Insight, VBS & Rabbi Jaffe
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Proverbs 9: 1 – 16. Focus on Insight and how people like Rabbi Jaffe bring it to me. Check out Rasaan Bourke & Mara Alder O’Kelly and their anthem – Dance Before Your God.
This past week I had one of the most abundant weeks of my life – Abundant because of the joys and sorrows that attended my week. The joy from working with the children in our Vacation Bible School and sorrow because my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Evan Jaffe died on lung cancer this past week and he was just 62 years old and a non smoker.
And the question that I want to focus on is where insight comes from and what insight can do for us.
In short answer as to where insight comes from is – God. Like everything else it is God who provides the experiences for our lives that give rise to what we call insight. When Jesus said, “For those with eyes to see and for those with ears to hear.” He was speaking about those rare people who speak with insight and see with insight or simply put – those people who are wise.
Insight like the ability to paint, play a beautiful instrument, give an amazing explanation into the nature of something is a gift we do not give ourselves but we can learn about it and get better at it with time and practice.
So why is this important? Well from this week I can tell you why insight is important. My first insight this week came from a preschooler in our VBS program. On Thursday and Friday of this week the lessons called for us to tell the story of Jesus’ death, resurrection and heaven. Now in the past I have been very reluctant to tell young children about Jesus’ death, because it was so gruesome. But what I discovered this week is that it’s the most fascinating story of all the stories in the Bible. This story is so fascinating to children regardless of their age that what was scheduled to be a 15-minute story about Jesus’ death, resurrection and about heaven turned into 30 minutes because of all the questions that they raised.
Questions like how do we know that the resurrection and heaven are real? One little boy was so moved by this that it brought him to tears. When we asked why? The answer was because I don’t know if it’s real. Nobody has ever come back to tell us. But that is not entirely true. And to quote from John 14: “In my father’s mansion are many rooms…” Or from Revelation 21: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth…”
Now the moment of insight came to me when I saw with my own eyes how important our central unifying story is to our whole existence and to our religious life. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus there would be no hope! There would be just nothingness and nothingness is no more logical given that we are something now than belief in an afterlife.
In fact, I would argue that the evidence points to a life after life. The way winter turns to spring each year. The way people talk about near death experiences, but more importantly because a 5 year old wanted to know if it is real and when a 5 year old wants to know you had better be able to answer that in the affirmative or you can do great damage.
And the church should adopt the medical professions minimum standard of care – First do no harm! What is the harm in believing in life after life? What possible thing besides hope can it give to you? Why would anyone want to believe otherwise? So insight also has this element of choice about it. Again that’s why Jesus said, “For those with eyes to see and ears to hear.” He was saying to his disciples and to the Pharisees. “The signs of God’ love and presence are written all over creation and they are most clearly written in and on people.”
Why is possible for the blind man that Jesus heals in John’s gospel able to have insight after his healing and why is possible for so many to take Jesus’ words concerning his body and blood literally? The thing that distinguished the two is insight. Fundamentalists do not possess much insight. Because insight means you have to look into things in a deeper way than you are used to doing. You must be open to it and when it arrives you must receive it. Fundamentalism shut’s down insight before it ever can take hold. That is the problem with the Pharisees and Scribes in scripture they have no insight and yet they represent the institutions and traditions of Jewish religion and belief.
The last insight that came to me was when I was told that my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Evan Jaffe had passed away this week from lung cancer. From diagnosis to death had been 4 and ½ weeks. And the insight that his death gave me was simply this. I want to live the way Evan lived his life.
You are very lucky in this life or maybe I should say blessed if you encounter someone in your life that incarnates the face of God to you. I’ve had three such people. My father, Tex Culton and Rabbi Jaffe. When I say incarnates the face of God I mean these people show me what Jesus looks like today.
On Friday, I attended Rabbi Jaffe’s funeral along with 1200 other people. If that isn’t a testimony to how meaningful his life was I don’t know what else you could ask for. There were clergy from the Protestant churches and Catholic churches in town. There were friends from his days as a classically train ballet dancer with the Denver ballet company. There were politicians – both parties, judges, doctors, and people who were his congregants. But as I’ve said before that doesn’t being to describe what Rabbi Evan Jaffe meant to me.
He was my spiritual soul mate. He was the Johnny Carson of Religion. He made you look good when you were in his presence. He always brought out the best in me! Evan and I were in seminary at JTS and UTS in NYC at the same time and we came to Flemington 1 year apart. I to the Flemington Presbyterian Church and Evan to the Flemington Jewish Community Center!
That was 1986 and 1987 respectively. For the next 11 years we taught the Hebrew and Christian scriptures together on Thursday mornings. Those classes were some of the most amazing moments I have ever experienced with another person of faith.
When I saw Evan I saw what Jesus must have been like to those who knew him. Evan was brilliant but humble about it. He looked on people whether they had an M.D. in front of their name of the word homeless as people who had something to offer him from God and I never heard him judge another person in all my years. Not once. Even after I had come to Hackensack to serve this congregation – Evan would reach out to me and ask how things were going and if he could help me bring my shut-ins to church through a program that he was starting statewide for people in all of the big cities around our state.
That was how he thought and how he cared. He got not only a six year rabbinic degree but when he saw the social problems that so many of the people in Flemington were suffering with he enrolled at Rutgers and got his Master’s in Social Work to be of more service. I remember asking Evan once why he felt so compelled to keep the kosher laws. I didn’t understand it until he told me – “Steve I do this to be closer to God.” In discipline you find you move closer to God. That was just one of many insights that he gave me and one of the reasons I walk 5 miles most every day and you know what? He was right. Get yourself a daily discipline and it will not disappoint you. You will develop the gift of focus in all areas of your life.
And I could go on and on about Evan but there isn’t enough time to do that so I will close with the greatest insight that Evan gave me this week. And he gave it to me in his death. Evan you enriched my life as very few humans have ever done! You touched my heart! You made me and still do want to be like you! You were my rabbi! And I look forward to the day when we can be together again. In a place that has no crying or pain or death anymore… God speed! Thanks for blessing my life with yours! I love you! So be it! Amen