I begin today with three short readings. The first is from Ernest Hemingway. He began his short story entitled “Capital of the world” with a long sentence:
Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is diminutive of the name Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN, PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.
Alice Walker offered a short poem entitle “You Can Talk”
You can talk about the balm in Gilead
But what about the balm Right Here
What about the healing of the wounded heart
When someone you have harmed gleefully embraces you?
Father Greg Boyle has worked with hundreds of former gang members in Los Angeles. He created Homeboy Ministries. His latest book is entitled Forgive Everyone Everything. Forgive Everyone Everything. It’s a pretty freeing idea if we can actually live it.
Forgiveness is about restoration of life; it’s about becoming whole again; about repairing broken relatioinships. It’s about resilience, and resilience is about bouncing back and allowing yourself to be restored so that things in life don’t topple you. We all know what it’s like to have our hearts hardened by resentment. But if we can forgive everyone everything, then we can be freed from anger, hatred, and resentment.
Last Sunday, I mentioned that among the f-words invoked in this congregation, I encourage you to invoke forgiveness more and more often. Shortly after the service, one of you here said to me, “Here in Westport, New York rudeness meets New England Coldness.” Ouch! That’s not my experience. I’m discovering among you New York energy and passion with New England independence, hardiness and industriousness. It’s a great combination. Now the biggest surprise I have coming here is just how casual you are. I was expecting a more buttoned-up and busy people. Okay, you are busy, but you’re not buttoned-up. There’s far more playfulness under the surface—and a love of play. There are so many cultural creatives among you that you truly provide a sanctuary for people who are countercultural. And here’s what so important I’m noticing.
This congregation offers a sanctuary to folks who are countercultural, folks who don’t feel like they fit in the dominant mainstream religious or cultural norms. You’ve been doing this with energy, passion, hardiness, and industriousness for the past 74 and a half years. But if you go back to before this congregation was created. Unitarianism was a cold religion. For New England Unitarian culture could be insular and overly intellectual. Ralph Waldo Emerson called Unitarian worship corpse cold and his own congregation in Concord, an icebox. He saw that how suspicion and fear of the emotions among our New England Unitarian forbears limited them. But that’s a sermon for another day. My point is here at UU Westport, you offer a sanctuary for all people who struggle with the polarization in the wider nation, the selfishness of the dominant culture, and the deep grief caused by witnessing elected officials turn away from our principles. As my Rabbi friend in Chicago says, this nation has a lot to atone for.
Last week I also shared an unconventional definition for forgiveness: to let go of the possibility of a better yesterday. The past, if it is keeping you back, the past needs to be let go. But we human beings don’t just let go of hurts by willing it so. No, there’s work to be done with the human heart. And that work is what the Jewish High Holidays are all about: Repentance, Atonement, and finally forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t change the past, but it can shape the future.
Every year, during the Jewish High Holy Days, I make it a spiritual practice to reflect and preach on forgiveness. This year, I’ve got two opportunities! On these days, every fall, every year, it is the time for each Jewish person to make their peace with any and every person they have wronged or slighted or hurt or in any way neglected in the past year. The task is not to patch things up, or to smooth things over. The task isn’t to reach a compromise or sweep mistakes and uneasy memories under the rug. The task is not even to feel better. My colleague Victoria Safford says,
“The task is ownership.
The goal is truth, for its own redemptive sake.
I did this. I said this to you, and it was wrong.
I neglected this. I botched this. I betrayed you thusly.
I demeaned you, whether you ever knew it or not.
This is the truth in which both of us are living. I ask you to forgive me.”
Rev. Safford asks, “Imagine how many deep breaths you would need to take. Imagine how many doors you’d have to knock on, how many phone calls you’d have to make, how many letters, how many lunches and coffees, how many awkward moments with your children and your parents, and with strangers (that cashier to whom you spoke so sharply). Awkward is irrelevant. The task is not about comfort, it is about truth, about wholeness and holiness. Restoration.”
The Jewish High Holy Days are sometimes called, the Days of Awe. Their culmination in Yom Kippur provides the most profound of all the religious holidays. They don’t celebrate a person or an event or a season. They don’t commemorate any historical happening. Instead they celebrate the human capacity to change and grow. They celebrate the possibility of beginning again, beginning again in love. They celebrate the possibility waiting for human beings to reach wholeness and restoration in community.
There are practices to engage, the practice of forgiveness often comes before the feeling of forgiveness. A good example is how the community at Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston SC responded to the horrific massacre of nine people during a prayer circle, a bible study. Dylan Roof pulled out a gun and killed the pastor and eight of his parishioners. In that congregation, many of the families came out and said we are not going to hold on to anger, we’re not going to let this define who we are, and we are going to forgive—we are going to forgive this heinous act that has taken our loved ones from us.
They said, essentially, without our pastor, without this elected member of the South Carolina legislature, without several of our elders, without these beautiful elders of this congregation, we are going to begin again, and we are going to begin again in love.
Do you hear, my friends, do you hear? If they are capable of this kind of forgiveness can we be willing to forgive ourselves, and forgive one another and begin in love?
When the people of Mother Emmanuel said “We forgive,” they were making a commitment to the future. They recognized that there was not the possibility of a better past.
Not all the family members of those killed were in agreement with the immediate declaration of forgiveness as it was represented in the national media. No, Waltrina Middleton, the leader of Community Renewal Society, a significant Chicago social justice organization focused on race and poverty, she said that she could not forgive the shooter who took the life of her beloved cousin who was like an aunt to her. She wrote a powerful article, “I don’t forgive the man who murdered my cousin.” She says, “To insist on a narrative of forgiveness is dehumanizing and violent. It goes against the very nature of lament.” This incident demonstrates, she said, “a profound hatred, resentment, and fear of black people, a manifestation of the systemic oppression that usually comes out in subtle ways but here came out in an overt, brutal way.” Middleton cautions a rush to forgiveness to ensure there’s time enough for adequate grief and lament. Lamentation for all that has been lost. Deep grief cannot simply be covered over and should not be hidden by lifting up the surprise and admiration that the families largely were speaking of forgiveness immediately after.
The type of forgiveness that they chose to share was a forgiveness is a process. When you have lived a life of gratitude, praise, and being spiritually centered, nothing pulls you from your anchor. Even when the most awful events one could imagine,
What these people demonstrated was resilience. The media’s representation of forgiveness seemed paper thin. Some acknowledged the reality of resilience, but I didn’t hear media asking what does it take for such resilience to emerge within a community. I wonder why questions weren’t asked what does it take to cultivate such resilience.
I believe the good people of Mother Emanuel could move toward forgiveness because they engage practices of forgiveness that required to truly grieve what they have lost time and time again.
Often to get to that resilience, grief work is essential. I’ll never forget what my Missionary Baptist said to me when Donald Trump was elected: “Hey, it’s wild watching all you white folks freaking out. Hey, it’s been awful for us African Americans ever since my ancestors were brought over in chains. And it’s never become easy for us. So, we are going to continue being resilient. Now you’ve got to learn to do the same.”
My friends, that is ultimately what the Jewish tradition teaches during these days. They have been so deeply persecuted over the centuries. Their capacity for resilience comes from, I believe, the practice of forgiveness.
And why do I have this belief, because of my close association with Missionary Baptist leaders who serve in the most challenged parts of Chicago.
I have a confession: for eight years, I hardly ever crossed the three mile border between Oak Park and Chicago.
Forgiveness takes courage, courage to acknowledge that we are ultimately are not in control, courage
Desmond Tutu: Forgiveness is ultimately a commitment to the future.
Without that deep commitment, one cannot see the humanity of all people, including one’s oppressors could South Africa break the institution of apartheid.
Parker Palmer: The most important thing I’ve learned about community is that conflict is not the end of it but the doorway into something deeper. It is easy to have superficial relationships but conflict calls us into self-examination, honest sharing, and deeper relationships. He then quoted one of his teachers who said community is a continual act of forgiveness. Community is a continual act of forgiveness.
We human beings are made for deep relationships, we are made for community. All human beings are, but often the most learned and the most successful people turn away from this desire to belong. Instead they seek to fit into circles where they get lots of applause. But that doesn’t meet the desire of belonging.
Yom Kippur begins at sundown this evening. The shofar that I’ve borrowed is from the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Fairfield County that holds their high holy day services in this sanctuary. They gather this evening at 7:30pm if you would like to experience their Kol Nidre service, the most solemn in the Jewish calendar, come join me.
I close with this reflection by my colleague Victoria Safford: Imagine this.
Someone has been preparing all year to speak with you, to write to you, to ask you a hard question. Perhaps in some way not quite conscious, you have even known this and you have been preparing too. Finally, you answer the door or the phone or open the letter with shaky hands, and there it is, what you thought you’d been longing for but really have dreaded. Someone is asking for your forgiveness. The task is not about comfort; it is about truth. Awkward is irrelevant. You get to choose now, you have to choose whether and how you will participate in restoration. Abandon the pleasant piety that claims knee-jerk forgiveness as the unquestioned moral course. You get to choose which way will be right in this case, between you as persons and with all your gods. What response will you make to make the world more whole?
Today I’m gonna emulate my Missionary Baptist colleagues who close their sermon at least three times! Let me close with sharing a true story. Amina Amdeen is a hijab-wearing Muslim from Iraq. She showed up at an anti-Trump rally to protest the administration’s policies. Joseph Weidknecht, a homeschooled white male, attended the same event with a MAGA hat and a sign that read Proud to be Deplorable. When Weidknecht was physically harassed by anti-Trump protesters and someone grabbed his “Make America Great Again” hat off his head, Amdeen came running to his defense, shouting Leave him alone. Give me his hat back, and she returned the hat to him. She said she knows what it’s like to be intimidated for the headgear she wears. Following the incident Amina and Joseph became acquainted and together shared their story with others. She demonstrated a fierce respect for everyone, including those she disagrees mightily with. Weidknecht said she’s the first Muslim he has come to know and appreciates her commitment to shared humanity. Today they encourage people to have conversations with people who may not share their political views.
In closing, and this is my last closing, let me remind you, forgiveness is a commitment to the future. It is never easy to forgive. But that’s our core spiritual work. The practice of forgiveness often precedes the feeling of forgiveness. So, may this be our collective core practice when we recognize that we or others have missed the mark. Community is a continual practice of forgiveness. For authentic religious and spiritual community is where all is forgiven, and we all seek to get to that place to say with Father Greg Boyle, I forgive everyone everything.
May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.