Posts Tagged Unitarian Universalism

A Theology of Doubt

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/4/18 reflecting on the balance of doubt in faith.

“There once was a farm in a valley that was practically perfect in every way, except that it had no rooster to crow at the crack of dawn, and so everyone was always late getting out of bed.”[1] If only all our problems seemed so simple! But I imagine it didn’t seem like such a small deal to the folks on the farm. From missing newspapers to late-milked cows, to plain cranky attitudes, life in this otherwise perfect valley was marred by its one lack, a missing rooster.

What’s your missing farmyard animal? What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
I love stories like this. They really can draw out the essence of our daily challenges and struggles and they use humor to do so. It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude.

I love this story. I try to tell it annually at one of our services. It’s an excellent lesson on our third principle – where we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. For the rooster in the story, the one thing missing, was their confidence in themselves. Doubt was the story they had to overcome. And for all the well-intentioned helpers in the story (the pig and duck and cats), the one thing missing for them, was a healthy dose of doubt. They had to overcome their own stories of expertise and confidence, to leave room for the rooster to find their own voice. Doubt is not always helpful, and over-confidence in all things, can lead down the road of mainsplaining – or in this story’s case – pigsplaining and ducksplaining and catsplaining. (For some of us in the room, that’s just funny, and for others it’s funny because it hits so close to home.)

All this month we are asking ourselves, what would it be like to be a people of balance. Doubt and confidence – in the case of our rooster, and doubt balanced with faith, as a religious community. For most of us, our knee-jerk reaction to these questions is to go straight to our heads. In the everyday push and pull of the world, for the small daily acts of what next, we can paralyze ourselves before the great “what if?”

I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due-diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?

I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 58 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.

Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, (and there was certainly mainsplaining going on between theologians back then as well) but their ultimate concerns theologically, wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)

Universalism on the other hand was a truly American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart.

So starting about 58 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. (And the youth conferences merged first, bringing the rest of us along a year later.)

The big questions: Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.

Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is what we can spew out, in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like: “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spirituality needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.

Depending on where we came from, the word doubt will be heard differently – at least religiously speaking. If you were raised UU, it’s probably an honest word, that reflects the uncertainty of faith. If you were unchurched growing up, and are coming to a service for the first time, you might have a curious approach to the word. And if you’re a convert from a creedal tradition, it might be shocking to hear from the pulpit that doubt isn’t a four-letter word for us (so to speak.) Striving to be a people of balance, doubt is part of that balance – so long as we allow it to inform, and not to limit.

It may turn out to be the case that Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We can’t define justice – we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We can’t define relations – they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.

One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept or experience. I say concept or experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds. …

We heard earlier in our service an excerpt from an essay by Parker Palmer. “To live in this world, we must learn how to stand in the tragic gap with faith and hope. By “the tragic gap” I mean the gap between what is and what could and should be, the gap between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.” Palmer is helping us to realize that seeing new ways, being open to new perspectives, can both paralyze us into inaction through corrosive cynicism as he calls it, or make us useless through ineffectual idealism. But we need to still have the room to find new ways, if we are ever to build the beloved community. Ultimately, even “Heartbreak can become a source of compassion.”

Palmer’s tragic gap is largely built upon the balancing act of heart and mind; of doubt and faith. Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to tread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey – our take – on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which exact track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings. And some of us craft our idols very diligently – yes even us. (Maybe especially us.)

Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare to this moment.

And that may be the only healthy way to build community. Community is hard to form when our minds or our hearts are rigid, closed and set. When we fixate on our sense of how things are, or must be, to the exclusion of another’s sense of things – our world becomes more about our own ego than about the needs, hopes and dreams of those around us. I think our faith teaches us to grow past that. We may need to face the anger or strident sounds with compassion, but we must not long tarry in the pain. A healthy reverence for doubt allows us to live into community. It keeps us from becoming our rigid selves. Life is sometimes less full in the face of such certitude.

[1] “A Lamp in Every Corner” by Janeen K. Groshmeyer p. 88

 

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The Art of Purpose

This sermon looks at the twists and turns of life that give and challenge our purpose.

Rich began our service talking about finding purpose in unexpected places. We never really know where we’ll end up from every turn we take. I’m going to frame that quickly in my own way, and we’ll move forward from there in a new way. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I had dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.

That course correct was 24 years ago this month. It sometimes amazes me that I’ve been working on staff, or as a lay leader, or a minister in our congregations for 24 years – over half my life. But before that change, I was miserable. The Autumn of my first semester in college was the worst 3 months of my life. Significant health issues – I was almost hospitalized. The super high pressure we put on our teens to excel in High School and pick their direction in life before their brains are done growing, all felt moot when the new hand was dealt. It was a time that felt like there simply were no options, no path, no possibility – and what was worse, was the sense that all the hard effort I had put into my plan, was simply wasted.

Losing purpose. When we feel like we’ve lost our purpose, we experience deep pain, depression – that malaise of the spirit that gnaws and lingers well beyond sense or control. Spiritual malaise is an impossible cycle that reinforces itself. Nothing worked, so nothing will work. How I defined my life, was wrong, so I have no life to define. This is painful and hard, so life will continue to be painful and hard. I don’t understand how this all fits together, so nothing fits together.

 It’s a real life experience, that seems to me, to make sense of why we tell stories of demons and devils. It teaches us to forget who we are. We conflate worldly events with personal worth – our personal value as people. We confuse our ego with our spirit. We become possessed – if we were to speak poetically about the pain that is very real. And stories of devils and demons, circle around the power of names and naming. We trade our name with that deep despair, and forget ourselves. Suffering is real. I don’t try to diminish that truth. And it need not define us, even if it’s drawing circles around our lives.

My big life course correct taught me something about depression, purpose and especially meaning. Sometimes we find meaning, sometimes we make it. (Now I’m about to utter another UU heresy, so please hold onto your seats.) There’s a silly Western philosophical conceit around existential purpose that I’ve come to loath. Somewhere along the way, with all our glorious scientific progress, we’ve conflated intellectual rigor and facts, with ontological meaning. Ontological is a big word meaning – the study of the nature of being. Even if we wouldn’t say it out loud, internally we sometimes conflate the idea that putting life under a microscope is a viable way to perceive, dissect, or reveal the atoms of our meaning and purpose. I think it’s bad religion – and a bit dangerous – when we try to answer the questions of How that science is a well-proven tool. And it’s bad science, when it tries to clarify the big question of why.

Terry Pratchett, a beloved British author and satirist, wrote in “A Hat Full of Sky,” “There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.” Malaise sets in when we dissect every wrong turn through the microscopes of our egos. Suffering – rather than remaining a well known fact of life – becomes evidence for purposeless. It’s a story; a story we tell ourselves. We could always choose to tell another story. After all, we’re choosing to tell the painful stories – sometimes dwelling is more a choice than we like to admit.

We need not look far to find another story. The whole of Buddhist practice centers on that other story. All life is suffering…. And we dedicate ourselves to reducing the suffering of others. It’s another way of looking at the same thing. Why do we choose one way or the other to look at the places where pain pushes against purpose? One view exacerbates the harm, one way leads to newness. Now I know, this isn’t always a switch we can just flip to find our way past malaise; the brain and the heart aren’t gears and cogs we can turn and twist on demand. But as someone who, like most of us, have found ourselves in those impossible places of the spirit, I need to point out that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Keep on.

Story is a form of art. In many ways, it’s my line of work now. We story our lives, to craft something that brings beauty and meaning into our communities; that heals lives, that focuses our intentions, that leaves lasting good. Stella Adler (an actress and teacher) once said, “Life beats down and crushes the soul …and art reminds you that you have one.” Story can be the art of purpose. The sun coming up every day is a story… change the story, change the world.”

         Earlier we heard a piano version of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide. I’m not sure I can think of another song more emblematic for me of the poignancy, and pain, of the big twists and turns in life. “Stevie Nicks once explained that the real meaning of “Landslide” goes back to 1974, before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, the now-legendary singer says, she was at the end of her rope. Money was tight, doubts about making a successful record lingered, and, as a result, the couple’s relationship was strained.” It’s hard to imagine such an iconic talent being at the end of her professional rope. And yet, most of us have been, or will be at some point in our lives. Suffering is real, and it is a part of life. How we tell it’s story though, can be different. Do we stay in 1974 with the musician’s pain, or do we move ahead to see a life of art and influence?

        “And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills. ‘Til the landslide brought it down…. Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’ ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older And I’m getting older, too. Oh, I’m getting older, too.
         …Cause I’ve built my life around you… what have you built your life around? If that changed in a blink, where would you find your grounding? Landslides of the spirit come sudden and unbidden for all of us. The matters we’ve built our lives around lend us purpose, but they are not necessarily our sole purpose, and they certainly aren’t inherent to our self worth. Our first principles reminds us of our inherent worth. Our worth is not tied up in our doing, though our doings do matter. Our worth comes first, and from that worth, we choose how to live into the world.

I’ll close with words from Arthur Graham: “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see. So let us be about our task. The materials are very precious and perishable.”

 

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Moving Forward

This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the meaning of denomination and tradition in light of being a member of community over time.

When we bought our new house, we were given a gift from our Realtor – it was a kit for a bat house. You see, I have a real problem with mosquitos. If there’s a porch full of people at night, I’ll get more bites than everyone around me combined. And each one, within a day, will swell up to the size of quarters. Of course, the people who never get bit will always ask me why I’m freaking out, or doing the funny dance every five seconds (fruitlessly, shooing away mosquitos), or why exactly do I have to wear THAT much citronella.

It’s a cute wooden rectangular box that hangs above our shed in our backyard. The dark paint warms it up in the day – which bats need, and it’s high enough so that they’ll find it and like it. With bats able to eat 500 insects per hour – each – we’re very eager for new residents.

But that’s not likely to happen. We’ve since learned that it takes on average 6-7 years for a new family of bats to find one of these bat houses. We’re still holding out hope that we’ll beat the averages, and a family will move in sooner. So in the meantime, full or not, we’ll care for our empty shed-based home for the future.

This is in part, why I so strongly support denominational involvement. Our seats may be full here, but there are future religious homes that offer a saving progressive message that need to be planted, cared for, and supported; and we can’t do it all by ourselves. And there’s always the reality that some of our efforts will lie quiet for a time, and someone needs to be able to steward them in the fallow times. Someone was there for us when we grew our religious home in Huntington, and we must be ready to return the favor down the line.

We’ve talked about Community all month as our theme. I’ve preached on how we discern our call in terms of the people around us. How we make amends and rebuild right relationships when we have fallen astray. And this morning we’ll move from the local and the social to the bigger picture. The role of community across time and generations.

The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed (UU) once noted that, “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.” Whatever we do on our own, is inherently limited. Time will bring our individual actions to an end. Even the lasting effect we have on another can diminish if it goes no further. That’s where tradition, in its largest sense, carries us further. As a community of communities, our ways, patterns and practices can continue on.

But as Morrison-Reed says, it’s not just about us. In fact, the broadest traditions are almost the opposite of us. “…For alone our vision is too narrow…”. And we join religion to enable a wider view and a longer memory. That we might contribute to the tapestry of life through the high points and the low points. So that when we are too weak, we may share our strength with enough people that we become strong. And we are strong again for it. That is what denominationalism can mean.

For some of us, we are converts from another tradition. Others may be life-long UU’s who have never dipped their foot in the larger denominational work. Some may still be carrying scars from a tradition where the word “denomination” meant to them “calcified hierarchy.” Others may be at a place where they come here for this community and don’t identify with our wider faith. I suggest now that one of the challenges of membership is to appreciate the purpose and positive impact our tradition holds for all of us. This house of hope wouldn’t be here without it.

Some will chide that Unitarian Universalism is anything but an “organized” religion. It’s a joke I’ve never really thought held much water. I’m a product of our organization. My training, my mentors, the financial support I’ve received, the professional groups that I can rely on to help in times of particular challenge. The assistance this congregation received in its back-to-back clergy and educator searches. The connections in times of sabbaticals. All the dynamic programming our youth enjoy at the regional level through conferences, retreats, workshops, and the list goes on. The curricula we use, the national justice campaigns we learn and serve, and the list goes on and on. We will often joke we’re not organized because it lets us off the hook. If we’re not organized, then nothing is demanded of us. And too often, we don’t want anything demanded of us…. Whatever our preference though, do remember … religion does make demands of us. In fact,… it’s good for our spirits that it does.

On our own, we can fall into complacency, self-aggrandizement, and even prejudice. On our own, we are not held accountable. One of the most important lessons I learned in seminary is that we are always accountable for our actions, our faith, our behavior. Community calls us back into accountability, even on the days we’d prefer it not. And that’s good for our souls. We are not meant to live as isolated creatures. It is not good for us to always be let off the hook, even if from time to time letting something drop is a healthy thing. The world is not a series of low-bar reality TV shows with no relevance. On our own, we can start to think that way, and we need to be guided – back on path – from time to time.

What we can accomplish is also so much more as a tradition.  A few years back I attended one of the ministers’ gatherings at our denomination’s General Assembly. In this particular worship service, there were two sermons delivered. One from a minister in their 25th year of ministry, and the second was a minister in their 50th year of ministry. The 50 year minister happened to be the Rev. Clark Olsen. Rev. Olsen was the minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians at the time of the Selma civil rights march in 1965, when he survived an attack that fatally injured another white minister, the Rev. James J. Reeb; this happening not a month after the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist – the reason for the march. I found his talk incredibly moving and remarkably humble. I always imagined the folks who marched on Selma in this otherworldly light for being the folks that stood up for their convictions, the people who had no other place left to go so they went and stood up for themselves, who stood up for basic humanity in each of us – and certainly they were the ones that were far ahead of the common view of the times – with some giving their lives.

I marveled though at how everyday the decision was for this minister. He spoke about how he almost didn’t even go. He wanted to, but the money wasn’t there to make the travel across the country. Then one of his congregants donated the money for Clark Olsen to travel and stand for their congregation. It gave him the opportunity to stand witness, and to be there for the last moments of his colleague and friend’s life. But I don’t even know the name of the congregant that made that possible. I don’t even know their name.

Hearing this part of the story, the part that’s not shared in the history books, helped me to see the broader and deeper connections all our actions make in the work of justice in our world. It transformed it from a history lesson about certain heroes and martyrs, to one about the everyday work of building community. It certainly takes both kinds of justice work, but it reminded me that we each have a part to play. It made the impossible seem a little more probable to my mind and my heart. It’s not about a handful of people. Justice is the turning toward committed action with a concerted effort. It’s the spirit of what we often call Right Relations applied to neighborhoods, and to schools, and to court systems. And it takes all of us, in small ways and in large ways, to bring that about. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings – together. Alone, our everyday strivings sometimes plant seeds – and that’s a great thing. But together we can more productively garden our plantings into something that’s meaningful, sustainable, and makes a more lasting impact.

I’d like to end our sermon by returning to the message of our Buddhist parable this morning of the monk who sat in a tree. “This is my question. Tell me monk, what is it that all the wise ones have taught? Can you tell me the most important thing the Buddha ever said? … finally “This is your answer governor. Don’t do bad things. Always do good things. That’s what all the Buddhas taught.”

Right, hopefully we all learn this by the time we’re three years old, and we all spend the rest of our lives learning to forget that. It would be convenient – it would be easy – to say that religion and denomination aren’t really important. All we have to do is remember what we learned when we’re three. Yeah, that’s all we have to do – and the world shows us countless examples of people forgetting the basics. Religion can be the source of the problem or the source of the solution. I challenge us to join this faith as part of the solution. Not joining it solely because we want to find like-minded people who confirm and reinforce our values. Not joining it solely to have another way to make friends when we’re lonely. Not joining it solely because we’re trying to find our way in the world. I challenge us to join this faith – or rejoin this faith – to be held accountable. We are never always going to be right. We are never always going to be able to face the challenges of the world on our own. We will not always remember what is right and good in every situation. Legacy of justice-making requires the baton to be passed from one hand to another across the ages. We can’t hold onto it and still expect to win the race – and we can’t pass it along by ourselves. And remembering what we all learned at the age of 3 is clearly one of the toughest challenges life has to offer. So let’s tackle and re-tackle that lesson together. May we hold one another in our arms – accountable – with hope in our hearts, and love on our lips.

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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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