My Favorite Rabbi

A Sermon for Easter Day

Who's your favorite rabbi? That's a rather strange question to be asked on Easter! You might be thinking, Here we are, celebrating the most important day in the Christian calendar, and he's asking me about someone who's Jewish? Hmmm. . .is that because this weekend is also Passover, and he's trying to impress people with his knowledge of Judaism? Or. . .is it because Jesus was a Jew?

Well, to answer those questions, yes. Jesus was a Jew. And, yes, in addition to Easter, it is Passover. But there's more to my question than those reasons. Who's your favorite rabbi?

A rabbi, of course, is a spiritual teacher. I am deeply grateful to have had many rabbis during my sixty-three years on this earth. Some of my earthly rabbis are Jewish, like my high school friend Alan Lightman, the astrophysicist who wrote a best-sellng novel called Einstein's Dreams. Years ago Alan suggested that, if St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval Catholic theologian, were alive today, he would likely be both scientist and priest. Some of my rabbis are women, like Vesta Kowalski, an Episcopal priest and the first Gentile to receive a Ph.D. from New York City's Jewish Theological Seminary. Vesta was my seminary tutor, my first official theological mentor. She was the first person to ask, “So, Tom. . .is Jesus the only way to God?”

As you can tell, some of my spiritual teachers, some of my rabbis are ordained and some are not. Years ago, an Episcopal Church professor who is not ordained, Frederica Thompsett, wrote a little book called We Are Theologians. In it she told a wonderful story about a man and the Jewish congregation to which he belonged. After a long life as an active member of his synagogue, old Mr. Finkelstein was now homebound and could no longer come to Friday evening Sabbath services. His wit and wisdom were sorely missed. One day a delegation from the congregation made an appointment to come and see him. He could tell when they arrived that they were upset about something. One of the men began, “Mr. Finkelstein, we are currently between rabbis, so we need your help. It's about the shema, the most important part of morning and evening prayers. As you know, the shema begins, 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.' Mr. Finkelstein, some of us believe this prayer is one of humility, and so we should kneel when we say this prayer.” Several others nodded their heads in agreement. “Please tell us, Mr. Finkelstein: is not kneeling the right way to pray this most sacred prayer?” Mr. Finkelstein scratched his head and thought for awhile, then said, “I don't remember.”

“Oh, Mr. Finkelstein,” blurted out a woman from the delegation, trying to balance humility with

chutzpah, “Please do think a bit harder about this. We need your wisdom. Some of us believe that the shema needs to be prayed while standing, because it is a prayer full of praise to the Almighty.” Other heads nodded. “Surely, Mr. Finkelstein, you must know the answer. Please, help us in our time of need!” Once again, Mr. Finkelstein thought for a long time and replied, “I'm sorry. I don't remember.”

“In the name of all that is holy, Mr. Finkelstein, you must help us!” said the man. “The congregation is torn in two over this question. Many of our friends have stopped coming to worship, and others are threatening to leave.” “Yes, Mr. Finkelstein,” said the woman, “people are angry and sad. And they're acting just like children. It's destroying our community!” Suddenly, Mr. Finkelstein's eyes lit up. Gathering up every ounce of strength he could muster, Mr. Finkelstein pulled himself up out of his chair and shouted, “Now, THAT I remember!”

There's another rabbi of mine, the senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee, one of this country's flagship congregations in the Reformed Jewish tradition. When Rabbi Micah Greenstein preaches, he can pack them in. And he did just that a few weeks ago at Calvary Episcopal Church's annual Lenten Preaching Series. To start his March 20 sermon about the empowerment of women, Rabbi Micah told a story to the more than 500 people who had come to hear him. By the way, you can hear any of those 27 Lenten sermons by going to www.calvarymemphis.org.

Micah began with a story about a young bride who visited her mother after her honeymoon. “How was it?” her mother asked. “Oh, momma, it was just wonderful. He was so good to me, and we had so much fun. But,” the daughter continued, “ever since we got home, he has been saying such bad, hurtful things to me. I can't even repeat his words.” “My darling daughter,” her mother replied, “whatever happens, you must work things out. What could he have possibly said to you that is so troubling? You can tell your mother.” “Oh, momma,” her daughter cried, “he said some ugly, four-letter words. Like: 'Cook.' 'Dust.' 'Iron.' 'Shop.'” “I'll pick you up in 20 minutes!!!” said the mother.

Rabbi Micah went on to thank God that we live in a country where we have made enough progress to make a joke about the relationship between women and men. His sermon speaks powerfully to me and to all men and women about the desire God has for us, as we said in the Baptismal part of last night's Easter Vigil service, that we, like Jesus, would seek to “respect the dignity of every human being” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305).

Now we don't know if Jesus told jokes to “jump start” his sermons, but he was a great teacher and preacher, not to mention a miraculous healer. The inside joke at Calvary Church is that “we like Rabbi Micah better than we like Rabbi Jesus.” Of course Christians and Jews alike have agreed for centuries that Jesus was a great rabbi. He may not be everyone's favorite. But he's mine. Of all the many rabbis in my life, Jesus is my favorite, because he's the rabbi who saves and heals, the rabbi whose death brings new life. Today, after you have a chance to share this table of the Lord with us and to go to your other Easter dinner – today, maybe you'll consider making Rabbi Jesus your favorite, too.

Jesus is my favorite rabbi because he taught the students that followed him, his disciples, how to be rabbis, too. Vesta, my seminary rabbi, believed that I had it in me to become a rabbi for others. Rabbi Vesta helped me write a paper about the importance for Christians to stay connected to the Jewish tradition. My paper, called “Jewish-Christian Dialogue: What is God Up To?” helped me wrestle with and answer the question, “Is Jesus the only way to God?” My answer: While Jesus may not be the only way to God for everyone who ever lived on this planet, Jesus is the Way for me.” When I finished writing that paper, I knew more than ever that Jesus was my favorite rabbi. And he still is.

Jesus was also Mary Magdalene's favorite rabbi on that first Easter morning, especially when he called her by name. Mary went looking for Jesus in the dark before dawn and became, according to all four canonical Gospel accounts, the very first witness to Jesus' resurrection. John's Gospel account takes things even further. John's version of the resurrection story has been compared to a good movie: “vivid detail, gripping suspense and powerful emotion” (Serene Jones, Feasting on the Word, p. 376). It's the only Easter story about a real, believable relationship between a man who was more than a rabbi and a woman who followed and loved him. We'll leave it to great storytellers like Dan Brown to suggest, whether in a book or movie format, just what that love between Mary and Jesus was all about.

But John's telling of the story of Jesus' first resurrection appearance, as well as the other parts of Mary's story throughout all the Gospel accounts, make it clear that Mary Magdalene was, as Cynthia Bourgeault puts it in The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, the student of rabbi Jesus who “best catches the full. . .meaning of his teachings and is best able to 'walk the talk.'” Not so with the others. As you heard this morning, Peter and the so-called “beloved” disciple, the one known as John, raced each other to the empty tomb. Finding no clues to the whereabouts of Jesus' body, one of them – John – believed, and the other – Peter – did not. Then they each went home.

But Mary stayed. She stayed there, just standing there. All she did was stand right there and weep. During Jesus' crucifixion, Mary had also stood at the foot of the cross. And she had already made one trip to this tomb, before she ran to tell the men. Mary Magdalene always stood by Jesus, but she was more than an innocent bystander. Mary was guilty of loving Jesus, and she would stand by her rabbi, to the end of his life. She would also stand with Jesus at the beginning of new life.

Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus had said, for they will be comforted. Maybe it was the tears that made the difference. All those tears of grief may well have kept Mary Magdalene from recognizing Jesus at first, but once her eyes had been cleansed, once she had wept, she was able to see him for who he was now: a changed man, transformed by embracing his pain and suffering, even to death. At the time of another death, that of his friend Lazarus, Jesus, in the Bible's shortest verse, wept. Jesus wept, and Mary wept. Maybe that's what being a rabbi and a disciple, being a spiritual teacher and a student of the spiritual life, is all about. Maybe it's about the ability to learn and to teach about things like tears, by weeping together. Maybe it's about doing what we now call our “grief work.”

Another rabbi, a Catholic Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr, has, for decades, been leading spiritual retreats and conferences for men. He often speaks about the need for men in particular to face what he calls our unfinished hurt, our unprocessed pain, our unresolved trauma. Rabbi Richard teaches that, if you do not embrace your pain in life, as Jesus did, if you do not allow your pain to transform you, as it did for Jesus, you will transmit your pain, like a virus, to others. And you will always transmit your unprocessed pain to those you love most. All of us need to learn how to go deeper than those surface feelings of anger or resentment, to find the loss and the grief underneath.

Recently a friend, who has logged more years in 12-step recovery than I have, told me that, while driving along and listening to the music of Adele, he began to weep over the most recent loss in his life. He said he had to turn off the radio, so he could drive safely, or get off the road. I told him, rabbi to rabbi, that I had learned long ago how music can release our deepest feelings, so that our feelings can release the healing we all need. Maybe that will happen for you today, when organ and brass lead us in an Easter hymn. Dear friends in Christ, we need to learn how to let our tears come, just as Jesus was able to do. Just as Mary did, before and probably after she saw Jesus. “Rabbouni,” Mary Magdalene cried out. “Rabbouni” is an endearing term for “teacher.” My dear, sweet, favorite rabbi, Mary might have said. It was a precious moment, enough to move someone to tears.

Before Jesus and Mary say goodbye, he tells her what to do next. Don't hold on to me, he says. Don't be content to be the first witness to my healed body, my transformed life, my resurrection. Go now, and become my first apostle. While I'm getting ready to ascend, I am sending you out to proclaim the Good News about your Risen Rabbi. Mary does what her teacher says. Now, she becomes the spiritual teacher, a rabbi in her own right. You know, Scripture scholars today are clear that Mary was never the sinful woman some have tried to make her, never a “penitent whore” or a “slut.” No, Mary Magdalene was the one who stood faithfully by Jesus, until he sent her forth into the world.

I have one more thing to say about rabbis and teachers. I believe good teachers are good students. And as a teacher, I hope I will always be, first and foremost, a student. Lifelong learning, our yearning to know more about life and about God, is a big part of who I want to be. Even Jesus had things to learn – sometimes even from those who followed him. I suspect Mary Magdalene may have been, in ways we'll never know, a rabbi for Jesus. She's certainly one heaven of a rabbi for me.

Mary Magdalene reminds me that my rabbis have always included women, starting with my mother, my daughter and my wife. Mary reminds us, especially us men, that there is still much learning and teaching to do about and with the women of the world. Whether we find ourselves in a country club or in a city neighborhood, in a doctor's office or on a school playground, in a home or in a church – Mary reminds us that women have every right that men have: to teach and to preach, to pray and to play, to weep and to laugh, to stand right alongside any man as equal. I believe Jesus wouldn't have it any other way.

Who's your favorite rabbi? If you don't have one, consider Rabbi Jesus. Jesus is my favorite rabbi, because he's the rabbi who is not afraid to weep, the rabbi who saves and heals, the rabbi whose death brings new life. But Mary Magdalene is right up there with Jesus. And when I die and go to heaven, I plan to meet them both.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
April 8, 2012