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To Forgive To Repair

Sermon – To Forgive, to Repair
Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris
September 23, 2012

The Days Of Awe  the High Holy Days of the Jewish tradition   began at sunset last Sunday with Rosh Hashanah, the new year, a commemoration of Creation, and end when Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is over at nightfall this coming Wednesday.  Tradition has it that on Rosh Hashanah books of account are opened wherein the fates of humankind are recorded.  The month preceding the High Holy Days – the month of Elul  is a time of preparation for T’shuvah, the act of turning, turning to the best in one’s self and doing what we can to make right our relationships with others. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are time to acknowledge how we have “missed the mark” and make our “turn”.  Soon the Book of Life for the new year will be closed.

In her poem Aaaayee Babo (Praise God), Sonia Sanchez asks a question fitting to this holy time. “Who shall journey to the place we require of humans?” Who shall journey to that place where relationships can be made right?

Seen through my Unitarian UniversaIist eyes, with the 7th in our list our principles so central to my own religious life; I am drawn in by the connection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  These Holy Days of Judaism begin with a commemoration of creation  this interdependent web of life of which we humans are a part – and end with a call for us to know where we have missed the mark.   The obvious question comes  how have we missed the mark in relation to this planet we call home?  We struggle with human causes of climate change, hear news of melting ice sheets and disappearing glaciers, of drought, wildfire and flood.  We debate energy sources, energy use.  And we find it hard to believe that even now some small island nations and some cultures dependent on ice for hunting are already at risk. Sometimes I think the entire planet is in a state of dis-ease. If I were still Southern Baptist I might well be studying teachings about the time of tribulation!

How can we “turn ’round right” in our relationship to this planet we share?

Locally, our congregations are greening sanctuaries and other spaces and events.  We are adopting energy saving practices in everything from our choice of light bulbs to low flow toilets to how we heat and cool our buildings.  We recycle.  We join organizations such as Interfaith Power and Light.

Nationally, through the UUA and our partner organizations, we engage in shareholder and legislative advocacy.

Globally  this is a harder question to answer  as the disparities between what economists, politicians, and others refer to as the developed and developing worlds put sustainability and justice at odds.  Poverty.  Environmental racism.  Drought and famine.  Water rights.  Just how do we make these right?

In the practice of my faith, in this time of year, in this season of such visible change and often glorious color, I wonder about my relationship to this planet, and to the very particular part of this planet I call home?  This turning of the wheel of the year is a time for asking – How is my/our relationship to creation?  And what can I/we do to be turned ’round a little more right?  Who shall journey to the place we require of humans?” When shall we be inscribed in the Book of Life as justice loving and compassionate toward this ground of our being?

The Days of Awe also ask us how we can turn round right in our relationships with each other.

Unitarianism was once described as the branch of our religious family tree believing humanity too good to be damned while, it was said, Universalists held that God is too good to damn us.  At the end of the 19th century, Unitarian theology expressed optimism about human capability and possibility.  Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke published a volume entitled “Vexed Questions in Theology,” including in it a sermon from 1886 listing “Five Points of a Theology for the Future”:

1. The Fatherhood of God
2. The Brotherhood of Man
3. The Leadership of Jesus
4. Salvation by Character
5. The continuity of human development in all worlds or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.

The progress of mankind onward and upward forever.

As we moved into the 20th century, our optimism was tested and tempered by World Wars  fox holes, mustard gas, concentration camps, internment camps, the nuclear bomb  and the Great Depression in between.   Yet this optimism remained, and is still today, a strand woven tightly into the fabric of our faith.  This aspect of our heritage – the optimism of Rev. Clarke’s theology for the future joined with our individualism extrapolated from our first principle focusing on respect for worth and dignity of every person  this can leave us theologically thin and relationally tested in the face of circumstances that demand turning; that call us to journey to the place we require of humans; to the place of forgiveness and repair.  When the Book of Life is opened to the U’s, I suspect we’ll find inscribed there a few lines about how these things have led us to miss the mark.

Now I don’t know about you, and I don’t know about here . . . but sometimes . . . we are so reluctant to admit weakness or failure or struggle to ourselves, let alone to others.  Many of us learned to keep a “stiff upper lip”.  Tough it out.  Though surrounded by friends, family, and others who could offer support, our focus on individualism can leave us stranded “knee deep in a river” of companions and “dying of thirst”.  Our fierce affirmation of tolerance can mean we “put up” with harmful or demeaning behaviors when respect, dignity and interdependence demand we put a stop to them.

Over the last few years I had come to believe that we just might be in the midst of a collective “turning ’round right.”  In Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World Elizabeth Spelman writes

“Homo reparans stalks the land.  Humans seem everywhere and ceaselessly engaged in projects of repair  nursing machines back to life, patching up friendships, devising paths of reconciliation for conflicting peoples. (102) Repair destroys brokenness.  The consolation it offers is that undesirable states of brokenness can themselves be broken . . . . When I offer an apology to you . . . I am seeking to destroy the state of rupture between us. (p 134) Repair is necessary because  theological views aside we are manifestly imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. (p.136) To apologize to someone is to say that there is a harm worth attending to, a relationship worth mending, a rule worth honoring, a community worth preserving. (p.83) An apology is an invitation to share in a ritual of repair, in a dance that takes more than one dancer. . . . forgiveness might be seen as a willingness not just to acknowledge the invitation to dance but to accept it, give it a whirl, to engage with a partner even if warily. (p85)

Bishop Desmond Tutu was a central figure in The Truth and Reconciliation process that followed the end of Apartheid in South Africa  a process requiring wary engagement of one partner with another — confessing evil perpetrated against others, seeking forgiveness from the victim or the victim’s family.  Bishop Tutu attributed the success of Truth and Reconciliation, at least in part, to the African concept of Ubuntu  “my humanity is caught up in yours, and if you are dehumanized, I am dehumanized, and anger and resentment and retribution are corrosive of this great good, the harmony that has got to exist between people.”

I confess that these days my fear is that rather than turning round right we are turning away.  My fear is this dance, so powerfully reflected in Truth and Reconciliation, is fading into oblivion, overshadowed by demeaning political discourse, the use of violence to express difference, opposition, and anger; and the assumption that engagement and compromise are signs of weakness.  The music of this dance of apology and forgiveness, the music of mattering, is being drowned out. It can not be that another’s pain, another’s hurt, another’s oppression do not matter.

Prompted by the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln which falls within the Days of Awe (yesterday, September 22), Rabbi Wendi Geffen writes, “As Jews, we find ourselves in one of the most spiritually intense periods of the year -the Aseret Ymei Teshuvah — the 10 Days of Repentance carrying us from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. . . The Jewish liturgy offers an expansive confessional section (called Vidui) where the community verbally confesses together to any number of offenses.”  This year, Rabbi Geffen says, “I’ll be adding a verse to the list: Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha — for the sin we have committed against You by mindlessly reaping the benefits of slavery. . . .” She continues, “Whether grounded in the teachings that have carried the Jewish people over the millennia or from the values written down by Abraham Lincoln a century and half ago, the ideal of freedom for all is still one to which we must not only aspire, but for which we are responsible in assuring is made fully real.” (Huffington Post Religion Sept. 20 2012)

Grounded in and bound together in this interdependent web by the shared principles of respect and dignity, by justice, equity and compassion; we are among those called to make things right.  We are among those called to journey to the place we require of humans – that place of engagement, apology, forgiveness, repair, freedom. May this be the time of our turning.  May these holy aspirations be made real.