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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, September 16, 2012

A Rosh Hashanah Meditation

Now is the time for turning.

The leaves are beginning to turn

from green to red and orange.

The birds are beginning to turn and

are heading once more toward the South.

The animals are beginning to

turn to storing their food for the winter.

For leaves, birds, and animals

turning comes instinctively.
But for us turning does not come so easily.

It takes and an act of will for us to make

a turn. It means breaking with old habits.

It means admitting that we have

been wrong; and this is never easy.

It means losing face; it means starting

all over again; and this is always painful.

It means saying: I am sorry.

It means recognizing that we have
the ability to change. These things

are hard to do.

But unless we turn, we will be trapped

forever in yesterday’s ways.

God, help us to turn - from callousness
to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness

to purpose, from envy to contentment, from

carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith.

Turn us around, O God, and bring us

back toward You. Revive our lives,

as at the beginning.

And turn us toward each other, God,

for in isolation there is no life.

—“On Turning” Rabbi Jack Riemer

By one of those strange confluences of events, this Friday I found myself at my house in the early afternoon, and turned on the television to catch a little news (a bad habit I have) exactly as a live broadcast began of the ceremonial transferring of the bodies of Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, and Ambassador Christopher Stevens from the aircraft that flew them from Libya to America. It was a solemn affair, with the president, vice-president, secretary of state and other officials all showing their respects. I found it strangely moving. For reasons too complex to unravel in these few minutes, I found myself, liberal, intellectual, internationalist, someone suspicious of and even hostile to nationalism, and with that a person who feels deeply uncomfortable with patriotic flourishes: me, me: I felt tears well up and run down my face.

I consider one of the more lovely coincidences for us as Unitarian Universalists, is how our traditional start up for our church New Year so closely coincides with the traditional celebration of the Jewish New Year. Tonight, in the second week of our congregation’s two hundred and ninety second year is also Rosh Hashanah, the celebration within the Jewish community of the creation of humanity. Following ten days of Awe, this season culminates with Yom Kippur, arguably the most important day of the Jewish year when people are called to consider their behaviors over the past year, and out of that to repent and to atone and thus renewed to begin again.

Taking that as an invitation to all of us, here we are, at a very interesting and rich moment in our shared lives. We are given an opportunity, to reflect on what has been going on, how we fit into it, what our individual actions mean, and for most of us, to do a little repenting, and perhaps, to recommit to our deeper aspirations, in the ancient religious language of the west, to atone. From here we can begin, again.

As I said last week, together with the Reverend John Crestwell, who coined the phrase, and an emerging majority among us, I am a first and seventh principle preacher. As individuals we are precious beyond naming. And our existence is completely, totally, woven out of each other and the stuff of the world. My ethics, my politics, my life is all founded upon this ground of respect, reverence for the beauty and uniqueness and preciousness of the individual, and that all individuals are totally interdependent, more than that, totally interpenetrating, one thing.

For me usually this means my life as an individual plays out against a background, sometimes conscious, sometimes just vaguely in the air, knowing that I am totally a part of the play of the world. No escape, and no need for escape. This sometimes knowing, sometimes half knowing, sometimes just memory and aspiration, cautions my choices, and, as happens, when I stray becomes a calling back to a path of harmony, respect, wholeness.

And I find myself thinking of these recent events on the world stage. My understanding is that in the chaos of the attack on the Libyan embassy, while very little is known with certainty, we’re not even sure whether there was a protesting mob, or this was an outright attack by insurgents, we do know it was Libyans who launched the rocket propelled grenades that killed the four men. And we know it was Libyans who broke into the smoldering ruins to save those who could be saved, who found the ambassador and carried him to the hospital. While it is going to be important for us in our culture to think about why it is that the populations in these countries can so easily ignite into violence over the slightest perceived insult to religious sensibilities, today I want to reflect more on the fact there were people there on the ground who put their bodies on the line heading headlong into the danger, not to harm, but to help.

And, in the same vein, there’s a fragment from the reports that haunts. Without naming which one, an eyewitness says the ambassador’s bodyguard died while rushing to the ambassador. I think about that. At least one of these four men died racing into the heart of violence, to help. Such acts, how can we call them anything, but of heroism seem nearly automatically to trigger my memories of those horrific moments on 9/11. Within all the complexity of what happened there and the terrible responses that have cascaded over the years, the part that I find I cannot seem to forget, that settles into my heart as something deeply important, maybe most important, is the memory of those policemen and firemen, men and women, running into the buildings.

One of the terrible truths I’ve learned in my life is that there are worse things than dying. There are worse things than dying. And that points to some things that are so important for us as we choose what we choose in our lives.

My spouse Jan gave a talk the other evening at our Zen group where she told us about the essay “A Season in Hell,” The writer Mark Dery’s account of his struggle with a horrific and rare cancer of the urethra. I’ve known Mark for many decades, ever since he was an adolescent who hung out at the large used bookstore I worked at in San Diego. He and I have crossed paths over the many years, and Jan and I both consider him a friend, if one of those friends you only directly connect with on odd alignments of the stars. Mark has gone on to become a prominent author and social critic, specializing in, as one review says, the “media, the visual landscape, fringe trends, and unpopular culture.” The boy I knew many years ago has become a very interesting man.

This essay is Mark laid bare, with all the wicked lightning fast wit, and a piercing eye that cannot miss any irony, which presents itself. And, in that essay he cuts to something very near the bone, showing himself in the most extreme of circumstances. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to look raw at our humanity. In the essay Mark wrote, “Recovering from major surgery, we’re helpless as newborns or nonagenarians, moved to tears by the kindness of strangers—or their casual cruelties. Some nurses are candidates for canonization; some missed their calling at Guantanamo. The night after my cancer surgery, I swam up to consciousness, in intensive care, woken by a woman screaming that her oxygen tubes had come loose, that she couldn’t breathe... She screamed and screamed, her voice rising to a ragged crescendo of terror. When no one came, other voices joined hers. A mass of punctures and pain, held together by sutures and butterfly stitches and Foley catheters, I added my hoarse yelp to the chorus of wails coming from nearby beds; every time I yelled, I felt something tearing inside. In the fullness of time, a nurse materialized and, with the dead-eyed unconcern of sleep deprivation and empathy burn-out, plugged the woman’s oxygen tubes into her nostrils.” I find it interesting and compelling that Mark quickly added, “Yet other nurses were ministering angels, changing my dressings and bringing me ice chips to suck on and tossing me throwaway kindnesses that, in the purgatorial grayness of a hospital day, felt like salvation.” What caught Jan in her talk, and what brings me to repeat it here is how in his worst situation, when that other patient was terrified and probably in genuine danger, and began her yelling for help, the other patients, including Mark, who could do nothing else, did what they could, they joined in her chorus of pain and fear and calling for help. Mark, even though he felt a tearing when he did it, yelled, too. He did something.

A critical point for us within liberal religion is how much we respect the reality of who we are. Our spirituality is embodied, this fleshy world is the world where we live, and where we find our meaning and purpose in life. And with that comes a hard truth, we are what we do. Our intentions are enormously important. But, only so far as they shape what we do. It is within our actions that we find who we are. We are meant to do something, even if that something is just to yell into the darkness for help, for help for ourselves, for help for some one else. As I consider this, and what I actually do, the discipline of our lives calls for me, calls for us to look clearly at what it is we do. In this season of new beginnings we’re being invited into that hard look, and from that, to something. The good news is that so long as I draw breath, as we draw breath, I, we have an opportunity in the next breath to change course, to renew, to do better, to join the chorus of pain and calling for help. The call, instead of running away, to run into the building, to the ambassador, to the workers in the Trade Center, to those who need us.

I love the word atonement. It speaks to the condition of being one with others. It is the work of our being individuals and being interrelated.

It is the call of knowing who we are as we are in all our shortcomings and possibilities.

It is a call to remember the family.

It is an invitation.

Of a healing that passes all understanding, but is who we truly are.

Welcome to the great work.

Once again.