Saturday, September 25, 2010

Getting Right (September 19, 2010)

These past 10 days Jewish people around the world have been celebrating the Days of Awe- the period from Rosh Hashana (the new year) to Yom Kippur (The day of Atonement) During this time observant Jews are engaged in a process of worship, fasting, prayer, and tzedakah (performing righteous deeds and giving money to charitable causes). It is also a custom, as Paul mentioned last week, to ask forgiveness form anyone you have wronged. The great Maimonides said that when we hear the sound of the shofar during this time of year it’s call says, “Awake, you sleepers, from your slumber…examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator.”

The focus of all these customs is the process of teshuvah, or repentance, whereby a Jew persons recognize their sins, asks for forgiveness, and resolves not to repeat their errors. This is not something one is expected to do in a single hour of worship, it is, in some traditions, a 40 day process culmination on Yom Kippur, which is a day devoted entirely to fasting and repentance.

We Unitarian Universalists do not have a ritual of our own for atonement, and I think this is sometimes problematic for us. We tend to question authority, and generally we feel a little uncomfortable with the idea that we need to ask God for forgiveness. But I think we kind of throw out the baby with the bathwater here, because surely none of us believe we have never done anything that needs to be forgiven. So this is a crucial question for us- a practical question not a hypothetical one, how do we ask for and receive forgiveness if we are atheist or agnostic, or just have one of those theological constricts of the divine that are more egalitarian? I recognized that same question in the song by the great country singer Lucinda Williams:

I would burn the soles of my feet
Burn the palms of both my hands
If I could learn and be complete
If I could walk righteously again

'Cause I want to get right with God
Yes, you know you got to get right with God
I think this is a basic human yearning regardless of our spiritual tradition or theology. Whether or not we believe in God, how do we get right?

So I turn to our Jewish neighbors, as one of the sources of our own tradition: “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves” and “Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;” I turn to this tradition to see what wisdom they can offer our yearning to get right. I see a lot of wisdom in the ritual and tradition of the days of atonement, because I have found in my own life that setting aside time for intentional reflection, and engaging in ritual acts have the power to transform our hearts, and maybe the power to help us “get right” with ourselves and with the community of beings of which we are a part.

One tradition in particular is very moving to me. It is the tradition of Tashlikh which in the Hebrew means "casting off" and has been practiced since the 13th century. It is usually performed on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but we are not too late this year, because it can be said up until Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or this year September 29 on the solar calendar. In this ritual people throw pieces of bred into a body of flowing water to “cast off” all their sins from the previous year. The name "Tashlikh" and the practice itself are derived from the Biblical passage (Micah 7:18-20) recited at the ceremony: "You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea."

18 [God] does not retain his anger for ever,
because he delights in showing clemency.
19 He will again have compassion upon us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our* sins
into the depths of the sea.

Now I know I have to stop here and talk about the word sin. [I know, it’s the first sermon of the year and already I’ve mentioned God and Sin] As far as I’m concerned sin is just a really old fashioned word for any of those things that I’ve done that I regret, that I feel I need to seek forgiveness for, anything that keeps me from being right with myself or with the community of all beings. But I know a lot of people, probably some of the folks in this room, were really wounded by the word sin. Over the centuries it has been used like a weapon to make people feel judged, unworthy, cut off from God if they believe in God, and cut off from other people. I’m pretty sure doing science was considered a sin at some point, so was playing cards, or using birth control. So if you don’t want to use the word “sin” I don’t blame you. Unitarian Universalists believe that no persons is inherently sinful. We’re just human. Even if we try hard to create a world of justice and compassion, at some point we are going to do something that falls short of the person we want to be.

So instead of “sin” we might say “imperfections” I bet every one here could come up with a quick list of those things. I’ll tell you a couple of mine- I still eat conventionally farmed meat sometimes even though I know it’s not ethically produced. I didn’t vote in the primaries. I was more than half an hour late for the Shale Network meeting because I didn’t heed the detour signs. Everyone has this list of things they know they have fallen short. Some of those imperfections we are able to cast off pretty easily, but some really weigh on us; we know we are not acting as our highest self calls us to be, and we long to “get right.” I don’t mind using the word sin because it leaves the same bad taste in my mouth as the actions I live to regret, like saying an unkind word in anger to someone I love. I want to reclaim that theological language from those who wield it like a weapon. But I know that word is never going to feel right to many of you, so please feel free to use language that feels like a better descriptor to you.

But one way or another we will have an incomplete world view if we don’t have a way to talk about the theological idea of “sin” (whether or not we use that word) and we don’t know how to talk about “repentance” that is to say- how to get right once we have gone wrong. Without those ideas, I am going to have an impossible job of dealing with my human imperfections. I might just stick my fingers in my ears and sing “lalala” because knowing you are not right with yourself and your community feels bad, but if there is no way to talk about it, and nothing you can do to fix it, that’s even worse. Then it feels like that badness is part of me, and always will be. But if I could let go of all those things? If I could put down the weight of all my failings and screw-ups from the past year and start fresh

“If I could learn and be complete
If I could walk righteously again”…

We need to create a language and a process in our UU tradition to come face to face with our humanness, to own our imperfections and to get right with the community of beings. Let’s take a moment in mediation now to honor our human-ness, and our desire to get right.

Now Imagine if our congregation stood up and walked to the river and you had in your hands or pockets some bread crumbs each one representing some failing, some regret, imperfection, or disconnection in your own life. Feel the crumbs in your pocket, and then one at a time, you scatter a crumb for each one into the river that flows by our Sheshequin church. What crumbs would you wash away this year?

[pause in meditation]

Then you shake out your pockets to make sure you got every last bit (in some traditions folks observing the ritual actually immerse their whole bodies lest any crumbs be left, so imagine that if you choose, immersing yourself in the river and washing away every last crumb in the rushing water. [pause] Then you turn back to shore, walking with your community back to this sactuary.
As you return from this imaginary journey, notice if there is unfinished work for you to do. Are there people you want to apologize to? [pause] Are there actions you want to change in your life?

Though our mediation is over, this process of letting go, of getting right is a process that Jewish tradition allows days or even weeks to unfold. If you feel so moved, you might want to continue this work, maybe repeating the ritual we just visualized with real crumbs and living water. Participating in a ritual like this one is a way of putting more of yourself into a psychological process that you have chosen. Your intention to let go penetrates more deeply when those ideas are put into your mind but also your body. Many Jewish congregations hold a tashlich service formally together, but a ritual of letting go can also be quite simple and private. I encourage you to take a few quiet moments in these coming days and think about the things you would like to cast off, and maybe walk to a creek or river near you with a piece of bread. Cast your crumbs on the running water to help the process of letting go, of starting the new year with a clean slate, and of getting right with your self and with the community of all beings.

“The High Holidays”
“Tashlikh: A Rosh Hashanah ritual for the whole family.” By Lesli Koppelman Ross