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Yom Shabbat, 3 Tishri 5778

The Legacy of a Soul on Fire

on Thursday, 11 October 2012. Posted in Rabbi

The first book I ever purchased with my own money was The Life & Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. published by Scholastic Book Services. I was a student in the sixth grade. The book cost me all of $.60 plus shipping and handling. I can't remember what inspired me to make this significant purchase, but I recall being asked at the Youth Group Retreat during my freshman year of high school to identify the individual who inspired me the most and my reply was Martin Luther King, Jr. More than Moses at Mount Sinai or Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah, Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial was the first human being to stir my soul and spark my imagination.

 

The first book I ever purchased with my own money was The Life & Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. published by Scholastic Book Services. I was a student in the sixth grade. The book cost me all of $.60 plus shipping and handling. I can't remember what inspired me to make this significant purchase, but I recall being asked at the Youth Group Retreat during my freshman year of high school to identify the individual who inspired me the most and my reply was Martin Luther King, Jr. More than Moses at Mount Sinai or Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah, Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial was the first human being to stir my soul and spark my imagination.

Martin Luther King Jr. was the man in the headlines, but we all know he did not walk alone. At his side were three other ministers: Bayard Rustin, Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. These four men joined together in 1957 to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The last survivor of these four men was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Fred Shuttlesworth died on October 5 at the age of 89.

Shuttlesworth's biographer, Taylor Branch, told of the time when the Birmingham Alabama fire chief entered his church to shut it down as a "fire hazard." Shuttlesworth said to the Fire Chief, "The kind of fire we have in here, you can't put out with axes and hoses." Evidently nobody messed with the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; even Martin Luther King Jr. didn't mess with Fred Shuttlesworth, and they were close working partners.

No one aspires to be an icon. Such status is not even earned. I suppose iconic status is conferred by those we inspire. It is a byproduct of our success and the impact we make on the world, locally or globally. But iconic status also robs us of our humanity. We become an image, a symbol, or worse, and idle. Most of us prefer to make a difference and remain somewhat invisible. Iconic status leads to scrutiny, and that leads to judgment. Even those who live with integrity, and have nothing to hide, prefer not to be judged in the public domain.

I heard once that the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth encouraged listeners to a sermon or address he gave to “lift up your heads, open your eyes and look around.” Doesn't take tremendous imagination to figure out what he meant. Rabbi Larry Kushner tells a great story about two Israelites who never see the miracle of the splitting of the Sea because they were too busy looking at the mud getting all over their sandals as they walked through the Sea. The Rev. Shuttlesworth wasn't concerned that we were missing any miracles; he was distressed because looking down at the ground in front of us is our way of avoiding looking at and seeing the truth about the city, the state, the country, the world in which we live.

Is there a fire that burns in us that cannot be extinguished with axes and hoses? What are we choosing not to lift up our heads and see? We are not seeing any earnest improvement in our national rate of employment and yet we saw more Americans become millionaires in the past year. On October 31 the 7 billionth person was born on our planet. How do we begin to feed 7 billion people? Do we even produce enough food worldwide to feed 7 billion people? Creative thinking and real solutions have been replaced by sound-bites and selfish interests. What are we not lifting our heads and seeing?

After surviving a vicious attack by Klansmen, the doctor treating Fred Shuttlesworth was amazed that he didn't suffer a concussion. The Rev. Shuttlesworth famously replied, "Doctor, the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head."

I pray that the fire that burned in the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth didn't die with him and that somehow, someway some sparks or burning embers were left behind. If we lift our heads and open our eyes perhaps we will see them and use them to ignite fires in our own souls and get to work on the challenges we all face.

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