My friends, I am honored to be with you this morning as we ask God for his help in all our efforts to serve the people of this great city.
As I was thinking about being here today in this beautiful temple, I thought it would be good to start our reflection with the words of one of the Hasidic masters, Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn. The great rabbi once prayed:
Dear God, I did not ask you to explain to me
why the world was created,
or why the good suffer and the evil prosper.
Only please tell me:
What am I doing in this world of yours?
Isn’t that the biggest question, my friends? What am I doing in this world? It’s what everyone seeks to know.
We are gathered this morning as religious believers. We don’t all believe the same things. We are following our own spiritual traditions, our own different paths. What we share is the conviction that our faith matters — and that what we believe should guide our lives and our work in this world that God has created.
All the great religions of the world seek to answer what we call “ultimate questions”: Where did we come from and where are we heading? What happens when we die and why do bad things happen? What is the path that we should follow to find happiness?
Ultimately my friends, as we know, these questions require a personal answer from each one of us. And I was thinking this morning that this is why we pray. Because we need to know that God is with us. We pray because we need answers that only he can provide.
As you know, I come from the Christian tradition. And in our tradition, we have our own answer to that question of what am I doing in this world. We believe that God creates everyone out of love — for a reason. We believe that God calls each of us by name — as a Father calls to his sons and daughters in love.
For me, this is an amazing truth to contemplate. That the God who created the sun and the moon, the stars and all the earth — that this God wanted you and he wanted me to be born. That this God knows my name and he knows your name and he has a plan for each one of our lives and for our world. A plan of love.
Of course, as we know, this beautiful truth was taught first by the prophets of Israel.
And the founders of this great country of ours shared this basic belief — that God is our Creator and that our lives are a gift that he gives us for a reason.
Our laws and institutions are based on this belief. That all men and women are created equal, and endowed by God with certain rights — to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Rights that come, not from the generosity of government but from the hand of God. And what God has given, no one — no court, no legislature, no government agency — can take away.
That’s why freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are so essential to the American idea of democracy.
As America’s founders conceived it, this freedom has three dimensions.
First, we need to be free to seek God in our own way. Free to listen for his call in our lives — and free to follow that calling with all our hearts and all our strength.
This includes the freedom to establish institutions based on our beliefs and to run them without input or interference from the government. Ministries and houses of worship, yes. But also schools, hospitals, charities, media outlets and other institutions.
Second, freedom of religion means we are free not to believe what others believe — especially what the majority of our neighbors believe or what the government might want us to believe. This also means we can never be forced to do things that violate our conscience.
Finally, according to the founders, freedom of conscience means people have the freedom not to believe in any religion at all.
Our founders’ commitment to religious liberty has served America well.
As we all can see every day, living in this remarkable city, this commitment has given our city and our nation a beautiful diversity of religions, cultures and ways of life.
Religious believers have inspired the great movements for renewal and social justice in our society — the anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements; the civil rights struggle; and the struggles today to end abortion and the death penalty and to find a just solution to the issue of immigration.
Friends, this is our proud heritage as believers who seek to build a better society. And as we know, religious believers and their institutions are still the heart and soul of this city, and every city in this country — practicing charity and defending the weakest and most vulnerable.
Who can imagine Los Angeles without all the charities and ministries; all the hospitals, clinics and schools, that are being run by people of faith? Who can imagine our institutions without devoted public servants who are motivated by their religious faith and their love for their neighbor.
But America is changing. Our city and our state are changing.
We are living in times when the awareness of God and the sense of the sacred is fading in wide sectors of our society. All the polls tells us that our fastest growing religion is no religion.
Our society is growing more secularized. Believers today face strong pressures to keep our faith to ourselves and to live as if our beliefs don’t matter to how we work or carry out our duties as citizens.
Our religious institutions face new pressures to compromise and abandon our beliefs. Some of us are being asked to render unto Caesar what Caesar has no right to demand.
So my prayer today is that as believers in God we will stand fast and stand together.
It is true: we do not all share the same beliefs. But we do share that conviction that our faith matters more than anything else. We need to support one another. And we need to defend one another’s freedom — to hold our beliefs and to live according to those beliefs.
Because the truth is — our city and our society need religion.
We don’t want to live in a society where religion is privatized and religious institutions are marginalized. Our society needs to be inspired by people of faith. We need religion to break down the idols of our pride and self-satisfaction. To be our conscience. We need people of faith to show us that every life has value, no matter how little and how weak in the eyes of the world. We need religion to teach us compassion.
So I hope that in this new year and in the years ahead, we can find new ways to work together — to fight poverty and homelessness; to address the causes of violence in our streets and in our homes; to keep our kids in school. I hope we can work together to strengthen the institutions of marriage and family that are the foundations of a strong society.
I also hope we can work together to give justice to those forced to live now in the shadows of our society. It is time. It is time to make this a city, and a country, where no one is a stranger and where everyone is welcomed as a brother or a sister — no matter what papers they have or don’t have.
This is why God puts us in this world of his, my friends. This is the answer to the Rabbi’s question. We are here to serve God and to serve our neighbors in love and kindness.
We are here to walk humbly with our God.
So let’s ask our Good God to be with us and to guide us — as together we seek to build a city of truth and love.