The world is on fire; tell God, ‘Here I am,’ says Jonah Pesner


Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, delivers his sermon “Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with Your God: Scripture is a Call to Action” Sunday, July 11, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“I am the bronze medal winner,” Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner told the congregation in the Amphitheater. “I am not the first or second but third rabbi to (serve as chaplain at Chautauqua). The bronze medalist is the happiest medal winner because, unlike the second place medalist who thinks they should have won, we are happy to be invited to the party.”

Pesner preached at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday, July 11 ecumenical service of worship in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Do Justice, Love Mercy and Walk Humbly with Your God: Scripture is a Call to Action.”

“This is the first time I have been in a worship service with other human beings in a year and a half,” Pesner said. “This is the day that God has given us, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” He noted that the pandemic had been especially cruel to choirs, “because it is a respiratory disease.”

God breathed the essence of life, the breath, into the first human, said Pesner. “We need breath to live, and the cruelty of COVID is that it stole the breath of people and interfered with our social proximity.”

Pesner shared a prayer that Jews say at the beginning of the day, “modim anachnu lach,” that starts “I am grateful, God, that you restored my breath or soul to me. … Great is your faith in me, ‘rabba emunatecha;’ you gave me my soul back for a reason.”

He continued, “I can stand because you believe in me. I think about a man crying for his mother saying, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ An example of our systemic racism and inequality.”

Pesner asked the congregation to think, pray or contemplate the question, “Why do you have faith in me, God? Why have you let me breathe again? Why am I here?”

In response, Pesner shared some of his life story. He grew up in lower Manhattan in a loving Jewish community. When his father died, the community gathered round to support Pesner’s family. His mother went to work and they moved into affordable housing.

“I had to leave my private school and go to the best public school in the city — Bronx Science,” he said. “It was a great school in a challenged neighborhood, Fort Apache, where desperation is the norm.”

He continued, “Every Sabbath I would hear the words of Micah 6:8, and every Monday I would see this devastated neighborhood. I refused to become a rabbi who loves his community but ignored those who are so close who have nothing.”

Scripture is a call to action. 

“These words should agitate us and cause us to rise up and take action,” Pesner said.

He gave a “classic example” of what Scripture should do. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews, the congregation told God they had fasted and prayed and humbled themselves and now they asked, “Why haven’t you given us a blessing?”

“Suddenly a voice at the back of the room said, ‘Behold, on the day of the fast you pursued your own business, oppressed your workers, fought with each other. Is this the fast I desire? Do you call this fast acceptable?’ ”

Pesner said, “They called security and 911 and the radical prophet in the back of the sanctuary was arrested. What was his offense? Calling out hypocrisy.”

This happened in Isaiah 58, Pesner said. Isaiah called out Israel for its hypocrisy. Isaiah said the fast God chooses is one that breaks the bonds of injustice and removes the yoke of oppression, and calls us to share bread with the hungry and let the homeless poor into our house and clothe the naked.

“Then God will say, ‘Here I am,’ ” Pesner said. He also shared a story from writer Franz Kafka.

Once, a leopard got loose in the sanctuary. It roared and paced and the people cried out. The ancient rabbis took the leopard and turned it into liturgy, but then Scripture became rote and stopped calling people to action.

“Scripture calls us to action because the world is not the world as it could be. It can be a better one,” Pesner said. “The world should be overflowing with justice, but it is hard to stay focused with all the targeted acts of hate.”

These acts of hate include George Floyd’s death, the assault on low wage workers and people of color and indigenous people who bore the brunt of COVID-19, disenfranchisement, catastrophic weather, the warming planet, the dislocation of millions in the global South, the assault on truth and science and the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“The 50 wealthiest families in the United States gained over $400 billion in wealth during the pandemic and now own half the wealth in this country,” Pesner said. “The 160 million poorest people own 1.9% of the wealth.”

He continued, “The world is literally on fire.” He told a legend about Abraham, who was out for a walk and saw a palace on fire. 

“What made Abraham so righteous? He saw the fire and asked, ‘Where is the owner?’ God said, ‘I am the owner and my house is on fire.’ Abraham said, ‘Here I am.’ ”

Pesner instructed the congregation, “Everyone with the gift of breath, say: ‘hineni, I am here.’ Remember Isaiah 58 and God’s faith in us will be rewarded. The leopard will bring light and love. If you remove the yoke, feed the hungry, satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then you will be a light in the darkness and be called ‘repairers of the breach.’ ”

Too often, Pesner said, we lose sight of the messianic vision of a world where no one is hungry, homeless or afflicted. “We all need to work for that world, so we can all live in peace, a world truly in wholeness and peace.”

He told the congregation that they had heard the call of Micah 6:8. “Now just do it. Give thanks to God for renewing your breath, because if you do justice and love mercy, you will walk humbly with God. May it be God’s will.” 

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor for Chautauqua Institution, presided. Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl, senior rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth El in San Antonio, read and translated the Scripture. Joshua Stafford, who holds the Jared Jacobsen Organist Chair and is the director of sacred music, played the “Festive Prelude No. 1,” by Louis Lewandowski, for the prelude. For the anthem, members of the Motet Choir sang “Chautauqua Anthem,’’ with music by Paul Moravec and words from Micah 6:8. The offertory anthem was “Cantique de Jean Racine,” music by Gustav Fauré and words by Jean Racine. Stafford played “Allegro assai vivace” from Sonata No. 1 by Felix Mendelssohn. The Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services and chaplain.

Tags : chaplain-in-residenceMicah 6:8morning worshipRabbi Jonah Pesner

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.