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Sermons at First Parish Church


Rosh Hashanah Prayer — These words are adapted from Joanne Greenberg for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, by Victoria Safford and Elea Kemler:

In heaven and on earth
In a clap of thunder, in a whisper of the soul,
In praise on yellowed parchment in an ancient tongue,
In yearning of the heart, in a child not yet born,
Blessed be (this) life.
Taste of tears and wine, sight of starry skies,
Old men’s voices…, children singing,
Scientists asking, artists proclaiming,
Blessed be (this) life.
All the web of creation shining in bright sunlight.
The dew that has gathered in darkness
Transfixes the light of day.
Blessed be (this) life.
May we be granted self-knowledge,
each of us and all together.
May we be granted a hunger for peace.
Grant us another year in the Book of Life,
with its peril, its injustice,
and the good daylight.
Blessed be (this) life.

Dawn By Dawn: Seeing Our Way Clear

(Audio of this sermon)

Sunday, September 20, 2009
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

The poet Philip Booth, who died in 2007, was born in New Hampshire and lived for years in Castine Maine in the house where five generations of his mother’s family had also lived. Many of his poems contain images rooted in the landscape and day to day experience of life in New England, familiar images such as tending to wood stoves, repairing old houses, and walking on paths through woods and stone-walled fields. His poem Heading Out is about walking where there is no map. It is also about transformation and about finding a new way to live. Philip Booth writes:

Beyond here, there’s no map.
How you get there is where you’ll arrive;
how, dawn by dawn, you can see your way clear:
in ponds, sky, just as woods you walk through give to fields. And rivers:
beyond all burning, you’ll cross on bridges you’ve long lugged with you.
Whatever your route, go lightly, toward light.
Once you give away all save necessity, all’s mostly well:
what you used to believe you owned is nothing,
nothing beside how you’ve come to feel.
You’ve no need now to give in or give out:
the way you’re going your body seems willing.
Slowly as it may otherwise tell you, whatever
it comes to you’re bound to know.

Philip Booth reminds us, assures us that dawn by dawn we will begin to see our way clear. Densely wooded trails will open up into a sunlit fields if we are willing to leave behind all that we don’t need, if we are willing to travel lightly toward light. When we travel this way, he says, our bodies will be willing. We will feel the rightness of the way we are going, and wherever we end up, we will recognize that place as our own place, we will know it as familiar, even though it might be somewhere quite different from what we expected or imagined.

This is an interesting and powerful season in religious time. We are on the very cusp of the autumn equinox which comes on Tuesday. Rosh Hashanah, the new year in the Jewish calendar began on Friday evening and ends tonight at sundown. As many of you know, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the holiest time in the Jewish year, the time known as the Days of Awe. According to old tradition, on Rosh Hashanah God opens the Book of Life and the Book of Death. The names of the few who are completely righteous are immediately written in the Book of Life and they are granted another year. Likewise, the few who are completely wicked are immediately inscribed in the Book of Death. The fate of the rest of us is suspended, and hangs in the balance until the end of Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. So according to tradition, our very lives in the year ahead, depend upon God’s compassion, as well as upon our own heartfelt efforts to make amends to those we have wronged and to show compassion to those who have asked us to forgive them. While I think it is extremely rare for people to take the books of life and death literally, for observant Jews this is a deeply reflective time of year. It is a time for looking inward, for mending relationships where it is possible to do so, for seeking a sense of inner peace about the year that has just passed and a sense of resolution and hope toward the year to come.

In addition to autumn equinox and Rosh Hashanah, today is the festival of Eid al Fitr (Eeed al fitter) in the Muslim religious year. Eid al Fitr is the celebration marking the end of the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the holiest time of the year in the Muslim calendar and like the Days of Awe, Ramadan is a time of introspection, a time for dwelling on matters of the spirit. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day light hours in order to cultivate mindfulness and gratitude. In both traditions, this is a season when people reckon with their lives and deeply consider the path they have been walking. Eid means celebration, but Fitr means to break. Today’s festival symbolizes not just the break from the month of fasting but a break from past ways of being and the beginning of something new.

During both the Days of Awe and Ramadan, there is a sense that ordinary time is somehow suspended and changed into a time of heightened spirituality, a time for restoring a sense of balance to our lives, a time for repairing relationships - with ourselves, with others and with the God of our own understanding. To me both of these traditions speak to a deep human longing, a longing that is shared by all people: the longing for renewal, for restoration and for healing. In Hebrew this is called tshuvah, or turning.

The traditional understanding of tshuvah is a turning back or a return to the Godly path, the path of righteousness. But to me this understanding implies that the Godly or righteous path is apparent and easy to find and the hard part is staying on the path. I don’t think that is how it is for many of us. There are perhaps some ways we humans can get lost, in deception or cruelty maybe — when the path back to ourselves, back to rightness is clear to us, though it may be extremely painful and seem difficult to the point of impossible to begin to walk it. But much of the time, the right paths are not clearly marked. The trails are often confusing and the questions of direction are subtle — questions such as What does it mean to live with integrity? What does it mean with authenticity? Does the work I do contribute something that is good or useful to the world? And if it doesn’t, what should I do? What is the right amount to give? What does a good life look like, feel like? What are the risks worth taking? What does it mean to turn? How do we turn?

Every year we are invited to wrestle with this question of turning, returning to the right path. This year it seems to me that the call to reflection and redemption, the call to turning that is issued during both Ramadan and the Days of Awe, is a call to wake up, to become more fully awake to the spiritual dimension of our lives.

As many of you know, the Shofar or ram’s horn is blown during services on Rosh Hashanah, traditionally 100 times on each of the two days of the holiday. Rabbis have come up with many different explanations for why this is done. Some believe it is a reminder of the story of the Israelites blowing trumpets when they surrounded the walled city of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down. Others believe it is a symbol of the ram which stood in for Isaac in that difficult and troubling story from the book of Genesis which is always read on Rosh Hashanah. This is the story about when Abraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac supposedly to fulfill God’s commandment and God spared Isaac at the last moment by telling Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. The interpretation of the Jewish philosopher Mamonides is my favorite. He believed the purpose of the strange, eerie and quite loud noise of the shofar during Rosh Hashanah services was to wake people up and keep them awake, both literally, as the synagogue services are long, but also spiritually.

He believed the purpose of the shofar is to startle us awake from our inner sleep; to remind us to pay attention to our lives. Rosh Hashanah is about the newness of the year but intrinsic to the call to renewal is the reminder of death. None of us knows how much time we have left — life is precious — don’t go back to sleep.

In his book about healing from addictions, called Recovery: the Sacred Art, Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes about the repair of the world as depending upon each person waking up to the truth of who we truly are. He writes:

The goal of human life, our ancestors said, is Tikkun Olam, the repairing of our seemingly fragmented world. Fragmentation arises when we fail to recognize ourselves as unique but transient expressions of God. In our mad struggle for separateness, permanence, and eternal life, we imagine ourselves to be free from the rest of rhythms of the universe and spend the rest of our lives frantically shoring up this illusion in the face of a totally indifferent reality. It is as if we were given the task of filling a bucket with sea water only to discover that the bucket’s bottom is poked through with holes. If we run swiftly enough we can maintain the illusion of a filling bucket by pouring water in at the top faster than it is running out the bottom.

But should we rest even a moment, the illusion is shattered and our labors are in vain. So we don’t rest, straining ourselves to the limit in a mad struggle to turn the Universe inside out. It can’t be done, but we die trying, heroes in a drama no one understands. Yet we’ve really been dead all along: maintaining a lie at the expense of living the truth. Tikkun in the restoration of truth, of Unity; the reclamation of shalom, Peace. Tikkun is the Wave awakening to the Ocean, the Piece awakening to the Puzzle, the Part awakening to the Whole and (to) Holiness. (From Chapter two, “Restoration.”)

I love these images: the wave awakening to the ocean, the piece of the puzzle awakening to the whole picture, the part awakening to the whole and to holiness. We participate in renewal, in the repair and healing of both ourselves and the world when we wake up to the largeness of life and to its sacredness, when we wake up to the mystery that upholds and underlies even our most ordinary days whether or not we are aware of it. And how do we wake up? By putting down the proverbial bucket full of holes and paying attention. Our Unitarian forebear Henry David Thoreau said much the same thing when he wrote, only that day dawns to which we are awake. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. (the concluding lines of Walden). If we sleep through life we miss the breaking of morning and that is something we don’t want to miss.

In Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese I believe she is writing about her own writes about her understanding of atonement, of tshuvah or turning, though she does not use those words. For Mary Oliver atonement does not involve unnecessary suffering. Like for Rami Shapiro, redemption for Mary Oliver is about understanding our place in the great whole. She writes,

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The world calls to you like the wild geese, like the sounding of the shofar saying wake up! Wake up to your own belonging in the in family of things. Wake up to the preciousness of this moment which will never come again. Wake up to life,

with its peril and its injustice, but also its beautiful daylight and all of its blessings. The reminders are everywhere.

One such reminder for me was a walk I took with my children one evening this summer. I spent a lot of time with my two young children this summer and those of you who know me know that this is both my joy and my challenge, not being gifted with the patience for parenthood that I had hoped I would have. So one night this summer, at the end of a long day, we were taking a little post dinner how do we fill that last hour before it is time to get ready for bed walk. We walked down Pleasant Street on our usual little loop and, lo and behold, Ellen Todd and John Jackson were on their porch. We went up the steps to their front yard to say hello. Ellen and my daughter share a love of gardening. Well, Ellen loves gardening and my daughter loves the results of gardening. But what my daughter loves most of all, with my son right behind her, is fruit, all kinds of fruit and especially strawberries. So as we stood in Ellen and John’s front yard at the end of our long, ragged day, Ellen and John told us to look down. And there on their lawn, there in their lawn, because it was their lawn, was patch after patch of tiny, ripe, wild strawberries. My children fell to their knees, picking and eating. It was Isabel’s wildest dream come true. But really, it was beyond her wildest dream come true because the ground covered in fruit, the ground made of fruit, was not something she could have even imagined. At one point she looked up at us and said, “Mama this is heaven!”

Now the theology of the fact that my daughter seems to believe in a literal heaven is perhaps an issue for another day. But for that day, and still and I remember it, it was enough, far more than enough, to stand in the face of that sheer unbridled delight. It was like the woods opening up into a sunlit field. It was a moment of being wide awake, called awake to fleeting, precious wild strawberry sweetness.

Sweetness matters at this time of year. It is the custom at Rosh Hashanah to eat apples dipped in honey. As we enter this new year, let’s taste sweetness together. At the sanctuary exits as you leave today, the ushers have plates of apples and honey. I invite you to take and eat a piece and with it, a blessing for sweetness in the year to come Shana Tova, a happy and sweet new year.


3 Powderhouse Road … Groton, MA 01450-4700 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Most recently updated 2009-09-20