Sacred Work: On the Slow, Hard Turning

September 23, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON                             

REPENT! REPENT, YE SINNERS! THE TIME IS AT HAND!! TURN AWAY FROM SIN!  TURN YOUR HEARTS TO GOD!

That's not a real popular way to begin a sermon anymore.  REPENT!

I can't think of any word, myself, that's a bigger turn-off in the spiritual sense than REPENT, which is one of those words someone is always shooting out of their mouths at someone else like a bullet, a word that seems to be designed for maximum irritation factor.  I notice that people who like to yell REPENT at folks mostly aren't very good at repenting themselves.  I think most of us in this century hear the word and immediately switch our ears to the "off" position.

When it's not yelled at us by some self-righteous preacher frothing at the mouth, though, repentance isn't an entirely bad idea as theological ideas go.  It's just an acknowledgement that we're human really, that we screw up like everyone else, and we regret it. 

That second part is important, that part about being contrite.  We really don't grow without it, and we don't change our behaviors.  But you know, most people I know are pretty talented about feeling lousy about themselves when they make mistakes and they don't need to be yelled at to "repent" to add to their guilt and shame.  Biologists here may be familiar with a secondary definition of "to repent," which means to creep along on one's belly, like a snake.  That's about all the visual image you need.

We can take responsibility for how we're coming along in the morality department without creeping along on our bellies, of course.  We can regret the way we've handled relationships or decisions from an upright, dignified position because we're capable of changing.  We've got the potential to improve, and there's a lot of strength in that.

It's that second understanding of "repentance" that characterizes the Jewish high holy days that come around this time of year.  Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish new year, was September 13, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, ended yesterday evening.   Collectively these days are known as the Days of Awe, and also the Days of Return.

Yom Kippur, the end of which I observed with the synagogue in Canton yesterday, is a day of fasting and prayer, of making atonement to God for one's transgressions and vowing to turn again to the ways of life and righteousness. 

The central commitment of Yom Kippur is tshuvah, a wonderful Hebrew word that literally means "turn-about" or "return," and which, in the Hebrew, has a connotation of stopping dead in one's tracks and turning around --as you might do if you were on your way somewhere and realized that you forgot to turn off the stove.  There is a sense of whoa, hold up, head back!  In this turning, there can be disruption of our comfort and even of our sense of self.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing.  You have to break some eggs to make a soufflé. You have to scratch out the insides of an oyster to get a pearl.  And no one grows spiritually if we're comfortable all the time.  In fact, if we believe that the role of the religious community or spiritual practices is always to comfort, inspire us and make us happy, we're leaving some major ingredients out of the pie.  Or the soufflé, as it were.

Tshuvah is a gift from the Jewish tradition which reminds us that there can be no change for good in the world if there is not change in the individual.  I believe that.  I also believe that it is often quite difficult to know how we should change, and why.   Some of our sins and failures are obvious – they are the demons with which we have struggled for years, and whose faces are entirely familiar to us.  Others are far less obvious. 

Now here's a perfect example. It's the story of a group I got from UCC pastor Donna Schaper about a group of peace activists who were heading from New York City to Washington, DC  on September 25 of 2005, when, as sometimes happens, the Amtrak train had a switch failure in Newark and the train did not arrive at Penn Station.  If you travel Amtrak's Northeast corridor with any frequency, you know that this happens from time to time.  But the peace demonstrators waiting for the train became furious, absolutely certain that the government did this on purpose. 

Boy, did they get righteous and angry. "They stopped the trains!"  "They're trying to stop us from coming!"

So then a group of them started demonstrating in circles around Penn Station, in, in Schaper's words, "loud, squeaky voices resembling nothing so much as the unwelcome voice of a flight attendant on a bad speaker telling us something we already know when we are trying to sleep."  In their righteous rage, they forgot to consider that other travelers were also delayed, inconvenienced and tired.  It was all about them.  By the time the crowd all boarded the delayed train, the peace activists were definitely on most traveller's Highly Unpopular list.  I'm sure you can see the irony here.  

(anecdote from Donna Schaper's,  Living Well While Doing Good).

I don't know if the activists were ever able to reflect on their missed opportunity, and to repent of their obnoxious behavior.  It is always easier to see someone else's sins and failings in hindsight than it is to see our own, especially when we are committed to what we believe is an ethical spiritual path.  Hey, I'm one of the good guys! I don't need to change! When we commit hypocrisy or obnoxiousness we don't get a helpful alarm that goes off with blaring lights saying, "WARNING: WARNING.  REGRETTABLE BEHAVIOR IN PROGRESS." Maybe someday we'll have implanted chips that do that for us.  For now, though, we're on our own, and it takes intention and attention to identify our blind spots.

Another example. When I was in Portland, Oregon at General Assembly this June I was waiting for the trolley in town with a group of other UUs, when a clean-cut young man approached us to distribute some kind of evangelical Christian pamphlet.  A UU man who was still wearing his GA nametag accepted a pamphlet from the young man. He yelled "Jesus Saaaaves" in mock tones and then tossed his pamphlet into the trash with a disgusted flourish.  And yet we bill ourselves as the tolerant, accepting religion!   I was mortified and just about to say something when I remembered my own ridiculous behavior on a street corner in Downtown Crossing just a few weeks before, where I had actually gotten into a shouting match with the guy who wears the "Repent Or Go To Hell" sandwich board and harasses people on the street.  How dumb was that? How unproductive was that?  If I wanted to share the good news of Universal salvation and the loving God with this guy, yelling at him in front of Filene's Basement wasn't really the greatest way to go about it.  If that UU man or I wanted to represent our faith tradition as an attractive option for the people of Portland or Boston, we couldn't have failed more miserably.  Hashivenu, vena tshuvah.  Turn our hearts around, God.  Both of us could use a good dose of repentance and tshuvah.

The point here isn't to condemn other's mistakes and hypocrisies – we all have plenty to contribute to the Hall of Shame – but to remind us how quickly and how easily any of us can abandon our values when provoked, when tired, when angry, when we're insecure, when our blood sugar is low and we're far from home. 

If I asked you right now to list three to five ways it would be good and ethical to change, to engage in tshuvah, what would you say? Think about it a moment.

I'm guessing that at the top of our lists would be things like, "I should spend less time on the computer when I come home and pay more attention to my family."  "I should eat less and exercise more." "I should recycle." "I should sign up for a Habitat for Humanity work day." "I should be more careful about my flirting with that guy at work." "I should stop repeating petty gossip."

No doubt  juicy stuff, and real, but what about the less obvious categories, the things invisible to the eye, like the way we see the world and our fellow human beings in it?   What about hard-hearted, inflexible opinions about people we've never met, or people we think we know, what about idealizing them and holding them up on a pedestal, for that matter? What about experiences we dismiss from a distance as being invalid, lenses through which we see the world that we don't even know we're looking through?  In my experience, we are all intelligent enough to know what outward behaviors we might avoid or change, but it is far harder to do the work of heart-change, and to admit to possible flaws in our perception.  My God, we could keep ourselves up nights wondering where our perception is flawed!

We don't need to do that.  We might, however, choose to do an audit of our lives in which we ask ourselves some of these questions.  First of all, is my life full of encounters with people who are mostly just like me? When was the last time I walked into a setting where I wasn't known, respected, part of the in-crowd, influential?

It is in those places of discomfort that we may first get an inkling of our limited perception.  If we avoid those places, we are more likely to walk around with blinders on.

You may ask yourself: when did I last put myself in a position of not having an opinion about something --  where I was there just to listen, to observe, to learn? When did I last read or hear something that made me think, "Wow, I could be really wrong about that!" Do I have a sense of certainty about my role in my family and in society, and am I willing to be flexible about that role depending on what others might need from me?  When was the last time someone gave me negative feedback? Did I react in a defensive manner or did I stay in the conversation?  These are all the egg-cracking opportunities that make a rich soufflé of the soul.  These are all the uncomfortable places where the hard work of developing integrity best happens.

My friends, I know very well that most of us put an awful lot of hard work into our lives, which we mostly think of in terms of a forward-moving arrow through time – "every day in every way we're getting better and better" – and where we think about wisdom and maturity as something we accumulate, that we quest for in an outward fashion, like hunters going after another buffalo to add to the winter supply.  What I love about the idea of  tshuvah, of returning, of turning back, is that it suggests that what we need most for our moral and spiritual development is not out there somewhere we have never been before, but within, and original to our nature.  

In other words, what we most need, we already got.  Perhaps moral improvement and spiritual change isn't so much a matter of adding more layers, but stripping them away and getting back to the essence, to the pure heart we were born with.

I want to close with the most famous story of tshuvah in English literature -- one we associate not with the Jewish high holy days at all, but with the Christmas season, and authored by a British Unitarian, Charles Dickens. 

I speak, of course, of the miserable, miserly control freak Ebenezer Scrooge, who was lucky enough to have three spirits visit him in the night and to show him his blind spots and shortcomings, giving him free will to decide what to do about it. 

I am always touched and sobered by the manner in which the spirits effect Ebenezer's repentance and turn-around: they do it not by preaching and railing at him, by yelling "REPENT" in his face,  but by simply taking him by the hand and showing him his life, reviewing with him the moments where he closed himself off to love, where he caused others suffering and hurt, and --- most painfully -- how he would be remembered after his death if he did not change his behavior.   "Here, Ebenezer Scrooge. Take a look. What do you want to do about it? This is what you've been doing.  Is this what you want to keep doing?"

You may recall the moment where Scrooge stands with the Ghost of Christmas Future before his own headstone in the grave-yard and asks the Spirit,

"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,' said Scrooge, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only." 

The Spirit doesn't answer, but Scrooge wakes from his nightmare a new man knowing the answer: when it comes to the hard work of developing character and the inner life of integrity, all that may be is in our own hands.   Scrooge knows that while the grave is the inevitable physical end for all of us, how he will be remembered is entirely up to him.  He opens his heart to love, he returns to the generous spirit he had as a youth, he finally understands what his work in the world really is: not to sit at a ledger adding sums and accumulating wealth, but to be in loving and appreciative relationship with other human beings. 

It is a great Unitarian tale from the Christmas season, well-remembered at the Jewish High Holy Days, at the season of harvest and in-gathering.  I leave you with these words from yesterday's Yom Kippur service at Temple Beth David in Canton:

"We pray for love to encompass us for no other reason save that we are human – that we may blossom into persons who have gained power over our own lives."  Hashivenu Adonai eilecha vena shuva chadeish yameinukekedem.

May we have the strength, and the will.