Sermon by Joanne Giannino
Note: Italicized words in the sermon are a reference to the reading given before the sermon, a piece called “At One” by Victoria Safford from the 2003 UUA Meditation Manual Walking Toward Morning.
A few years ago, I was visiting a church in Vermont. As I walked in the minister was in the pulpit. He said, before we start today I want to apologize to the congregation. I inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings this week. I am sorry. I wrote a report to the board about the state of the church’s ministry and some of my comments hurt the feelings of one of our members. In an effort to get my thoughts out on paper, I neglected to check the tone and possible meaning of my words. I apologize. In the future I will be more careful and think about the possible consequences of my words. The ministry of this church is very dear to me. I value the input of each of you in this ministry. My role is to support what is happening well and to carefully state what I think could be better. Thank you for listening. Now let us begin our worship time together.
As I took my seat, I had been riveted to my spot, I thought, wow, that took guts. A public amends. The task is ownership. The goal is truth, for its own redemptive sake.
In 12-step work, making amends is quite different from making an apology. An apology is typically thought of as saying “I’m sorry” and “expecting a response of acceptance, pardon or forgiveness.” With an amends, “we state our errors, our role in the incident and that we will correct our behavior in the future. We may or may not ask for forgiveness. We may or may not experience a positive response. In many cases our changed behavior indicates a stronger amends than words ever could.”
The minister made an amends. He said he would correct his behavior. He would make a change. He didn’t expect a positive response. Although, I’m sure he hoped for one. He took ownership. The goal was truth. Whether or not the other party accepts the amends is not the point.
Yesterday, I found out that I hurt someone – inadvertently, without knowing it. It could have easily happened in my church community. It happened at school. A few of us started getting together at the beginning of the school year, just three weeks ago, to form a support group for these last couple of years before graduation. Well, at least two people from the larger community felt excluded from joining the group. Now, I had no idea that they were even interested in joining such a group. Our little group just happened, it seemed to me. And at first I kind of got my back up, you might recognize the feeling. Reptilian, fight or flight. “I didn’t know they were interested. I can’t know everything. Oh, they should just get over it, and start their own group if they want one so bad. It’s not my fault…”
My defensive tone and words gnaw at me. Someone was hurt by something I did even though I didn’t know that what I did would hurt them. I was part of a group that did not consider the effects of our actions. I did not consider the consequences of my actions. I hurt someone inadvertently. I owe her an apology. No, I owe her an amends. I need to change the way I operate in this community. I need to think before I act. What I do affects others. Of course I could choose to act anyway, but that would make my action and consequences conscious. I need to become more conscious of what I am doing.
On the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, every fall, every year, the people make their peace with anyone they have wronged or slighted or injured or in any way neglected in the past twelve months. These are the Days of Awe. Here we are festival time, celebrating the New Year and heading towards Atonement Day, when our names will be sealed in the Book of Life if we have done our tasks well, if we have turned toward God and made our relationships right.
When my kids were young and they made a mistake or broke something by accident, they really did not want to admit that they did it. It was as if saying, yes I broke that lamp or spilled that milk, clearly accidents, that it reflected badly on their character. I would say to one of them, oh it was an accident; you broke it, just say you are sorry and let’s fix it. But he would say, but it wasn’t my fault. It was an accident. Well, yes it was an accident, you didn’t mean to do it, but it was you who chose to run through the living room and made the lamp fall. So you need to say you are sorry and be more careful. But it wasn’t my fault, he would insist.
Taking responsibility for things we didn’t mean to do is hard. I find at any age. I did it. I didn’t mean it. But my actions caused it. I’m sorry. I will do better next time.
“Making amends is an opportunity to choose the kind of person we would like to become,” says the 12-step guide, “by making amends we admit we are human like everyone else and cease to set ourselves apart from others. We do not beat ourselves up for making mistakes. We merely admit that we made them and do what we can to correct them. Our actions show that we have enough respect for ourselves and others to own up to the harm we have done. We commit ourselves to justice. We demonstrate that we wish to be fair, honest, and mature…the purpose is to do what we can to heal ourselves and our relationships and to set ourselves free.”
I wish to be mature. And more. I wish to live my life fully and feel a deep connection to others, free from separation. And that requires some toughness. To listen when other people say I have hurt them and to own up to my part. And to be open to others when they ask me for forgiveness. You get to choose which way will be right in this case between you as persons and with all your gods. What response will make the world more whole?
I’ve had an amends to make for about three years. It seems like a little thing now. And I wondered if my friend even thought about it. But I did. I thought about it on and off. The little thing becomes big. So, I decided to take care of it this year, at this time, in the fall, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Again I was part of a group (seems to be a continuing theme: community, brokenness to wholeness, interdependent web of connection…very UU) who made a decision that affected someone, that someone was my friend. I was on the executive staff at a retreat week and midweek four out of five staff met, the dean wasn’t present, and we decided that making announcements at every meal was a real drag. (Sound familiar?)We decided to tell the conference that we would no longer be making announcements but that they could use a bulletin board to post their items and that everyone should now check the board periodically during the day. Well we had not really thought through the consequences of our decision. It wasn’t really fair to change the rules midweek and expect everyone, not just the four of us, to change their modus operandi. And it wasn’t fair to make the decision without the dean present for the discussion. And my friend, because we no longer made announcements at lunch, did not get the help she needed for an afternoon activity that she needed many hands to have happen. And she was already incredibly stressed by the task and then because of the decision of the group, of which I was a part, she was really stressed.
Now of course while I am telling you this story, floods of other occasions from the last 12 months are pouring through my mind. Imagine how many deep breaths you would need to take. Imagine how many doors you’d have to know on, how many phone calls….
But I want to tell you the rest of the story. So here is my friend totally overwhelmed with her task. I have betrayed her. I tell her that I can’t make her announcement but that I will try to get some help. I feel emotionally helpless. I see her frustration and of course think she is mad at me. She must be thinking about me, right? Was I really just worried about her being angry at me, like the boy in our story earlier? Was I just avoiding a confrontation? I’m not sure. What could I have said? She just needed help. So I helped as best I could but I remained silent. My insides were urging me to say something but I did not. It was as if I tried to help her build a new boat without telling her I had broken it.
So last week I went to her house with the intention of making amends. We talked about a lot of things. When I had only 15 minutes left before I had to leave, I took a deep breath. I felt awkward but I told the truth. I was wrong. I was sorry. I let you down. Tears fell as I committed to not ever do that again. She said she had never thought about that time of frustration as having anything to do with me. She had not been angry with me. But she accepted my amends. I was trembling. My whole body and soul releasing what I had kept inside for years. The task wasn’t to make me feel better. It was to take ownership. The goal was truth. The goal was wholeness, holiness, restoration. I continued to tremble. And she comforted me. She assured me that I had not done anything to ruin our relationship. That it would take more than that. We were whole. I love you she said. I love you too.
Now you may be thinking, that was easy. She wasn’t angry with you. What if she had been? Well, then I would have had to accept that. I would have had to deal with those feelings. She certainly had a right to be. I let her down. And the idea is to stay in relationship. To have faith in, to trust in relationship.
When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt into the desert they were beginning a whole new life with a whole new God. A god who treasured relationship. A god who was committed to being part of history and had a way of thinking about history where change was possible, where all things new were possible. Where things were not going round in endless circles bound to repeat repeat repeat like a broken record. This transition wasn’t easy. It was not what they were used to.
And you will remember that when the people got to Sinai, Moses said wait here I’ll be back. So the people waited. And they waited some more. And you remember that Moses was up on the mountain talking to YHWH and receiving the Ten Commandments. Well the people got restless. Moses had been gone a long time. They were hungry, tired and afraid. They had left all they had known. And they wondered who this new god was anyhow. And how were they going to survive. And where was the milk and honey? Right, you remember. So they resorted to what they knew best, the customs of their captors and their previous pagan ways. They forged a golden calf from melted wares and began to worship as idol, another god, something their new god frowned upon, but they didn’t know it yet.
So down comes Moses all rosy cheeks with the two tablets. He sees what is happening. God sees what is happening. Moses is mad. God threatens to destroy the people Moses says no, not them, kill me… God says no, I can’t do that. Moses says, Good, I’ll take care of this. He storms into the camp, throws down the tablets, they break into a million pieces, and he scolds, what are you doing? Didn’t I tell you I’d be back? Couldn’t you wait? Now, go to your room, or tent, or that other side of the mountain, and think about what you have done. When I come back you better have changed your attitude and your behavior. (Sound familiar to anyone who has a child or was once a child?)
Moses stomps back up the mountain and eventually returns with a second copy of the Ten Commandments. He is gone for two times 40 days, just to teach them a lesson I bet. By then god has cooled off. Moses too. The tablets are cooled off too by then I imagine. The people are forgiven. The people have repented and agree to begin again. God knows they can do it. They become his people and he their god. And the rest they say is history.
This beloved story is a “decisive historical event” in the life of the Jewish people. It is foundational to the faith of the Jews, who are our spiritual ancestors. As we sit here I am aware that some of you were raised in Jewish homes. As we sit here I am aware that Unitarian Universalism has its roots in Judaism, and its daughter religion Christianity. As we sit here I am aware that we are the children of humanity and these days are part of our human roots, the high holy days of our spiritual relatives.
“We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate, we are free.” This from Thomas Cahill, author of The Gifts of the Jews.
We are free. Imagine. Something yearns in us to come round right. Something creaky, rusty, heavy, almost calcified within us tries – in spite of us and of all our fears and self-deceptions – to turn and turn and creak and turn again and come round a little truer.
All it takes is to admit we were wrong. All it takes is to admit we are human. We are in holy relationship to the divine and to each other. We are wholly in relationship with the divine and with each other.
I wish you all a Happy Rosh Hashanah and a Blessed Yom Kippur. That your name be sealed in the Book of Life and your year be sweet with apples and honey. Amen.
And now let us listen as Faye sings the Kol Nidrei: a traditional prayer that asks for us to be released from all vows that we have not kept, all vows that we never intended to keep, all vows that we did not know we could not keep.
Responsive Reading “Kol Nidrei” Written by Rev. Mark Belletini
And now let’s stand and say the words to each other, right and left side)
Gone are the promises we made
because of pressure or praise.
Gone are the promises we made
because of shame or guilt.
Gone are promises and vows we made
because of habit, because of custom, or
because of confusion.
Gone they are, vanished! I see them no longer. They are no more.
Gone the excuses for why I can't.
Gone the vows I made to confirm my vanity.
Gone the dreams I dreamed that cut me off
from everyone else's dream.
Gone my vow to never have dreams,
so that I could carry my future in my dark little pocket.
Gone, vanished, just like that!
As magically as sunset, as wondrously as moonset,
it disappears, this habit of refusing to live on the edge.
The paper is blank, the field is empty, the map has not been made. The guarantees are gone.
And, thus, now I can begin to set down my burdens, and define myself no more by my failings.
Everyone: The breath of my life will bless, the cells of my Being sing in gratitude, awakening!
Singing Together "O Sing Hallelujah" #217
Benediction #636 (adapted)
O Source of peace, lead us to peace, a peace profound and true; Source of freedom, lead us to freedom, a freedom profound and true. We are free. We are at peace. We are in a whole new way of relationship to the divine and with each other. May it be so. Our deeds do inscribe us in the Book of life and blessing, filled with freedom and peace! Amen.
Our time of worship has ended. Please turn and greet those around you.