Please Forgive Me – A Sermon on Renewal
Please Forgive Me – A Sermon on Renewal
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
September 20, 2020
Westminster Unitarian Church
Good morning everyone, my name is Ellen Quaadgras, I am the minister here and I also want to welcome you to Westminster. Where our theme this month is renewal.
It’s been another difficult week in the world. There’s a lot that’s been happening. Some if it – much of it, deeply troubling – the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a hero of women’s rights and human rights in the highest court of this country, a loss that’s leaving many anxious about what’s next.
The continuing fires on the west coast, ongoing struggles right here with the pandemic and all its implications.
And a proclamation by the president arguing that accurate teaching about race as unpatriotic. A troubling and devisive statement that is part of a larger pattern of denial and escape from accountability.
In thinking about today’s service, I am seeing how the overarching narrative of any country is all bound up with the thousands and millions of individual stories of its people.
And the struggle at a national level to reconcile or not, with respect to racial tragedy or anything else is bound up with our capacity as individuals, to do exactly that kind of reconciliation in our own hearts – to understand what happened in the past, to face our mistakes, to take responsibility, and to do what we can to set things right.
So today, inspired by the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, let us explore our own capacity to face what’s been hard, what is hard, offer forgiveness, make amends, and begin to turn it all around.
First Reading A UU Liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, prepared by Marcel and Carolanne Duhamel, along with Charles and Karen Landsman. (adapted)
Reader 1: In Judaism, the spirit of this time is woven around two books: the Torah, which is the first 5 books of the Bible, and the legendary Book of Life. According to legend, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Angel of Life writes each of our destinies for the year to come. During the ten days following, the Days of Awe, the Book of Life is kept open.
Reader 2: These ten days are a deeper opportunity, a second chance, to turn back toward God — [to turn back toward a deeper truth and greater integrity, to a wider love]. Through reflection and action, changes made in this time can alter the course of life and destiny, and the Angel of Life may reconsider what was previously inscribed. At the last sound of the Shofar on the day of Yom Kippur, says the legend, the Book of Life for the year to come is sealed. All is written.
Reader 1: On the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Spirit of this time calls us to look at ourselves from a place different than the usual vantage point: to see ourselves without the trappings which may clutter our days and ways; to see ourselves as we truly are [with nothing but what we would take to the grave]. It is awesome to look clearly at the real moment. Thus, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe.
Reader 2: Reconsideration of commitments and reflection on our lives are part of the Days of Awe, but there is more. This time is a practical and honest reminder of our fallible humanity. [It is a time to look at the mistakes we have made and to make amends]. In our recognition of our own limitations is the source of our compassion for our neighbors. In our own humility before our humanness lives the source of our connection with all people. That connection is our strength.
Second Reading: Finally on my way to yes by Pesha Joyce Gertler
Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
I was on the phone with a friend. “Your voice is breaking up” she said to me, sounding just this side of irritated. Which I was too, because, I, had noticed her voice was breaking up, and this wasn’t the first time this had happened.
“Are you doing something different?” She asked, now more explicitly laying the problem at my feet. At that point I almost asked whether she had fixed the problem with her phone – she had mentioned a problem once – but I didn’t go there because I love this friend, that conversational tack didn’t look all that productive, and by that point the connection had magically resolved itself.
Whatever and wherever the problem actually was, I couldn’t help but notice we were both pretty sure the it was on the end of the line that was not our own.
I have a theory…. that something in us – almost on autopilot – externalizes problems – lays the blame for things we don’t like on whatever or whoever is nearby. Unless it’s patently obvious it’s me, the problem probably lies with you.
There are so many ways this manifests – you get the wrong entree at a restaurant – how many of us assume we didn’t give the order clearly enough? Your friend is an hour late because she couldn’t find the meeting spot. How many of us assume the fault lies with how we gave directions? A team project doesn’t succeed, why is it that our coworkers’ mistakes stand out in full color and our own mistakes – did I make a mistake??
I used to buy “belated” birthday cards because I was never very good at sending them on time. A favorite of mine said – Sorry this card is late. But why do you always forget to remind me?
There’s something so satisfying about holding other people responsible.
Right now, we happen to be in the middle of one of the holiest times in the Jewish calendar – a holy time that, you could say, is all about humanity’s relationship to responsibility. The Jewish new year just ended today and we are now in the time leading up to and including Yom Kippur, also known as the day of atonement. The day of taking responsibility for one’s own mistakes.
It’s interesting to me that traditionally, way way back when, Yom Kippur included a dramatic ritual involving two goats. The first goat would be sacrificed to God, like a tit for tat – here’s where I messed up, so, God, I’ll give you something in return. A little archaic logic that fits with the archaic way some ancient part of our brain works.
The second goat would be sent away. Metaphorically, all of humanities’ sins would be loaded onto this goat’s back, before it was cast off, far far away, into the desert, never to be heard from again. This ritual was born out of a need, one rabbi surmises, for humans to literally watch our shame and guilt leave us, disappear, be gone, forevermore, so we can finally let it go. “Azazel” – was the word used for this goat, which was first translated into English in the 16th century, as “Escape Goat,” The goat, literally, which escapes off to the desert, with the sins of humanity.
Over time, this term, “escape goat” actually became the origin of a word with which we are familiar: scapegoat.
Scapegoat. That dynamic where we target another person and imagine somehow that will free us. When we blame someone else in hopes of resolving a feeling in our own hearts.
It doesn’t always, of course, work that well. No matter how often it’s tried. And it’s tried… often. Anyone who ever went to elementary school knows what scapegoating looks like and how “well” that works. Or anyone who went to middle school, or high school or, well, anyone who’s ever watched the news. We don’t have to look very far to see this ingrained habit of blaming other people.
Why does it happen so much? There’s temporary relief. Maybe. But some part of the issue stays in us… we are not actually free.
Maybe that’s why the ancient rabbis didn’t leave it just at the two goats but wisely paired this ritual with other elements that go much deeper – that gets at the roots of guilt and shame. They added devotional elements that invite people to look at their part, search their own hearts, and leave aside, for a time, the temptation to make accusations against the hearts of others.
As mentioned, we are currently in the time between the Jewish new year and Yom Kippur – called the Days of Awe. It is a 10 day period when, as we heard in the reading, the legendary book of life is open. When individuals have an opportunity, the tradition goes, to change the course of destiny, by changing the shape of their heart. How? *By* making amends. By practicing forgiveness. By reflecting, in the light of our own mortality, what really happened, and then to own up and fess up. Because when you look at things from that light, from the recognition that we will not always be here on this earth… it puts the nature of our conflicts into perspective. A quote I heard once said something like – you’ll be dead a long long time. You’re alive now. What do you want to set right while you still can?
Jews all over the world are called into this self-searching practice. None of which is particularly easy, simple or fun.
But it’s all part of being “created anew.” Part of renewal. For the new year.
We are not a Jewish congregation. But we can learn from this ritual. We do well when we practice something akin to it. For our newly minted congregational year. For our theme of renewal.
This kind of deep reflection and action has the potential to change the course of a life. Which is why I preach on it, every year. As UU’s we don’t have a built-in ritual time of cleansing, atonement, or repair, but it’s so important. I remember the first year I was here I preached on YK at least 1 person came up to me in the days afterward to tell me about an amends they had made and how it turned an important relationship around. The person looked relieved, lightened, hopeful, and I thought to myself. Isn’t this a big part of the reason we come to church at all? To transform our relationships, to heal the past, to find our way to starting anew? Even if it is difficult, humbling, or hard.
Luckily, we are not starting completely from scratch, as UU’s. While we may not have an official day for atonement and renewal, we do have the tools in our toolbox already. This concept is not unfamiliar.
What we have – is covenant – a commitment to come back together even when something between us feels like it’s come apart. Some of our covenants are explicit, like the seven principles, or the covenants we create for our team meetings or for small group ministry like connection groups. Other covenants are implicit. Which doesn’t make them any less important, but can make them tougher to pick up if you’re new to us, as Rev. peter Friedrichs notes in a sermon on YK.
One of those implicit covenants includes the promise to assume good intentions, he continues. Even when someone says or does something that hurts us, we have faith that it wasn’t meant to be mean or malicious. Now, that doesn’t make it any less hurtful, but it removes ill will from the interaction.
Another implied promise is that we help each other when and where we can. Another one: When a call goes out that volunteers are needed, we honestly assess our ability and our availability and step up if we’re able. The same goes for offering our financial support, to the extent we’re able.
But there’s another implicit promise that is particularly relevant for this holiday. Which is the promise to be, as Friedrichs puts it, a community where reconciliation is possible, maybe even expected. Here we commit, he writes, “both to doing the hard work of reconciliation and to offering the grace of forgiveness to each other. When we talk about this, sometimes we use short-hand phrases and say that “we stay at the table” or “we don’t take our ball and go home.”
There is an implied promise here that both parties will commit to doing what they can to reconcile.
He lifts up the song we sang as the opening hymn. When we’ve sung this together we sometimes include the descant which goes like this “though you’ve broken your vows 1000 times” nevertheless we get to start again. Start over, do-over. Trying anew.
Because we are creating a new kind of community, a rare and precious place where we relate to each other with grace and patience as well as high expectations. And where we take responsibility for our actions and mistakes and challenge ourselves and each other to a life that reflects our high values. Our values of being anti-racist. Our values of team-work. Our values of assuming best intentions and speaking honestly and directly when something isn’t working.
Staying at the table, assuming best intentions, apologizing, and trying again are not easy.
Because often the challenges we encounter in our day to day lives, including here, resonate with deeper challenges – older challenges. Painful times in our own lives from growing up or elsewhere that have led to blind spots or painful spots or that just dog us, one way or another. Trigger points.
In his book, “The Wise Heart,” meditation teacher Jack Kornfield writes of his journey to forgive his father. This man had been abusive to his mother, his siblings, and to Jack himself. He describes memories of his fathers anger, the terror he himself experienced as a child, and his feelings of impotence growing up. He doesn’t say exactly how this experience impacted him, but he does say that it was only after years of therapy and forgiveness practice that he was finally able to understand something about his own anger, depression, cynicism, and humor, and about those same characteristics in his brothers. It was only after years of practice, getting inside his father’s own painful story, allowing himself to feel, to weep, to rage about this man who’d had such a profound and difficult impact on his life. It was only after many years of facing these painful memories that he was finally able to begin to see his father in a new light, in his full humanity– and, one can imagine, finally able to see himself in a new light too.
His experience is unique but so many of us have something from our past that we know is still with us. That still hurts, somewhere. Something someone else did. Something we did. That still gets us. That keeps us from the full joy of living, from being our best selves, or maybe a little bit of both.
In the words of the poet we heard earlier, we bump into places in our lives, untended wounds, that send us down the wrong street. Creating problems, with people now. Limiting our ability to be who we want to be. What if we could hold those untended wounds to our chest? What if we could, one day, say, holy, holy?
That’s part of what this time is about, I think, reminding us that transformation is possible. And it is a practice. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it can happen.
So I invite us now, to practice.
You may already have, in your mind’s eye, something from your life that has come to the surface. Something you have done. Something someone has done to you. Something hard in a relationship with someone you love.
I offer you a meditation practice from Kornfield’s book. You can try it with me now, or we’ll also post it with the sermon on the website, so you can practice later if you want.
And if you are not a meditator, don’t worry, you don’t have to fake it, you can simply relax and listen to the words.
If you would like to try the meditation, begin by finding a comfortable position. Allow your eyes to close if you like. Let your body and your mind relax as you are able. Breathing gently into the area of your heart, let yourself feel the barriers you have erected and the emotions that you have carried because you have not forgiven – not forgiven yourself, not forgiven others. Let yourself feel the pain of keeping your heart closed. Then, breathing softly, begin asking and extending forgiveness, reciting the following words, letting the images and feelings that come up grow deeper as you repeat them.
If you are, in your mind, asking forgiveness of others, you might say:
There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my own pain, fear, and confusion.
See the pain you have caused. As you are able, feel your regret. Sense that you can finally release the burden and ask for forgiveness. Picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then to each person in your mind, you can say: I ask for your forgiveness. I ask for your forgiveness.
For those of you who tried that meditation exercise, I invite you to bring your attention back here with me now.
Often times, we need to forgive ourselves as much as we need to be forgiven by others. Often times we carry our own burden of guilt along with our regret. There is a similar practice you can do to forgive yourself. And there is yet one more that you can use to practice, in your mind’s eye, forgiving those who’ve hurt you.
All practices designed to untangle the roots of pains we don’t even always consciously recognize that we still carry.
But practices that can free us, nevertheless.
As we work with our minds and hearts it will become more clear where we do need to apologize to another, where we do need to change our ways, where we need to forgive or set a boundary or have a conversation, where, even if we’ve broken our vows a thousand times, we get to try again and yet again.
Here we are, in the middle of the Jewish days of Awe. In the middle of challenging times in our world. May we take inspiration from this holiday. May we find motivation. May we do less scapegoating, and more heart-opening. May we stay at the table, forgive each other, forgive ourselves, take action, and find that perhaps the destiny in our individual and collective book of life may just take a turn for the better.
Exercises from “The Wise Heart” by Jack Kornfield (https://jackkornfield.com/the-wise-heart-2/)
Asking forgiveness of others:
- Recite: There are many ways that I have hurt and harmed others, betrayed or abandoned them, caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of my own pain, fear, anger, and confusion.
- Let yourself remember and visualize the ways you have hurt others. See and feel the pain you have caused them out of your own fear and confusion. Feel your sorrow and regret. Sense that finally you can release the burden and ask for forgiveness. Picture each memory that still burdens your heart. And then to each person in our mind repeat: I ask for your forgiveness. I ask for your forgiveness.
Offering forgiveness to yourself:
- Recite: there are many ways that I have hurt and harmed myself. I have betrayed and abandoned myself many times through thought, word or deed, knowingly and unknowingly.
- Feel your own precious body and life. Let yourself see the ways you have hurt or harmed yourself. Picture them, remember them. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this and sense that you can release these burdens. Extend forgiveness for each of them, one by one.
- Repeat to yourself: for the ways I have hurt myself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain, and confusion, I now extend full and heartfelt forgiveness. I forgive myself. I forgive myself.
Offering forgiveness to others:
- Recite: there are many ways that I have been harmed by others, abused or abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed. Let yourself picture and remember these many ways.
- Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past and sense that you can release this burden of pain by extending forgiveness whenever your heart is ready. Now say to yourself: I now remember the many ways others have hurt or harmed me, wounded me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. To the extent that I am ready, I offer you forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness. I forgive you.
- Let yourself gently repeat these three directions for forgiveness until you feel a release in your heart. For some great pains you may not feel a release but only the burden and the anguish or anger you have held. Touch this softly. Be forgiving of yourself for not being ready to let go and move on. Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue the practice and let the words and images work gradually in their own way. In time you can make the forgiveness meditation a regular part of your life, letting go of the past and opening your heart to each new moment with a wise loving-kindness.