Getting on Noah’s Ark: Diversity as Salvation

“Unitarian Universalism has a long history of finding ways for the differences between us to find their place among us. We keep trying to make the ark bigger. This is a result of our history. Both Unitarianism and Universalism were created when our founders were kicked out of their churches by more conservative Christians who labeled them heretics. That experience was so painful that both Unitarians and Universalists vowed to create religious traditions that could expand with differences of opinion. It wasn’t always easy. They were tested many times, and many times tempted to small up the ark, but time and time again, they managed to make the ark bigger.”

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday, October 19, 2014.

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I am not the kind of person who often has random conversations with strangers. I’m pretty shy and generally keep to myself. But recently I’ve thought it might be nice to change that. I have many extroverted friends and they seem to meet so many neat people. I’d like to have more of those kinds of experiences.

This week, I had my chance.   I had to go to the dentist, and one of the things I like about my dentist is that he stocks magazines that I’ll never buy, like Good Housekeeping and Southern Living. I found this great recipe for turkey leftovers. As I was taking a photo of it to bring home, I noticed the other woman in the waiting room looking at me strangely. “Recipe…” I mumbled, and she asked what the recipe was. Here was my chance to be more outgoing! “Turkey leftovers. Do you have turkey leftovers?” She laughed. “I have three sons. That’ll never happen!” That’s how we started to talk. I learned all about her three sons, but it didn’t take long for her to settle on the son that she is most worried about, her middle son who has a little boy from an unplanned pregnancy.   And it’s gone all wrong.

The girlfriend has disappeared, and this woman’s 25 year-old son is now the primary caregiver of this little boy and he’s moved back in because he can’t afford an apartment and full-time childcare. This woman is so worried about her grandson. “Should we ever tell him what his mother was like?” she said. And I said, “Yes, I think so.” “But won’t that hurt him?” she said. And I said, “It might. But secrets hurt more. People need to know their history.”

Then the conversation turned to her awesome Bible study group. She told me how comforting it is to know that everyone has a burden. Just last week they studied the story of Noah’s Ark and the flood. In the story, God decides that humanity is so lost that it’s time to start again. He tells Noah to build an ark and fill it with his family and two of every animal. When the rains begin God closes the door of the ark and as the boat rises in the water, evil is left behind. In that dentist’s waiting room, the woman told me that she has hope and does not despair, because when Jesus comes again, she will be on that ark, and as God closes the door, Jesus will separate the good from the evil, and there will be brand a new start.

Even though I bristle at the idea that any God could simply define people as good or evil and destroy most of them, I had a feeling that I was in the presence of something special. This woman had opened her heart to me. I don’t think she realized who she was opening her heart to, but I could hear her, not in the sense of believing in the rapture or the story of Noah. Like many Unitarian Universalists, I see the bible as a collection of sacred stories written by human beings seeking to understand the deepest yearnings of the human heart. I heard her because I knew the burden she was carrying. Just like her, I have my own burdens. Just like her, we all have our burdens. And like her, we are always trying to manage those burdens and manage the anxiety they bring us so that we can have hope.   Who of us has not wanted to obliterate our burdens?

All of humanity is united by the fact that life is filled with struggle. So, even though I could choose to be offended by the comfort she gets thinking of her enemies being destroyed, it makes sense. She is understandably angry that her grandson has been abandoned by his mother. She finds comfort in a God who would eliminate her grandson’s pain when he is old enough to ask where his mother is. Who would not want to protect their child from that pain?

But, I think it is important to recognize that as Unitarian Universalists we do have different answers for suffering. Our response to suffering is not to wait for the end times, trusting that God will slay our enemies.   In fact, the whole idea that humanity can be divided into good and evil is dangerous. It gives human beings the moral authority to write each other off. It gives us permission to believe that we are better or worse than other people. It creates arrogance and it creates shame.

Our Unitarian Universalist theology has two answers for suffering: everyone is saved, and we embrace diversity. Everyone is saved, and we embrace diversity.

Let’s start with the first one because I know that references to “being saved” and “salvation” make a lot of Unitarian Universalists squirm a bit in our seats. But believe it or not, Unitarian Universalism has a strong theology of salvation. It’s not much like the salvation many of us learned about, but it’s there and it’s very alive.

Unitarian Universalism has its roots in Liberal Protestant Christianity. The Universalist side of our heritage started in the late 1700s in Britain as a rebellion against using the threat of hell to get people to behave. Universalists rebelled against the idea that the only reason people do good is because they are afraid of punishment. They believed this didn’t give humanity enough credit. We don’t need fear to do the right thing because we are created by God, and God is good, therefore our natural inclination is goodness.

They also said that if God really is good, then God could not possibly damn any of his creation to hell. God has the power to reconcile all evil to him or herself. We had to trust in the mysteries of God, the spirit, and the human heart. This trust allows us to stop judging others, stop shaming others, stop fooling ourselves with arrogance, and instead focus on our own lives. Universalists loved the Bible verse, “Why worry about the speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in our own?”

Today, many of us are no longer just Christian, we are also atheist and agnostic, theist, Buddhist, pagan, or just plain Unitarian Universalist, but this doesn’t change the teaching. We still try to trust in the mysteries of the universe and the human heart. In fact, our lives depend on that trust, because to live in distrust and fear creates hell on earth.

One of the ways we try to live in that place of trust is by our deep affirmation and embrace of diversity. We are not as concerned about what is locked out of the ark when the rains come, but rather what is inside it. We don’t seek salvation by exclusion, but rather by a radical inclusion. For UUs salvation is not something you have to wait for until you die. Salvation can happen here and now when we live in trust.

So for instance, when you encounter something in another human being that makes you step back a bit, they make a decision you don’t like, or they believe something you don’t, or they do something you don’t understand, or they look different from you or act differently or love differently, you are called to resist that urge to make snap judgments. Instead, you try to honor the spark of the divine in each of us and pause for moment. You ask if there is something that you need to learn from the difference that you are experiencing. Is there some way you are being asked to grow, expand how you see things, to choose a different action?

Let’s take an example that’s very close to home right now that faces us every time we turn on the TV or the radio or go online.

Our city is experiencing a dramatic increase in racial tension. Many African Americans in our city widely believe that Michael Brown’s shooting was murder. They want Darren Wilson charged. They want Bob McCullough to step aside. They believe that the shooting of Michael Brown is one more example of how African Americans are oppressed every single day. Many African Americans are unlikely to trust anything said by the police and assume the legal system is not going to support them. They are assuming that Darren Wilson will not be indicted.

Most whites in our city don’t understand what the big deal is and want it to go away. Many don’t understand the history by which their parents, grandparents, great grandparents kept making new towns to keep out black residents. Most have never experienced law enforcement as anything but supportive and protective. So, when they hear the term, “racial profiling” many don’t believe it. And, they don’t understand the anger. There is widespread criticism of the protests, the assumption that they’re all violent, and that the protesters are dangerous.   Some whites have expressed that if Darren Wilson is indicted, it will only be because of political pressure. And if Darren Wilson is not indicted, many will believe that there was no basis for any of the complaints raised by the protesters.

This is a pretty hard place to be in and I don’t know what the path is out of it. I wish I did.   Then I think about Noah’s Ark. I wonder how we all get on that ark and what needs to be washed away. Our Universalist heritage tells me that we don’t all need to believe the same thing to get on that ark. And when the rains come, what’s left outside is not people, it’s ideas and beliefs, it’s old loyalties, it’s economic and political systems that kill our spirits, and kill our bodies. Those rains are no longer a punishment, but a cleansing. How many of us look at the divisions of our city and hunger for a cleansing?

Unitarian Universalism has a long history of finding ways for the differences between us to find their place among us. We keep trying to make the ark bigger. This is a result of our history. Both Unitarianism and Universalism were created when our founders were kicked out of their churches by more conservative Christians who labeled them heretics. That experience was so painful that both Unitarians and Universalists vowed to create religious traditions that could expand with differences of opinion. It wasn’t always easy. They were tested many times, and many times tempted to small up the ark, but time and time again, they managed to make the ark bigger.

This wasn’t just about embracing differences of opinion, but real differences of experience. Our embrace of feminism, for instance, was a way of honoring the experience of women and valuing it equally with the experience of men. Women were paying such a huge price; still pay a price, when they are not valued equally. The same is true for our embrace of sexual and gender minorities. Our commitment to diversity is not just an intellectual idea; it has real-life consequences. It saves lives.

Our commitment to diversity asks us to step into the messiness of life with an open heart. We can’t just turn away from the things we don’t understand, or that make us uncomfortable. We stay on the ark.

Where I’ve come to is this. None of us can force someone off the ark, but we can force ourselves off of the ark when we succumb to close mindedness and small thinking. We exclude ourselves from the ark when we allow fear and distrust to rule our hearts. We put ourselves in the path of the flood and allow ourselves to be washed away.

If Darren Wilson is not indicted, those of us who consider ourselves moderates are going to be mightily tested because violence may very well erupt. If that happens, many whites are going to use that as the excuse to turn away, the same way they turned away after Martin Luther King was assassinated and the riots erupted. I believe that our commitment to diversity is to stay on the ark, and I don’t know what that looks like, but I ask myself that every day now. What will it mean to be an ally if the streets run with blood, if the SWAT teams come back and St. Louis returns to top billing in the 24-hour news cycle? I don’t want to fear monger. I hope this does not happen. I also don’t want to be naïve.

This week, I want you to think about that ark. I want you to imagine that the sky is darkening and you know the rain is coming. You stand by the doors of the ark, helping people climb inside. When those first drops start to fall, you grab the ropes on that door and you pull hard. The door closes with a thud, and you feel the boat lift up, caught in the rising current. Who is with you on that boat? What are you leaving behind?

In that answer, lies your salvation. In that answer, lies my salvation. In that answer, lies our salvation.

May the spirit be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.

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A Pastoral Letter to Members of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Force

kristataves:

A very insightful blog from a minister in St. Louis MO.

Originally posted on A More Peaceful Table:

ferguson1Sisters and brothers on the Ferguson police force,

Grace and peace to you. On Monday I stood outside the Ferguson police station with hundreds of other clergy, asking for justice for Michael Brown, and for a change in our police culture. I was one of the faith leaders reading a litany through a bullhorn.

As part of that demonstration, I watched my colleagues in ministry – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist – approach those of you who were holding the line. Those clergy came very close to you. They got in your personal space, I could tell by your body language. I couldn’t hear what they said to each of you. We had agreed that those who spoke with you would say, “You are part of the system that has killed Michael Brown. I call you to repentance, and I offer to hear your confession.” Maybe they actually said that to you…

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Who Are My People? A Black Unitarian Universalist on Selma and Ferguson

Who Are My People? A Black Unitarian Universalist on Selma and Ferguson.

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From Post-Dispatch : Clergy-led protest raises questions over nature of repentance

I thought you might be interested in this story: Clergy-led protest raises questions over nature of repentance, http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/clergy-led-protest-raises-questions-over-nature-of-repentance/article_6c644480-08e8-5cc3-a45c-d4414b153bd6.html

Sent via the Post-Dispatch Android App.

Download the app https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.ap.postdispatch

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This night in the middle.

This night in the middle..

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“Speak now or forever hold your peace.” Reflections on Marriage Equality.

“Marriage equality is happening because ordinary people, open to being changed, were able to accept the invitation. When the minister says, “Speak now or forever hold our peace,” we’re at peace with the love before us. We all created this. Together. You created this, with your open minds and your own lives and the choices you have made.  This is about all of us, about our common desire to be loved, accepted, and affirmed.”

This sermon was delivered by me to the good people at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday, October 5, 2014 in Chesterfield Missouri.

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The first wedding I remember attending was a family wedding, and my grandmothers told me that someday I was going to have my own, so pay attention! I took it to heart. By the age of 8 I had picked out my wedding dress, my shoes, my hairstyle, my veil, where the reception would be, and who I would invite. I didn’t even consider who my husband might be! I figured that would take care of itself!

For this little girl a wedding seemed about all those details. Details that so many of you worked out for your weddings. Will you hold the wedding on a mountain top or in your backyard? Will you have a professional photographer or give Uncle Art a camera? Will you have a seven course catered meal or order in fried chicken? Will you order expensive flowers or raid the garden? Will you have a wedding party? Will they all wear the same color or is it open season? Will you order a limo, a horse and carriage, or just wash the car really well?

Whether you have a $50 000 wedding in wine country or a BBQ in the backyard, all the decisions you make are about creating an experience that deep down you hope will change your life and those who attend. One of the questions I ask the couples I marry is, “What do you want your guests to remember about your wedding?”

Their answers tell me about their values, how they understand their commitment, and the quality of their relationships with others. The question also helps them to start talking about the more difficult aspects of the wedding. Who’s not coming. Estranged relatives who will be in the same room for the first time in years.   Choices that aren’t being well received by the family. What I say to them is that weddings are never just about the couple, even for those who run off and elope. Weddings are about who is there supporting us, or at least trying to, even if they’re making a terrible mess of things.

That’s why weddings are so spiritual and so political. Think about it. What is the most memorable line of the traditional wedding ceremony that has been used in movie after movie? “Should anyone here present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.” And everyone holds their breath and waits, either because they know the wedding is a terrible idea and someone needs to stop it, or because the wedding is perfect and no one should dare stand in the way. Many ceremonies don’t use this line anymore because it seems so outdated, but we all know it. We know it because a wedding is about more than the two people making the promise.   It is about the family, the friends, the children, the community, the church, and ultimately, the state.

This is why marriage has been such a big deal for sexual minorities. A wedding is an affirmation of who you are by those who matter the most. For better or worse, in this couple-centric society, our partners influence how we are seen and identified. Just ask anyone who is single how often they are judged or seen as less than because there isn’t someone there next to them. We make assumptions about people and their worth by who they partner with, for better or worse.

For sexual minorities, weddings have often been extremely painful experiences because we would look at this community affirmation of love and think to ourselves, “That will never be for me. I will never receive that affirmation.” When the minister says, “Speak now or forever hold your peace,” we’re pretty sure that if we were standing up there, someone would say no, either those who refused to come or the state which refused to recognize it. Many of us have stayed in the closet for years because coming out meant losing the support of our families, our communities, our churches, our children. It meant losing the wedding and everything it means.

Until now. In the last decade everything has changed. Something that was considered a pipe dream 15 years ago is happening. It wasn’t easy. Those fighting for traditional marriage fought a good fight and it looked for a while like they were winning. By 2006, 31 states had a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. Same sex marriage was used for years as a wedge issue to motivate conservative voters. And it worked. But more quickly than anyone ever thought possible, the dominoes have started to fall. It is very possible that by June 2015 marriage equality will be law.

What I want to talk about today is why. How is it that the dominoes are finally falling, and faster than anyone ever thought possible, even to the point that Missouri is now on the train? What I want to tell you today is that this is no accident. The energy that is making this happen started years ago, and we are all part of it. I want to share with you four things, four big moments that have impacted all of us, brought us to today. They aren’t the only four moments, because if I talked about everything that got us to today we would be here all day. The four moments that we’ll focus on today, each of them has a sociological, personal, and spiritual aspect to them.

The first is birth control, the ability of women and men to prevent pregnancy. Humans have always practiced birth control, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became more acceptable and virtually fool proof because of the Pill. Birth control became morally acceptable and legal. If you practice safe sex properly every time, the chance of getting pregnant is less than 1%. That changed everything because for the first time in history, heterosexual intimacy could be almost 100% about pleasure, rather than creating a new life. It has changed what sexual intimacy means in our bodies and in our minds and in our spirits. We have a freedom that no other era of humans has ever experienced. This wasn’t just a medical revolution, it was a spiritual and a social revolution that changed our hearts and changed our relationships. It also changed how we experience straight marriage. It made it bigger than having a family.

What does this have to do with gay marriage? Gay sexual intimacy has always been about pleasure. It can’t be about procreation. That has been one of the moral charges against it. But as more heterosexual people were able to have sexual intimacy separated from procreation, and see that as moral, it made room to understand gay sexual intimacy as moral too. So if you use birth control, take a moment to reflect on that, and see that your own personal decision has opened a path for equal marriage.

Second, is the women’s movement.   One of the goals of the women’s movement was to take down the traditional understanding of what it meant to be a woman, which was to be a wife and a mother. Every step that women took to expand the options for women changed marriage itself, because the definition of marriage included a traditional definition of womanhood. If you change what it means to be a woman, you change marriage.  No longer are women only in one role, and men only in one role. Feminism expanded what is seen as natural and normal for all the genders.   When that changed, it created room for non-traditional relationships for straight people and queer people. It made the marriage umbrella bigger.

The third thing was AIDS. In the 1980s, when AIDS hit the gay community, it became really clear how vulnerable gay people were. You could be in a committed partnership, and your partner could get HIV, and his family could swoop in and take control. You could be denied hospital access, any say in medical care, and no say about the funeral and burial. If he owned the home you lived in, too bad for you. If he had pension or retirement savings, too bad for you. You had nothing.

The fourth was the lesbian baby boom. In the 1990s, more and more lesbian couples started raising families. They were adopting kids, having their own kids, and bringing kids from a previous marriage. Because their relationships had no legal standing, the courts could take the kids away if a mother was deemed unfit for motherhood because of her sexual orientation. With adoption or artificial insemination, only one person could be the legal parent. If the child was sick, the non-legal parent had no say at the hospital. If the couple separated, the non-legal parent had no right to see the kids. If the legal parent died, the non-legal parent could lose the kids to the in-laws. It was terrible.

AIDS and the lesbian baby boom led many queer people to the conclusion that they had to get legal protection for their relationships, and that’s why they landed on marriage equality as the issue that would get them that protection. What was on their side was a whole generation of heterosexual people whose understanding of love and marriage had started to shift because of feminism and birth control. Their own changing experience of marriage made it possible for them to open their minds and to offer greater acceptance and understanding. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has happened and is happening.

Alright. That’s the history lesson! That’s what got us to today.

Two of my brothers were married before I came out to my family. And although I was so very very happy for them, I also felt so sad at each one.  Sad and jealous.  I wanted what they had, and didn’t think it would ever be for me.  I was sure I’d lost the wedding I had dreamed of as a little girl.

15 years later, it was finally my turn. It wasn’t legal here yet, but it was in my home country. And I remember the absolute glee of working on all the details. I was almost 40, and my wedding was nothing like that 8 year old had imagined. I e-mailed most of my invitations. My brothers set up the tent that my uncle lent us from the farm implement dealership he worked for. Another uncle lent tables and chairs. My mother baked cakes. My cousins brought the salads. We washed the cars and ordered the chicken. Our reception happened in the backyard rather than in a hall. Before the ceremony we slipped off the rings we had already given each other in private years ago and exchanged them publicly, before our guests, the guests who mattered so much, whose witness meant everything. Family members and friends snapped photos that we remembered to take half way through the afternoon. My parents’ friends directed traffic and washed the dishes. It took a community, and we were in heaven. It was so precious. There was so much love. So much love.

I remember thinking that something really has changed when a straight friend of mine posted on facebook that she felt her heterosexual marriage was stronger because of equal marriage. She had attended a same sex wedding and the pure joy of the two women she witnessed made her treasure what she had even more and to recognize how precious it was.

This hasn’t just happened because gay people are great organizers, which they are, by the way. This happened because ordinary people, open to being changed, were able to accept the invitation.  When the minister says, “Speak now or forever hold our peace,” we’re at peace with the love before us. We all created this. Together.

So as the legal victories roll out, and I’m pretty they will, remember, you created this. With your open minds and your own lives and the choices you have made. We made this happen together. This is about all of us, about our common desire to be loved, accepted, and affirmed.   Amen and blessed be.

copyright Rev. Krista Taves 2014.  This sermon may be shared provided full credit is given to the author.

Much of the historical information in this sermon appears in George Chauncey’s book, “Why Marriage:  This History Shaping Today’s Debate over Marriage Equality.”

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Casting off – Reflections on Rosh Hashannah

In Unitarian Universalism, we believe that there is a spark of the divine in each of us. So if you want to meet God, if you want to look in the eyes of God, if you want to take the risk of being examined by God, go look in the mirror. And then, go look into the eyes of another human being. In your own eyes, and in the eyes of those around you, that is where you are going to meet God.

This sermon was delivered by me to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on September 28, 2014.  This sermon is the copyright of Rev. Krista Taves and may be reprinted and used in any context provided full credit is given to the author.  

*****

I grew up in a family that wore cast offs. It was one way my mom helped make ends meet. And luckily, I was one of those kids who didn’t see it as a step down. I loved going to used clothing stores and bringing home bags of clothing. It’s was like Christmas for me.

To this day one of my favorite things to do is shop for used clothing, and because I love it so much, I have this rule that I can’t bring home used clothing unless I get rid of as many pieces as I bring home, otherwise my closet would just get fuller and fuller. So, in order to do something I love, I’m always having to make choices about what I keep and what I cast off. And that has become a really interesting way to see how my priorities are changing. What clothes do I let go of easily? Which ones are harder to give up?  In our society, for better of worse, clothes are one of the ways we express our identity. We make intentional choices about how we want to present ourselves to the world and clothes is a huge part of that. As we change, our clothes often change with us.

The hardest clothes for me to cast off are the ones that I bought because they inspired in me an image of what I want to be.  I saw that article of clothing, I imagined myself in it, doing this or that, in this place or that place, and of course being seen by others in the image that I imagine. But , somehow what I imagined hasn’t happened.  I’ve never found the right time or place, or the right accessories, and that article of clothing sits in my closet for months, years. And I haven’t given up hope yet that I will find my way with it. So I will hold on to stuff I never wear because I can’t let go of the image it has evoked in my imagination for who I might become when I wear it.

Let me give you an example. I used to go clubbing a lot in my 20s and early 30s. A lot of us do. I loved dancing into the early hours of the morning and I had a closet of club clothing that I culled from countless vintage clothing shops that I absolutely adored. And then my life changed. I moved into a career and a mortgage and a marriage, into being a minister, which means working every weekend. But for years, I still kept buying club clothes, even though I didn’t go dancing anymore. I still envisioned myself as someone who had that life and what it represented – freedom, youth, danger, excitement, being on the cutting edge, being 15 pounds lighter! And so I kept these clothes. I couldn’t let go of who I had been. Every time I brought home another bag of used clothing, and had to chose what I would get rid of, I would consider that pile, and I would feel all kinds of things – a yearning, a sadness, a restlessness, grief, sometimes even anger – and I would wish for my old life.

But life kept moving on. One day, I realized that I had moved on too, and I knew in the deepest part of my being that I wasn’t going to wear those clothes anymore. There were new ways of being that were more powerful and more fulfilling. I had replaced club clothes with bicycles and tents, kayaks and a canoe, fleece shirts and hiking boots.   I had become a wife, minister, lover of nature, political activist, woman who likes to go to bed at 9 p.m.. And when that happened, when I could embrace who I had become, it was time. I was at peace and I packed those clothes up, drove to the DAV dropoff, and cast them off.

This last week, Jewish people celebrated Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, which will soon be followed by Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashannah, is about intentionally engaging in this kind of reflection, the kind of reflection where we engage who we are changing into. In traditional Judaism, Rosh Hashannah is about preparing yourself for the judgment of God, looking back at your year, and examining your actions and your choices, knowing what God expects of you. Rosh Hashannah is about preparing yourself for that examination.

One ritual that some sects of Judaism practice is called Taschlik. You fill your pockets with bread, head to a body of flowing water, and prepare to let go of the things that you know are keeping you from faithfulness. You throw the bread into the water and shake the last crumbs from your clothing, a symbol of casting off the burdens of the past year.

But it is more than that. Rosh Hashannah also means preparing yourself to approach the people you know you are not in right relationship with and making amends. It means asking for forgiveness and offering it, so that you both can be freed as you enter the New Year.  This is the most important thing to do in order to prepare yourself for that examination.

Did you know that the ritual of Taschlik has had its share of controversy in Judaism?   There are still some branches of Judaism that will not observe it, the reason being that some Rabbis feared that people would think that throwing the bread on the water was enough, that as they cast off the bread and shook out their clothing, they could absolve themselves of their shortcomings in this ritual act instead of in real relationships. Many Rabbis feared they would forget the most important aspect of Rosh Hashannah, which is making amends and offering forgiveness. Starting with a clean slate was not just a personal exercise; it was about the people around you, the world around you.

When you look at the etymology of the word religion, it means “to bind fast” or “the bond between humans and gods.” Faith is not a solitary exercise. It is about being in community, in relationship.

What those Rabbis struggled with is what every religion today struggles with. Take Christianity, for instance. Many forms of modern Christianity have turned God into a personal savior, made faithfulness only about right belief and trusting in God in the right way. Modern Christianity has made salvation personal. Are you saved? This is a function of Christianity being shaped by a harmful form of individualism that we see in so many places, where we are responsible only for ourselves, where all we do is throw bread in the water and think we’re good with the world.

What we find in Rosh Hashannah is something very different. Rosh Hashannah is about you in community. Did you notice that in all the pictures of tashlik that I showed to the kids, in none of them is a person standing alone.? There are crowds at the water. You are surrounded by your people. Rosh Hashannah is about engaging in the act of cleansing, of forgiving and being forgiven, surrounded by your people, and with your people.

One of the things I realized, when I finally was ready to pack up those clothes, is that letting them go was saying yes not only to myself, but also yes to the people who I most cared about – my spouse, my family, the people of this congregation.   When we live into the truth of who we are, we become a blessing to those around us. When we live instead in the past, or into images that really aren’t true to us anymore, how can we be in right relationship with our people? We can’t be that blessing.

The way that I as a Unitarian Universalist translate the traditional understanding of Rosh Hashannah, which is preparing for God’s judgment, is to look in the mirror. In Unitarian Universalism, we believe that there is a spark of the divine in each of us. So if you want to meet God, if you want to look in the eyes of God, and take the risk of being examined by God, go look in the mirror. And, then go look into the eyes of another human being. In your own eyes, and in the eyes of those around you, that is where you are going to meet the God of your understanding.

The ritual of casting off is about letting go of all the things that keep you from seeing the God of your understanding in your own eyes and in the eyes of those around you.   This is how Unitarian Universalists understand new life and it is one way that we understand salvation. Salvation is not about being personally saved in an afterlife, but about seeing more openly and clearly and grounding in community for the purposes of transforming ourselves and serving our world.

This congregation has just gone through a huge casting off. The sale of our building this past summer was a watershed moment, one that we will be talking about for years. For those of us who experienced that casting off, we have all responded to it in different ways. Some of us have cast our bread in the water and shaken off our clothes and are ready to move on. Some of us are still standing by the water, bread in hand, wondering when we will be ready.   And should it be any surprise there is this diversity? Of course not. I see that diversity as a blessing. We must affirm the diversity of ways that each person is finding their truth in this time. That is one of the foundations of Unitarian Universalism, the affirmation of our diversity.

There is also a growing desire among us all to come together once again as a community, unified in understanding and purpose. We have a need to look into each other’s eyes, now that we are here, to see the spark of the divine in each other, and to ask, “ Who are we now? How have we changed? What are we called to be now? How can we anchor ourselves in our present reality and fully live into its possibilities?”

At the September board meeting, the Board of Trustees, which is elected by the members of this church, made the decision that the rest of this year will be devoted to a time of community building, claiming who we are now and who we have become. It’s a time to gather together and look in the mirror, at the sparks of the divine that burn in each of us, and to ask, “How are we being called at this time? How do we claim our abundance and our possibility in this moment?” The biggest purpose of this time of reflection is to come together again as a people, as one beloved community that is moving forward together, even in our diversity, especially in our diversity.   We live in such a fragmented world, and belonging somewhere, knowing who your people are, is so very precious.   What we have here is precious.

Now I say this, realizing that some of you are so new to this congregation that you didn’t ever worship at our old building. Maybe you’re wondering where you fit into this conversation. And I say, that you absolutely have a voice because you can help those of us who were part of the casting off to benefit from your fresh new eyes. You will see things that we can’t.  It is very possible that you can be anchored in the present in a way that some of us cannot yet be.

Right now we are building the team that will guide us through this process and developing the charge that they will be given. If you want to be on this team, let the Board know in the next week.

Every one of us has a metaphoric pile of club clothes sitting in the closet. You may not be a compulsive used clothes shopper like I am, but I bet you have your own collection of those things you are hanging onto. Those “things” can be literally things, or ways of responding to life or ways of engaging with people or ways of looking at ourselves. When I think about the stuff that I’m still hanging on to, and there’s lots of it, I think about that journey that I took to be able to let go of that pile of clothing that no longer reflected my life. The nostalgia. The sadness. The grief that sometimes felt almost impossible to hold. The growing glimmers of hope. The slow dawning awareness of the changes that were happening to me, changes that were not out of my control with me just being passive in the face of it, but me actively making choices that made my old life increasingly unhelpful to the present.   When I think of this, it seems to me that the purpose of religion should be to provide a pathway to help us manage the awkward and sometimes painful complexity of our lives with as much grace as possible, because usually life isn’t graceful. It’s clumsy and messy and sometimes it’s so disappointing.

But that’s also what makes life so beautiful. In the clumsiness there is wisdom, in the messiness, hope bursts through, and in the disappointments, there are often blessings we just could never have imagined.

So when I think of all those people standing at the water, together, tossing pieces of bread symbolizing all these things we try to let go of, I see the possibility of that pathway, and I know that I am not alone with the clumsiness and the messiness, or the disappointments in my own life. I am not alone in hope and possibility and promise. I am not alone in the search to take the complexity of my own life and see in it the spark of the divine.

And neither are you.

May the spirit of life and love be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.

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