Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Repentance and Return

This is the text of the sermon I delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, October 9, 2016.  You can listen to the podcast here.
Am I in the right sanctuary?  I can see that some of you're wondering.  Isn’t this a Unitarian Universalist congregation?  What’s all this talk about “repentance” and “sin” and “God”?  In some religious traditions you don’t talk openly about sex, for instance, or social justice.  In ours …?
Yet we know – or should know – that religious language is, and always has been, poetry.  There is no denying that certain words have been used … and I’d say misused … to justify some pretty egregious things.  These words have been used to cause real harm to individuals, to cultures, and to our planet.  Yet no matter how these words have been misused, our faith traditions insists that they are, and always have been, just words.  No matter how literally some people have interpreted them, and interpret them still, our Unitarian Universalist traditions teaches us they are poetry – analogy and metaphor.  Religious language is poetic language, language we humans have used in order to help us deal with what the Unitarian Universalist preacher Forrest Church called, “the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”
And we humans have been trying to find ways to deal with these two realities ever since we first became aware of living in between them.  One of the gifts of our faith tradition is its encouragement to listen, with open minds and open hearts, to the others; its insistence that we “search for truth” wherever it might be found.  And yes, that means mining even those words that were used to wound us in the past, or that seem irrelevant, literally meaning-less, to us.
So I’m going to talk about “repentance” this morning, and I don’t think you can get a deep enough, rich enough understanding without also talking about “sin.”  So let’s start with probably the hardest one “sin.”
I think it fair to say that most people think that the concept of “sin” has to with the “bad” things we do and the “bad people” that makes us.  When we “sin” we become “sinners,” or maybe we’re “sinners” from the moment of our births (or even before that).  And being a “sinner” means that we’re unworthy; that we’re … well … perhaps the quintessential description of what it means to be “a sinner” was given by the Rev. Jonathan Edwards in his 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Even if you’ve never heard of this sermon, you’ve probably got somewhere in your mind that this is what Christian mean when they call someone a “sinner” because of their “sins:”
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.
I actually read this in High School, Edwards’ sermon being used as an example of mid-eighteenth century New England prose.  And some variation of this is what most people think of when they hear the word “sin.”  And there are people who continue to preach and teach this, and those who’ve said that this is our state from the moment of our conception!  No wonder we reject it.
But with all due respect to the Rev. Edwards, and the people of the Westboro Baptist Church, this isn’t the Biblical understanding of “sin.”  There are actually at least seven different Greek words that have been translated into the single English word “sin”:
Hamartia means, “to miss the mark.”  It’s an archer’s term.  You aim at something – in the theological sense you aim to be your best, your highest self – and you miss the mark.  Can you relate?  In this sense, I am definitely a “sinner.”
Hettema means "Diminishing what should have been given full measure.”  Every time I am paying more attention to my Facebook feed than my kids, I am “sinning.”  Can you honestly say that the word “sin,” understood as hettema is an irrelevant concept?
A third Greek word that’s been translated as “sin” is Paraptoma, which means “Falling when one should have stood.”  I’ve read two different ways of understanding this.  One is “slipping up,” but with the idea that it is more accidental than intentional.  Say, perhaps, that you react to something someone said or did, and then you later learn the reasons why they said or did that and you feel just awful about the way you reacted.  Paraptoma.
The other interpretation I’ve heard, rather than “falling when one should have stood,” is “sitting down when one should have stood,” and this is the underlying sense behind the idea that “silence is complicity.”  Martin Niemöller ‘s famous words capture this sense perfectly:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
Paraptoma.  Sin.  There’s a lot of that going around these days.
Agnoeema, is another of the seven Greek words that are needed to really understand the Biblical concept of “sin.”  Agnoeema means,"Ignorance when one should have known.”  You ever say to your kids, or a friend, “you should have known better”?  Ever felt the need to say that to yourself?  That is a way to understand this word “sin.”
Parakoe means, "To refuse to hear and heed God's word,” and while the word “God” doesn’t hold any meaning for some of us, this idea should.  Because unlike “missing the mark,” which is an unintentional failure to do the right thing, the thing we know in the core of our being is the right thing, parakoe is an intentional refusal. 
I read a book some years ago in which the author says that the vast majority interpersonal conflicts stem from a decision we make to betray ourselves.  An example that’s stuck with me is of a man, lying in bed at night, who’s awoken by his baby crying.  His immediate impulse is to get up and comfort his child, especially since his wife is still sleeping.  Instead, he rolls over, pretending to sleep, hoping that his wife will wake up and take care of it.  And because this betrayal of his true and best self casts the man in a bad light – something we never want to do – he begins to justify himself, telling himself that he needs a good night’s sleep because of the day he has waiting for him at work.  Then he thinks of every example of his wife not doing things she should have.  Pretty soon he’s lying there, feeling what he has convinced himself is justifiable hostility toward his wife whose sleep he just moment before lovingly wanted to preserve.  This is parakoe.  And if this doesn’t seem at all relevant to you …
Parabasis means, "To intentionally cross a line,” and, Anomia and Paranomia mean "Lawlessness, or willfully breaking God's written rules.”  These are clearly related to one another, and are differentiated, as I understand it, primarily by degree of conscious intentionality.
Has any of this resonated with you?  Has any of this seemed relevant?  To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assessment of the word “miracle,” “the word [sin] as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster.”  As such we are right to reject it.  But the reason our faith tradition encourages us to, instists that we, be open to the “wisdom of the world’s religions,” is precisely so that we might look beyond the words as they are so often used and misused in order to find the truths they might have originally been pointing to.  There’s a lot we can learn from this idea – or, I should say, these ideas – about “sin.”
So what about “repentance?”  Isn’t that all tied up in that other concept of sin, that sense of worthlessness, guilt and shame?  Well, it turns out not so much.
According to Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, The word most often used in the Hebrew Scriptures to describe the Biblical notion of repentance is shub.  It appears in verb form well over 1,000 times.  The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says that it's actually the twelfth most frequently occurring verb in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Christian Scriptures, the word that is used most frequently to refer to this concept is metanoeó
These words both mean, essentially, “to turn,” or, “to return.”  There’s nothing about guilty groveling involved, no self-abnegation, no attempt to placate or pacify a power hell bent on punishing us for some breaking of the rules.  “Repentance,” in this, original, sense is all about recognizing when we’re on the wrong path, heading in the wrong direction, and the act turning our lives around.
A young man named Malcolm Little was living a life of drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping.  He had decided that the world as it was really offered him no other options.  He was eventually caught and arrested, sentenced to eight-to-ten years in prison.  During that time he met a man who was unlike any other he’d ever met.  Self-taught and self-assured, the man became a mentor to Little, helping him to see that he could do better, that he could be better.  When Malcolm Little was released from prison he had become the man we know today as Malcolm X.  He had experienced shub and metanoeó.  He had turned his life around, he had changed his mind and his heart, he had, in a word, “repented.”  (Ironically, Malcolm had been an excellent student, aspiring to be a career in the law, until a junior high teacher told him that practicing law was "no realistic goal for a [Black person].")  Turn and return, you might say.
Have you ever felt the need to turn your life around, to head in a new direction?  Oh Lord, I know that I have.  Nothing as dramatic as the life change of Malcolm X, but I know the feeling that I’m going down the wrong path and that I’d better do something about it.  And that’s really what the Biblical notion of “repentance” is all about. 
When the Christian Scriptures were translated from their original Greek into Latin, however, an unfortunate choice was made.  Metanoeo was translated as poetinere, and poetinere is related to the words “punish,” and “penance.”  This beautiful, and truly meaningful, concept of recognizing the need to change one’s life’s direction became overshadowed by the idea that we needed to be punished for wrongdoing.  Something entirely different.
This time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a time for reflecting, not on all the ways we’re loathsome, hateful, abominable insects who deserve nothing more than to be thrown into an unquenchable fire.  It has to do, instead, with reflecting on the ways we’ve missed the mark; ignored what is truly important; been quiet when we should have been raising our voices; reacted and judged before knowing the full story; made the intentional choice to put our short-term interest before our long-term values.  In other words, to reflect on our sins in all of the ways that concept was intended – is still intended – to be understood.
And we are invited to do this – and I do mean that we, as Unitarian Universalists – are invited to do this so that we might repent, in the true understanding of that word.  Because that is something we all need to do, and not just during the Jewish High Holy Days, but each day.  Every day.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Driving in to work following the first Presidential debate, I heard a commentator describing the different views of the United States that he'd heard the night before.  Of Donald Trump's he said that it was "negative" and "dystopian," and that it was as if he saw the US as "the skinny kid on the beach with everybody kicking sand" at them.  And a light bulb went off.

None of these are new thoughts, but that image both clarified and anchored something I've heard others saying.  A lot of people in this country feel as though they've become that kid at the beach.   And while not all of them have been used to being one of the most popular kids, they may not have been the big-shot bullies who were busy kicking sand into other people's faces, they were at least in the crowd enjoying the show.  Or, even if not enjoying it, at least knowing that they were safe there, in the crowd, and not down on the sand.

The economy not only crashed for some of these folks, but it has long been transforming in ways that have moved them closer to the country's margins.  And as feminism, and multiculturalism, and a whole host of other challenges and changes to the status quo have come more into the mainstream, these folks who have been used to being near the top of the pile find themselves being more and more relegated to the fringes and the lower areas.

Values, perspectives, understandings that once gave this group clarity, grounding, and a sense of both identity and pride, are increasingly being replaced with confusing new ways of seeing and living in the world.  And "the old ways" are not being outright replaced, they're being challenged or, perhaps even worse, held up for ridicule.

And so the beach no longer feels so safe.  Some of these people believe that they are, now, the ones getting sand kicked in their faces.  (Whether that's unequivocally true or not doesn't really matter.  It feels true to them and so, to the extent that our perceptions are our realities, it is true.)  Others are afraid that they soon will be down on the beach, the place for "losers."

The bullies, of course, are bullies.  We know about bullies.  Very often, perhaps most often, underneath their outward behavior lies an inward fear.  And there are those who actively support the bully -- the bully's "crew."  These folks will crowd around the bully's target, jeering ... sometimes daring to throw in a kick or two of their own.

The majority of the gathered crowd, though, would never dream of actually doing the bullying themselves, and they don't even join the taunting.  They might even think that what they're witnessing is wrong.  But they don't step in to do anything to stop it, rationalizing their inaction with the assertion that nobody's really getting hurt, that the person with the sand in their eyes just can't take a joke or, maybe, for some reason deserves it.

I am coming to believe that it's these people who make up the bulk of Trump's supporters.  They may never have liked what the bully did, but they, themselves, felt safe when the bully was calling the shots.  Everybody knew their place.  The hierarchy on the beach was clear and predictable.  And we feel so much safer when things are clear and predictable.

But now these folks who were once in the crowd either feel that they've become the "skinny kid" on the beach, or fear that soon they're going to be.  And having always given tacit approval to the bullying, they can't help but expect to now be bullied themselves.  And so they look for a bully to come to their rescue, to return things to the way they were before, when things made sense and where they felt safe.

Donald Trump is a bully.  And this bully has surrounded himself with a loyal crew, no question about it.  But it's the people in the crowd -- and not just the ones egging him on but the ones who aren't saying much of anything -- who I really worry about.  I think I can understand their positions, and to the extent I'm right about all of this I can empathize with them.  But they're the ones we have to reach.  They're the ones we have to wake up to the fact that bullies never provided them with safety.  That bullies only care about themselves and that they'll just as easily turn on their friends as they will their "enemies" in order to ensure their own sense of safety and superiority.

As I said, nothing new here.  This analogy has just made it clearer for me than before.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Through All The Cycles and Seasons

This is the text of the sermon I preached at the congregation I serve, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist, on Sunday, September 25, 2016.


Of life, 
Born from 
Of light, 
The lens 
Of time, 
And into 
A sea 
Of stars 

That was Suzy Kassem poem, "Circle of Life." 

The Autumnal Equinox was this past Thursday. It's one of the markers of one of those turnings -- the turning of the seasons: spring into summer, summer into fall, fall into winter, and winter into spring again.  The cycle of these seasons has continued, unabated, since the earth tipped 23 1/2 degrees off its central axis about five hundred and seventy million years ago. "Everything turns, rotates, spins, circles, loops, pulsates, resonates, and repeats."   

Most of us are at least slightly tilted off our axis, too.  We, too, go through cycles and seasons.  Ours are not as measured and consistent as the earth's, of course. Roughly speaking, it always takes 24 hours to pass from day through night, and 365 days (give or take) to cycle through the seasons, whereas for us a season might last days, or decades.   

When I was a kid, the singer-songwriter Harry Chapin was telling us that all his life's a circle, and we nodded and sang along: 

All my life's circle / sunrise and sundown/ the moon rolls through the nighttime / till the daybreak comes around.  All my life's a circle / but I can't tell you why. /Seasons spinning round again/ the years keep rollin' by. 
 That sounds kind of right, doesn't it?  Except that it's not. Not exactly. A circle is too neat. Too ordered and orderly. We don't mark the same circuit days after day, year after year -- coming back to the same places we were before, covering the self-same ground to get there.   We live our lives not in ever-repeating circles, but in spiraling cycles. We come back to some of the same places, sure, but coming back to them again we find that they're ever so slightly, and sometimes quite drastically, different because, hopefully, we're different.   Because over the course of our last trip around our own internal sun we've changed.  Grown.  Become someone new.  When Thomas Wolfe said, "You can't go home again," he didn't mean that you couldn't literally, physically return to the place you grew up in, but that if you do you'll find that it's no longer quite the same "home" it was, nor are you the same "you." 

And yet ... 

My brother Paul went to a lecture by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield.  At one point Kornfield asked, "Do you ever look in the mirror and, seeing the face that's looking back at you think, 'that's not me'?"  Paul, who had just passed one of those "milestone" birthdays had to say he knew the feeling.  So do I.  Maybe you do too.  "Well," Kornfield continued, "that's because it's not."  Despite all the outer changes that lead our kids and grandkids to look at pictures of us when we were there age and say, "Really?", something stays the same within us.  Something remains unchanging through all of those outer changes ... and all the inner ones, too. 

Those inner changes are what I was thinking about when I said that most of us were slightly titled on our axes.  We may start off spinning straight and smooth, but we don't stay that way for that long.  All throughout our lives we experience things that knock us for a loop, knock us off our feet, knock us off our axis.  Heartaches, failures, illnesses, deaths, the "thousand and one slings and arrows that flesh is heir to."  Yet it's not just the hard stuff, either, that throws us for a loop.  There's a reason people say to "be careful what you wish for."  Those great things, too -- finding that the love of your life loves you, too; aceing that test, that course, that degree; getting the job you'd hoped for; marriage; babies -- all these things tilt our worlds.  And we wobble 'till we find a way to establish some sense of stability in this new position.  We don't, any of us, come round and round again to the same place, at the same time, in the say way.  Spiraling cycles, not static circles -- that's the reality of our lives. 

And yet, through it all, something remains consistent -- something, some one.  There's an "I," a "me," that moves in and through all of those changes.  Even when I look back over my life and see how differently I thought, felt, and behaved in the past, it's still "me" who's noticing the ways I've changed.  This "me" is who is looking out at the face in the mirror, thinking that the image isn't me. 

When French philosopher Rene Descartes wanted to get to the very bottom, the bedrock reality of what is knowable, he peeled away layer after layer of things we think we "know," yet which we really only guess or assume.  I "know" that I'm standing behind this pulpit, speaking to all of you, yet I might actually be lying in my bed, and you all might be characters in a dream.  There's no way, really, to know for sure.  Piece by piece Descartes took apart the edifice of our certainty.  Yet just before he came to the conclusion that there was nothing we could actually claim to know, no reality that we could count on as more than a mere perception, he realized that someone was thinking all these things.  He couldn't know for sure what he looked like, how old he was, where he lived, who he loved, but it was self evident that someone was thinking, and that, whatever else might or might not be true of him, he could know for certain that he was, as he put it, "a thinking thing."  Cogito ergo sum.  I think, therefore I am. 

Many, maybe even most of us probably don't feel comfortable with such a reductionist idea that our essential existence is as "thinking things."  Yet the idea that there is an "essential existence," a "core reality," an "I," a "me," that moves through this life I know as mine -- that probably seems to us self evident.  Yet what is that thing?  Who is, what is, that "I," that "me" who's asking these things?  Who is, what is, that "I" who's listening and thinking your own thoughts about all of this? 

These are important questions, because when our axes are titled in ways we're not yet used to or prepared for, we need to know where to go to find our center.  When we're buffeted about by the winds of change, we need to know what we can hang on to.  For some of us, of course, the answer would be "God," yet that's really not much of an answer because "God" is just a word, a poetic shorthand, and using it doesn't really tell us all that much about whatever it is we think we're referring to when we use it.  So the question of what, precisely, is our center, our anchor, our grounding point remains an open one. 

A few days ago I noticed a full-page ad in Entertainment Weekly for a book called The Forgetting, by Sharon Cameron.  The ad was nothing more than an image of the book's cover, and the words, "What isn't written, isn't remembered.  Even your crimes."  Who wouldn't be intrigued?  It's the story of a young woman named Nadia, who lives in the city of Canaan, where every twelve years every person completely loses every one of their memories. All of them.  After "the forgetting," as its called, people don't know their names, don't recognize their families, can't remember a single thing from the moment of waking up.  So everyone has a book with them at all times, and everyone dutifully writes down everything about their lives, so that when they awake from the forgetting they can remind themselves of what they've forgotten. And over and again they are reminded of these words from what's called "the First Book of the Forgetting:" 
"At the first sun rising of the twelfth year, they will forget.  They will lose their memories, and without their memories, they are lost.  Their books will be their memories, their written past selves.  They will write in their books.  They will keep their books.  They will write the truth, and the books will tell them who they have been.  If a book is lost, then so are they Lost.  I am made of my memories.  Without memories, they are nothing." 
 Can you imagine?  No memories of who you are that are older than 12 years ago?  You may know, the way we know facts from a text book, that this person is your spouse, and these people are your parents, and this stranger you're looking at is your best friend, but you don't actually remember them, not directly, not for more than the past twelve years.  

Some of us come uncomfortably, painfully close.  Anyone who's had any association with Alzheimers or other forms of dementia know well what it's like for someone to lose their memories of who they've been and become "lost."  Yet the situation in Canaan is different, I think, because during those twelve years you are completely lucid, living your life forming new vivid and vibrant memories ... which you know you will forget in no more than twelve years.  The people of Canaan live stuck in a repeating cycle, and are aware of both the reality of their situation and the limits that confine them. 

For the people of Canaan, they live just as you and I do, but they have no "I"  that has traveled with them throughout their lives, no touchstone for when the axis gets tilted. There's nothing to hold on to.  Except, their book. 

Everyone carries their book with them at all times -- tied to them, in fact.  They know that their books are, in that great phrase, "their written past selves" and that "the books will tell them who they have been."  Even in this strange world, people need that.  Need something consistent amidst all the inevitable challenges and changes of life.  Need a sense of identity that can tell them who they've been, who they are, and who they might be.  For the people of Canaan, who have no connection with their past, their books provide them with a "written past self" that helps them navigate the present and points them toward a future. 

What is that identity for you?  What is it that you hold on to when your feet are swept out from under you?  Who is the "you" who looks out at the face the the mirror? 

What gives the plot of The Forgetting its push is Nadia, because she, for some reason, didn't forget during the forgetting.  She remembers.  And remembering, she wants to understand why things are the way they are, and how -- if -- they could be made right.  While the book is written for ages 12 and up, I have to say that I had a hard time putting it down, and really wish it hadn't come to an end.  The plot twists felt completely real, and were completely unexpected.  It was, as my mom hated to hear people say, "a good read." 

What would be in your book?  Who is the "you" you come back to, the "you" who is you, the "you" you can count on when you can't count on anything else.  What, for you, precedes "ergo sum" -- you ... what ... therefore you are?  Our Unitarian Universalist faith doesn't give us the answers to these questions.  It does tell us that they're important to ask. 

There is a danger in what we've been thinking about this morning, that I feel I have to address.   We can get too attached to our anchors, hold too tightly to those things that ground us, limit ourselves by being too bound by what we've been.  It is all too easy to say "this got me through the last axial tilt, so I'd better not let of of it.  Even a little."  We can become almost superstitious about it, like the athlete who insists on wearing the same socks to every game because he was wearing them that time they won.  We can use this sense of "who I've been, and who I am" to fix ourselves in place.  Yet are not meant to be fixed in place.  We are meant to be in orbit -- moving, turning, rotating, spinning, circling, looping, pulsating, resonating, and, yes, repeating, yet never quite exactly in the same way. 

The author of The Forgetting address all of this too, having her heroine write in her book near the end, 
"We are made of memories.  I've read those words every day of my life.  Today I decided that they're true.  We are who we have been.  But it's my choice today that is the memory of tomorrow. It's my choice that determines what I will become.  Not the memories of the past." 
We live our lives not in ever-repeating circles, but in spiraling cycles. We come back to same of the same places, to be sure, but coming back to them again we find that they're ever so slightly, and sometimes quite drastically, different because, hopefully, we're different.   Because over the course of our last trip around our own internal sun we've changed.  Grown.  Become someone new. 

May it be so for us all. 

Pax tecum,


Preachers all know the experience of having to cut a passage (and sometimes more than just one passage) from their sermons.  Sometimes the whole thing is too long.  Sometimes this passage isn't entirely on point.  Often it's one of the passages we really love.  (The sacrifices we make for the congregations we serve!)  Here's one from this past Sunday's sermon:

In 1765 the French literary critic Antoine Leonard Thomas wrote an essay in praise of Decartes and wrote a slightly expanded version of all of this.  It should probably be emblazoned on the walls of Unitarian Universalist churches everywhere. You see, Descartes had not been merely thinking when he had his epiphany.  Specifically, he was in the process of doubting -- doubting everything.  And when he got to the point of doubting his own existence, he realized that the act of doubting required a Doubter and that, in this case, he was the Doubter.  Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum -- I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.