It’s not often that a synagogue sermon centers on Skittles, but that’s what happened when the Rev. Raphael Warnock made his annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day appearance at The Temple on Friday, Jan. 15.
Warnock, the senior pastor at King’s church, Ebenezer Baptist, was joined by many of his congregants and choir members in driving from the Sweet Auburn District to Midtown, just as Rabbi Peter Berg will lead many Temple members and singers on the reverse trip to Ebenezer Baptist for a shared Sunday service during Presidents Day weekend next month.
The connection between the congregations goes back at least to the 1950s and the friendship between King and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, but it’s hard to imagine a closer relationship between the senior clergy of the two historic houses of worship than that enjoyed by Warnock and Rabbi Berg.
In welcoming Warnock home for his seventh King Day at The Temple, Rabbi Berg called him his teacher, his colleague and his friend and complimented his social activism, saying, “He never, ever shies away from courageous leadership.”
Warnock’s response: “Every Baptist preacher needs a rabbi, and Peter Berg is my rabbi.”
Rabbi Berg made the case that the moral issues underlying so many political debates must be addressed by religious leaders, but if you don’t like politics from the pulpit, The Temple was not the place to be during Warnock’s visit.
Still, he delivered entertainment with the politics. Warnock spoke for half an hour without producing fidgeting. He trained his Jewish audience in the call-and-response style of sermon, emphasizing that he worried when his words were met with silence.
The Baptist minister said the gathering of black and white, Jewish and Christian, was radical and revolutionary by itself, and the representation of a house of prayer for all people served as an answer to people “trying to rise to the highest office in the land by feeding the cancer of bigotry.”
Warnock skillfully wove modern social issues into references that would resonate with Jews.
He talked about Exodus as a demonstration that salvation comes from the broadening of communal space, expanded that idea to space to breathe, then noted that Eric Garner, a black man who died after being subjected to a police chokehold in New York, called out “I can’t breathe” 11 times. Warnock added that Garner was being arrested for trying to sell individual cigarettes, but none of the same city’s Wall Street bankers involved in crippling the economy in 2008 went to prison.
Warnock referenced Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous litany about not responding when the Nazis came for the socialists and the trade unionists and the Jews, until they came for him “and there was no one left to speak for me.” Warnock expanded the series to include “them” coming for the Muslims and the immigrants without other people speaking up.
He made a connection between respect for eunuchs in biblical times and the need to respect sexual minorities today. He called on his audience, being on the inside, not to forget the people on the outside.
Warnock came around to the case of Trayvon Martin, but he didn’t concentrate on the teenager’s death or George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Instead, he focused on what Martin was carrying on his way home the night he was shot: a bag of Skittles.
Warnock praised the candy and said that any child knows you don’t eat just one Skittle. You pour out a handful and consume a mix of fruity flavors at once. As the commercials say, you taste the rainbow.
Warnock found a lesson in that package of Skittles for all of us, from presidential candidates on down.