Good and Evil
Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil.
For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?
Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts, it drinks even of dead waters.
You are good when you are one with yourself.
Yet when you are not one with yourself you are not evil.
For a divided house is not a den of thieves; it is only a divided house.
And a ship without rudder may wander aimlessly among perilous isles yet sink not to the bottom.
You are good when you strive to give of yourself.
Yet you are not evil when you seek gain for yourself.
For when you strive for gain you are but a root that clings to the earth and sucks at her breast.
Surely the fruit cannot say to the root, 'Be like me, ripe and full and ever giving of your abundance.'
For to the fruit giving is a need, as receiving is a need to the root.
You are good when you are fully awake in your speech,
Yet you are not evil when you sleep while your tongue staggers without purpose.
And even stumbling speech may strengthen a weak tongue.
You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.
But you who are strong and swift, see that you do not limp before the lame, deeming it kindness.
You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good,
You are only loitering and sluggard.
Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness to the turtles.
In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.
But in some of you that longing is a torrent rushing with might to the sea, carrying the secrets of the hillsides and the songs of the forest.
And in others it is a flat stream that loses itself in angles and bends and lingers before it reaches the shore.
But let not him who longs much say to him who longs little, 'Wherefore are you slow and halting?'
For the truly good ask not the naked, 'Where is your garment?' nor the houseless, 'What has befallen your house?'
I get in the car and fasten my seat belt. If I wasn’t the last one to drive the car, I move the seat back to where it needs to be and I adjust the mirrors. I start the engine. I turn on the radio, change the station, and adjust the volume. I put the car in gear and begin driving. Fifteen minutes later, I emerge from some reverie and find myself in exactly the place I did not intend to go! I’ve been on automatic pilot and taken the route I know best – even though it has absolutely nothing to do with where I needed to be.
And then – after I finish telling myself what a dope I am – after I finish telling myself not to call myself names – after I finish laughing at how silly the whole thing is – I recognize that my only possibility is to turn in the right direction. I adjust my course. I begin again toward my true destination.
The Jewish Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur – was observed this week. The most essential word during Yom Kippur is Teshuvah – to turn. Yom Kippur is the time to turn away from wrong paths and recommit ourselves to what is true.
One of the most serious criticisms of liberal religion is that we are too dedicated to our focus on goodness. When we and other religious liberals did away with some of the heavier and more guilt-ridden aspects of theology – such as the notion of original sin – we turned our attention to the beauty of the world instead of its ugliness, its gifts rather than its burdens, and to what is noble in human nature rather than our failings, which we know are all too real.
The criticism is a valid one and not because it is good to beat ourselves up or to walk around humbled and penitent all the time, but because we know that we fall short. We know that we are imperfect and if our religion gives us no place to go with our flaws and our missteps, we just feel like failures and we struggle to ignore the plain truth of reality.
But Unitarianism, with its openness to wisdom from all the world’s great traditions, need not have a blind spot for the shadow side of human nature. This is why today, we borrow from the Jewish tradition’s observance of the day of atonement.
The Jewish tradition talks about sin at this time. At Yom Kippur, Jews are to atone for their sins. Now, that may sound very harsh to your ears. Two words leap out: atone and sin.
Let’s take these in turn. The origin of the word atone becomes obvious if you put in a space between the “t” and the “o.” At one. Atonement means restoring ourselves to unity, to oneness, to connection. It need not mean punishing ourselves for our wrongdoing - rather the emphasis must be on restoration.
When we hear the word sin, we may think of original sin, of seven-deadly sins, of violating the Ten Commandments… Sin, in this sense, is a very nasty thing. It is something so heinous that God should punish us for it – so irredeemable and deep in human nature that in the Christian tradition – God’s son had to die to free of us sin.
In Judaism, the notion of sin is different. The Hebrew word that is translated into English as sin a term from archery. It literally means “missing the mark.” We sin, in this sense, when we have failed to act as we should have acted – when we have failed to be the caring, compassionate, grateful, and generous person we aimed to be.
I have heard it said that archery is not such a good metaphor for our efforts to be our best selves. But then, the ancient Israelites didn’t know about guided missiles. When we let an arrow fly, there is no way to control what happens from then on. It is as if once we are born, we have not choice in what happens next. A guided missile is also launched toward a target, but that is not the end of the story. The missile has a guidance system that continually assesses its progress and its path. The missile is always a bit off course and is always readjusting. It doesn’t head straight toward its target. It runs and turns and runs and turns and runs and turns again. With each turn, teshuvah, it is restored to its true path.
The work of Yom Kippur is to pause and take stock. To look around to see where we are and maybe ask – “how the heck did I get here?” And once we notice where we have got off track, we may turn – return to our true path.
It is very important to note that the Jewish tradition distinguishes between two kinds of human sin - sins against God and sins that we commit against our fellow humans. God can forgive only sins against God. To be forgiven for sins against others, we must obtain their forgiveness. We must atone with them directly - become once again at one with them through our own very human means. This is the great and difficult work of creating peaceful loving communities and of restoring the fabric of relationship when it is frayed or torn by conflict.
I’d like to invite you now to share in a time of reflection. In your mind’s eye, begin to imagine the many people in your life. You might begin with the people you consider family. Then there may be friends. There may be people you work with – either for pay or as a volunteer. You may have customers or clients or patients. There are other people who help you professionally – doctors, dentists, solicitors, social workers, therapists, plumbers, electricians… There are others you may not have met really – only passed by or exchanged a brief communication at the till in a shop. Let all the faces of people in your life fill your imagination.
None of us is perfect. We have all missed the mark. We have veered off our path from time to time and a course correction is needed. We have made missteps in how we have been with others – sometimes in large ways and many times in ways so small that they are never even noticed.
Imagine now extending your hand to each person you have hurt, no matter how minor the offense. With that silent gesture, you offer atonement – reconnection – you seek a new start and a fresh beginning – a chance to walk unencumbered by hard feelings and an opportunity to build the relationship that could have been.
Now I want to invite you to do something that may feel a bit more risky. In a moment, music will begin playing and I would like you to rise as you are able and move around the church. You will encounter people you know well and others you barely know. You will encounter people you have treated less well than you would have liked – unless we are perfect, it is inevitable in human relations that we will hurt each other. It may have been the most subtle of things: a harsh or impatient thought that you never acted upon – or it may have been something you failed to do rather than something you did.
When you encounter someone who you have harmed in even the slightest way – extend a hand of atonement – a hand of reconciliation – a hand of reconnection. A hand may be extended to you. You may recognise that a harm was done to you or you may be puzzled. Nonetheless, if you have forgiveness in your heart or the intention to forgive, take that hand in yours. In this way, we return together toward unity, toward the beloved community we are building, and toward the world of peace for which we long. Continue moving until you feel you are done and then please take your seat once again.