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Sermons at First Parish Church

Unpacking Your Heart

Sunday, October 1, 2006
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Reading – “At One”

by Victoria Safford, minister, White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Excerpted from “At One” in the meditation manual Walking Toward Morning, published by Skinner House books in 2003, and available from the CLF Library

Imagine this.

On the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, every fall, every year, the people make their peace with anyone they have wronged or slighted or injured or in any way neglected in the past twelve months. The task is not to patch things up, smooth things over, reach a compromise, or sweep mistakes and uneasy memories under the rug; the task is not to feel better. The task is ownership. The goal is truth, for its own redemptive sake. I did this. I said this to you, and it was wrong. I neglected this. I botched this. I betrayed you thusly.

I demeaned you, whether you ever knew it or not. This is the truth in which both of us are living. I ask you to forgive me.

Imagine how many deep breaths you would need to take. Imagine how many doors you’d have to knock on, how many phone calls you’d have to make, how many letters, how many lunches and coffees, how many awkward moments with your children and your parents, and with strangers (that cashier to whom you spoke so sharply). Awkward is irrelevant. The task is not about comfort, it is about truth, about wholeness and holiness. Restoration.

Imagine this.

Someone has been preparing all year to speak with you, to write to you, to ask you a hard question. Perhaps in some way not quite conscious, you have even known this and you have been preparing too. Finally, you answer the door or the phone or open the letter with shaky hands, and there it is, what you thought you’d been longing for but really have dreaded. Someone is asking for your forgiveness. The task is not about comfort; it is about truth. Awkward is irrelevant. You get to choose now, you have to choose whether and how you will participate in restoration. Abandon the pleasant piety that claims knee-jerk forgiveness as the unquestioned moral course. You get to choose which way will be right in this case, between you as persons and with all your gods. What response will make the world more whole?

Imagine. Something yearns in us to come round right. (Like in that old shaker song tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, to turn, turn will be our delight, til by turning, turning we come round right.) Something creaky, rusty, heavy, almost calcified within us tries – in spite of us and all of our fears and self-deceptions – to turn and turn and creak and turn again and come round a little truer.

Imagine healing, wholly, from within.

The poet Derek Wolcott has a poem called Love After Love which is about welcoming our own selves; it is a poem about welcoming all of who we are, and treating all of ourselves, our whole lives, our histories and mistakes and pains and stories, as if they were beloved guests. Wolcott talks about learning to love ourselves with this radical, gentle hospitality, this radical acceptance. He talks about learning to love ourselves as if someone you just adore, someone you are so delighted, by has shown up at your front door after a long wait. His poem goes like this:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

This is a time of year for reckoning with our true hungers, our deepest hungers. This is the time of year when two of the world’s religions bid us to feast on things other than food. Today is the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish religious year. Last week, when that beautiful sliver of a new crescent moon appeared in the sky, the month of Ramadan began in the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is also considered the holiest time of Muslim religious year. Both religions mark this sacred time through fasting, through abstaining from food and drink, in order to concentrate on other things.

Ramadan honors the month in which the Koran, the holy scripture of Islam, was revealed to the prophet Mohammad in the year 610 Common Era. It was then that the 39 year old, Mohammed began to receive the series of revelations that form the text of the Koran, which Muslims believe to be God’s greatest gift to humankind. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam; it is one of the essential aspects of the faith. The other pillars are the Shahada, the declaration that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet, praying five times a day, giving charity to the poor, and making the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca. But even though fasting is one of the pillars of Islam, there is both compassion and common sense in the directives about who should fast. Children do not fast, nor do the very elderly or anyone else who might be harmed by it. Pregnant and nursing mothers are excused as are people who are traveling away from home. And anyone who breaks the fast can make it up during the year if they have to by fasting extra days and by feeding the poor.

During the days of this holy month, Muslims who are physically able, fast during daylight hours, abstaining from all eating, and drinking from dawn to dusk. According to the Koran: One may eat and drink at any time during the night until you can plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight: then keep the fast until night. The Koran directs the faithful to fast during Ramadan in order to exalt the greatness of Allah… that you may give thanks. Commentaries on the Koran call Muslims to use the Ramadan fast as an opportunity for both spiritual consciousness and social responsibility. The purposes of fasting are several, to acquire self-control, to become more aware of the suffering of the poor, the suffering of those who are hungry not by choice, to share a sense of community with all other Muslims who are fasting, and most importantly, to grow in what Islamic scholars call “God consciousness,” or awareness of God.

The reasons for fasting during Yom Kippur are essentially the same. Like Ramadan, Yom Kippur is a time of seriousness and joy. It is a time for atonement, 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: They are a reminder of our responsibilities as human beings and also a reminder of 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 days leading up to Yom Kippur are for setting things right with others. Then, on Yom Kippur eve, when the holiday begins, the religious service includes these words:

O God, 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 by deed –
I forgive them because we are all human.
May no one feel guilty on my account.
I am ready to take on myself the commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself.

So hopefully people arrive at the day of Yom Kippur having done what they are able to do, to reach out, to make repair to broken relationships, to extend forgiveness or the hope of forgiveness, to say those difficult words, “I am sorry” or “I want to understand what happened.” The day of Yom Kippur is a day for internal reckoning, for laying down the burden of failures and mistakes before the God of one’s own understanding and for claiming, not just the chance to start over, but the right that we have as humans, as well as the obligation to start over.

Tshuvah, which means to turn around or to return, is the theme of the Jewish high holy days. But turning is not just a Jewish theme. It is a universal human need, this chance to turn, to begin again. When something happens that my son doesn’t like, like his banana breaks into two pieces, or I help him out of his car seat when he wants to do it completely by himself, Caleb has started yelling, “I want to go back to the beginning!” It is so hard for him to understand that he can’t – that time doesn’t work that way. It is hard for him to understand that we can do some things over and try to get them right, like getting out of the car seat over again, if his mother has enough time and patience, but some things, like the banana, are unfixable, though I confess I have tried. This is such a human yearning, to go back, to do it over and get it just right. And of course we cannot, which is why we need Tshuvah, a time for turning.

It is a holy time, this turning of the year,
A faint chill starts to hover in the air

You think about unpacking your sweaters.
A few leaves change from green to yellow,

And drop gently to earth.

A holy presence hovers in the air…
And you are asked to unpack your very heart,

To turn with the turning of the year,
To drop humbly and gently to earth
And praise the Source of Life,
The breath that gives you breath.

You are asked to unpack your very heart, to turn with the turning of the year. What could this mean for us? Often Tshuvah has been translated as repentance but I don’t understand it quite that way. I think Tshuvah is about becoming a little more whole; I think of this time as chance to heal something that needs healing, to do a little annual mending, both of relationships but also of less visible things, the mending of things within ourselves. Tshuvah, I believe, is about that radical hospitality, that radical kindness and self-acceptance that Derrick Wolcott means when he says, You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow the progressive activist Rabbi who is one of my new heroes wrote in an email letter last week:

For centuries on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Jews have walked from their synagogues to nearby streams, to cast bread crumbs into the water as symbols for their sins. The people have persisted in this ceremony – called “Tashlich,” “Casting,” even though many rabbis have opposed the ritual as too magical. Perhaps the real magic has come from moving from the confined, wordy environment of the synagogue to the fresh air and swirling water of the outdoor stream.

Ellen Bernstein (Waskow’s wife and one of the pioneers of the environmental Jewish movment) believes that throwing anything into the river, even breadcrumbs, isn’t the right ritual. She believes that whatever we cast away can do harm downstream – because there is no “away.” Even if the crumbs are few or seemingly harmless, throwing them into the river conditions us not to care about what we are doing. In recognition of this teaching, Waskow has encouraged congregants to throw nearby pebbles into the stream instead. He also encourages people to think of recasting their mistakes and regrets, not casting them away. He writes:

For in our social and spiritual worlds just as in our biological planet, there is no “away.”

We don’t go back to the beginning. 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.

In both Judaism and Islam, this time of year is about owning ourselves, facing ourselves, loving ourselves, broken and whole, incomplete and striving. In the utter complexity and fullness of who we are and all that we are. And the paradox, the joyful irony is that acceptance is so often the first step to change. Again, my son teaches me this lesson. He was carrying around a little hot pink purse the other day which he had borrowed from his sister and last week we pulled out the box of dress up clothes to see if there was anything suitable for the high holy day of trick or treating that is coming up soon. Caleb immediately wanted to try on a yellow and black striped bumblebee ballerina tutu. At three years old, Caleb has not yet learned what will be expected of him as a boy in this world. He does not yet know that pink purses and tutus of any kind, whether bumblebee striped or not, are considered unacceptable for boys in our culture, even when they are still little more than babies. I don’t know if he will still want these things when he does figure out he isn’t supposed to want them. But right now he is innocent.

Watching him with the pink purse reminded me of another little boy I babysat while in college. He was older than my son, 6 or 7 years old at that time, and he did know that he wasn’t supposed to love Barbie dolls and tutus and a pink plastic pony with long purple hair called My Pretty Pony. But he did love these things and his parents supported him in his loves. I remember the first time I came to babysit, his mother simply said, “He is very in touch with his feminine side. We are just fine with that and we hope you will be too.” This boy was so full of himself, and I mean that in the best possible way. He was so full of joy and delight and so comfortable in his own being. At the time, I was still engaged in the young adult struggle to love and accept myself, and still too dependent on the acceptance and approval of others in that struggle and, while I certainly agreed with his parents in theory, I distinctly remember thinking Yikes, somewhere in the back of my mind. I wasn’t quite comfortable with their radical comfort, their radical acceptance that their child was who he was and loved what he loved. And I wonder how many of us still struggle to love what we love. I wonder how many of us still struggle to come out of our own closets, whatever they may be, and to stand in the light. I wonder how many of us were told we should be ashamed and how many of us still are.

Rebecca Parker writes these words:

The world is blessed by people who let their honest faces show,
Who take off all the masks that hide the soul…
Those who do so witness that it is possible for human beings to be present to one another in truth.
This possibility is often avoided or denied by acts of censure, silencing and violence.
Those who insist on presence are faithful to an imperative deep within themselves they have chosen to affirm regardless of the cost.
Their action resists violence with authenticity, and denial with affirmation.
Those who choose to be present bless the human community by calling forth the presence of others.
They are faithful to the possibility that always exists among people that instead of denial and violence, we will meet one another in love,
eye to eye and soul to soul.

Rebecca Parker wishes for all of us, as do I, the strength to engage in the inner struggle to know, love and be faithful to ourselves and to wrestle with the forces within us and around us that would have us deny or fragment ourselves.

She writes,

May love work within each of us
Making us restless with anything that violates or silences human presence.
May love disturb and disrupt us
Whenever we have exiled our own authentic selves or excised the presence of others.
May love have its way with us
Until our desire is satisfied
In the simplicity and power of being with one another
As ourselves
In truth
Beyond fear.

It is the time to give back your heart to itself. It is the time to love again the stranger who is yourself. It is the time for turning.


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