A long time ago, when I lived in the USA, I used to go white-water canoeing. I wasn’t a great canoer - I depended on my boating partner to do the steering – but it was great fun.
But it wasn’t all smooth going. One story I heard stayed with me. One of my fellow canoeists had been in a slalom race in a rapidly flowing river. His boat had overturned. Fortunately, it wasn’t in deep water, so he could stand, but the current was fast and it had pinned his boat on a rock. He wasn’t particularly strong, but with a sudden show off strength he managed to lift the boat off the rock against the power of the water.
I have heard other stories of people suddenly discovering seemingly super-human strength in times of need - for example someone lifting a car off an injured child. The story of Jacob is another example. Moved by a damsel in distress – his cousin Rachel – he lifts a stone from the mouth of the well, which it would normally take several men to move. Jacob was not known for his physical strength. We are told he was a man who dwelt in tents, in contrast to his twin brother Esau, who was a hunter. Yet, moved apparently by love at first sight, he found unexpected strength to do what he would never have imagined possible.
It is not only physical strength that we can discover unexpectedly. We can also discover spiritual and moral strength, the strength to stand up for what is right and just. I doubt that Rosa Parkes, before she stood up against segregation in buses and refused to accept a seat at the back, would have thought herself especially courageous. Yet she undoubtedly was. She felt moved by her situation, and the situation of others like and found the strength to stand up for her rights. On this Remembrance weekend, too, we remember the astonishing courage of soldiers who, in the heat of the moment gave their lives to save their fellow soldiers. Amidst the horrors of war, they showed the strength and altruism of which human beings were capable. And today we recall, too, another anniversary, that of Kristallnacht, the so-called night of broken glass, when Jewish synagogues in Germany and Austria were burnt down and Jewish men were rounded up and killed. In Germany, too, there were people who found unexpected strength. For example, Pastor J. von Jan preached a week after Kristallnacht and told his congregation: ‘Our nation’s infamy is bound to bring about Divine punishment.’ He was dragged out of his bible class and brutally beaten and imprisoned.
We see around us examples of the strength that people can show in standing up for what is right. And that strength can spread. When we complete the reading of a book of the Torah we say: chazak chazak venitchazeik – let us be strong and let us strengthen each other. Our moral strength can be multiplied if we stand together, literally encouraging each other, giving each other courage. The strength of a group can become more than the strength of its individual members. In Birmingham, we are blessed by our diversity and the many opportunities to meet and to work together, and we are particularly glad to welcome today both Christian and Muslim guests. We can stand together and be stronger. We are facing a crisis in our city and our country, and we all need to find extra strength in order to face the crisis together. Poverty has greatly increased over the past year and is continuing to increase. As poverty increases, so does extremism, as people seek someone to blame for their problems. We all need the courage to stand up against the current climate of xenophobia and extremism. We need the strength to call for peace and reconciliation. This is a weekend fraught with memories of war and hatred. We can work together to end the injustice and prejudice which lead to such horrors. We may not be able to change the world, but we can change our community and our city.
Jacob found sudden physical strength at the well, when he rolled off the stone. But it took him much longer to discover his moral strength. He worked for his uncle Laban for some twenty years before he had the courage to return to his homeland and face his brother Esau. But he did face him and admit the wrong he had done and the brothers were at last reconciled. And so we pray that we, too, may find strength together – chazak, chazak venitchazeik – and work together for reconciliation and peace.