We Begin Again in Love

We Begin Again in Love: A New Year Service
preached* for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
September 8, 2013

I love the Jewish tradition of starting the new year with repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. I like clearing the slate and starting fresh. Putting the junk aside to clear the way for the new.  I like brand new pencils for school and a clean work space.  I like feeling like it’s never too late to start over, to change, and learn, and grow. 

The start of school has always felt more “new” to me than the first of January.  It could be that I come from a family of teachers, but I think it’s more ancient than that – I think it’s as ancient as the Jewish calendar.   A good and sweet new year to you all this morning.

A good and sweet new year is what I long for.  I want that fresh start this morning.  One morning this week, as I often do, I listened to the radio news.   I was barraged with stories about violence and impending violence in Syria, about how women are terrifyingly vulnerable in many places of the world.  New books about how Quadaffi in Libya would visit schools to choose girls to brutally rape and join his harem, about the kidnapping and rape of a journalist in Somalia and drug cartel violence in Mexico.  That story was followed by one about how more cities are sweeping the homeless into less prominent areas – not helping the homeless, but cutting them off from services so they would leave…. it was the kind of morning that reminds me how lucky I am in my life to be physically safe and housed and fed and loved.

But to tell the truth, listening to the news that morning, I felt burdened.  I was weighted down by a grudge like the people of Grudgeville.  My grudge wasn’t personal that morning, but rather human – the burden of horrible things that humanity inflicts on humanity and the planet.  I carry the burden of others – wanting to stop the violence, feeling victimized by it and powerless to change it.  I can so grow weary and ragged with the weight of the world, if I’m not careful….

Careful to connect with what is good in humanity and my unique contribution to that good, connect with the changing seasons and rhythm of the planet, connect with a love that can guide incredible change and growth.

One of you recently told me that the pastor of your church growing up used to say, while greeting folks leaving the church after worship, “You are loved.”  I’ve been using those 3 words – words as magic as “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.”   In fact, they are the heart out of which the 5 other magic words can grow.  We need to know that we are loved, in order to forgive or seek forgiveness, don’t you think?  I don’t know if it matters if you are loved by another person or loved by God; what matters is that you know you are loved.  Forgiveness grows out of that love.  When we know we are loved, we can forgive ourselves and others – we can let go of those burdens of resentment and hate and the desire to hurt in response to being hurt.

Though forgiveness may seem to be about responding to someone who has hurt you, like the people of Grudgeville, we learn that forgiving another really lightens our own load – it is a part of our own healing.  Often, the grudges we carry really only hurt us – not the object of our resentment and hate.

Whenever Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur come around, I have a desire to confess some great sin to the congregation – I generally can’t think of anything to confess.  It’s not that I don’t make mistakes, but either my mistakes are too raw or personal to admit publicly, or don’t seem significant enough to bother you all with.  I realize, however, where this desire comes from – it’s not from ancient tradition, frankly, it’s the result of a movie that came out in 2000 while I was a seminary student in Chicago.  Probably not a very significant or impactful movie for most people, but for those of us in theological school at the time, it was ever fascinating as it focused on the friendship and careers and love triangle of clergy – a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and the childhood friend they both are in love with.  The rabbi, in a dramatic climactic scene, confesses to his congregation – well, let me read the scene to you…. the rabbi, played by Ben Stiller, says…

Since, uh, Yom Kippur... is kind of like the Super Bowl of the Jewish calendar... most rabbis try to cram a whole year's... worth of sermons into one kind of big "best of" sermon.  Um, I'm not gonna do that tonight. I'm not gonna talk about the meaning of God...or the situation in Israel...or the status of Jews around the world.

I'd like to talk about something a little more personal.  I'd like to talk about us.  The status of you and me. A wise man once told me that no rabbi can save anyone.He can only offer himself as a guide to other fearful people.

We live in a really complex world... a world where boundaries and definitions are blurring... and bleeding into each other in ways that-- that I think challenge us not just as Jews but as human beings.

And for a while now, you've let me be your guide.  You've shared your lives with me.  You've explored your faith with me...in ways that I know sometimes have seemed a little strange... and, and maybe even a little scary... but you put your trust in me...

and over the past few months...I have been violating that trust.  I've been violating it because I haven't been sharing my life with you.  For a number of months, I've been seeing a woman who isn't Jewish.  It doesn't matter if I'm still with her, which I'm not, or if I still love her, which I do, very much.

 What matters is that I shouldn't have been afraid to discuss it with you. I'm not sorry for loving her. I am sorry-- I'm very sorry-- that I put too little faith in you.  Yom Kippur is the day of atonement.  And so tonight I stand before you...and ask you to forgive me.”

Isn’t that a great sermon?  OK, I don’t know about the Super Bowl of Jewish holidays remark, but otherwise a great way to honor Yom Kippur, to set the record straight and start again.  This sermon, of course, in the movie, is followed by a vote of the Board about whether or not to fire the rabbi… and, as this is Hollywood, not real life, they of course, decide to keep him on.
In real life, however, forgiveness doesn’t always come so easily. It doesn’t come easy in Syria, in the rest of the world, in congregations, or in our lives.  To shift from a wrong, an act of violence, an injustice, resulting resentment, hate, or anger, to forgiveness, something has to change.  This, unfortunately, is inner work. 

I say unfortunately, because usually it’s easier to shift objects around us, than the heart inside.  That’s why war is easier than peace.  We shift objects in war – guns and missiles, bodies and such.  Peace requires a change of heart.   And we’ve obviously not yet figured that one out.

Because we’ve not figured that out internationally, there is an action this Wednesday, September 11 at 4pm on the corner of Abbot and Grand River in East Lansing, a vigil for peace and a “call-in” to congress to encourage diplomacy and oppose US military action in Syria.  Sometimes shifting objects helps with that shift of heart.  If this is where you stand, you are invited.  4pm this Wednesday.

And we must remember that we’re never in control of the response of another.  We influence one another greatly, but anyone who is raising a child knows that we are not in control!  We can call congress… but that doesn’t guarantee anything.I can say “I’m sorry,”  but the other person may not forgive me.  Likewise, I can say, “I forgive you” but sometimes the other person is not sorry.  and of course, it’s complicated by the fact that we can be offended by words or actions of another that are not intended to be offensive – then where does that leave us?  Is it my problem, or yours?

This all leads us back to Love and to Covenant.  Both Judaism and Unitarian Universalism are covenantal traditions – traditions in which how we treat one another and the world is more important than what it is we say we believe.  We have a covenant with the world and one another to act out of love, for the healing or betterment of the planet.  It makes sense to me to begin the new church year seeking and granting forgiveness, so we can begin again in love.

Some of us begin again in this community, having spent many years here, and others are just starting here or checking us out this morning.  Some are new and deeply committed, like our Interim Minister of Music, Kevin Tarsa, who comes here having been ordained by the UU congregation of Grand Traverse, and having graduated from Meadville/Lombard Theological school.   This year bridges his career as church musician as he responds to his calling to parish ministry.  We are paying him this year to help us as we figure out what is next for us in music.  He will be also providing pastoral care and other ministerial services as his time allows.  Kevin is working for us half-time, not full-time.

Later in the service we will be commissioning two seminary students – one new to this community, and one who has been a member for some time.  We commission them to acknowledge their new roles, and frankly, because their work with us is covenantal and based on love.  Though we are paying Nic Cable a small stipend – emphasis on small – to do some campus ministry for us, both Nic and Julica Hermann are volunteering their time here in exchange for an opportunity to learn from you and me about the ministry and congregational life.  Our agreement with them is not based on a contract of employment and financial compensation – it is a voluntary and volunteer opportunity based on covenant and grounded in love.  Though earlier in their education than our previous interns, Duffy and Greg, Nic and Julica will be performing similar functions again, as time allows.

Perhaps I do have something to ask your forgiveness for… I have invited these students in to our common life without asking your permission.  They were opportunities that I seized upon.  I consulted the leadership along the way, but I know that it has not been all rosy for everyone.   You called me to be your minister, and I’ve been handing the pulpit over to students.  For some, it has been invigorating, for others, disappointing. I want you to know that I’ve done this for both of us – for you and for me.  For you, because I am the longest tenured minister this congregation has had, and if you’ve been here for many years, you may feel the urge to call a different minister – this gives you that opportunity to experience another minister without having to fire me.  And for me, because you don’t have to fire me, but mostly because ministry is a lonely profession – serving this congregation of over 500 members and friends has been hard.  I am enjoying the company and the help that comes with working with students.

I am so looking forward to this new church year.   “For a while now, you've let me be your guide, said the rabbi.  You've shared your lives with me.   You've explored your faith with me..  in ways that I know sometimes have seemed a little strange...   and, and maybe even a little scary... but you put your trust in me...”  and for that I am grateful.

Perhaps trust is a reflection of that feeling that “you are loved” – when you are loved and you know you are loved, you can trust.  If you know you are loved, when a promise is broken, forgiveness can take place.  We forgive ourselves and each other.  We begin again in love.

In love, knowing that you are loved, I invite you to reflect on your hopes and dreams for your new year.  Your present context, at home or at school, work or life.  What is it that you trust? 

What relationships in your life need healing?  What sustains you as the seasons change and summer turns to autumn and we feel again the familiar cool crisp air, but make things new?  What difficult feelings and disappointments and anger need the transforming power of love and forgiveness in your life?   How will that help heal the world?

Remember to connect with what is good in humanity and your unique contribution to that good, connect with the changing seasons and rhythm of the planet, connect with a love that can guide incredible change and growth. 

Remember to return again to the home of your soul. 

As we sing the next song, think of the “home of your soul” as that knowledge that you are loved…and return to it as we welcome the new year. 

A good and sweet new year to you all this morning.

* Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.