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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Thoughts as the Service Begins

It isn’t love that makes the world go round but compassion — starting over in gentleness when love hasn’t been enough or other factors have failed: a gentle refusal to blame oneself or others and just begin again. (Rev. Nancy M. Shaffer, 1950–2012)

Because we are imperfect and love so deeply we will never have enough days. We need the gift of starting over, beginning again… (Nancy M. Shaffer)


Calling (Nancy M. Shaffer)

When you heard that voice and
Knew finally it called for you
And what it was saying — where
Were you? Were you in the shower,
Wet and soapy, or chopping cabbage
Late for dinner? Were you planting radish
Seeds or seeking one lost sock? Maybe
Wiping handprints off a window
Or coaxing words into a sentence.

Or coming upon a hyacinth or one last No.
Where were you when you heard that ancient
Voice, and did Yes get born right then
And did you weep? Had it called you since
Before you even were, and when you
Knew that, did your joy escape all holding?
Where were you when you heard that
Calling voice, and how, in the moment,
Did you mark it? How, ever after,
Are you changed?

Tell us, please, all you can about that voice.
Teach us how to listen, how to hear.
Teach us all you can of saying Yes.

Hearing the Call to Renewal

(Audio of this sermon)

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

A story about Tibetan Buddhist monks to start out this morning’s Unitarian Universalist sermon on the Jewish High Holy Days. This comes from Gregg Levoy’s book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. Levoy writes:

I had gone to see an exhibit called, “Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet,” during which a group of monks traveling with the Dalai Lama were creating a six-foot-wide circular mandala — a spiritual rendering of the cosmos — made of colored sand, ground from gemstones. For nearly a month, they worked silently, bent over the low platform that cradled the growing (mandala). They laid out their intricate geometry of devotion by hand, surrounded constantly by onlookers, who stood sometimes for hours, as I did, simply watching: our busy lives uncharacteristically forgotten.

In the Buddhist tradition of nonattachment, the monks intended from the very start to dismantle (their creation) after a few months on exhibit and to scatter its remains in the sea. All that work wasted, I thought to myself.

On the day before the final ritual celebrating its completion, just as the monks were putting the finishing touches on the mandala, a woman jumped over the velvet ropes, climbed onto the platform, and trampled it with her feet, screaming something (unintelligible).”

When I read about it, sitting in my kitchen, my head filled with images of frontier justice. But when I reached the end of the article, my rage turned into disbelief. In stark contrast to my own malevolent response, the monks’ was one of exoneration. “We don’t feel any negativity,” said one of them. “We don’t know how to judge her motivations. We are praying for her for love and compassion.”

Coming from a long line of avengers — people who have demanded eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth — I have always had a difficult time with forgiveness. I have hung on to certain betrayals all my life, refusing to let go of things I long ago lost forever.

But when I heard that the museum officials were considering pressing charges against the marauder, it seemed that to do so would be a dishonor to the monks’ gesture of absolution… I have since taken a critical look at my own reaction, at the awful instinctiveness of it, and at the alternative provided by the very (people) who should have been the most outraged but were not.

The monks reminded me that to forgive is indeed divine, but that ordinary people can do it… even a single act of amnesty has a kind of divine contagion. I took with me, permanently, a few grains of the wisdom and compassion that were demonstrated at that impermanent exhibit.

The story reminds me of what happened after the terrible shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC in June. After these senseless, meaningless, rage fueled killings of nine good people, people who had welcomed the young man who killed them into their church, invited him into their bible study, into their circle of warmth and connection because their doors were open to all, the families of those killed almost immediately offered forgiveness to that young man, saying they were praying for him, and that they viewed him with compassion and saw him as worthy of love despite the agony he had caused them, despite the beloved lives he had taken. This act of forgiveness was bewildering to many people. But one of the church members quoted in the press, LeVanza Breeland, who had grown up at AME Emmanuel explained it this way: She said simply “Forgiveness is something we’re taught from a young age.

The key is not to allow anger and hatred to rule your life, because that only hurts you.” Grains of wisdom and compassion offered from those who have learned that hatred and bitterness are most destructive to the person who harbors them and holds onto them.

The theologian Henri Nouwen said that forgiveness is love practiced among people who love poorly and the hard truth is that all people love poorly. But some people practice how to love less poorly and that practice changes them and it changes the world around them.

It is a good time of year to talk about practicing how to love less poorly. In the Jewish calendar we are in the new year. First came Rosh Hashanah last Monday and Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday evening. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. The tradition is that the ten days leading up to Yom Kippur, the time we are in right now, is the time for making amends, for setting things right with others. The hope is that people then come to Yom Kippur already having done what they are able to repair relationships, to extend forgiveness or the beginnings of forgiveness, to say I am sorry or I accept your apology or I want to understand better what happened. Yom Kippur is the day for internal reckoning after the work of trying to make things right with others has been done, in so far as it can be done this year. Yom Kippur is the day for trying to make things right with yourself and with the god of your own understanding. It is a day for deep reflection and humility and ultimately for letting go, for setting down some of the weight that we carry around with us, the burden of past failures and mistakes and regrets, the heaviness of resentments, angers and grudges toward others for events that has passed so that we can enter the new year with a sense of newness.

Forgiveness, both seeking it and offering it to others is one of the most difficult parts of being human. I remind you of this every year and I know some of you do not enjoy it. But there is a reason Yom Kippur comes around again and again. If it weren’t so easy to cause pain to others and so hard to seek and offer forgiveness, if it weren’t so easy to fall short of what is needed, to offer less than the compassion and patience and kindness and generosity that life asks of us, and if making things right was instantaneous and only had to be done once, then the High Holidays wouldn’t have to come around every single year. But forgiveness is a process, sometimes a very long one. So is understanding our own failings and coming to terms with them. Fortunately every year we get another chance to work on forgiveness and usually we need it. Every year there is the possibility that we will take another step and every year there is the invitation to change, not just to forgive and to be forgiven, but to be renewed, to become more whole, to come closer to being free. This whole process is called, in Hebrew, Tshuvah or turning.

Louis Newman who is a Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College and who studies and writes about Jewish ethics and theology had a wonderful conversation about Tshuvah with Krista Tippett this week on her radio program On Being. Professor Newman talked about the freedom of tshuvah, the refreshment and even the joy of it. He defined tshuvah as a kind of spiritual maturity, as a coming to terms with who we really are - owning our mistakes, seeing the ways we have fallen short, taking responsibility for the hurt and sorrow we have caused, intentional and unintentional, seeing ourselves clearly, fully, sometimes painfully without blaming others or circumstances or finding excuses or running away from it. But also, and also, tshuvah is turning toward acceptance and self-compassion. It is understanding that every human is capable of goodness, of change, of transformation, of redemption, including us. Newman said that there are three aspects of tshuvah. One is this turning - turning toward truth. Another aspect is returning, finding the way back, back to ourselves, back to integrity if that is what we feel we have lost, back to kindness if that is what we have lost, back to honesty, or compassion. We take responsibility, we try to find our way back, we return to ourselves. And the third part of tshuvah is responding, answering the call. In Newman’s understanding the god of the creation, which some of us call the spirit of life or the force of life is always calling us. The spirit of life is calling us to say yes, calling us to deeper love, to more vibrant life, to greater compassion and gratitude and generosity, which is what we study here, what we practice here, what we try to learn here together in this school for compassion, gratitude and generosity. This is one of the big questions I want us to ask ourselves this year - to what are we called, to whom are we called? How are we being called in our lives right now and how are going to answer?

For centuries at the Jewish New Year, people have walked from their synagogues to nearby streams or rivers or lakes or oceans to cast bread crumbs into the moving water as symbols for casting away the sorrows, mistakes and regrets of the past year. This ritual is called tashlich or casting and comes from the Biblical passage in the book of the prophet Micah, who declares that God will cast all their wrongdoings 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.

My friend and colleague Megan Lynes wrote a poem about the practice of tashlich, of throwing bread crumbs into the water at the new year:

Waiting Birds (Megan Lynes)

The sky is open
Shiny black possibility crouches
On every limb a morning bird awaits

Kneeling at the water’s edge
A handful of crumbs held high
The blunt backs of carp jostle and splash

Sadness blinks in the glare
The hollow of regret burrows in the reeds
Hungry fish fight to put their lips upon the bread
of blunder, brokenness, and blame

Pumpernickel falls from extended palm
Upturned mouths gape wide
Each crumb is a story released
What’s done is done, their swallow declares

Waters rest and the query comes
What must be lost to be free?

The sky is open
Shiny black possibility crouches
On every limb a morning bird awaits

Hungry fish fight to put their lips upon the bread of blunder, brokenness, and blame. Each crumb is a story released. What’s done is done. And so the questions come: What must be lost to be free? What do we need to leave aside? What can we cast upon the waters now? What can we feed to those metaphorical blunt backed carps? What in our lives needs to become fish food? What can we leave behind us? What will we put to rest this year?

We know of course that life is not a children’s story and the wind does not come and blow our hurts and grudges and resentments and failures miraculously away. There is no such place as away and we don’t get to start over; we cannot undo the past but that isn’t what forgiveness means. 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- but acceptance doesn’t mean condoning or saying never mind, it doesn’t matter. It all deeply matters. But 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. In forgiveness, seeking it offering it to ourselves and to others, comes the possibility of turning, of changing, of healing. When we forgive we stop being bound to our mistakes and to the worst hurts others have done to us and in this there is such hope, such freedom.

Today I invite you to do our own version of tashlich. Up front here you will see there is a bowl of breadcrumbs and water. You will see them outside all of the church doors too. So when you come up to light a silent candle or 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 into the water. You can do it as many times as you want to. This afternoon, with the help of at least one of my children I hope, I will take the water with crumbs to the Nashua River and let it go. We can imagine our bread crumbs slowly dissolving; imagine them becoming food for fish or birds. Maybe we can imagine them getting waterlogged and sinking gently to the river bed and finding soft places to rest. And then we can also imagine ourselves a little freer, a little softer, entering this new year with a little more compassion for ourselves and those around us.

It is not easy to forgive, to release, to stop holding onto things we lost long ago. 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 are hands are free, free to hold, to touch, to receive the gifts that come from letting go and so that we are free to follow that voice calling us, free to say yes to turning, to returning to ourselves, to renewal.


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

Created 2015-09-20