Opening Words, from William Wordsworth’s ‘The World is Too Much With Us‘, and Robert Frost’s ‘Birches.’
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is our;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Sermon: “Our Way of Life”
Wordsworth says ‘the world is too much with us.’ He was born in England in 1770 and as a young man watched his country at war with the American colonies. He penned those lines in 1807, using a quill pen, dipping it into the ink bottle.
In 1916, in the middle of World War I, Robert Frost, using a pencil designed by Henry David Thorea, wrote: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile.” From time to time we have to ‘get away.’
This is why the Sabbath was wisely invented. It is, as the rabbis say, a time to stop trying to alter the universe, stop trying to fix things; stop trying to figure it out. The Sabbath is a time to go inside and to straighten things out, way down in the deepest parts of our selves.
Our nation has been attacked and we must wage war; but it’s a new kind of war, and God help us to wage it well.
When I say ‘God help us,’ I mean, specifically, that we need to be directed by that ‘thing’ in us which directs us toward what is right; that thing Lincoln called ‘the angels of our better nature.’
As individuals, we must wage peace. That is to say, we must do whatever is necessary to go inside to face the enemy of peace: our fear, cynicism, anger, guilt, pride and arrogance- our frustration and feelings of inadequacy and sense of powerlessness. They prevent the inner peace we need; even, paradoxically, the peace we need to wage war in an appropriate way.
So, if the Sabbath didn’t exist, we would be wise to invent it. Fortunately for us, the Sabbath was invented, just as all the religions of the world were invented by our forebears. They came and continue to come, from that deep place within ourselves. It’s a sacred place. Our higher self, we might call it, or, as Emerson said, from ‘that deep power in which we exist, whose beatitude is accessible to us.’
When I hear biblical literalists say that they believe that God wrote ‘every word’ of the Bible, and every word is true, I translate the spirit of what they are saying as this: There’s something deep in us that connects to our best or higher self. I call it God. All the religions come from that place, and there is deep truth- not literal truth. It’s obvious to any thinking person that the stories- the myths and legends are not literally true. But our task is to dig into the stories to see ourselves in them, to see the deeper, universal truths in them.
If Rosh ha-shanah and Yom Kippur did not exist, it would necessary to invent them, especially now, this year, at this time, in response to the terrible tragedy we’ve experienced and continue to experience.
Rosh ha-shanah, which literally means ‘the head of the year,’ is a time to reflect on the past- not just the past year, as if all the others have been dealt with adequately. It is a time to clean the slate, and to be better prepared for what’s to come- not just the coming year, but to reflect on how we want to spend the rest of our lives.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a ritual cleansing- a time of confession and repentance- not simply a day or a week to reflect, but as a reminder that such reflection and inner work must become part of one’s life, always.
Two of the most familiar Torah stories are repeated at this time: the creation story and the story of the binding of Isaac, the akedah.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
“And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning. One day.”
Every culture, every religion, has a creation story to answer the question: how did we get here? Why does this universe exist- why do we exist?
Legends and myths serve their purposes, as long as they are recognized as legends and myths.
Taken literally, the legends and myths can be dangerous.
The legends and myths have several purposes, and perhaps the most fundamental purpose is to warn us against the dangers of idolatry- of thinking we can know God, that we can know the mind of God, of thinking that we should know God. The biggest single danger of thinking that we can and should know God, and know the mind of God, is that such thinking leads to the extremely dangerous idea that God is on our side and against those who are not ‘with us.’
This is the first lesson: the warning against the dangers of idolatry- of blind, excessive devotion to something.
Preachers who say they know the mind of God are committing blasphemy- claiming for themselves the attributes of God.
The other Rosh ha-Shanah story is the legend of Abraham’s willingness to carry out what he perceives to be an order from God, to kill his son Isaac. (Muslims say that he was told to kill his first-born son, Ishmael. This is where Islam, the third of the three Abrahamic religions, splits off from the common source- the Creation story and the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, The Tower of Babel and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.)
At the first Rosh ha-Shanah service it is customary to read the biblical story of the birth of Isaac, the big surprise that God gave to Abraham, who was said to be 100 years old, and his wife Sarah, who was 90 and pregnant.
On the second day of Rosh ha-Shanah the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is read.
The binding of Isaac, the akedah, is one of the most difficult stories in the Bible. It is unnerving. Abraham’s so-called pagan neighbors were willing to sacrifice their sons to their gods. Did Abraham’s faith measure up to that standard?
In the story, God does not give any reason for his terrible demand- that Abraham sacrifice his son.
Abraham does not consult with Sarah, does not tell her what he’s about to do. He does not tell Isaac what he’s planning. As father and son walk to the sacrificial mount Moriah, as God has directed, Isaac says, “Father, here is the fire and here is the wood, but where is the lamb?”
Abraham assures his son, saying, “God will provide himself.”
Christianity says that Jesus is the lamb God provided. Indeed, the Christian myths says that God gave ‘himself,’ as a sacrifice…God sacrificed himself by becoming a man and then giving himself as the ‘lamb of God.’
The Torah says that Abraham assured Isaac, though he didn’t know how, saying, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
The Christian story says that the lamb of God, Jesus, was sacrificed for you, vicarious atonement. Jesus died on your behalf…instead of you…in place of you…so that you don’t have to look at this terrifying question again. You don’t have to ‘die,’ but you will have ‘eternal life,’ because of this sacrifice.
Judaism knows no such vicarious atonement. Each person must face his or her own faults, failures and limitations, and that’s why the synagogues are full at the time of the high holidays.
This is the time when each person has to take stock of their lives up to that point, and to ask forgiveness directly- to ask forgiveness from persons whom they have offended during the past year, and to ask forgiveness from God for sins against God.
The story says that if you come to the temple for the high holidays, for Yom Kippur, but have not resolved something you have ‘against your brother,’ then you must go back to your brother and resolve it. Ask forgiveness. Your brother doesn’t have to ‘grant’ forgiveness. But you must at least ask forgiveness, so that you don’t come to the temple with this unresolved stuff in your heart. That ‘stuff’ will prevent Yom Kippur from ‘working’ for you.
In their rituals and prayers, practicing Jews also ask forgiveness for sins they committed without realizing that they were committing a sin, or offending God. They don’t say, “Just in case I’ve committed a sin against you or others, without realizing it,” they simply ask forgiveness for their unknown sins because they assume that they have, indeed, transgressed in ways they don’t even realize.
This is an important notion to keep in mind as we continue to struggle through these difficult days.
In addition to repenting sins they didn’t even know they committed, they ask forgiveness for all the sins that have ever been committed by anyone and everyone.
By repenting the sins committed by everyone for all time, they are acknowledging that everything that has ever been done is part of the collective unconscious…part of what we call humanity. The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children- not merely for a generation or two, but for all time.
By repenting the sins committed by everyone, for all time, they are reminding themselves and one another that they, that we, are part of humanity, connected in a very real and deep way to everything that has ever been done on this earth, by anyone, for all time.
The poet-clergyman John Donne says this in these famous lines:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Last week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, we heard, over and over, that ‘everything has changed.’
This week we heard from our president that we must ‘preserve our way of life.’
Has everything changed? What has changed?
Everything has changed for those who lost loved ones, because our loved ones are everything…to us.
What has changed? And what do we need to ‘preserve,’ to be sure that it doesn’t change?
Our sense of security has changed. And we need to do what’s necessary to get it back, to feel secure as we travel or send the kids off to school.
Sometimes our sense of security is, if truth be told, a kind denial, or a kind of arrogance, or pride.
Sometimes that sense of pride caused us to impose our way of life onto others. An almost humorous example is the stoning of the McDonald’s restaurant in Paris. Big Macs were just too much for the French, who take such pride in their cuisine!
Perhaps there are some things about ‘our way of life’ which we ought to look at more carefully: ‘the values we have and the values we are adopting together,’ is the way I wrote it for our service of dedication for parents and children.
We want, of course, to preserve our democracy. But we need to ask if we have abrogated the responsibility to be informed, which is an essential ingredient to an effective democracy.
In his (and his speech writers’) otherwise acceptable speech on Thursday night, President Bush asked the question ‘why do they hate us.’ I was disappointed in his answer. Do you remember what he said?
He said, “They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. “These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end (our) way of life.”
This simplistic answer begs the essential question: why do they hate us?
A little girl asked this question in this sanctuary last week, and I responded by telling her that they hate some things we have done, some things our government has done in places around the world. I said that they hate us because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that we have done bad things. They believe ‘our way of life’ is bad, corrupt, not sacred or holy. They believe our way of life is an affront to God.
Their hate is to a great extent a form of idolatry- they think they know the mind of God. Blasphemy. Religion has long been a serious problem for humans, and the most heinous crimes against humanity have been committed ‘in the name of god,’ or what people fanatically believe they ‘know’ about the mind of God.
Their hatred is not justified, but, if we understand enough about ‘them,’ then we can at least understand the source of their hatred. There is an explanation. Not an excuse. There is no excuse for turning planes into bombs and killing the innocent. None. Period.
No matter what our government has done in our name, their heinous acts on September 11 are not justified- there is no justification for such crimes against humanity.
There is no justification- but there is an explanation.
I have pondered that difficult question for years- why do they hate us?
Why can’t we acknowledge that they hate us, in part, because we have exported our so-called ‘way of life’ around the world. The Parisians stoned McDonalds.
They hate us because they see our way of life as decadent: the overt use of sexuality in advertising and in American music, which is played around the world. They hate our life style, our consumerism, our capitalism, which sometimes exploits the powerless, whose profiteering has sometimes enslaved others for their labor- a practice whose ending nearly cost us our ‘way of life,’ our country.
They hate us because of the ways we have inserted ourselves into Muslim countries around the world.
They hate us because of the so-called ugly Americans who have all-too often been disrespectful of local customs.
Twenty years ago my family and I spent a month in Egypt, living with friends who were teaching in the American school in Cairo. We visited the tombs and pyramids, and we spent a few nights in Alexandria, once the capital of Egypt. We went to the beach in Alexandria.
My wife and daughter bought galibayas- those long, dress-like clothes the men wear. They thought they made nice beach wear, so they wore them to the beach. Egyptian women were furious; they yelled at them and wagged fingers, so they went back to change into their Western clothes.
They had not intended to offend the people in Alexandria, and when they became aware of their impropriety they immediately changed.
I’m reminded of the Yom Kippur prayer that asks God’s forgiveness for sins committed unintentionally.
We have to understand that they hate us for things we have done- some of which we’ve done unintentionally, and truth be told, some of which were done in our name, by our CIA and other government agencies- toppling governments we didn’t like or felt threatened by.
If we do not at least acknowledge that we have sometimes done so, then the hatred personified by Osama bin Laden makes no sense, and we will respond to their violence in ways that will perpetuate the violence in the world.
Violence begets violence, in an endless cycle of destruction. “In the beginning God created.” The world is continually created, and we are co-creators, the hands and eyes and ears of ‘God.’ As Kennedy said, “God’s work must be our own.” Creation and destruction fight an eternal battle.
‘Our way of life’ in America demands that we become informed so that we can share in the decision making; and even if we don’t share in it, even if we disagree with things done by our government in our name, we have a responsibility to at the very least become better informed, and to speak up.
I would assert that we are frighteningly uninformed and even purposely misled, and misinformed about those who hate us and have done violence against us.
I must repeat: to acknowledge some of the reasons they hate us is in no way to justify the heinous acts of terror. They have committed crimes against humanity. In their madness they have demonstrated that they are quite willing to put our entire civilization at risk, and that is not an overstatement.
But, if we do not begin to understand the reasons for their hatred we will be fighting a losing battle in the war against terrorism, whose declaration this week was, if anything, long over-due.
We want to protect ourselves with a form of denial akin to the defense mechanism that protects us from being destroyed by information too horrible to look at all at once.
‘Our way of life,’ however, should not be confused with our life style.
I’m pleased that the president said there won’t be a quick fix; that we are not likely to get immediate satisfaction by watching bombs bursting in air on television.
I was pleased, but not completely, that the president did not say that God is on our side. He did say, “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”
By saying that we are in favor of freedom, and they are in favor of fear, and we’re in favor of justice but they are in favor of cruelty, he’s suggesting that God is on our side. His speech writers came as close as they dared. They said, in effect, that God is on our side.
The question we, as religious people or secular people, need to ask is whether we are on God’s side; whether we are on the side of justice. Can we carry out a war against the terrorists without excessive collateral damage- a euphemistic phrase for killing children and other innocents.
It is a difficult, challenging time for us, and we need to find moments of inner quiet to get at our better selves. We cannot know the mind of God. We cannot know enough about God to say anything that makes any sense, really.
There is something in us, however, which deserves the name…and, if not the name God, which many of us hesitate to use…it deserves to be acknowledged as essential to our lives.
This thing-without-a-name in us is a kind of ‘potential.’ It’s what we can be. What we want to be. It was very visible on September 11 as people risked their lives to help others- indeed, gave their lives, realizing that their own lives were in danger.
I’m thinking of Abe, a 55 year old Jewish man who was working with his good friend, Ed, a Catholic and a quadriplegic. There was no way Ed could get down even one flight of stairs, much less 50 flights. Abe stayed with his friend and held a phone to his ear so he could have last words with his family before they perished together.
There’s something in us. It’s about care and compassion. It’s about the kind of love that Martin Luther King, Jr. had in mind when he said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
There’s something in us. It needs no name. It is better that it remain nameless. But it needs to be acknowledged. We need to know it is there, and we need to tap into it. That’s the function of prayer. We need to give ourselves permission to pray, and it makes perfect sense to pray to this thing, this Source, this Spirit of Life.
One does not have to believe in an anthropomorphic God to pray. Pray to that higher power, which is deep, deep within.
Prayer is not self-indulgence, unless it is a request for some personal extravagance. “Lord help me to win the lottery.”
We need to pray for the strength to carry on…to pray for the wisdom to understand…to pray for the courage to do and say what needs to be said…to pray for peace, including that inner peace which is so essential to our well being.
I’ll close with a wonderful poem from Pablo Neruda which he titled ‘Keeping Quiet.’
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;…
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems to be dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.