground to see the sunset. When they got there the sky was full of clouds that kept changing colors from steely blue to brilliant red. Those colors were reflected in the puddles on the ground with the gray huts as a backdrop.

One by one the prisoners said, “How beautiful this world could be.” Brous said, “And this, from Auschwitz.”

Brous then asked, what is the good news?  It is knowing where to find a patch of blue in the sky when there are clouds.

“Faith is not about being content, it is rebelling against the world as it is to help it become the world it can be, the world we want our children to inherit.”

“We need to find our breath,” she said, and then read a poem by the Rev. Lynn Ungar, “I Need You To Breathe.”

Breathe, said the wind./ How can I breathe at a time like this,/ when the air is full of the smoke/ of burning tires, burning lives?/ Just breathe, the wind insisted./ Easy for you to say, if the weight of/ injustice is not wrapped around your throat,/ cutting off all air./ I need you to breathe./ I need you to breathe./ Don’t tell me to be calm/ when there are so many reasons/ to be angry, so much cause for despair!/ I didn’t say to be calm, said the wind,/ I said to breathe./ We’re going to need a lot of air/ to make this hurricane together.

“We don’t need to escape,” Brous said. “We need to remember how to breathe. We are created to love and be loved. That is the good news.” The congregation, once again, gave her a standing ovation.

Tags : Abrahamlecturemorning lectureMosesreligionSharon BrousViktor Frankl
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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the morning worship column. This past winter she made her acting debut as Miss Maudy in To Kill A Mockingbird at the Lucille Ball Little Theater in Jamestown. She edited the forthcoming history of the Jewish presence at Chautauqua and wrote the history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd for its 125th anniversary this summer. She is a member of the Chautauqua Lake Central School Board and lives year-round in Chautauqua with her dog, Max.