We begin our sixth year today, six years of coming together to celebrate each other’s spiritual paths without hierarchy. That we gather today ever so slightly auspicious because tomorrow night is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I have to admit, the fact that we humans have so many different New Years always brings a smile to my face. The Chinese New Year, the Roman New Year, adopted by Christianity as the New Year, the Islamic New Year, the Jewish New Year. And we’ve only just begun, as the Carpenters used to sing – does anyone even remember the Carpenters? And it’s intriguing to me that among the myriad of things that we cannot agree about, our differing traditions can’t even agree on when the New Year begins.
Every culture has its New Year, every culture has its reset button if you will. So does nature. It’s called: spring. Ok. Last year … over! Let’s begin again. And like nature, we need it. We need that reset. We need it if it was a spectacular year, to remind us not to get caught up in our successes. We need it if it was a particularly bad year to allow us to say, ok, new year, new start.
But to move forward, I believe we need to do more than just acknowledge a new year and turn the page. Most if not all of our spiritual paths recognize that without forgiveness, there is no reset. Or, as Desmond Tutu titled his book on South African reconciliation, “No Future Without Forgiveness.” For me, one of the great shadows over our future at this moment in history is all too often an almost willful absence of forgiveness and concurrent with that, an almost willful absence of the willingness to admit to mistakes and sometimes misdeeds. The two, unfortunately, go together: unwillingness to forgive and unwillingness to admit to mistakes, and both take as away from the sacred.
The Sikhs tell us, “Where there is forgiveness, there is God Himself.” … or Herself. I rather like the Jain approach, “Subvert anger by forgiveness.” But then, I’ve always been gently subversive at heart. The Baha’i urge us not to look at the shortcomings of anybody – to “See with the sight of forgiveness.” There’s a Buddhist saying that also calls to me. “If we haven’t forgiven, we keep creating an identity around our pain, and that is what is reborn. That is what suffers.” There are many, many others, of course. But I’d like to move to Islam.
The Qur’an of Islam teaches us, “If you efface and overlook and forgive, then lo! God is forgiving and merciful.” For me what is so fascinating is the tie between “If we forgive” and then “God forgives.” Again, “If you efface and overlook and forgive, then lo! God is forgiving and merciful.”
I was walking the other day with my good friend Chris Boyer, the minister here at Good Shepherd, and shared with him what I found to be a powerful part of the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It sounds so simple. But I don’t think it is.
It seems to me that that is inviting God to forgive us in the same manner in which we forgive others. Which of course means that if we are stingy and mean-spirited in our forgiveness of others, we are saying to God, go ahead and be stingy and mean-spirited your forgiveness of me – not something most us are hoping for, at least I don’t think so. But it draws the connection between how we treat others and how we should be treated. I see The Lord’s Prayer as the Golden Rule, this time applied to forgiveness. Forgive others, as you would be forgiven. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
It tends to put a whole new face on it. God will treat us as we treat others. Yikes! Or, as the Qur’an puts it, “If you efface and overlook and forgive, then lo! God is forgiving and merciful.” And, of course, both Christianity and Islam get the idea from … Judaism.
In Judaism, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe. We have, according to tradition, those ten days to clear the air, to clean the slate – to ask for forgiveness and to be forgiven. More about that shortly. But again, according to Jewish tradition there’s an angel that looks at what we do, how genuinely we’ve atoned and how genuinely forgiving are we, and then decides if we’ve truly repented our transgressions or, if you will our trespasses, and then either inscribes for us in the Book of Life a good New Year to come, or one that is not so good.
The greeting in Judaism is, L’shana tovah tikasevu or tikatevu depending upon whether your Hebrew is Ashkenazic or Sephardic. But we won’t worry about that. This is the song we sang just a few moments ago. “L’shana tovah tikasevu” may you be inscribed for a good year. There’s a lot behind that greeting, because, again, according to tradition, you will only be inscribed for a good year if you have sincerely asked for forgiveness and have also freely forgiven those who have genuinely asked you for forgiveness. “L’shana tovah” is the typical greeting that Jews use when they see one another this time of year. But now, as they say, you know “the rest of the story.” It’s not so simple as “Hello” or “Happy New Year.”
I’ll admit, I wasn’t a big High Holy Days fan as a child. I only attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services because Mom and Dad said, “We’re going!” And as soon I was beyond the clutches of Mom and Dad I stopped going.
It wasn’t until years later that the importance, particularly of Yom Kippur dawned on me. Perhaps that’s because, well, a person needs a certain amount of living behind him or her before it dawns on them that forgiving is one of the things that makes living possible. That holding on to our grudges is embracing a poison.
Most especially, it’s the realization that we screw up. We’re human. We all screw up. If there’s no forgiveness, then there’s no hope – for any of us.
But to ask for forgiveness when we know we’ve wronged someone, this can be hard. It can be humiliating. And to give forgiveness when we have been wronged can also be hard. Sometimes excruciatingly so. But this is what we are asked to do. It’s why they are called the Days of Awe!
And, of course, among those people we need to forgive, perhaps the hardest person to forgive, sincerely and truly forgive, can be ourselves.
Not always though. As one of my favorite teachers in seminary, Sister Alexandra Kovats, was so very fond of pointing out – so much of life is a dance.
I’ve known some people who forgive themselves far too much and far too easily. And I’ve known others who have lived such difficult lives because they never let themselves off the hook. As Sister Alexandra would say, “It’s a dance.” We need to hold ourselves accountable. When we screw up, we need to admit it, both to ourselves and to others, particularly those we have hurt. We need to see what we have done and firmly resolve to do our human best not to repeat it. But if we do this, then Jewish tradition tells us not only that we may, but that we must forgive – truly, sincerely, whole-heartedly, even and especially if the one we must forgive is ourself.
That, then, is Rosh Hashanah and the ten Days of Awe that follow.
And after those ten days comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And since we won’t be celebrating that here this year, I’d like for us to do a flash forward and, in a moment, participate jointly in a Yom Kippur ritual.
Behind the ritual is this idea, that the community is one. That we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. That as a community we can do well, and as a community we can screw up. This ritual recitation is spoken by the whole of the community because we realize, recognize and celebrate that we are all interconnected.
With that in mind, let us turn to our responsive reading.
O Lord our God, and God of our heritage, we seek Thy help, Thy grace and Thy forgiveness.
We have striven to do right. We have truly tried. Yet much too often we have failed. Forgive us. And may those we have hurt forgive us.
By thoughtless word or deed we have caused those we love anguish and suffering. Forgive us. And may those we have hurt forgive us.
In anger we have spoken and done that which we should never have spoken nor done. Forgive us. And may those we have hurt forgive us.
We have been prideful, and careless of people we have not even met. Forgive us. And may those we have hurt forgive us.
We have been granted a mind, and the knowledge and awareness to make us a steward of the earth – the land, the sea and all that dwell upon it; and yet we have not always acted as a steward. Forgive us. And may the land, the sea and all the creatures that dwell therein forgive us.
Help us to do better.
Help us to cherish and protect the earth and all that dwell upon it.
Help us to see through the eyes of those with whom we would be angry.
Help us to be patient.
Help us to be kind.
Help us to be tolerant.
Help us to be generous.
And help us to remember that we are not perfect, that we will make mistakes, and that each of us is but one person. We cannot save the world alone, nor can we destroy it. But all we do is a contribution. Let that contribution be for good, not ill. Let whatever we may add to the scales, be it twig or boulder, be added to the side of righteousness. Help us to live a life of mercy, and of active compassion, and of love.