Sunday, October 09, 2011


[Listen to the Sermon]

Chalice Lighting:
We light this chalice as a symbol of our search for truth
We light this chalice in appreciation for this supportive community
We light this chalice in celebration of our humanity
We light this chalice in gratitude for life's amazing gifts
We light this chalice in love

Opening Words:  "Broken, Unbroken" by Mary Oliver

Reading:  From Charlotte Kasl's If Buddha Married

We are all fallible, imperfect beings.

Reconciliation is the blessing of two people stepping past hurt, pride, and ego, and revealing their hearts.  We go from separation to connection, from dissonance to harmony.  We unmask our buried grief and hurt.  Sometimes, we weep together.  We were out of harmony, separated, and now we come together back into harmony, into the "us" place.  The more we reconcile with everyone in our lives through our capacity to forgive, the more we come into oneness with ourselves.  Through our daily relations of forgiving and being forgiven, we start to experience the marvelous vastness of loving.  That's what makes life so beautiful and allows us to enter into loving relationships with others.   

* * *

I want to invite you to share a vision with me.  Get yourselves comfortable in your seats.  Take a slow, deep breath in.  If you’re okay with it, close your eyes.  (If you’re not okay with it . . . close your eyes – or don’t, whatever lets you get comfortable.)  Breathe in . . . and out.  Again . . . in . . . and out.  [. . .]

And now, try to imagine what it would feel like – not how you’d think about it, but how it would feel – to be at peace.  To know that you have “a right to be here.”  To feel whole – body, mind, and spirit.  No anxiety.  No fear.  No guilt.  Completely at home – in the world, and in yourself.  [. . .]

Keep breathing.  [. . .]

Come on back now.  Don’t put that feeling completely away; we’re going to come back to it.

Last week we looked together at the fact that all of us – each of us – you and me – we all know the experience of feeling less than.  We all know those things we don’t want anyone else to know for fear that we wouldn’t be welcomed anymore, wouldn’t be accepted anymore, wouldn’t be loved anymore.  We all know what it’s like to make mistakes, and we all know full well the mistakes we’ve made.  Probably could tick off a list, couldn’t we?  (Didn’t listen real well to my kids this morning; was sarcastic with my spouse last night; didn’t speak up during that awkward conversation the other day; was more resentful than called for when my parents asked for help last week; a little too comfortable with my lifestyle even though I know I need to change things.)

This month’s theme is Atonement and, as Lord Byron said, “The beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity.”  Listen to that again:  the beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity.  Said simply, we can’t do anything about the brokenness we don’t know about.  Whether brokenness in our relationship with someone else; brokenness in our relationship with our own values; brokenness in our relationship with Life – we can’t do anything about fixing it if we don’t see it first.

So this is the part of Atonement, the recognition of its “necessity,” that last week we identified with what’s often called “confession.” 

Our Jewish neighbors, family, and friends have just gone through their most sacred season, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  This is the time each year for that “searching and fearless moral inventory” we talked about last week, that examination of one’s life to see where I’ve “missed the mark,” or “fallen down when I should have been standing,” or where I “intentionally crossed a line” or was “ignorant when I should have known.” 

For those of you who weren’t here last week, those are definitions of some of the seven different Greek words that are translated in the Christian New Testament documents as the one English word, “sin.”  To “sin” I suggested, is therefore more about making a mistake of some kind than it is about doing something on someone else’s list of proscribed behaviors.  And because making a mistake is not, in and of itself, all that big a deal, what makes a mistake a “sin” is that it causes a relationship to be broken.

It could be, and most often is, your relationship with another person.  It could be, and almost always is, your relationship with yourself.  It most certainly could be your relationship with God, the Divine, the Spirit of Life, whatever it is you call that overarching totality within which we live, and move, and have our being.  The “Sacred Something” I often call it.

So if “sin” has to do with breaking a relationship, “atonement” has to do with repairing it. It’s important to keep in mind that this confession, this moral inventory, isn’t the end of the process; it’s only the beginning.  Because atonement isn’t a static state.  It is a process – the process of rebuilding relationships.  If you change the pronunciation a bit “atonement” becomes “at-one-ment.”  The creation of wholeness where there was fragmentation, division, brokenness.

But how do you do it?  When I was meeting with the Active Minds group this past week we agreed that in a lot of ways it’d be easier if we were Christians or Jews.  Those traditions offer specific methods for engaging the work of atonement whereas we Unitarian Universalists . . . well . . . we’re kind of left to figure it out for ourselves.

But, of course, so is everybody else, really.  Anyone who takes the work of atonement seriously has to figure it out for herself or himself.  After all, going to a priest and sitting in a confessional is all well and good, but you know that if you’ve really broken a relationship it’s going to take a lot more than a few “Hail Marys” and a couple of “Our Fathers” to set things right again.  That’s just an outer form; the inner work is a whole lot more complicated.

Because relationships are complicated.  And unique.  Since no two relationships are the same – even the relationship between the same two people changes over time – how could any one approach to atonement suffice in every situation?  An outer form?  A guide?  A reminder?  Sure.  But the work itself? 

And, of course, that work is a lot more involved than simply saying “I’m sorry.”  Anyone can say, “I’m sorry.”  (In fact, I’ve heard it said that saying “I’m sorry” means never having to say “I love you.”)  That’s why religion don’t talk about importance of apologizing but, rather, the importance of repenting.

That’s another one of those words, like “sin,” that’s got a lot of baggage for a lot of people, but really it means “to turn,” or “to reorient.”  Bottom line?  It means, “to change.”  You have to change; I have to change; we have to change, not the person we’ve hurt.

Let me say that again – the person with whom the relationship has been broken is not the one who needs to change.  I’d never really thought about it like that before – and I’ll bet that most of you haven’t either – but when most of us think about making amends, or seeking forgiveness, this is really what we’re thinking about:

·         I discover that I’ve done something that has broken our relationship.

·         I go to you and say “I’m sorry.”

·         And because I’ve said, “I’m sorry,” I’m more or less expecting that there’s going to be some kind of internal change within you so that you’ll forgive me.  And when you’ve been transformed and forgiven me . . . well . . . then my atonement is complete.

I think this is why so many people get hung up on questions like, “how can I atone if the other person won’t forgive me?”  Or, “what if the thing I need to atone for happened a long time ago and the person is completely out of my life, or has died?”

I’ll let you in on a secret.  Atonement – the spiritual practice of atonement – ultimately has nothing to do with externals.  It has, essentially – in its essence – nothing to do with seeking and receiving forgiveness from someone else.  If we can do that, great.  Good.  And trying to do that may be a part of the atonement process.  Probably is.  But the spiritual practice of atonement has to do entirely with the reconciliation of myself with my Self.  With that deep part of me, that inner voice, what Hindus might call the God in me.

That’s where atonement happens, and that’s why it’s so darned hard.  We can get distracted from the real work of atonement by trying to get that other person to forgive us, or by fretting over the fact that we can’t.  Yet all along what we’re really doing, whether we know it or not, is keeping ourselves safe from the real task of real atonement.

Because it’s hard.  And it can be scary.  And we’d rather not change, thank you very much.  Yet if atonement first requires confession, it then requires repentance, a real change on our part. 

But then . . . well . . . get yourselves comfortable again.  Breathe.  And remember that feeling of being at peace.  Knowing that you have “a right to be here.”  Feeling whole – body, mind, and spirit.  No anxiety.  No fear.  No guilt.  Completely home – in the world, and in yourself. 

Closing Words:      “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann (excepted)

Beyond a wholesome discipline, 
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, 
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

In Gassho,

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