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.  

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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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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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