Sermon: Atonement When We’re Already Forgiven

This sermon was first preached on the Sunday following Yom Kippur at the UU Fellowship of Huntington, NY on Sept 15th, 2013. It talks about atonement, forgiveness, and Universalism. To view the Youtube Video of the sermon click here.

It finally happened. I knew the day would come when I would use a complete sentence to title one of my sermons. “Atonement, when you’re already forgiven.” It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it. (Please forgive me.)

This weekend is the close of Yom Kippur, a High Holy Day in the Jewish liturgical calendar. It follows 10 days after the start of the New Year – otherwise known as Rosh Hashanah. For those 10 days, the Book of Life is once more open and we have the opportunity to make amends for all the wrongs we have done in the past year. We are obligated to seek out those we have wronged and sincerely ask for forgiveness by doing what is in our power to make things right once more. In Judaism, it’s a religious task. No one other than the person we have wronged can exonerate us. It’s a heavy task sometimes to make things right.

It’s funny. We all make mistakes in life. (Well, let me check that first. By a show of hands, who here has never made a mistake?) And yet, even though we all know that we all make mistakes, it’s often so hard to ask for forgiveness. Our ego gets in the way. For sure, the ego hides behind a few of its guises: Guilt, Shame, Apathy and it’s nastiest form, Self-Righteousness – otherwise known as “He-Who-Is-Never-Wrong.”

Yom Kippur teaches us that the ego can’t be allowed to get in the way. !It’s the Book of Life that’s open for 10 days people! You don’t want to ignore that! For some it means, a bodily resurrection when God will remake the world. For others, it’s heard as a call to Heaven. For some, it’s a reminder that we are here now – alive – and we might as well try to enjoy it. The grudges in the world can be too heavy to carry forever, so we should allow ourselves to put them down eventually.

And then there’s the other half of Yom Kippur that’s the real kicker. If someone has come to you, and sincerely tried to make amends, you are obligated to accept the apology. That’s right – during this time we are religiously commanded to finally and forever let it drop. …

I’m not sure which is harder – to ask for forgiveness, or to let the matter go when someone finally asks. I guess that depends on each of us. For some, one is harder, and for others it’s the other. And if you don’t let it drop, then the burden is now on you, the one who had been wronged. Because now you are doing the wronging.

Practically speaking, it’s good advice. We can’t live our lives forever in the moment of injury or harm. We all know we all make errors, so we should be gracious when others do the same things we are guilty of. But religiously, this holiday teaches us to move past what was, engage with the pain and the remorse, and keep on moving forward. Life does not tarry in yesterday, but we too often do. Think about it – when we hold onto grudges, months past the offense, despite the person seeking to make amends, it’s not really about the instance – it’s about our ego. My friends, life is not about our ego.

I’m mostly talking about the small to moderate stuff that needs to be forgiven. The stuff that most of us will encounter frequently over our lives. The kid who cut in front of you in a lunch line. The time she told you off. Your loved one who forgot to call you on your birthday. The guy that lied. The argument that would just not go away. The great wrongs in this world – that involve blood, real trauma, serious abuse – are more complicated. Some of us have dealt with those as well, but hopefully they are not everyday. We should not allow the everyday frustrations to feel like the great, deep wrongs in the world. They should not be treated the same. You know you’re doing that when you start using phrases to describe the smaller stuff like, “Never in my life have I ever been so offended.” Or “now this is really personal.” When you find yourself speaking like that, stop yourself. You’re really talking more about yourself than the other person.

Our monthly theme is Community, and this Holy Day also has a communal aspect to it. Atonement and Forgiveness are enacted and accepted by individuals, but the repercussions are felt by the community as much as the people doing the asking and giving. Any community whose members can’t make amends, is a weaker community for it. Our spirits will collectively tarry in yesterday; our work will be dragged down by repeating the injury over and over; our purpose will veer away from what our aim was as we continue to rehash or bitterly fight through old wars. We will not be here. We’ll stay back there. No community can thrive in that place. Like our wisdom story earlier with all the townsfolk carrying all the grudges of the world on their backs, we can’t live like that – not truly.

It’s part of why we’re a covenantal faith. Our groups and committees set covenants at the start of each year that we return to when trouble arises. We commit to promises on how we’ll engage, how we’ll support one another, and how we’ll disagree. We don’t break our covenant when we slip up, we break our covenant when we walk away. (As an aside – I again invite you all to consider joining one of many Covenant Circles that will begin on Sunday afternoons following Coffee Hour where each dedicated group will reflect on a sermon from the past month. Our Transitional DRE, Austen, is organizing the groups. You can email her to register, or I believe there’s an on-line link in the weekly e-Flash to register that way as well. It’s a once a month commitment for a year, and then next year we’ll shuffle together new groups so that more and more people have low-key ways to get to know one another outside of the sometimes noisy social hall. But contact Austen soon so that we can get the groups started! And if the youth group is interested as well, I can offer the sessions I’ll write to you as well. I know there’s a conflict in time otherwise.) Covenant is the practice of community.

Our choir anthem this morning[1], by Gloria Gaither, talks about living as one who’s been forgiven. “I walk with joy to know my debts are paid.” Her song is talking about the bliss her faith in God grants her. Yom Kippur encourages a similar view. We can go through all the motions of making amends, and never actually be forgiven by others for our actions. But we’re free. The Book of Life is open at this time. Another’s bitterness over the daily little wrongs in life has no authority over our lives. Nor should we ever expect our own bitterness to command another’s spirit. We don’t answer to each other’s ego, we walk with joy to another song.

Early Universalists believed strongly in another line of her song – “I walk with joy to know my debts are paid.” One of the earliest tag-lines of Universalism was “Rest Assured.” In an age where American Christianity was awash with fire and brimstone preachers, our evangelical Universalist forebears would fill massive tent revivals preaching the word of Universal salvation. An all-loving God could condemn no one to everlasting pain and torment. Our debts were already paid. It didn’t mean that we didn’t sin, or make errors. It didn’t mean that we didn’t have to make amends for our actions. It meant that the slate would be clean come Judgment day. For those of us who don’t believe in Heaven, or an afterlife of some type, the Universalists also applied this belief to daily living. The old joke went something like this, ‘The Universalists tried to get along with everyone on Earth because they expected to have to see them again after they died.’ It’s a bit snarky, but it is some practical advice. You might as well try to get along. We can’t move onto the deeper work in this world of justice-making if we can’t figure out how to do the basics first. To live, and to let live. To make amends, and to forgive. If God forgives all, -who are we – not to do the same. And if you believe God is just an ideal, it doesn’t really change the message. We ought to be striving to live up to our ideals, right?

Universalism teaches us that we’re already forgiven. It doesn’t teach us that we don’t need to still atone for our mistakes, for our small daily sins against ourselves and our neighbors. As our responsive reading calls us – we begin again in love. Love is the foundation of this faith, and it’s a spiritual discipline as well. When you find yourself rolling your eyes at all the “love is enough” language in the world that suggests it’s all so easy to feel – and give – and wipe our hands of a problem as if it were nothing – think again. Love is a practice that requires effort and constancy. Every time you hold onto a grudge past its expiration date, you have lost faith in the virtue of love. The ego that cries in the corner becomes louder than the bliss of walking in this world. Ask yourself, which would you rather carry? The backpack of grudges, or a heart of joy? It seems a foolish choice, but one we all make over and over again in our lives.

The song ends, “I’ve been so loved, that I’ll risk loving too.” We have all been loved in our lives. Early Universalism teaches us that we are not so small that God won’t love us. Even when we forget, we have been loved by family, or friends, or the family that we choose on our own, knowing it might be all we have. But we are still loved. That love we have felt demands us to pay it forward. Atonement is an act of love. So too is forgiveness. And on this High Holy Day, we are already forgiven; or as Dorothy in the Wiz sings, “… I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find, a world full of love like yours and mine.” So friends, look inside your hearts this hour. Live, and let live. And most importantly, let it go… so that you can let community into your lives; so that you can allow love to set the path of your days, so that this place can be allowed to be the ideal we dream it to be. And …Rest Assured. …

Hymn #323 Break Not the Circle


[1] A rendition of Gloria Gaither’s song “I then shall live

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