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Leviticus 16.6-10, 29-34

I John 1.1-10

Sorry Not Sorry

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

If you didn’t read the caption, the photograph in the newspaper probably looked to you like a group of grownups on an afternoon outing feeding the ducks, throwing scraps of bread into the water.  It happens every year around the middle of September.  But then you might have noticed the yarmulkes, the long beards sported by many of the men, the older women handing out the bread, and if you looked very closely you would have noticed that some of the pieces aren’t bread at all, but rather scraps of paper.  Oh, and there were probably no ducks in the photo either.  Then you read the caption and learned this was a group of faithful Jews observing the ancient custom of tashlich, the casting away of sins to mark the start of Rosh Ha-Shannah, the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the High Holy Days, in preparation for the holiest day of all, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which was celebrated this past Thursday.  One of the photos I saw was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; there was no natural water source nearby; instead what looked like a large aquarium had been placed there, so that worshipers there could still cast their sins, in this case represented by small stones, into the water.  The practice of tashlich developed around the 13th century, and is often done while reciting a line from the prophet Micah, “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities.  You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”

          Atonement.  The covering up of our iniquities.  The removal of our sin.  It sounds like one of those arcane theological ideas that require a seminary education to understand.  How are we atoned?  Are our sins removed from us or are they just covered over like a fresh coat of paint?  The Hebrew scriptures leave the door open to both understandings.  Do we have the power to simply cast our sins away, or is that ability reserved for God alone?  Is atonement anything like expiation or propitiation?    What exactly are expiation and propitiation?  These are complicated questions which, you will be relieved to learn, I have no intention of answering this morning – well, at least not all of them, although both expiation and propitiation are present in the passage Michele read today from Leviticus.  So this morning let’s stick with the simplest one, the idea of atonement.  And I say simplest because the meaning of the word is found in the word itself.  Atonement:  a-t-o-n-e-m-e-n-t is both atonement and, if you divide it right, it is also at-one-ment.  To be atoned is to be at one, with God and with one another.  Like I said, simple.  Or maybe not.

          Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and the pinnacle of the High Holy Days.  Whether they are covered up or cast away, sins are removed and the faithful Jew begins the new year with a clean slate, a clean soul.  But have you noticed that we don’t talk much about sin any more, at least not in the mainline church, and if we do, we use what a colleague of mine likes to call soft verbs.  We err, we make mistakes, we suffer a lapse of judgment, we commit an unintentional oversight, a  slight, we neglect to choose the good, we have shortcomings, imperfections, peccadilloes, but whatever you do, don’t call it sin.  It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly fifty years since Dr. Karl Menninger, of Menninger Clinic fame, wrote his both renowned and notorious book, Whatever Became of Sin?  The book grew from a series of lectures – as a matter of fact, from the Stone Lectures Dr. Menninger gave at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late ’60s.  Meninger had noticed how many clergy were leaving the ministry – about 40%, according an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, and came to learn that what afflicted them was not unique to that particular calling, but for so many professions at the time:  he noted a pervasive sense of gloom, discouragement and apprehensiveness that seemed to afflict people in every walk of life, not just the religious ones.  And one of the lines he traced through his lectures, his studies and his books is the ways that sin – human estrangement from God, from one another, and even estrangement from the self – can be found at the root of so many social ills.  And going back and rereading Dr. Menninger’s book is a somewhat startling exercise in recognizing that things haven’t changed all that much in the past fifty years.  As a culture and as a society, you and I continue to lament the same estrangement from one another, the divisiveness of attitude and the coarseness of dialogue that continue to plague us in our own day.  Have things gotten any better since Menninger’s day?  Or have they gotten worse?   

          Michele read the passage in Leviticus that establishes the Day of Atonement:  “The priest who is anointed and consecrated… shall make atonement…  He shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.  This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the people of Israel once a year for all their sins.”  And I wanted you to hear that first, before the passage I read from the same chapter even though Michele’s reading comes after mine, because Leviticus 16 first tells how the atonement is made before it instructs people to memorialize it annually.  The priest and worship leader – in this case it was Aaron the high priest – sacrifices a bull for himself, and then casts lots for two goats for the people.  One goat is offered to God, and the other wanders out into the wilderness to expiate the sins of the people.  That goat, by the way, the goat for Azazel that carries the people’s sins into the wilderness, is better known today as the scapegoat.  Now, I don’t have any goats on hand today, and despite what some might think, I’m not bringing you any bull this morning either.  But I do wonder in what ways atonement speaks to us where we live and work and play and worship in our own day?  What are our sins?  How are they covered, or how are they cast away?  What does it mean to be sorry for our sin – are we even sorry for our sin? - and where can we find forgiveness?

          The first chapter of John’s first letter speaks of sin in no uncertain terms.  And it is worth noting that this passage is regularly read on one of our own high holy days; we hear these words toward the end of every Maundy Thursday service: 

“This is the message we have heard from and proclaim to you, that God is light and in in God there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus the Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, the God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us.”

As you can hear, the apostle does not mince any words:  ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…  If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and God’s word is not in us.”

On Tuesday I read an intriguing op ed piece in the paper penned by a columnist with whom I generally disagree, but either he is getting older and more mellow or I am, because I find myself nodding my head as I read him far more often than I ever did before.  Jeff Jacoby has been writing for the Globe for years, and he is certainly the paper’s most conservative columnist.  But he is also a faithful Jew, and he freely and liberally grounds his thoughts in the dynamic of his religion, and I find them both candid and compelling.  On Tuesday Jacoby wrote about Yom Kippur, and used the language of sin and forgiveness freely, unusual for your morning paper.  First he pointed out that the absolution given on Yom Kippur only applies to the sins we commit against God.  Since I’m not a Jew, I never understood this before, so I went back and reread Leviticus 16, and sure enough, this is what the sacrifice and the atonement are all about.  Atonement makes us one with God.  But as for the wrongs we visit on one another, Jewish faith and tradition hold that there can be no divine forgiveness until we first make things right with anyone we have wronged.

          Jacoby goes on to lament the same things you and I have been talking about in recent months, which are the same things Karl Menninger lamented fifty hears ago.  He wrote,

“There are many ways to sin against others, of course, such as theft, violence or cheating.  Those transgressions are included in the formal confession that is a central element of the Yom Kippur liturgy – a long and detailed catalogue of offenses repeated again and again during the day.  But by far the greatest number of sins listed, fully one-fourth of the total, are those rooted in words:  ‘For the sin we have committed through speech… for the sin we have committed through scorn… for the sin we have committed through derogatory language… through gossip… through lying…’  The sins we commit against others with words are the defining sins of our age.  Never within living memory has our public discourse been so toxic, cruel and shrill.  Norms of civility and restraint once taken for granted have been replaced by malice, venom and routine character assassination.  The understanding that reasonable people can disagree reasonably is essential to the health of a free society.  Yet in recent decades, that understanding has shriveled up and blown away.  In its place, we have a culture of unbridled hostility and verbal violence, an embrace of hatred as a political virtue, and an eagerness to cancel careers and ruin reputations because of an out-of-favor opinion, a thoughtless joke, or a wrong headline.”

If you listened to former President George W. Bush’s speech last Saturday at the 9/11 memorial in Shanksville, PA, you likely heard a similar message spoken with different words.  If our sins against one another are going to be expiated on the Day of Atonement, it seems you and I are going to need a lot more goats.

          But if Azazel only carries sins against God into the wilderness, then we are going to have to look to each other for forgiveness.  Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Beloved… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”  Two things are striking about this passage.  One is Paul’s assertion that we work out our own salvation.  If it sounds a lot like the Hebrew idea of taking responsibility for the ways we sin against each other, it’s probably because Paul was a rabbi.  The second is that we work out our own salvation with “fear and trembling,” which I take to denote a certain humility within as we do so.  And let’s face it, it takes a considerable measure of humility to say “I’m sorry” to someone we have offended.  Have we hurt or offended or sinned against one anyone else with our own words?  Probably, and maybe only unintentionally, bur if words have the power to hurt, then both Paul’s message, and the message of Yom Kippur are that our words also have the power to heal, which means the power to heal belongs to us. Atonement belongs to us.  The shedding of sinful words and ways belongs to us.  One Hebrew scholar suggests that the focus of atonement is to remove the obstacles to reconciliation – reconciliation between God and humanity, reconciliation between and among individuals.  The capacity to do the former lies with God; the responsibility for the latter belongs to us.

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