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Sermons at First Parish Church

Prayer for Sept. 27, 2009 Yom Kippur

The words of the prayer are one of several of Rev. Mark Belletini’s interpretations of the Kol Nidrei prayer. Kol Nidre is the prayer that opens the first of several worship services and it means “All Vows.” And it refers to the retraction, the releasing of the congregation for all of their vows, not just the ones that have been made it the past year but even the ones that will be made in the year to come. It is a strange, concept that we would pray for God to release us from our vows before we have even made them though rabbis hasten to point out that the taking back of vows does not refer to vows made between individuals such as marriage vows but only to the vows that people make to themselves and to God.

Mark Belletini speculates that the practice of Kol Nidrei came out of the times when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity, particularly in Spain in the late middle ages and so this prayer was a way to undo those forced conversions, those false promises that were made but were not really vows of the heart. Mark Belletini’s version is more about the letting go, the setting down of the impossible burdens we carry without even knowing we do it.

Let’s set it all down, you and me.
The disappointments. Little and large. The frustrations.
Let’s open our fists and drop them.
The useless waiting.
The obsession with what we cannot have.
The focus on foolish things.
The pin-wheeling worry which wears us out.
The fretting.
Let’s throw them down.

The comparisons of ourselves with others.
The competition, as if Domination
was the best name we could give to God.
The cynical assumptions.
The unspoken, shelved anger.
Let’s toss them.

The inarticulate suspicions.
The self-doubt.
The pre-emptive self-(hatred).
The numbing bouts of self-pity.

Let’s sink them all like stones.
Like stones in the pool of this gift of silence.
Let’s drop them like hot rocks into the cool silence.
And when they’re gone, let’s lay back gently, and float,
float on the calm surface of the silence.
Let’s be supported in this still cradle
of the world, new-born, ready for anything.

Children’s Story: What if Nobody Forgave

The Story of Grudgeville by Barbara Marshman, adapted by Elea Kemler

In a land very far away from here, there lived a wise old man. He was wise because he had spent most of his life traveling from place to place and had met lots of people and thought a lot about why people do the things they do, which are sometimes silly and sometimes wonderful. One day the wise old man travelled to a small village on the side of a tall mountain where he had never been before. The first thing he noticed was that all the people in this village were carrying what seemed to be great big bundles on their backs, even the children. The bundles were of all different kinds — some had loads of sticks and logs on their backs, others had lumpy loads wrapped up in old blankets and tied on with rope and others had big backpacks that looked so heavy that they might be full of rocks. In fact all of the loads looked really heavy, so heavy that the people were bent over and couldn’t look around very well and could barely look up at all.

The old man was both surprised and confused. In all of his travels he had never seen anything like this. He watched and looked for a while but he couldn’t figure it out. and then stopped a boy who was walking near him, slowly mind you because of the big load of twigs and branches on his back, and asked the boy, Young man, my good fellow, I am a stranger to your village and I am fascinated by the huge bundles you all seem to carry on your backs. You never seem to put them down and you never seem to look up from them. What are these bundles and what are you doing with them? Oh said the boy, matter of factly, these are our grudges. We never put them down. (who knows what a grudge is?)

My, said the wise old man, that’s a lot of grudges to collect at your age! Oh, they’re all not all mine, the boy said. Most of them were handed down to me from my parents and grandparents and great grandparents and even further back than that.

The boy heaved a big sigh and tried to shift the bundle of branches to a more comfortable position so he could point to a man walking down the street who was carrying a big stack of bricks on his back and every time the man took a couple of steps down the road the bricks teetered around and one or two might fall off and the man had to stop and pick them up and start over. The boy said, See that man, with the bricks, a bunch of my grudges are against his family. His great great grandfather called my great great grandfather a horse thief when they both wanted to be elected mayor of this village. That was more than 100 years ago.

The wise man looked around again and shook his head sadly. You all look so unhappy. Have you ever tried to get rid of these grudges? We don’t know how, the boy said. My grandfather told me that when it first happened everyone was proud of their grudges. When the bundles appeared on people’s backs, visitors came from miles around because no one had ever seen anything like it before. But after just a little while, everyone was tired and miserable and bent over all the time from having to carry so much, so nobody came to visit anymore. But we don’t know how to stop it.

Well, said the wise man slowly. If you really want to get rid of the grudges, I think I know five magic words that will do the trick. You do? the boy said hopefully. I’ll go get the mayor! Wait right here! he yelled and staggered off as fast as he possibly could, which wasn’t very fast. Pretty soon the boy was back trying to pull the mayor along with him — the mayor by the way had what looked like a large chicken coop strapped to his back. They were followed by a crowd of villagers of all ages carrying grudges of all kinds. The mayor and the wise man whispered together for a few moments. Then the mayor with lots of help from the wise man, painfully climbed onto a large tree stump nearby, balancing the chicken coop so he wouldn’t fall over.

Good people of Grudgeville, the Mayor said. This old man says he knows magic words to help us get rid of our horrible grudges. Immediately the villagers started grumbling and muttering, we have already tried everything, dynamite didn’t even get them off, how could words do it.

Please, said the mayor, we are all so unhappy. Let’s just listen to what he has to say. As the people quieted down, the wise man joined the mayor on the tree stump. The wise man said, “the magic words are simple words but I have to warn you that people find them very hard to say. The trick to the magic is that you have to say the words to each other and you have to really mean them, even though it is hard. Here are the first two words. I’m Sorry. Can you say that? He asked the crowd. I’m sorry, the villagers said all together. That’s wonderful said the wise man, now say them to each other and slowly, quietly at first and then louder, everyone did. When they had all said I’m Sorry to each other the wise man told them, “Now the last three words might be even harder. The last three words are these : I forgive you. This time the villagers didn’t need to practice, they just turned to each other and began saying I forgive you, I forgive you to all the people around them. And would you believe it - as soon as the last villager finished saying the words I forgive you, the grudges disappeared just like that.

There was a moment of completely surprised silence, and then, people began standing up straight, and they started stretching, and they kept feeling their backs with their hands, just to check that nothing was there. They felt so light, so different. Then they began to look around, and some of them even looked up and total joy broke out then. The kids all started jumping up and down and racing around, just because they could and everyone was laughing and the adults were walking around hugging and looking into each others’ faces and saying things like, Is that you Jim, how good to see your face or Bella, how beautiful you are — I had completely forgotten and, everyone was pointing and saying things like Look at how tall those trees have grown and have you ever seen anything as beautiful as that sky.

There was dancing in the streets that night in Grudgeville and a huge fireworks show and everyone could look up to see them. It wasn’t long before the villagers changed the name of their town from Grudgeville to Joytown and the wise old man liked it there so much, he settled right down and stayed.

The end.

Go Lightly Toward Light: A Sermon for Yom Kippur

(Audio of this sermon)

Sunday, September 27, 2009
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Last week I read to you a poem called Heading Out by Philip Booth, a New England poet about walking through the woods and also about coming to trust that when we get to the limits of our maps, of our well laid plans and expectations, the way to find our way is to travel lightly. Booth writes in part:

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:

Last Sunday we reflected on Rosh Hashana and the Muslim holiday, Eed al Fitr, and what it might mean to answer the call to wake up, to pay attention to the spiritual dimension of our lives, to notice and taste and savor sweetness. This evening at sundown begins the holiest of the days of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, or the day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is a time for making amends, but also a time for restoration and renewal. In the Reform Jewish prayer book for the High Holidays, called The Gates of Repentance, these words are often read on the morning of Yom Kippur: as a reminder of our responsibilities as human beings and how we need to be called back to ourselves year after year.

In the beginning God created heaven and earth
And the earth brought forth life
And life gave birth to men and women
And we became conscious
Aware that we are free to create or destroy…
Here we stand, heirs of the past and makers of the future
Privileged but heavily burdened…
Can we reopen our eyes to wisdom?
Can we be or hope to be at one with all that is Holy
This day if any day can make us whole
Today we pray to gain a new heart and a new spirit.

The tradition is that the ten days leading up to Yom Kuppur are for setting things right with others. So hopefully people come to Yom Kippur serivces having done what they are able to make amends with others, to repair broken relationships, to extend forgiveness or the hope or the possibility of forgiveness, to say I am sorry or I want to understand what happened. So the day of Yom Kippur is a day for internal reckoning, for laying down the burden of failures and mistakes and regret and worry before the God of one’s own understanding and for claiming, not just the chance to start over, but the responsibility, the obligation to begin again.

Forgiveness is a hard topic for most of us human beings. This week I read holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower, in which he tells of his experience during the war years being on a prisoner work crew at a hospital when a nurse came to him saying she needed a Jew right away. She took Wiesenthal to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier who confessed to Wiesenthal all of the horrendous things he had done during the war and then begged Simon to forgive him on behalf of the Jewish people, so that they soldier could die in peace. Wiesenthal remained silent. He saif nothing in response, though he held the dying man’s hand and waved away the flies that were buzzing around the room. He stayed in the room despite his revulsion and fear, but he had no words of pardon to offer. Decades later, Wiesenthal still wondered if he had done the right thing by saying nothing. At the end of the story, he asks his readers, “What would you have done in my place?”

In the 20th anniversary edition of the book, Wiesenthal’s story is followed by a sort of written symposium on forgiveness, a collection of short essays by over 50 distinguished thinkers and theologians, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. All the essays are reflections on what it means to forgive and whether and how and under what circumstances forgiveness is possible. Can an individual ever offer forgiveness on behalf of someone else — most, though not all of the essayists seemed to think not. Susannah Heschel writes that in Judaism, where forgiveness requires both atonement and restitution, she believes murder can never be forgiven. This is so because though the murderer can atone, there can be no restitution. The victim cannot forgive and life cannot be restored.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes of his belief that human beings can never bestow true forgiveness on one another. We can atone for our mistakes and we can be willing to forgive another, but Kushner believes that forgiveness itself, the lifting of the weight, the sense of being freed from the burden, is a miracle that comes only from God. But others disagree and believe that forgiveness is a process we can choose to enter into and, in so doing choosing, the possibilities for change, for transformation, for restoration, not of the past, but of the future. This does not mean forgetting or minimizing the pain. In fact, many of the essayists spoke about the first step toward forgiveness being the process of remembering, of telling the whole story, and coming to understand fully the damage that has been done before anything else is possible.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who led the process of truth and reconciliation in his post-apartheid country, believes that “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. In the telling of stories like these there is real healing.”

“So, what would I have done?” writes Archbishop Tutu. “I answer by pointing to the fact that people who have been tortured, whose loved ones were abducted, killed and buried secretly, can testify to the (Truth and Reconciliation) Commission and say that they are ready to forgive the perpetrators. It is happening before our very eyes. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing,” says Tutu. “It is practical politics. Without forgiveness, there is no future.”

The Sunflower is a fascinating book, but a difficult one as well. So after finishing The Sunflower, I turned to another source of theology in my library called Children’s Letters to God to see what kind of questions kids were asking about forgiveness and whether their concerns were similar to the ones expressed by the theologians. Indeed, they were. One child was wondering about the limits of forgiveness. His letter to God went like this: Dear God: My Sunday School teacher says you always love me. Is that true? Even after what I did to Sara yesterday - or do you know about that?

Another child seemed concerned with the issue of revenge, writing: Dear God did you really mean do unto others as they do unto you? Because if you did, then I’m going to fix my brother. And finally two others raise the fascinating theological point of whether God ever needs to be forgiven. They imply that the answer to this is yes and they are gracious enough to extend their forgiveness to God, even though they are clearly disappointed. A child named Janet writes, Dear Mr. God I wish you would not make it so easy for people to come apart. I had 3 stitches and a shot. And my personal favorite the letter from a girl named Joyce: Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy. For Joyce, as for most of us, there is a sense that forgiveness may take some time.

In fact, to me one of the most moving and powerful aspects of the Yom Kippur is the ending, or rather the lack of ending because the service never formally ends. There is an intrinsic understanding, built into the service itself, that forgiveness takes time. At the end of the late afternoon service on the day of Yom Kippur, as daylight is fading and the sun is setting, the formal prayers are finished and then everyone just sits there in quiet until they are ready to stand and say the last prayer which in the reform tradition goes something like this

Lord of the World, I stand before you and before my neighbors- pardoning, forgiving, struggling to be open to all who have hurt and angered me. Be this hurt of body or soul, of honor or property, whether they were forced to hurt me or did so willingly, whether by accident or intent, whether by word or deed — I forgive them because we are human. May no one feel guilty on my account; I am ready to take upon myself the commandment, Love your neighbor as yourself.

And one by one people leave the sanctuary and go down to the fellowship hall or home to break their fast. But there is no benediction, to closing words because, in truth of course, we are never done with this work, we have never finished learning how to love our neighbors or how to love ourselves. We may not be ready or able this year, we may need more time, but that is simply part of being human. So the tradition has it that Yom Kippur spills over into the morning, and into all the days of the year that will follow.

For centuries at the Jewish New Year, Jews have walked from their synagogues to nearby streams, to cast bread crumbs or pebbles into the moving water as symbols for casting away the sorrows, misdeeds and regrets of the past year. This ritual is called tashlich or casting and comes from the Biblical passage in the book of Micah, “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” Casting breadcrumbs is a way to enact, to embody the idea of letting go, of putting down the unnecessary burdens we carry, sometimes without being fully aware that we carry them. But in truth we cannot throw our regrets or mistakes or grudges completely away. There is no such place as away. We don’t get to completely start over, we can’t go backwards in time and that isn’t what forgiveness means. I believe forgiveness is rather a letting go of the wish, the desire to go backwards in time. Forgiveness is coming to understand in a deep way that there is no going back — there is only going forward. So forgiveness is an acceptance of what has been in order to have a different future. Perhaps this sounds paradoxical in some way — but acceptance doesn’t mean condoning or saying never mind, it doesn’t matter. It all deeply matters. ButI believe a large part of forgiveness means coming to an internal peace about what has been, coming to understand that we have all been shaped and marked and molded by our histories, in ways both beautiful and painful.

Rev. Victoria Safford writes about the work of Yom Kippur in a way that I like very much. She asks us to think of it as the work of repair or restoration:

She writes, when I think about forgiveness, I think more about repair than absolute renewal. I think about mending relationships, not constructing them anew, not wiping slates clean as if the past and past actions never happened, but finding the courage to write new chapters, to carry the whole story forward, the whole truth, whole truths, since no two people tell the truth the same. This is harder than starting from scratch. To mend something so that it will hold, not only hold together, but hold its own integrity, is a difficult, delicate process, whether that thing is a relationship with someone, or a wounded spirit, or shattered faith, or a promise, a covenant made with a person or a community, and broken on purpose or by accident. The process of atonement… is the painstaking process of repair.

The Progressive Rabbi Arthur Waskow also believes that Yom Kippur is for repair, for the restoration of what has been, not for throwing things away. He encourages people to think about the ritual of tashlich as recasting instead of casting. He writes, “We cannot erase parts of ourselves or our histories and this would not be a spiritually sound practice. But we can be transformed. We can forgive and be forgiven. We do not have to define ourselves by our regrets.” (from Waskow, Redeeming Tashlikh, the Earth, & Our Misdeeds, column found at The Shalom Center website, 9/2/2003).

Today I invite you to do our own version of tashlich or recasting. Downstairs in the front entryway and on the table on the stage in the big room beneath us you will find either breadcrumbs and pebbles and bowls of water. As you leave the Meeting House or on your way into coffee hour I invite you to stop for a moment and cast a handful of crumbs or a pebble or two into the water. This afternoon, with the certain help of my children, I will take the water with crumbs and pebbles to the Nashua river and let it go.

Because life is not a children’s story, there are no magic words and our grudges and other burdens don’t instantly disappear. But maybe we can imagine our bread crumbs slowly dissolving; we can imagine them becoming food for fish or birds. Maybe we can imagine our pebbles sinking gently to the river bed and finding soft places to rest. Maybe we can imagine ourselves as a little freer, a little lighter, and with a little more compassion as we enter this new year. It is not easy. As the writer Anne Lamott ruefully says, “Everything I’ve let go of has claw marks on it.”

But Yom Kippur offers us its annual invitation to try again to unclench our fists and let go of at least a little bit of whatever we are holding onto so tightly — the stones of anger or fear, the heavy bread of guilt or jealousy or resentment .This is the time of year for opening our hands, so that we are a little bit more free to hold, to touch, to receive the gifts that come from letting go.




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Most recently updated 2009-09-30