I’d like to say again what a wonderful experience it has been to be welcomed here. I’ve been getting to know many of you, and I look forward to getting to know even more of you soon. So maybe it’s fitting, in this month of forgiving, that I begin by asking for your forgiveness. See, I had a plan.
After a worship planning meeting over the summer I learned I’d be preaching my first sermon on this date on the theme of forgiveness. And my plan was to deliver to you the finest sermon on forgiveness you have ever heard.
So I arrived a month ago. I got my little room to stay in. I met some friends here in Portland. I started building my little life here and started to learn my way around this church. And I also started to think a lot about this first sermon. I went over my life. I thought about times I’d been asked for forgiveness. I thought about the times I’d asked others for forgiveness. And in that process, my plan for this first sermon started to take shape.
So a few weeks ago, on a little self-guided tour of the building, I wandered into this sanctuary. Incidentally, my habit of wandering into sanctuaries is what got me to All Souls in New York City, and is likely what led me here today. So it is a habit I support and commend to you all. But on this wandering occasion into a sanctuary, the gorgeous choir we all just got to hear was settling in for a rehearsal. And the song we all heard a few moments ago was the first song the choir sang through.
As I heard the lyrics; as I watched the faces of the choir members; I knew. My little plan, my neat and tidy little sermon I was planning, wasn’t going to work. So really, it is the choir you have to blame for not being able to hear the finest sermon on forgiveness you have ever heard. I hope you can forgive them.
See the lyrics that struck me were about rain falling down and about the flowing tears of mercy. Water in music invites us into a sacred tradition where music mingles with some of our deepest pains and longings. In the most recent centuries, and in the most recent decades, water of all kinds is almost everywhere you look.
I think my personal favorite is “Cry me a River.” This isn’t my favorite because it contains the rhyme:
“You told me love was too plebian
Told me you were through with me and…”
I mean, how could you not love a song just for that? But it is this notion of crying a river that I love.
In his book Why Only Humans Weep, Ad Vingerhoets explains some of the spooky and magical aspects of human tears. His book presents plenty of evidence that no other animal on earth cries like humans do. No other animal weeps with the same set of physiological and biological experiences. And he spends a chapter discussing how weeping and how water play roles in the sacred lives of humans, throughout recorded history. He shares, for instance, that “ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile flooded and delivered the fertile sediments every year because of Isis’s tears of sorrow for her dead husband, Osiris.”
The Hebrew Scriptures, which are among our sources of wisdom in our Living Tradition, share this:
“My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept” in psalm 119.
How many of us have despaired those systems of “justice” that are applied, over and over, so unjustly, to so many, for so long? Perhaps it is telling that psalm 119 is not only the longest psalm but also the longest chapter in the entire bible.
“Every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with weeping.” This is from psalm 6, and it speaks to anyone, anywhere, who has ever felt that their heart might break in two.
Water is present as tears in the deepest despair and most painful wrongs we feel today, and not much has changed in the past few millennia. But we are just days away from the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. And approaching this day, we uncover something else about water. One of the most common words for “forgiveness” in the Hebrew Scriptures is salah. Salah refers to forgiveness or pardon that God provides to humans: divine forgiveness. But the word salah came into the earliest Jewish communities from the earlier Mesopotamian culture where it connotes “sprinkling in purification rites.”
The very word kippur literally means “purge.” But it is used in the Hebrew Scriptures as a term for God’s forgiveness of humankind for breaking the divine covenant—the covenant forged following Noah’s forty days and forty nights atop the flood waters; the covenant sealed with what? That’s right: a rainbow.
So, on one hand, water represents grief over injustice and wrong: error. And on the other hand, water purifies, it washes away guilt and wrong. It is a new beginning: forgiveness.
But why? Why is water on both sides of this equation? Before we get to that, I should tell you all something.
I have some experience making mistakes. One case in point: I don’t know how many of you were settled in all nicely for meditation the first time you trusted me to bring you out of that meditation with the ringing of our bell. Well, faced with some uncertainty over how hard to strike the bell, I erred on the side of boldness. And err I did.
I would like to take this chance to ask forgiveness from anyone I startled. Though I don’t mind telling you, some folks in our community who don’t hear like they used to, were very pleased with my contribution. And you might not be too surprised to learn, that was not my first mistake in life.
See, growing up, I liked to play “let’s make a deal” with a lot of things. One of those things was over dinner. When I was over at a friend’s house playing, I’d try to get a sense of what they were having for dinner. And if it was something I liked, I would angle for an invite. Then, I’d call my mom at home and let her know I’ve been invited by my friend for dinner. Then I’d try to find out what mom was making for dinner. You all probably see where this is going. I’d balance whatever whim my tummy had that evening and choose accordingly.
I wish I could tell you that this only happened a few times. I don’t remember when it was, but at some point my mother put a stop to it. She made it clear that I was not to play let’s make a deal over dinner any more. I didn’t really get what the big deal was, but I remember it being clear that I was causing some kind of pain and that was enough for me to stop. It was clear I had erred, so I stopped.
We all have probably heard “To err is human; to forgive divine.” I figured that this little maxim came from the bible or Shakespeare, but it doesn’t. Alexander Pope, a poet and essayist, who worked in the 18th century wrote “An Essay on Criticism.” It is really a rant, delivered in rhyming couplet, against his contemporaries and the critics he cared for, and those he didn’t. But somehow, this line from his essay seeped into our collective consciousness. Often this happens when years of human experience prove something to be true. “To err is human; to forgive divine.”
One way to hear this sentence means that we simple, stumbling humans make mistakes. We err. Then God comes in and forgives us. That’s God’s job. We err. God forgives. But that leaves a lot of questions.
What happens if a person doesn’t seek forgiveness just right?
What happens if a person honestly doesn’t know they need forgiveness?
I assure you, there are entire branches of theology devoted to questions like this. In fact, there are whole denominations and movements that were born over these very questions. And you don’t have to spend a lot of time with church history to see that this set-up led to some complexity. But it was our own Universalist roots that began to follow this arrangement to its rational end. Many of the early Universalists simply could not believe in an unerring power that would create something only then to damn it. Universal salvation, unbridled forgiveness, literally made more logical sense to them.
And like the early Universalists, there are other traditions that adopt a thoroughly pragmatic view of forgiveness. We have entered the time between the New Year celebration of Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. We are met in this time with images and questions about indelible marks in books shelved in the heavens dictating our eternal fate. I was starting to get a little worried about all of that until I actually checked up on the sacred procedures for seeking forgiveness on the Day of Atonement.
Historically, the proper way to go about making atonement to one I have wronged requires approaching that person with others present as witnesses and naming what I have done and seeking forgiveness. Ideally, I will also have been acting in accordance with my change of heart as well. If my overture is rejected on the first try, I can ask again for forgiveness for the next two years. But if on the third year the person from whom I seek forgiveness refuses to grant it, then it flips. I am forgiven and they are in trouble.
The study of community living and the rules that govern communities is fascinating. In the study you learn that “every rule has its reason.” This is a nice way of saying, “Someone did something so annoying once, that no one ever even conceived a person would do, but now because they did, we need a rule for it.” But this ritual time limit for a grudge was probably not only needed for the folks who committed the error and needed to make it right. I think the society realized that this rule was also needed to help the folks holding on to what was done to them—for people holding back forgiveness.
I humbly submit that two years is not long enough truly to forgive some of the things done to us in our lives. Indeed, I have to say that some things in this world may very never be entirely forgiven. But two years seems like a good time frame to at least make a start.
A few years ago I was at home. I was in the kitchen. And my phone rang and the person I shared my home with asked me how my day was. I asked how his was. Good, good. And he asked me “What are you doing?” Oh, I’m making dinner. And then I hear “Oh, really, what are you making?” And somewhere, something deep in my memory, deep in my gut, sort of dropped.
I don’t remember exactly what I said in response to this question. I don’t even remember if he went out with his friends or came home for dinner that night. What I remember is that what I prepared was not a meal to “attract” or to “entice.” I prepared a meal to share. And I remember hanging up the phone then instantly dialing it again. And when my mother answered I said “I’m sorry. I owe you an apology.” She asked what for. I explained what had just happened. And then I said how it made me feel inside. And that it made me so much more sorry for every time I did it to her.
This did not feel like being asked to stop doing something and stopping even though I don’t know exactly why. This did not even feel like begging forgiveness three times and being rid of it. No. When the kind of wrong I committed, when the shape of the transgression I made, when the way I erred, fit, or dropped, into a place carved out in me by another’s wrong against me, by another’s transgression, by another’s erring, yes, I did understand what a gift it was to receive forgiveness. But more important in that moment was feeling the gift it was to my relationship with my mom to seek forgiveness. For me, that is truly rarefied err.
Drip by drip, by erosion over time, or in a tide we can hold back no more, pain at being wronged can rend the very banks of that river between what is human and what is divine: between error and forgiveness. And that river, my friends, is a river of tears.
From Isis’s tears in the Nile, to the psalmist’s tear-soaked couch; from “Cry me a River” to mercy flowing down upon us, tears have been the accompaniment of so much suffering and so much healing. But ancient stories and popular music aren’t the only places wondering at the journey tears have taken along with humans throughout time. The author of Why Only Humans Weep discovered that even Charles Darwin “regarded tears as an exception to the rule that all behaviors and physiological processes that served no important adaptive function should have disappeared in the course of evolution.
In Darwin’s view, tears were just a coincidental side effect.” He couldn’t explain them.
Hearing someone else cry and seeing someone else cry hurts me somehow. Or if they are tears of joy, they can bring me explainable joy—even if it’s a stranger crying. Think about that. Seeing a stranger cry impacts us. What could that be? What could reach from one person to another like this? What builds that bridge of understanding that is crossed the instant another’s tears appear?
It is important to pay attention to things that happen to us that science or reason can’t explain.
It is important to pay attention to things that centuries, millennia of sacred texts endow with reverence and praise.
It is important to pay attention to the mysterious healing that flows from really understanding what someone else is feeling.
Empathy is important.
Honestly, I don’t think one person can tell another ALL of the things it takes to get through the churning waters of pain we all navigate in our lives. But I am pretty certain that there is a great deal more to discover about that journey than just saying, “I’m sorry.” Showing someone we understand what we did, even if it takes twenty years to get it, is a plank that can be part of any bridge, to any vessel, we build across these waters. It is the rarefied err that fits into the shape of knowing, of understanding another’s pain only after experiencing that pain. It is, in a phrase, the shape of justice.
Look, I know, we all know: forgiveness is complex. There is nothing simple about it. Even this sermon is approaching three thousand words on the subject, and we’ve only just started. I mean if a picture really is worth a thousand words, I might have served you all a little better and saved some of your time like this.
But we know it’s not that simple. All of us have been wronged. I dare say that we have wronged others, too. But if we believe as Unitarian Universalists in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, including ourselves, and we believe as Unitarian Universalists that existence is an interconnected web, then with our shared sources of our wisdom, of our Living Tradition, transmitted across centuries of suffering and the centuries of healing in the lives we lead, in the stories we tell, and in the songs we sing to each other, the part we can play in singing new songs, in telling new stories and in living new lives, can begin as soon as we are ready to ask another to share our rarefied err.
May it be so. Amen.