Forgiving ourselves and each other - Yom Kippur

We arrive in this place today

Each of us made up of so many different selves

The generous one, the frightened one, the angry one, the cruel one, the compassionate one, the loving one.

We bring each of our selves to this place which is, itself, truly many places:

A sanctuary from the hardness we have found elsewhere

A place of acceptance

A place of learning

A place of challenge

A place of joy

A place of meaning

A place of commitment

A place of love

A place where we can join our strength together to better the world around us

May the flame we kindle now illuminate the richness possible for each of us in this place

And may it be a sign of welcome to all





The Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Message by Andy Pakula

One of the lessons I was taught in my years of training to be a minister is to be sure to let the congregation see you make mistakes. This guidance seemed to assume that the minister appears perfect and that such perfection is disempowering to the community.

So, they said, “make a show of doing something wrong. Admit an error. Make one up if you have to!”

Ahem…  I do not have to make up an error or a failing. I have plenty. And I am certain that, unless you’ve been around for less than this morning, you know full well that I have flaws and make mistakes.

Over the past year, I’ve done many things right and I’ve also done plenty of things wrong. I’ve been judgemental. I’ve been impatient. I’ve been jealous. I’ve been dismissive. I’ve been petty. I’ve thought about vengeance.

I am sorry.

There is something very hard about saying “I am sorry” in this world. Saying it makes us more vulnerable. It feels like we are opening ourselves to criticism and attack. It is so tempting to say “no - you’re the one in the wrong” when a conflict erupts.

But all of us get it wrong from time to time.

None of us get through this life without doing things - large and small - that we are not proud of - we do things that stand directly in opposition to our own best self-image and maybe cause us to feel ashamed. We all have a sense of the person we would like to be and we cringe at the ways in which our actions have fallen short of our intentions. If I could do that, we think, maybe I am not and will never be someone I can feel proud to be.

Yesterday was the Jewish "Day of Atonement" - in Hebrew, it is known as Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is Judaism’s response to our need to reconcile our personal aspirations with the reality of our actions. On Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, Jews pray and fast, but most of all, it is a day for acknowledging our failures to ourselves or to God and it is a day for making amends for wrongs done to other human beings. Yom Kippur provides – as does the Christian practice of confession – a ritualised way to let go of the pain of where we have not been the people we intended to be.

I know that the notion of confessing or even acknowledging our wrongdoing can make many of us feel very wary. It makes us think of words like sin and damnation and salvation, words that most of us are happy to leave behind to more traditional religions with a less hopeful view of human nature.

We are not going in the direction of sin and damnation today. I promise. But it is also true that liberal religious traditions have had a problem coping with the very real human tendency to do bad things.

The source of the problem is a very good and true belief: we are committed to a notion that people are basically good. But at the same time, we know we’re imperfect.

Without a way to address the tension we feel between what we do and what we know we should do, we tend toward one of two options:

First, we can rationalize our deeds – that is to redefine wrong action as right action – something that I fear happens all too often in our society as self-interest becomes enshrined as the greatest good.

The other approach we might take is what we could call ‘make believe.’ If we think that we’re supposed to be all good but know that we’re not, we’ll just have to pretend we are. In fact, we might even try to convince ourselves that we are all–good in our nature and character. This is not a simple superficial thing that is achieved lightly. It is a painful process of rejecting, condemning, and walling off parts of our own characters. It leaves us cautious and guarded – unwilling to be open to others for fear they will discover the darkness we are so carefully concealing. So very much is lost when we find parts of ourselves unacceptable.

Perhaps worst of ‘make believe’ is that when we convince ourselves we have nothing we need to change, change becomes impossible. Growth becomes impossible.

We are all made up of many different and often seeming contradictory pieces.

Philip Simmons, a Unitarian author, says this:

“We do not heal ourselves by scourging or rejecting our sinful parts but by drawing them into a circle of holiness made large enough to include them. There’s nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight, nothing that confuses them more than our embrace. Our goal, always, is to transform evil through love.”

The way to deal with the darkness in each of our hearts is not to rationalise or to reject it, but rather to accept it. “You do not have to be good” Mary Oliver tells us. “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”

Acceptance of ourselves as we are is essential. “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Acceptance is not about choosing to turn to our worst and weakest aspects, but rather an essential step in becoming the person we want to be.

Interestingly, in Judaism, the word that is translated as sin is taken from archery. It literally means “missing the mark.” Sins are those instances where we have failed to be who we know we should be or do what we know we should do. The obvious implication of this approach is that we do aim for what is right and righteous. The work of Yom Kippur – and in fact the work of our lives – is to continue to aim high and then to recognise, accept, and try again when we fall short.

So, today, let us look back over the past year and recognise the places where we have missed the mark - where we have missed the target we ourselves set.

I don’t usually like to talk about the derivation of words, but I’m going to make an exception here. In Hebrew, Yom Kippur translates most accurately as the day of forgiveness. It is not a day for beating ourselves up or wallowing in our guilt, but a day set aside for seeking forgiveness from ourselves and from others and - especially - for granting that forgiveness.

The English translation - Day of Atonement - is an interesting one. The word “Atonement” has a sackcloth and ashes feel to it to me. It feels more like self-punishment than self forgiveness.

But the word atonement was created in the early 16th century meaning literally “at-one-ment” - the process of reconciling and becoming - once again - one.

Today is a day for reuniting and reconciling with one another and it is a day for reconciling with our own selves.

Today is a day to forgive - to reconcile - to bring together all that we are. Today is a day to become at one. To become whole.


Closing Words

Bring to mind those you have wronged or harmed in any way - intentional or not - over the past year. In the quiet of your heart, seek their forgiveness. And take the time to seek your own forgiveness as well.