The End is Where You Start From, Part 1

A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

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Avinu malkeinu, avinu malkeinu,
avinu malkeinu, chaneinu v’a neinu,
Ki ein banu ma’a –asim.

Asei imanu, tzedakah va chessed
Asei imanu, tzedakah va chessed
Ve hoshi einu.

Avinu Malkeinu is a song with origins that are at least two thousand years old. The famous rabbi Akiva who died in the year 163 CE is recorded having used these verses to end a drought.  It’s one of the most famous and beautiful and yearning prayers in the Jewish tradition.  I especially loved singing it in synagogue, together with a congregation.  Somehow it’s always hard for me to bring this sung prayer to a close, I feel like it wants to go on and on or maybe that I want to go on and on with it.

And it does go on and on, it has gone on and on.  Literally since before recorded history Jewish people have dedicated themselves at this time of year to the introspection, confession, atonement and hopefully salvation that are the promise and hope of the Jewish high holidays.  Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, started us off, a few days ago and now we are into the Days of Awe, the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah, 10 days to do the work of these holy days, culminating in the gravity and completion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The days are opened, marked and closed with the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, that primal, wild sound like no other.

As R. Irving Greenberg points out, what sets the High Holy Days apart from all other Jewish holidays is not just that they are the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, they are also the only Jewish holidays that do not commemorate either liberation or catastrophe.  And they are the only holidays to focus on the individual and the meaning of an individual’s life.  I always think this is one of the reasons it’s especially easy to explore these holidays for lessons they hold to us as Unitarian Universalists, because we’re all about supporting the individual’s journey, and what we individuals learn from journeying together.

The high holidays start with a lot of hope and celebration, Rosh Hashanah, when we eat sweet things, gather with family, and wish each other a sweet new year.  Then the rubber hits the road and we move into the time of trial and I don’t mean tribulation kind of trial, despite how challenging the world and local events are every day.   I mean actual trial, Law and Order, Perry Mason, How to Get Away with Murder kind of trial.   The 10 Days of Awe are the time we have to get our case together, to do what we can to clear or absolve ourselves of wrongdoing so that when the trial begins – and we’ll only get a day, the one day, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, on that day of trial and judgment, the judge will be merciful.  Mercy is the best we can hope for because the humbling, ultimate truth is we’re all guilty.  The fact that we’re on trial becomes more and more sobering as we grow nearer to the final day when the judge and jury – and yes, for the purposes of these holy days, the judge and jury are the same thing, one decider, who hands down both verdict and sentence.

We’re now in that time of trial, the Days of Awe, 10 days, a long time, longer than some vacations, and yet nothing at all when we consider that Jewish tradition holds that its our very lives that are on the line, our right to take up space in the world for another year.

Unitarian Universalism doesn’t generally talk much about humbleness –  but a little humility – or a lot – is often a very good thing.  Enough humility to admit that good as we try to be, honest as we try to be, generous as we try to be, virtuous and just and open-minded and open-hearted and compassionate as we try to be, sometimes we let ourselves down.  And that’s not all, because inevitably in letting ourselves down, one way or another we let others down, near or far.  Of that, at the very least, of imperfection and lapses, we are guilty.  We may be guilty of bigger things as well.  Guilty of not just lapses, but of abuses.  Guilty of not just compassion fatigue, but of cruelty.   Guilty of not just selfishness but of closed-mindedness or bigotry or violence.  These things move in us and in our communities just like everywhere and everyone else;  we are not above them and we do not elude them.  What we can do, and what the high holidays say we must do, is contend with them, admit them, and atone for them.  Forgiveness is possible for any of us.  As our own Universalism affirms: none of us is too good for this world, and none of us is too damned for it.

Here’s the catch – in this system of understanding we don’t get to say whether we’re forgiven.  The only one who gets to forgive us is the one we’ve wronged.  If we can’t solicit forgiveness from them, things are not going to look good to the judge come Yom Kippur, also known as Judgment Day.

This seems a good moment to address the issue of the judge. What if we don’t believe in god, what happens to this complex forgiveness mechanism then?  Here is my answer:  because the model is one that places primary importance on forgiveness on this mortal plane, between the wrongdoer and the wronged, the forgiveness mechanism works regardless of our theology.  Whether we believe we are ultimately being judged by our own conscience, or providence, or god, still if we believe that ultimately we cannot absolve ourselves, that we must be absolved first by those we wrong, and that any capacity for that ultimate forgiveness – by god, or providence or simply the blessed relief of our own guilty conscience eased – depends on another’s forgiveness first, then the center can hold regardless of the theological context within which we apply it.

The first time I learned about this was in a short story called The Sunflower.  It’s a true story by Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who was once called to the bedside of a terminally wounded Nazi.  The Nazi told him an about an atrocity he helped commit, setting a houseful of Jews on fire and shooting any who tried to leave the burning building.  This terrible thing he did weighs terribly on the Nazi now, he is in torment over it.  He tells Simon Wiesenthal how sick he is in his soul over what he did, he owns his own responsibility, he makes no excuses, he says how he wishes he could pay for what he did, but now he has no way and no time to do that because he is dying.  So he asks Simon Wiesenthal, as a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, for forgiveness.  Mr. Wiesenthal tells him it’s not for him to forgive, to gain forgiveness he must seek it from those he wronged, and leaves the dying Nazi in his bed.

When I first read this story I was still a young girl and I thought the point of it was that living without even the hope of forgiveness is hell , and that what the Nazi did was so terrible that it was actually unforgiveable in Mr. Wiesenthal’s judgment so he left him in torment as a kind of punishment.  But later when I studied Jewish theology, I realized that Mr. Wiesenthal was actually just following what the faith holds as true.  It really wasn’t for him to offer forgiveness or absolution – he actually didn’t have the power to do so.  Only the one wronged can offer forgiveness and there’s no other way to gain it.  The wronged one may refuse forgiveness.  But because in the end what hangs in the balance, according to Jewish theology, is our very lives, there’s motivation on the part of everyone to take forgiveness seriously, to neither offer it, nor refuse to offer it, lightly.  Forgiveness must be real, and it is not an obligation of the one who has been wronged. Rather the obligation lies with the wrongdoer who needs to earn that forgiveness, not only with the earnestness of their request for forgiveness, but by readily offering atonement, unsolicited, to make up for what they’ve done.

Rarely are our own stories anything like so drastic.  During these 10 Days of Awe, every year, I talk to everyone in my family and apologize and offer atonement for anything I’ve said or done in the past year to hurt them.  This is a common high holy days tradition.  Some years I call around and it turns out I’m in good shape, no one names anything they’ve been holding onto, anything I did that I need to apologize and atone for.  But I can never be sure how these phone calls and conversations will go – sometimes I think I’ll probably be in the clear and then the conversation goes a different direction and I learn that something I forgot, or even something I was entirely unaware of, is lurking and staining the relationship between myself and someone I love.  That’s a nasty surprise every time.  I both look forward to, and dread, these conversations every year, and I’m always glad when they’re done, glad that they’re over, and glad that I’ve had them.  I’m so glad I’ve had them.  Especially if there was one I was dreading, to have gone through the cycle, to have cleared the connection between us, to know I am forgiven and right with my loved ones –  the feeling is not just good, it is refreshing, it is empowering, it gives me back something, some essence of life, of hope, of spirit, that gets a little eroded, or worn, or tired over the course of a year.  Suddenly everything old is new again, and I find myself living into the words of the 20th c. poet T. S. Eliot’s work Little Gidding –  “What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make and end is to make a beginning.  The end is where we start from.”

In the end, the judge, howsoever we understand the judge, looks for forgiveness in order to judge with mercy, and judgment tempered by mercy is the promise towards which this whole holiday cycle moves.  In that also, it fits well with Unitarian Universalism.  The arc of these ancient, sacred days is its own moral universe and it bends, as we love to say in the words originally coined by19th c. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and adopted by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.

It’s not for me to know whether your conscience is clear.  The high holy days tell us it’s not even for you to judge whether your conscience is clear.  Our conscience depends on the forgiveness of others, and any reprieve, any fresh start depends upon it.  If this sermon has spoken to you, you know what you need to do in this season of harvest. Gather forgiveness.  For all of us, wherever we dwell, the high holy days tell us that our lives depend at this time of year on that essential internal harvest.  Tzedakah ve chesed, the prayer song goes:  Righteousness and lovingkindness, those are what matter most, especially now.

May your harvest be rich and keep you until harvest time comes again.  The high holy days conclude with both a fast, emptying us out, and then a feast, filling us up.   We are alive, and we deserve life, and life deserves us at our best.  May the year before us be a good one.  L’shanah Tovah.  And may all be written into the book of life for another year.  Amen.


Opening Words:

Good Morning and Welcome to First Unitarian, welcome to this community of faith and care, and to this time we set aside for our hearts and minds and souls, for communion with each other and with the divine.  The holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, a time of engaged hope, passed a few days ago and we too are entering a new church year.  Our theme this month is welcome, and our exploration this morning is to look at what we might welcome, what becomes possible, when we clean our spiritual or psychic house, and make a fresh start by attending to our relationships and our consciences.  Jewish traditions at this time of year offer some simple and powerful ideas about how to do this that can hold relevance for any of us who care about forgiveness, atonement, justice and renewal, which I think is possibly a lot of us.

We begin with the Shofar, the ram’s horn, the wild ancient sound of its blare, has time out of mind called people to wake up and pay attention.  This morning we are called (SHOFAR) back to the eternal questions of who and how we are, who we must be and how we must live (SHOFAR), called back to awareness of the best that is in us, and what it requires of us (SHOFAR at some length).  This is the day we have been given;  may we make the very most of it, together.


Meditation – A Litany of Atonement

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference,

We forgive each other, we begin again in love.

For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible,

We forgive each other, we begin again in love.

For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause,

We forgive each other, we begin again in love.

For each time that our greed has binded us to the needs of others,

We forgive each other, we begin again in love.

For the selfishness that sets us apart and alone,

We forgive each other, we begin again in love.

For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit,

We forgive each other, we begin again in love.

For losing sight of our unity

We forgive each other, we begin again in love.

For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness,

We forgive each other, we begin again in love.

Closing Words:

Love means we take turns saving each other.  This is an ancient understanding, one none of us can afford to forget, one the world cannot afford for us to forget.  Does it feel a heavy burden?  It is lighter than guilt, lighter than despair, lighter than isolation, lighter than hopelessness, very light indeed when we consider what it would mean to give up our part of salvation and hope.  Salvation depends on us, and we hold each others’ futures in our hands as surely as we might hold a sheaf of wheat or an infant or a worn, beloved hand.  Let nothing distract us or deafen us to the call of what is right, of repentance and atonement and forgiveness, of the life and love without which we are empty.  May this be a year of fullness, of goodness, of love, for us all.  L’shanah tovah.  Blessed be.  (Shofar)