Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

October 9, 2005

 “Let’s Begin Again”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


A Reformed Rabbi named Margaret Moers Wenig of Brooklyn once gave a sermon at a synagogue in New York City in which she asked, “What if we went home to visit God this Yom Kippur? God” Rabbi Wenig said, “would usher us into her kitchen, seat us at her table, pour two cups of tea. ‘Let me have a good look at you,’ she says. And at a single glance, God sees us as both newly born and dying. In a single glance she sees our birth and death and all the years in between. She sees us as we were when we were young: when we idolized her and trustingly followed her anywhere; when our scrapes and bruises healed quickly; when we were filled with wonder at all things new. She sees us in our middle years when everyone needed us and we had no time for sleep. And God sees our later years: when we no longer felt so needed. She sees us sleeping alone in a room that once slept two. God sees things about us we have forgotten and things we do not yet know.

When she is finished looking at us, God might say, ‘So tell me, how are you?’

God is sitting and waiting for us” Rabbi Wenig closes, “as she has waited every Yom Kippur, waiting very patiently until we are ready.”

Today we are in the middle of the Days of Awe: the period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a time for reflection, a time to metaphorically sit down in God’s kitchen over a cup of tea and allow ourselves to reflect on “How are we?”

Rabbi Wenig’s image of God as an old mother in the kitchen with tea, wanting her children to come home once in a while, is a liberal interpretation of the ancient tradition of Yom Kippur. Wenig alters the traditional images of sin and guilt and repentance and forgiveness into a more human, loving image. The task is still to make an assessment of one’s life, to judge how one has been and to set and intention for where one will go next. Her image, however, softens the traditional language of sin and guilt, repentance and atonement.

Our liberal tradition as Unitarian Universalists also has moved us away from dwelling on sin and guilt. Universalists like John Murray and Hosea Ballou had clearly articulated theologies of sin, but, to them, the consequence of sin was not eternal damnation. Murray believed that there was some punishment after death, for a limited period of time. But Ballou believed, as did most Universalists after him, that the consequences of sin were experienced entirely on this earth. Upon death, Ballou taught, we are immediately reconciled with our Creator. When we behave badly during our earthly lives, we feel the harm in our relationships with one another, in our sense of self, and in our present relationship with the divine. The incentive for good living is that life is fuller, richer and more satisfying. Having already been saved by God by virtue of being human, Universalists didn’t need to worry as much as their Calvinist brothers and sisters about pleading for God’s forgiveness.

Likewise, Unitarians didn’t emphasize a need for forgiveness as much as their more orthodox cousins. One criticism of Unitarians over the centuries has been a lack of the humility that is engendered by a sense of sinfulness. As the old saying goes, the Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them; the Unitarians believed themselves too good to be damned.

And so, it is worthwhile for us to turn our attention to the yearly ritual of atonement that Jews have celebrated for three thousand years. The task of Yom Kippur is to face up to mistakes, let go of resentments, hope that others have let go of their resentments of you, and to make a fresh start. That sounds like great stuff. But in my life, I have found it incredibly hard to do at times.

Oh, most mistakes are easy enough to face up to. If I arrive late somewhere, I am quick to apologize and admit my error. If I slip and say something that was unintentionally hurtful, I will readily do my best to smooth the rift. In fact, I’m quite willing to feel guilty about little silly errors for years and years and years. I remember this one incident when I was in college, about twenty years ago. The dorm I lived in was far enough away from the campus that there was a shuttle bus every morning. My friend Elaine ran onto the bus, and her hair was flying every which way. “Elaine, it looks like you just rolled out of bed,” I said. It was not exactly a flattering remark, even if she had just rolled out of bed. She said, “As a matter of fact, no, I did not just roll out of bed.” For some reason, she was not appreciative of my observation. As soon as she took her seat, I realized that her hair had been flying only because she had been leaping onto the bus, and in fact she looked especially attractive that day. She’d dressed up a little more than usual and had makeup on and, well, I could not have been more wrong. A twenty year old young woman who had spent a little extra time on her appearance that morning was greeted first thing by her supposed pal telling her that she looked awful. I have spent twenty years feeling guilty about having ruined her self-esteem that day. I wonder if twenty years of self-flagellation counts as atonement.

But there are more serious things I have done or left undone that I continue to feel guilty about. I had a dear friend, Rob, who visited me while I was in seminary in New York. He mentioned casually before coming out that he would like to see the play Cats. I had no desire to see Cats, and I assumed he just wanted to see any Broadway show and had mentioned Cats as one possibility. I got tickets to a different show. When I went to his funeral a year later, I found out that Cats was his favorite music and that he had never gotten to see it live. He had been diagnosed with AIDS when he’d come to visit me, and he probably knew that would be his one chance to see Cats before he died. It was another honest mistake, but that one really tortures me.

There are so many things to feel guilty about. I had originally written a long list of the things I have done or left undone which needle my conscience. How does one atone for such deeds, done with no malicious intent, which give no easy remedy? This uneasy conscience is surely an example of what Hosea Ballou referred to when he talked about sin having its consequences here on this earth. We suffer enough in life for the mistakes we make. There is no need for God to throw us into the fiery pits. Some of us do enough of that ourselves, thank you very much.

So part of the Day of Atonement is taking some time to face up to it that some things are not easily atoned for. How would that God that Rabbi Wenig described deal with someone who makes the endless line of mistakes that people like me make? Would she tell me I should have been more aware of what Rob’s needs might have been, knowing he was HIV positive and could get really sick sometime soon? Would she say, “Catherine, under no circumstances should you tell people that they look as though they’ve just rolled out of bed”? She might. Or when I sit in quiet to contemplate about how I want to move forward this year in integrity, joy and love, I might scold myself in that way. But it probably isn’t very helpful. It might be more helpful to put the past in the past by allowing it to have some space in my perpetual present. That God that Rabbi Wenig describes sees our whole lives, from beginning to end, as one whole piece. There is no life that doesn’t have those moments of error as part of the picture. But would that kind of loving presence expect to see any human life that didn’t experience the whole range of emotions? Would any parent really wish for their child that they never experience regret? That they never make selfish or unthinking mistakes? What parent would feel comfortable raising a child who had never experienced the difficult realities of life that shape a conscience and a soul?

The other side of atonement is forgiving others who have wronged us. This can be a real challenge when we feel we’ve truly been done an injustice. It can especially be a challenge if the one who has harmed us doesn’t acknowledge what they have done to us. How do we move forward in a way that allows us to live life fully? A Hasidic Jew from St. Paul Minnesota told a story of the rabbi who was his community’s spiritual leader: “At the age of thirteen,” he says, “I remember praying one day and I saw the rabbi bow, and it was a very divine moment for me. Because the thought that he bows to something or someone was awesome. And his bowing was so simple, so unassuming, so innocent, so natural that it wasn’t like he was being religious when he bowed or that he was being pious. It was like he was transparent, and whatever he was bowing to suddenly became very important. He went through eleven years of Russian labor camps, survived, not only physically but mentally, emotionally, religiously, and comes to New York and he’s just full of life and fun and enthusiasm and faith and no scars… no scars. His legs are crippled, his body broken, but no scars. He would tell us stories about all those years in labor camps and so on, and every one of those stories was entertaining, some of them were funny, and every one of them had a moral. Not a single one had anything to do with violence or with anger against his captors, oppressors... nothing, ever.”

I was so struck by this simple description of the rabbi. “No scars,” the young man says, “no scars.” The old rabbi had scars on his body, but not on his spirit. And yet, had he seen justice done? The description suggests that the rabbi did not seek justice for himself. It is doubtful to me that his captors at any point asked his forgiveness. And yet he was able to speak about his time in the labor camps with light-heartedness. This rabbi had chosen to have no scars. Perhaps it was all those Days of Atonement where he spent time acknowledging the wrong done to him and his determination to leave it in the year past that had allowed him to be so spiritually free.

This same young Hasidic Jew from St. Paul, on the other end of the spectrum in his Judaism from the liberal Rabbi Wenig, describes God remarkably similarly to the way in which Rabbi Wenig did. “When God comes down to Mount Sinai,” this Hasidic man says, “the one thing he begs of us is, ‘Please, don’t get religious on me. I’m trying to talk to you. Can I talk to you? Will you listen?”

For many of us in Unitarian Universalism, it is not a God who is asking to sit down with us, but it is the innermost part of ourselves, the heart of wisdom and compassion that dwells quietly with us, waiting patiently at the kitchen table with tea, ready to ask us how we’re doing. During these Days of Awe, perhaps it is time to sit down over that cup of tea, with that innermost part of ourselves, to ask, “How do I move forward in joy when I have done wrong? How do I move forward in joy when wrong has been done to me? How do I begin again?”

So often, the key is to begin again fresh. To choose through a conscious act to simply start fresh, to seize a new day, to take the opportunity to embrace a new year.

In the Compassionate Communication class that meets here Saturday mornings, Barbara Singer began class yesterday with a quotation from Thich Nhat Hahn. I awake this morning with a smile on my face. Twenty-four new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to see all creatures with the eyes of compassion.

Happy new year. May we begin again this morning and every new morning. No scars. No scars.