Erev Yom Kippur

Erev Yom Kippur
The Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson-Doyle
September 19th, 2010


Damp and Oozy by Jane Ellen Mauldin
The Day of Atonement by Yehuda Amichai

Message: Erev Yom Kippur

Note: The sermon is an oral event. This manuscript may not reflect the exact spoken words. If you want to hear what was actually said, you can listen to sermon visit our website at © Matthew Johnson-Doyle, 2010.

Buttons, zippers, and spools of thread
in every color, and press-studs and buckles.
My father, writes the poet, had a similar shop of threads and buttons,
a shop burned there, he says,
and we know, of course, what he means by there –
and when the poet has finished telling this story,
he goes home with all the worshipers.

So it goes.
There is evil in the world, great and terrible evil.
So great, we sometimes only refer to it obliquely,
a suggestion –
and maybe this way is better,
to speak of a shop, its threads and buttons.
Maybe it’s better to say less and mean more,
than to speak harshly, coarsely, with too little reverence,
about the great evil in the world.

I don’t know, I’m not sure.
But I know there is evil,
and I know that sometimes we are part of it.
You can get overwhelmed sometimes.
You start to learn about how you and your life
might be embedded in structures of oppression,
you start to think about all that has gone undone,
you think about all the people whom you might’ve done wrong to –
every unkind word, every uncharitable thought,
every time you would like to take it back,
and it’s just too much.
It’s just too much –

every act both evident and subtle which has fueled the illusion of separateness
so many acts,
too many,
it’s just overwhelming.

We’d just throw up our hands.

Why try to reduce our waste, when we still make so much.
Why work for justice, when the forces of injustice are so large.
Why go the extra mile, when ten thousand miles stretch beyond that.

It’s just too big.

So maybe it’s better, to speak of buttons and zippers
and threads of many colors.

Better to be concrete, specific,
for the holy lives in the damp and oozy,
in the difficult and the detailed,
and it’s too much,
like drinking water from firehouse,
to contemplate the vastness of the universe,
or to address the magnitude of human evil,
even to confess the litany of our own failings.
It’s too much.

You can understand, can’t you –
why the prince would decide to be a turkey.
Take off the mantle of responsibility,
the fancy clothes of authority,
of must do and must be,
get down on the floor,
take no more than scraps.

You can get it.
There’s a reason that astronomers and justice activists and theologians
are all a little nutty.
A little off.
Tempted to act like a turkey.
It’s just too much.

Better, maybe, to take it in little bites.
Be specific.
Buttons and zippers and multi-colored threads.
Instead of, instead of.

I don’t know.
I’m not sure about this.
I just wonder.

It’s hard, say, to forgive someone for something huge.
And it doesn’t feel right to be asked, or to ask,
for forgiveness for something abstract.

A father goes to his daughter –
she now grown, starting a job in the world,
soon to be married,
and the father comes to visit her new house in Davenport,
to meet the woman who will soon be his daughter-in-law,
and, a Saturday morning after breakfast,
they take a walk in the neighborhood,
the golden retriever pulling the leash to keep up the pace,
and the father says,
dear one, I am sorry for everything I did wrong.
Forgive me.

But the daughter wonders, does he even know?
Does he know how, when he said, “no daughter of mine”
it cut to the bone,
does he know what he did?
And maybe she blows it off,
“sure dad, nobody’s perfect.
You were fine.”

And the illusion of separateness continues.

But what if,
what if, their footsteps echoing on the sidewalk,
the father says,
“I’m sorry. I was wrong. You are my daughter, and I love you,
and I love you for who you are, and I’m sorry for what I said,
that day you left for your sophomore year,
forgive me.”

Maybe she would say, “Thank you dad.
I forgive you.
I’m glad you are here,
part of my family now,
blessing my love.”
Or something like that.

It’s important to be specific.
To get into the damp and oozy.

It is the illusion of separateness that we must resist,
the idea that we are better, different, independent.

We think – and our society teaches us –
that we are islands, but, nay, we are drops of water in an ocean wave,
part of a whole.

And it is with others, in relationship,
that we find meaning and beauty,
that we make value and discover who we are.

And so it is also with others, in relationship,
that we do wrong, that we hurt and wound,
and that we are hurt and wounded by others,
and it is in relationship that we need forgiveness,
and that we need to forgive,
so that we might begin again in love.

so we might begin again in love.

It is important to be concrete.

Every time our spirits languish terrified to draw to near,
may we know each other’s anguish and,
with love that casts out fear, bind all our wounds again.

Today is Erev Yom Kippur, the eve of the day of atonement.
In the Jewish tradition,
today is the day that you go to the people you have wronged,
or might have wronged,
and you apologize.
It’s important to be specific.
And you ask for forgiveness.

Hopefully, the one you have wronged offers that forgiveness.
It’s important to forgive:
it’s a spiritual mercy to another who might be hurting,
and it releases us from the bondage of our grudges,
and, anyway, chances are that you have people you need to ask forgiveness for,
and, to mix my religions,
as we Unitarians do,
its good karma to forgive others.

On the Day of Atonement, you can go to God,
go to the temple, and ask for forgiveness from God
for all the sins you might have made against the holy.
But you can’t do that unless you’ve preformed the duties
of Erev Yom Kippur -
to ask forgiveness of other persons.
To reconcile and to become at-one with one another.

Humanity comes first.
I like this order.

Some folks seem to believe that if they are right with their God,
then it doesn’t really matter if they are right with other people.
I met a lot of folks who think this way when I lived in Colorado Springs,
the home of the right-wing Christian movement.
I know there are folks of every religion who think this way –
if they are right with the holy,
then nothing else matters.
But the ancient custom of the day of atonement tells us that this doesn’t work –
you can’t get right with the holy
if you aren’t right with your neighbor.
And, thanksgiving and praise, a lot of folks, of a lot of religions,
do act this way.
I wish we all did.

Humanity comes first.
It’s important to be specific.
It’s good to get into the damp and oozy.

This is not just about the apology and the request for forgiveness.
This is also about the work of reconciliation and relationship.
You make connections when you get past the illusion of separateness.
When we find our brother and sister hungry for the feast we share.

You want to get the prince to come back to the table,
you’ve got to get under the table with him,
drop the silk robes, be a friend first, and a healer second.

[I must tell you that when I was writing those last two paragraphs,
about how you have to get down low to make connections,
my Pandora Internet radio station was playing that old Garth Brooks song,
Friends in Low Places.
I swear. Friends in low places.
Sometimes the universe works in strange and magical ways.]

When I first read this story,
about the prince who thought he was a turkey,
I loved it. I thought, I’ve got to use that.
But, I wondered, what does it have to do with Yom Kippur?
I’m sure some of you wondered the same thing.

I put it aside, thought, we’ll, I’ve got to find something about being sorry
about forgiveness.
But I didn’t find anything that grabbed me the same way,
and I went back to the prince and the turkey with fresh eyes,
and it struck me –
that line about the illusion of separateness,
and how we begin again in love.

We make apologies and we forgive for the sake of reconciliation,
so that a relationship might be restored.
But what does reconciliation look like?
How does that actually happen?

Well, sometimes, it’s getting on the floor,
eating crumbs from tin plates.
We can’t really reconcile with one another
when we hold ourselves above the other,
when we say, well, I’m not like that.

What would have made me like the story even better,
would have been if the wise man,
instead of getting down under the table himself,
had said to the king,
take off your silk robes and get down there with him.

That would have been better,
for it’s not hard to imagine that it is with his father,
with the expectations of his role, un-chosen,
that the prince struggles, which makes him flee.

But there’s something useful in the fact that the wise man
is the one who takes action –
because it tells us about the importance of friendship.
Low places, damp places, oozy places.
Friends who bind our wounds,
though our hearts might be wary
of what we need so much.

Friendship – friendship is not abstract.
It is not general or non-specific.
Friendship, like a good apology,
is concrete.
Friendship happens when people do actual things together –
eat together, read a book and talk about it together,
go hunting together, run together,
cook together, work together, play cards together.
Shared projects make friendship.
When I think of my good friends,
I think of what we do together –
the common things, the everyday things.

And it is these concrete friendships,
these times together doing things together,
on the level together,
it is this which makes healing, and reconciliation, and transformation possible.

We don’t heal because someone we don’t know
says it is good to heal.
We heal from our wounds when a friend spends time with us,
doing other things,
things we love together,
and treats us with care and compassion, but not pity – not pity –
and draws us out,
gives us courage,
shows us a vision of the journey towards wholeness.

Reconciliation is the same way.
It’s awfully hard to make reconciliation with someone
who we don’t really spend time with,
who we don’t know.

But when a breach comes between two people,
a hurt, a separation,
it is when we decide to value the friendship more,
and when we spend time together,
do things together,
that, perhaps in passing, we can say,
“hey, I’m sorry about last time.”
and forgiveness, hopefully, follows,
and the friendship grows stronger for having survived
one of those inevitable misses, errors, oopses,
which seem always to come.

Like healing and reconciliation, transformation, too,
is concrete.
We don’t sit alone in a darkened room and transform.
That might be the place we decide to transform,
but actual transformation is a matter of habit.
And, frankly, it cannot be done without friendship.
It cannot be done without companions –
people to give us joy, and show us mercy,
to call us to account and keep us centered.

This is the paradox:
it is with our friends that we err,
that we need to go to,
on the eve of the day of atonement,
which is any day we choose, really,
it is our friends we need to go to and apologize,
and forgive, and restore –
if we had no friends,
we would hardly ever be in need of forgiveness –
but – here’s the paradox –
but without friends, we won’t have the strength,
the courage, the longing to restore what is broken,
and bind the wounds of time and finitude.

Sometimes we lean too hard,
but we still need someone to lean on.

Buttons, zippers, and threads of many colors
are concrete things.

I don’t know, I’m not sure,
but I think it’s better to deal in these things –
to be real, to get down below the table of abstractions,
to remember, first, that we are each human beings,
that in this concreteness we disabuse ourselves
of the illusion of separateness,
that we experience the mutuality that allows us
to forgive ourselves and others
and begin again in love.
Friends first, healers second.

There is much evil in the world,
great and terrible,
and we have each done so much wrong,
of which we hardly know.
We could be so easily overwhelmed.
Give up.

But our friends – those who will be real with us –
they call us back to life.

Nobody’s perfect, it’s true.
You are not asked to be perfect.
You are asked to make, and offer, amends
for the specific and actual things
which you might have done not as well as you would have liked,
and then keep living, keep trying,
keep connecting, keep risking connection,
making and restoring and building friendships,
the friendships that will carry us through,
call us forward,
and whose care, whose laughter, whose tears, whose grace,
is an act of worship.