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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, October 1, 2017
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

A Thought As the Service Begins

Every little thing that breaks your heart is welcome here
We’ll make a space for it
Give it its due time and praise for the wanting it represents
The longing for something more,
Some healing hope that remains
Not yet

We promise no magic, no making it all better
But offer only this circle of trust
This human community that remembers, though imperfectly
That sings and prays, though sometimes awkwardly
This gathering that loves, though not yet enough
We’re still practicing after all…
Still becoming able
To receive all this beauty and all these gifts
We each bring. (Gretchen Haley)

Yom Kippur Prayer

The words of today’s prayer are in the spirit of Yom Kippur and much adapted from Rob Eller Isaacs.

On Yom Kippur, the Congregation atones all together, speaking out loud together a long recitation of misdeeds. They do this numerous times over the course of the two days of services. They say we have done these things, not I have done these things. They do this not because every person has made every mistake that is being atoned for in the long list of wrong-doings, but because we are all in this together. We are never alone in our brokenness and messiness. And we are still practicing how to be human, still learning how to love.

So the Congregation has a part to say; after each part of the prayer I invite you to say these words: We forgive ourselves and each other. We begin again in love.

May the spirit of prayer be on our house.

For remaining silent because of fear:
» We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.

For all the times when we have been rigid, self-righteous, raw and resentful:
» We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.

For each time we have moved toward anger and defensiveness instead of welcoming a difficult truth, for the times we have been unwilling to see, unwilling or afraid to change:
» We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.

For each time we have moved toward the familiar and the comfortable, instead of opening our minds and hearts to something or someone different:
» We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.

For using our precious time and our energy trying to be perfect instead of doing what we can and letting go of what we cannot do:
» We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.

For trying to earn love, instead of living lovingly; for trying to control life rather than accepting it as a wondrous gift:
» We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.

For these and for so many attitudes and actions, which have fostered the illusion that we are separate from each other and do not need to live together on this small planet:
» We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.

For the shame we carry, for the sorrows and failings we have not spoken out loud, for the ways we have hurt both the ones we love and strangers sometimes without even knowing we have done it, and for the pain we have caused through words said or unsaid, through deeds done or left undone:
» We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.

We hold in love the joys and sorrows of this community, those which have been shared out loud this morning during the lighting of candles and these sorrows and joys we have been entrusted with.

We pray on this new morning, at the beginning of this new year, for strength and compassion. Let us sit in quiet now and pray the prayers of our own hearts and listen to the sounds of the morning.

Reflection: Still Becoming Able

Some of you will remember the story of my good colleague UU minister Kathleen McTigue stumbling upon a church called the Backside Redemption Church, at least that is what she thought it was called, when she was out biking on Mt. Desert Island in Maine and got lost. She wrote about finding the Backside Redemption church this way:

Just as I was steeling myself to turn around and retrace the long, uphill road back to the cabin, I pedaled around one last curve and saw two things simultaneously. First, a tiny white church, with a small, perfect steeple and bright red doors, and then the prominent sign with lovely church-like calligraphy: “Backside Redemption.” I stopped, wheeled my bike to the side of the road, leaned on the handlebars and stared in awe at the sheer boldness of the declaration. Who were these people who could actually admit that the redemption they offered was the back-sided kind? A sort of come-as-you-are, seat-of-the pants, possibly not-even-fit-for-good-society kind of redemption? Then I saw the little recycling hut off to the side behind the church. Belatedly, I realized that the marvelous sign did not refer to the church at all but to the recycling hut, identified as “back side” because this side of the island faced the mainland, not the ocean. Sheepishly I looked around and spotted a smaller sign offering up the real name for the church, but by then it was too late. The little white building with its neatly painted red doors had forever sunk into my psyche as the “Backside Redemption Church.” (From the essay, Backside Redemption, Shine and Shadow: Meditations by Kathleen McTigue)

I suspect Backside Redemption is a pretty good description of what we are doing here too. Backside Redemption is a good description of the kind of redemption we have on offer in this religious community if we are honest: A slow, uncertain slog towards more compassion, deeper gratitude, greater generosity. A slow slog in the company of a highly imperfect crew of fellow sloggers — a people choosing over and over to believe in love and even more impossible, to try to live out of love, for ourselves, for one another, for the world. That is what we’ve got.

Years ago when I was still a Divinity School student, I was taking the train to New York City and the young man sitting next to me asked me about some theology book I was reading. We talked a little about religion and I did my best to explain Unitarian Universalism to him. I don’t think I did a very good job. He was pretty unimpressed and told me, his exact words, impossible to forget even all these years later, “I can get a better deal somewhere else.”

As UU Minister Gretchen Haley puts it, …

We promise no magic, no making it all better
But offer only this circle of trust
This human community that remembers, though imperfectly
That sings and prays, though sometimes awkwardly
This gathering that loves, though not yet enough
We’re still practicing after all…
Still becoming able
To receive all this beauty and all these gifts
We each bring.

I was talking with one of the young adults in our congregation recently and she was telling me how she talks about our church to her friends and co-workers — how she describes our mission and though for the purposes of propriety I am cleaning up the actual language we used since our mission statement needs to be for all ages. She said, “I tell them the mission of our church is don’t be a jerk.” “I like the simplicity of that,” I said, “but I think it might be a little harsh, like we only care about the end point, not the process of becoming, the transformation, the effort. How about Try not to be a jerk?” We agreed on Try not to be a jerk and, after some discussion and reflection, and some laughter I confess, added the words “We will help.” Because in truth it is incredibly hard work to not to be a jerk and almost impossible to do alone. Try not to be a jerk. We will help.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur the most serious day of the year for religious Jews. The tradition is that people have spent the past ten days trying to set things right with the people they have hurt and trying to fix the mistakes they have made in the past year. If someone asks you to forgive them during this time, you are really supposed to do it. You are supposed to give that grace if a person is brave and humble enough to ask for it. Then the congregation comes before God on Yom Kippur and asks God to release them, to forgive them, to help them forgive themselves. Then it is done, time to start over, a new year. We know the reality is not as easy as that makes it sound — the reality is messier, slower, imperfect, impossible, incomplete — backside redemption for sure. And in synagogues around the world on Yom Kippur people hear the retelling of the story of Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, which is essentially a story about backside redemption.

In the story, God chooses Jonah to bring a dire warning to the people of Ninevah who are worshipping golden calves instead of God. Jonah is supposed to tell them that if they don’t repent, things are going to go badly for them. Jonah isn’t interested in taking on this mission. He seems to understand that people don’t usually like messengers who come with news of doom and destruction if they don’t change something important to them right away, which has not changed one bit in the intervening centuries. So Jonah tells God, “I am not the right person for this job,” and runs away. He gets on a boat headed in the opposite direction of Ninevah maybe to underscore the point to God that he is definitely not going. But almost as soon as he gets on the boat a huge storm comes up and all the sailors on the boat are terrified, certain they are going to perish. Jonah confesses that the storm is his fault — it is because God is really angry at him. The sailors immediately throw Jonah overboard in order to get rid of him and his angry God and he gets swallowed up by a whale.

After being stuck in the whale belly, this pitch dark, heaving, stinking-of-fish place for three days. Jonah repents. He decides to go to Ninevah after all and do what God has asked him to do so the story says that God causes the whale to spit him out, conveniently on the shores of Ninevah. Jonah gets thrown up into his life again, he gets thrown up into another chance. I can imagine him lying on the sandy beach, blinking, stunned by the light after all that darkness, covered in krill and plankton and whale stomach gunk whatever that may be. I imagine him pretty worse for the wear and shaky, but alive — the way we feel when we have gotten up after days of high fever or stomach flu, when we wake up having survived the surgery, when the first glimmer of hope or relief or light shines in after heartbreak or or maybe when we finally realize that we have been hanging out in the belly of a whale for too long, and we need to get ourselves free, we need to take that first step into light, into help, into safety, into sobriety, into something different.

This is what the 13th century Sufi Rumi had to say about living in the whale belly:

Sometimes people don’t see the signs
that are so close, even how their homes
are unlit! The way you’re living now is like
living in a tomb! There’s none of God’s light,
and no openness.
Remember that you’re alive!
Don’t stay in a narrow, choked place….
Your Jonah has cooked long enough in the whale!
Have you forgotten what praise is?

It is not easy work, in real life, getting out of the belly of the whale, remembering that we are alive, trying not to be a jerk. It is full of stops and starts, hesitations and mistakes. But as in all things, Love helps. It helps so much. So often, redemption comes, not through our own efforts at all but through the generosity and kindness given to us by others — things we do not earn or even deserve but receive anyway because people are capable of such astonishing love. That is the sweetest, surest kind of redemption there is — to be on the receiving end of astonishing love, to be carried by the compassion of those around us, not because of who we are or anything we have done but because ordinary people can love and love like that changes us, heals us, if we are able to receive it, to take it in.

The word for redemption in Hebrew is ge’ulah and the idea of redemption in Judaism is closely linked with liberation, with freedom. In the Jewish understanding of redemption, God has entered history to liberate people over and over again, beginning when the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt. Ge’ulah refers to the concept of future liberation as well, the time of the world to come, the messianic age, when the world will be made whole and all people will live together in peace, and hatred and prejudice and war will cease. In the Hassidic or more mystical branch of Judaism, the idea of redemption has another layer too, which is about the awareness of god, the consciousness of god, the idea that redemption means becoming fully aware of god, of holiness, of the sacred nature of all things, of god’s presence in everything.

These meanings of redemption are so powerful: redemption as liberation, redemption as the whole world transformed to a place without hate or violence; redemption as the awareness of the sacredness of all things. Redemption as being changed, being transformed so that we are free from whatever keeps us bound or oppressed. Redemption as liberation from the forces of destruction and despair, the internal forces such as mental illness or addition but the external ones too: racism, injustice, poverty, inequality, fear, environmental degradation.

To me, one of the most important things about Yom Kippur, the thing I return to again and again, is that Jews do not confess alone on Yom Kippur. All the prayers in the Yom Kippur services are said in the plural. We have done this. We stand before the God of our understanding asking to be released. We are part of the human race and we have make mistakes this year, because that is what humans do, and together we are trying to make things right, to begin again. To me, this is much less lonely understanding of the human condition and a more hopeful one too. We are all in this together. We forgive ourselves and each other. We begin again in love.

grad-rainbow

1 Powder House Road … P.O. Box 457 … Groton, MA 01450-0457 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Most recently updated 2017-10-03