I usually like to cite deeper sources than self-help, but there’s some quality self-help out there. So – this is not an endorsement of a book I haven’t read, but it is an endorsement of a quote I stumbled up on recently. “You can’t go back and make a new start, but you can start right now and make a brand new ending.” [It comes from a book called How to Survive Rejection by James R. Sherman, page 45].
This idea – that we can’t make a new beginning because we can’t go back and rewrite the past, what’s done is done, and real, and impactful… but, what we can do is make a new ending to that beginning we wish we could change – that’s good stuff. “The rest is still unwritten,” as a favorite popular song goes, one we sang in church together almost exactly a year ago.
Tonight at sundown, Yom Kippur begins. The conclusion of the Jewish time of self-scrutiny, confession, offering atonement and seeking forgiveness for wrongs in order to be be “written into the book of life” as it is said, for another precious year. It’s really the ultimate “today is where your book begins” take on things. This is the time of year when Judaism models something for all the world, relationships deeply grounded in accountability, responsibility, forgiveness and renewal. I’ve spoken to you before about the Jewish theology of forgiveness that shapes this time of year. It’s not the traditional Christian take, which offers turning the other cheek, or indirect absolution through confession, or private acts of contrition, all of which put the burden of forgiveness on the person or people who have been wronged. It’s impressive sometimes, but it’s also kind of… unjust. Unfair. Even un-relational, in that nothing actually has to happen ever between the wrongdoer and the person who’s been wronged in order to make things right. Jewish theology pretty much takes things the exact opposite direction; the only way to get ourselves back in right relationship with everything and everyone is to do it directly. And if we want – and believe in – any kind of divine or larger forgiveness or redemption, that can’t happen until and unless we make things right with those we’ve wronged here on this mortal plane. We have to seek out those we care about, talk to them, ask if everything is good, and if it’s not, we have to offer atonement, ask what we can do to make it up to them, and ask for their forgiveness. If it doesn’t work the first time we can keep trying. But we can’t do it all indirectly and we can’t do it alone – two excellent lessons for living in general. We have to make the time and make the effort and reach out and connect, talk, ask for forgiveness, offer atonement. It can be a lot, and it can also be essential. Essential for our lives. Essential for our connections with those who are vital to us, vital, from the Latin “vita” meaning life, essential to those who are the essence of life for us.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Yeah, I get it, and that does sound like a totes-worthy thing but I am stressed. I am stressed and I’m weirdly tired, all the time, and I’m dealing with my kids, or I’m dealing with my parents, or my health, or my job, or my job search, and I haven’t stopped washing my groceries even though I know they say I don’t have to anymore, and I keep seeing people who won’t wear their mask properly, and I never know what to say to them, or not to say to them, and Breonna Taylor, and the election, and how can this keep happening, and everything is hard, and I cannot, can NOT take on one more thing. Now is not the time.”
So here’s the thing: Now, when everything is so hard and exhausting and stressful and weird is exactly the time. This time that is hard on us, on each of us, it is taking a toll on our souls. You know what I’m talking about. Used to be some days we could decide to get off the toll road, take a break, take the slow route, recharge. Nowadays it feels like even when we try to get off that toll road, take an exit ramp, and go a different way, somehow we end up back on the damned toll road of life again.
And it’s not just each of us, all of us. We know that feeling like this is taking a toll on our relationships. We are short with each other. Fighting more. Or silent more because we’re so tired. We are preoccupied with just getting things done. We aren’t laughing together as much. We are maybe crying together more – or maybe we need to, but we aren’t. Whatever it looks like, this time is hard on the love between us all. Even the most generous, loving love gets squeezed by the pressure of these days.
This makes it all the more important to find our way, still, to checking in with those we care about, with the relationships we care about, especially those relationships that are most challenged these days, and finding out if we’re okay, finding out what’s wrong, finding out what hurt or anger is doing its best to erode our loving connections, apologize for what we’ve done that has hurt or wronged another, offer to make it up to them in any way we can, and ask for their forgiveness.
Our society is into contemporary catchphrases about how strong love is. When I type “Love is stronger than…” into my web browser, heaps of options pop up immediately. Love is stronger than hate. Love is stronger than fear. Love is stronger than pride. Love is stronger than death. For the purposes of this particular sermon, at this particular holiday, it’s the last two that matter most.
Love is stronger than pride. You know, you know, it’s often your pride that keeps you from making up with people you care about when there is some toxic germ of hurt or anger poisoning things between you. Now to be clear I’m not talking about when someone we love abandons us because of who we are or what we believe, and I’m not talking about when someone we love or trust abuses us in some way. That kind of thing is unlove, and in its extreme forms it’s not the relationship that can be healed; it’s we ourselves who have to heal from the relationship. And remember the dynamic we’re using this morning – it is the person who has done wrong who bears the burden of reaching out, of apologizing, of atonement, and only then can they hope for forgiveness. So I’m talking about when we ourselves are the wrongdoer, not the wronged. And when we ourselves are blocked by an inability to be humble or to take the risk of reaching out, even when we don’t want to, despite feeling already worn down, to fix what is wrong. When love is flowing, nothing can come between us. When that fountain of love is blocked, by accident or intent, then everything is in question, then real damage can be done, then relationships can be undermined or killed forever. And the only thing that can save them, us, always, is love itself, letting it flow, digging it free from the dam of emotional rubble and detritus that we’ve piled up on top of it, and letting it run, in the fresh air and the sunshine and the freedom of an open space and a clear day.
Love is stronger than death. In his writing on Yom Kippur, R. Irving Greenberg reminds us, the Jewish high holidays are the only Jewish holidays that commemorate neither liberation nor catastrophe; rather, they focus on the meaning of our individual lives. And though so much of Judaism focuses on life: “Behold, I place before you today life and good, and death and evil… choose Life” (Deut 30:19), this holiday also conjures an intense awareness of death that echoes some of the feel of the season. As we move into fall and the burst of colors that are life’s last hurrah before winter, the high holy days echo that same fragility of life, the inevitability of death, life as a process of dying that requires deliberate commitment to renewal to offset the encroachments of age and hurts and disappointments and losses. As R. Greenberg says, this engagement harnesses death into a force for life. Annually, at least, this practice reminds all who attend it that it is an incredible gift that each of us is alive and that this gift is one we have to work for if we want to keep it.
The poem “Before” by 20th-century writer Yehuda Amichai is all about this – that we have a window every year to redeem and renew our lives, and that this opportunity is a precious one and one we can lose. We have so much we can do before – and so much to lose after.
Before the gate has been closed,
before the last question is posed
before I am transposed
Before the weeds fill the gardens
before there are no pardons
before the concrete hardens
Before all the flute-holes are covered
before things are locked in the cupboard
before the rules are discovered
Before the conclusion is planned
before God closes God’s hand,
before we have nowhere to stand.
The opportunity is precious and vulnerable, just as we are precious and vulnerable.
Whether we follow the Jewish practice that the time for our repenting and our renewing must be right now, I hope we believe that there is a time for our repenting and our renewing – and everything about this time tells us now would be good. We cannot take life for granted, not our lives, not the lives of others we are tied to. What has been and begun has happened, and we cannot undo any of it. But a brand new ending is possible, is always possible, for each of us, for all of us. Your new ending is possible. Our new ending is possible. Love and hurt are inextricably bound together in our living and our souls, as are love and justice. Because we love each other there is always work to do – the work of loving better, which includes owning the small or large ways we inevitably hurt each other or let each other down and what we can always do at least a little better going forward, even now. Going forward, everything about going forward, is easier if we own what we need to own and clear the way for love, the love we are so lucky to know, the love we still yearn for, the love others still yearn for from us, the new ending we wish for, with the kind of love that makes life blessed, the kind of living that is our blessing and our charge, the new endings we all have the power to create. Don’t wait. We don’t know what life will bring us. Live your love now. Love your life now. L’shanah tovah. May it be a good year, we pray. May we all be written into the book of life for another year. Amen.