Posts Tagged Rosh Hashanah

Return Again and Again

This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/24/17 as part of our annual Rosh Hashanah service. It reflects on the nature of life, of risk, loss and the power of meditation.

 

Return again, return to the land of your soul, return to what you are, return to who you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again. These words from our hymn, are music and lyrics written by Schlomo Carlebach, or as Reb Shlomo to his followers. He was a Jewish rabbi, religious teacher, composer, and singer who was known as “The Singing Rabbi” during his lifetime. He died in 1994. It’s a hymn that feels like it’s been around for centuries, but it’s a thoroughly 20th century creation.

This past month, as we’ve been reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of welcome: How do we welcome the stranger; how do we welcome back our own selves when we’ve been our own worst critic. I’ve found myself speaking again and again about the amorphous nature of time – how it stretches and shrinks – affecting our memory, rewriting pains and sorrows, or keeping joys distant. Today, we’ll look deeper into welcoming the moment before us – that returns again and again – in joy and in pain.

Happy Rosh Hashanah all. Shana Tova! A good and sweet year to us all. In the Jewish calendar, we begin a new year; returning once again to a time of reflection, a time of atonement, a time of seeking out those we have wronged, and seeking to make amends, face to face. It’s a ritual that we return to year after year. This coming Friday night, we’ll hold our annual Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur. It’s a somber service of reflection, discernment, and atonement. Join us at 7:30pm to meditate on the closing end of these sacred days.

Sacred ritual has a power to it that transcends human generations. I marvel at the rituals we have been enacting millennia after millennia. That which the human community does in concert, again and again, takes on a sense of eternity. It seeks to encounter the moment between the moments that the poet T.S. Eliot famously penned. The world will continue its spin, our days and lives will grow long and short, from coffee spoon to coffee spoon, but these moments of ritual, punctuate the routine. The rote becomes pierced, and one moment stands outs, amongst all the rest. When I hear the shofar be blown each year, it quickens my spirit. Time seems to shorten and stretch, to pause before eternity, knowing it will pass in a breath or two. We can return to this still point, again and again, but we can’t linger. It’s ever before us, but never any less urgent.

The poet’s (T.S. Eliot) beauty describing these still points in the turning world, reflect the opposite side of the pain of loss, or risk. Earlier in the service, we heard Harriet’s reflection on surviving a month in a coma, now twenty years later. I found her message of attending to the breaths that come unbidden in times of urgency – so moving. When the moments of risk or pain, literally take our breath away, they are calling us back to attend to what’s before us – while we still can. It’s not time to think, or to worry, or to fret, but to act with intention – as best we can. How many breaths go by, unnoticed? When they are noticed, our world changes.

Our shared intentions, that lead to a common impact, matter. When we come together this next Friday to honor the end of the Days of Awe, we enter again into a common human stream, a common human story; that is ageless. Maybe it’s a bit of magical thinking, but I think it’s a kind of magical thinking that’s quite true, in the mythic sense of truth. These rituals, in changing form, have repeated and been adapted for at least 3400 years – maybe 170 generations have atoned, have fasted, each in their own way – but along a common thread. There’s a power in living into that universal story. Culture and identity give us strength. Common purpose, and common ground, create a foundation civilization thrives in. It also builds a foundation that the human heart can return to for solace, when we lose our breaths, again and again. Having a place; adding to a shared story, makes acting in unison purpose all the more stirring and all the more possible.

When we were planning this service, Harriet and I spoke about the power of meditation in these troubling times – before the times of struggle come. In years past, I committed to a group meditation practice led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. These days, with my schedule all over the map, I maintain my own personal practice of meditation. If you’re interested in joining our Fellowship’s groups, there’s a Tuesday morning and Friday morning group that meets weekly here. (Any members of those group willing to raise your hands…). When I endured my own near brush with death – a fraction of what Harriet endured in her earlier sharing – being hit by a car – the doctor told me that I was quite lucky. My body decided, on its own, to remain relaxed, as I was hit and thrown ten or fifteen feet. If I had tensed up, she said, the injury would have been far worse. We often talk about meditation’s benefits in the spiritual sense, and sometimes around it’s healing of daily stresses. But it also teaches our body, our muscle memory so to speak, to internalize the lesson of this too shall pass.

I have no super human powers. I’m still terrified of looking over the railings in malls that have a second floor, I still won’t fearlessly swim far out into the ocean, and no amount of money will ever get me near power tools. And even as I was writing this sermon, my husband was having a rare day working from home, as his office is moving to a new location. As I was writing about this very idea of those moments of shock and awe, that take our breath away, he was over and over, walking into my writing space quietly and then (completely unaware) loudly asking a question of me. Each time – I’d gasp and startle. So no, no superhuman powers.

When I was hit by a fast moving car, I didn’t will myself to relax; I just intuitively returned to that place that meditation opened me to. It welcomed me home, without struggle, or fight – through no fault or effort of my own. And that intuitive return, again and again, found in meditation, may have literally saved my life. If meditation doesn’t speak to you, give it another shot, again and again. It has a lasting impact, that’s not quite quantifiable, yet still eternal.

Return again, return to the land of your soul, return to what you are, return to who you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again. In the spirit of these days of awe this service is more contemplative, more musical, and maybe a bit less word-driven that usual. We’ll close with one more song, this time a somewhat familiar one – hopefully by now – that’ll we sing in simple repitition as a chant for a bit longer than we usually do. As we come to the close of our service, it’s our hope that this chant can be another way for you to enter into the spirit of meditation. Return to the still point, again and again.

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Choose Hope

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/9/16 for Rosh Hashanah. During this time of High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical calendar, how do we begin again in hope after times of hardship? 

There’s a notion – I’m not sure where I first encountered it – that makes a distinction about the evolution of science and the evolution of ethics. It suggests that they differ in one notable way. As science unfolds, it progresses on what came before. Each generation is faced with new learnings that are rooted in old learnings, and the body of scientific knowing gets passed on to the next generation to pick up from where prior scientists left off. Barring catastrophes like the Dark Ages, science isn’t lost, it perennially moves forward.

Ethics is a different creature. Although our scholars in the field may function in the same way, building off what came before – as a people – each generation needs to learn and relearn the same lessons. Why is war the worst solution? Why are basic civil rights a thing each generation needs to fight for over and over? Why do we enter and return financial crises that we knew would occur – the proverbial market bubbles that we force upon ourselves again and again? It’s because as human creatures, our communal intellect may be willing to build off the lego blocks of past advancements, but our hearts have to start from the beginning with each new generation. For communities, ethics is learned from the ground up, and science starts from the shoulders of past giants.

Now that statement has a way about it that’s painted in broad strokes. Even if science can give a clear answer – like on the question (or non-question) of climate change – ethics deeply influences our ability to accept it as answer. Likewise, we seem to be able to make the processing power of computers multiple by 1.5 times annually, but ethics seems to stall our improvement of fuel efficiency and our choices to even research renewable resources. But the basic notion is still accurate – we have all the resources to transform the world, but we don’t always choose to do so.

Spiritually, there’s a way in which that feels exhausting. We have all the capacity to affect the changes we need, but we often don’t have the moral courage, or maybe the moral willpower, to pass on the lessons in ways that seem to match. But we can choose to flip that script. A month ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After popular request, I will continue to lift up a different stone each week till we cover all five. Today, I want to focus on the 5th stone in Adams’ theology (after today we’ve got two more stones to visit.) That fifth precept paraphrased is: “We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.”

Despair sets in when we think we can’t affect change. That’s either rooted in cynicism, or that’s rooted in facts that paint a bleak picture. Let’s look at both. Staying with the science road, history tells us that the facts of science seem to indicate we have all the capacity we need to affect change in the world. From polio, to penicillin, to the moon landing, to the ozone layer – give us a challenge that we can unite behind, and give us generations to accomplish it, and we can do it. That’s the fact. Cynicism looks at perfect outcomes and pretends that those perfect outcomes are the new benchmark to follow. If we don’t meet the benchmark of perfect, then the solution is flawed and what’s the point. There’s some interesting blogs out there wrestling with our political situations and the impact of cynicism that I won’t go into here, but there’s a lot of thought out there on this topic of cynicism that you might want to look into on your own.

Our resources, both sublime and mundane, hold all the capacity we need to transform the world. History presents both an onerous and a hopeful record. Each generation must imprint humanity’s moral progress upon the tablets of our hearts anew. We can choose to look at that with despair for the effort, or we can choose to look upon that with awe. We have the capacity to impress humanity’s moral progress anew!!!  It’s a matter of will; it’s a matter of personal and communal choice. That’s our spiritual charge as a religious community.

During this time of High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical calendar, how do we begin again in hope after seasons of hardship? As we are coming to the end of these days of awe, can we take their lessons and apply them to the choice for hope? Do we look upon past choices with despair, or do we choose to look upon them with awe? In this month of imagining what it means to be a people of healing, how do our choices impact that imagination?

I was hosting our annual Fall Chapter meeting of the UU clergy group for the Metro NY area on Wednesday. Our regional lead for the Central East Region, the Rev. Megan Foley, was leading worship for 40+ clergy and she had a metaphor that’s really helpful here. She spoke of earlobes and nostrils. I’m going from memory, so I’ll get the gist, rather than quote – but I thank her for getting me to think in this direction. In the body of life, we all have a role. If you’re an earlobe, your role is to be the best earlobe you can be. It’s not to create more earlobes; it’s not to make the nostril over there act more like an earlobe. You may want to put in some effort to help the nostril be the best nostril it can be, but that’s as far as you should go from your role as earlobe – because the world still needs someone to be an earlobe.

That metaphor got me thinking a lot about our mission as a religious community in the face of hardship and hope. We function as a group of individuals; but we also function as a group of groups. There are bodies (committees) that help move forward our social justice work; who help to maintain our grounds; who run our cold weather men’s shelter; who teach our children and who care for our ill. We don’t need our membership team to take over our memorial garden, but maybe our membership team can help identify folks who are well suited for caring for the grounds that are the final resting place for our loved ones. Our Board of Trustees doesn’t need to figure out the solutions to a better office system, but maybe it can help our volunteers who do that with our staff, to better set policies around responsibility and authority that we all learn to follow and honor.  In a community as large as ours, the minutia matters if we want to achieve our common purpose. The earlobes and nostrils of fellowship work lead to a common purpose.

Our mission: In religious community, we nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world.  Those are the words, but the impact is larger. We care for our members in times of crisis as best we can, when we know of the challenge; we offer a shelter in the cold weather months and grow vegetables for the pantry in the warm weather months. We partner with non-profits the world over to offer funds in times of need, and we send our people abroad to help communities that we’ve partnered with – and those communities send their members here – speaking from our pulpit – to deepen our connections. We collaborate with the NAACP for their work in the community, and they collaborate with us in our work in the community for justice and anti-racism. We maintain safe space for members of AA, and Al-Anon, as well as a rehearsal space for Long Island’s LGBT Choir. And the list goes on and on – and that list takes a ton of minutia to happen. We need earlobes and nostrils – as unexciting as that work sometimes sounds – makes the life-saving and life-affirming ministries happen. In these days of awe, it’s not just the sublime sunset, or the quiet of the garden that affirm our spirits, it’s the mundane everyday task that takes 25 years to build or rebuild our grounds – that also affirms our spirits and blesses our hands to do the work ahead.

If our mission statement were three words what would they be? Community, Individual and World? If that were it, it would mean community draws the individual into the world. That’s true – and that’s one of our goals. Maybe, Nurture, Caring and Healing. In a too often broken-feeling world, healing can only come when people choose the path of compassion and support. That’s true too. What I see as central to our mission is the reality that we need to be drawn out of our individual concerns into an accountable community that chooses to heal these corners of the world through care and justice. Sometimes that will be hard; sometimes that will be uncomfortable; sometimes that means that our individual opinions will be in conflict with another’s views, but we do so together.

I’ll close with a matched theological demand to James Luther Adam’s 5th stone. I see the matching demand of progressive faith to be this questions: Does it remind me to live with hope? When we are faced with a belief that challenges us, or leads us to despair, our faith tells us that it’s misleading. If our faith truly teaches us that – Our resources, both sublime and mundane, hold all the capacity we need to transform the world  -(and it does) – then any theology that seeks to cause us to forget hope is a theology that is misleading. Hope doesn’t mean easy; it doesn’t mean perfect; it doesn’t protect us from having to endure through periods of exhaustion or boredom or minutia – but it does make sure we face the world with a healthy sense of awe and possibility. Awe and possibility.

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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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