Though You May Have Broken Your Vows

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First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis,

September 15, 2013

©2013 Rev. Thomas Perchlik

I hope the music today has been soothing, giving you a feeling of relaxation, ease or even healing, since there is so much in life that can set our nerves on edge and cause us division and disruption. We all need some sort of healing, and return to wholeness.  Along these lines, on the eve of Yom Kippur, perhaps you were intrigued by the National Public Radio story about the e-scapegoat.  Created by an organization whose goal is to communicate basic Judaism, the goat’s website is That is ‘esc’ the abbreviation of ‘escape’ on computer keyboards, and ‘goat,’ all one word, dot com. 

The cartoon goat is inspired by the sixteenth chapter of the Biblical book of Leviticus. This chapter ends with the reading for today (Lev.16:29-34), formally establishing Yom Kippur, but the first majority of the chapter speaks about blood sacrifices and one goat that is ritually selected. Onto this goat, the Priest is instructed to place the sins of the community, and then to send the Goat into the wilderness of Azazel.  Later Christians confused this name of a desert with the name of a demon.  This created various levels of confusion, but the basic ideas was for the goat (and the sins) to get lost and die in a desert wilderness. The website allows a cartoon goat to collect sins and then roam the wilderness of the Internet, announcing the sins via ‘tweets.’

Every year on the Sunday nearest to Yom Kippur I preach on forgiveness and reconciliation.  Our religion and the Jewish religion are very similar at root. We draw from the ethical and justice-oriented teachings of the prophets and the Hebrew Scriptures, just as Jesus did.  Above all we share a sense that the purpose of faith is tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

Modern American culture has also emphasized forgiveness.  Everyone from Oprah to the Mayo Clinic website will tell you to let go, to not keep grudges, and to forgive, all because it is good for you, it helps reduce blood pressure and improve the immune system.   Forgiveness is a canceling of a debt someone owes you. It is letting go of a grudge or a sense that someone has taken something from you. Giving forgiveness is important.  It is very powerful.  But today is not about forgiving as being forgiven. 

The point I make today is that, as we work to repair the world, seeking forgiveness is not the same as seeking atonement.  Today, I want to emphasize that atonement is a process which requires much more than a goat getting lost in the wilderness.  Atonement requires regret, repentance, repair, and reconciliation.

I like to say that there is one question at heart, of each religion.  For Judaism it is “What does The Lord require?” In Christianity it is “What is required for salvation?” Today our question is “What is required for atonement?” I am not talking about anything that should be forced on you by others. Atonement is something you must do of your own will and out of your own desire for reconciliation.

We all will feel regret at some time or other, an awareness that we have fallen short, failed, or of caused harm. Our actions have consequences and we may regret those consequences.  

I remember in my first year in seminary, studying for the ministry, we had discussion in which we were supposed to speak about some regret we had.  But I, a happy twenty- something young man, felt I had no regrets.  Even if I had made a bad decision, I felt it was the best decision I could have made at the time and that I should accept my choice and the consequences. I had no regrets. 

Since then I have lived long enough to have gathered some regrets. There are several things I have done or said that I know caused harm and I sincerely wish I could take them back or heal the damage I caused. So, the first step in healing is to express regret. 

This is much more than saying "I'm sorry".  Often that phrase only means “I am sorry you found out what I did” or “I am sad that you are angry at me”. But true regret is a willingness to be honest about the harm you caused and to name it.  It helps to say what we did wrong and to say how it hurt another, without explanation or defense: simply to admit the facts.

Last night my wife and I went to see the movie, “Blue Jasmine”. The movie depicts a group of people; none of them are willing to acknowledge the harm they have caused. The main character keeps justifying her actions.  She was involved in her sister losing $200,000, but she keeps saying that she was only “trying to help them get in on a good deal.” But she never shows real regret for the fact that the good deal was in fact a scam. She never shows regret for the harm and loss she caused. She admits things went badly, but believes it was not her fault because she was trying to help.

And then there is the story of the Rabbi who was sick of all the fasting and seriousness and deprivation of Yom Kippur. On one very lovely Saturday he decides to go golfing, instead avoiding all work (which includes golfing). The weather is too good not to enjoy it, he thinks to himself. He chooses a course where he will surely not meet anyone he might know.  As he is out on the links, an angel in the divine court sees him and rushes to God.

“Oh Lord” he says, “Look! The Rabbi is breaking your commandment!  He is not keeping the Sabbath holy!” 

God replies “I’ll fix him”. So as God looks down, the Rabbi lifts his club and takes a driving swing. The ball flies off the tee, through the air, and lands right in the hole in the green.  It is a hole in one, and on one of the more difficult parts of the course!  â€œWhat?” cries out the angel “What kind of punishment is that?!”  God smiles wryly and says, “Who’s he goin’ to tell?”

Yes, sometimes we regret what we do and we want to repair the relationship or person we have hurt. The Biblical Psalmist, speaking to God (Ps.51:16-17) put it this way: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifice of God is a broken sprit. A broken and contrite heart you, O God, will not despise” 

Maimonides (1134–1204), the great medieval Jewish philosopher, commented on the Bible passage about the scapegoat. He wrote, “These ceremonies are of a symbolic character and serve to impress each of us with a certain idea and to lead us to repent, as if to say, ‘We have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, cast them behind our backs and removed them from us as far as possible."

So this leads us to repentance. The word literally means to turn around, to turn away from one thing toward another to ‘cast something behind our backs and be removed from them as far as possible’. Repentance means changing your actions. It will not help to admit that stealing apples is wrong and causes harm, if you go ahead and steal more apples. True regret should lead us automatically to repent of that action. If getting drunk causes us to behave badly then we must simply stop drinking. 

The ten days leading up to Yom Kippur are known as the Ten Days of Repentance. During this period Jews are encouraged to seek out anyone they may have offended and to sincerely request forgiveness so that the New Year can begin with a clean slate.  The process of repentance is called teshuvah and it is a crucial part of Yom Kippur.

There are several stages of teshuvah, including the sinner recognizing his or her wrongs, feeling sincere remorse and doing everything in their power to undo any damage that has been done. If a specific person has been wronged the offender must ask that person for forgiveness. The final stage of teshuvah is resolving to never commit such a sin again. The theological notion behind repair is that your trespasses are not just against other people but against God, so you owe God something.  

Note that third step in teshuvah, undoing the damage that has been done.  The Twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, also contain seeking to make amends as part of recovery. But then, some wounds are beyond direct repair.  Murder, public fraud or thievery, and public defaming of another person are all different because the victims are unreachable or not able to be counted.  In today’s story, Mr. Peabody's Apples (spoken version available at It was all but impossible for Tommy to undo the damage from repeatedly (and wrongly) telling others that Mr. Peabody was a thief.  In that situation, repair can be very complicated, and ultimately impossible.  So the goal of repair is to do what you can within your power, and then let grace, the unearned source of healing, do the rest.  Likewise in South Africa Nelson Madela led them not to seek retribution, but truth and reconciliation.  They realized that retribution, criminal trials and all, would not have brought healing, only more harm.  

The larger goal of Reconciliation is to reweave the social fabric, to restore the great community evoked by prophets and visionaries.  It is a community not only of peace but also reconciliation, not only of truth and justice, but also compassion and understanding.  As the Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire, come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times, Come, and come yet again. Ours, is not a caravan of despair.” (Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English (2004) by Amin Malak).  Inspired by this poem the Unitarian Universalist Minister, Reverend Leslie Takahashi-Morris, wrote these words:  

Come, come, whoever you are, come with your hurts, your imperfections, your places that feel raw and exposed.

Come, come, whoever you are, come with your strengths that the world shutters to hold.

Come with your wild imaginings of a better world.

Come with your hopes that seems no one wants to hear.

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving, we will make a place for you.

We will build a home together.

Ours is no caravan of despair.

We will walk together. Come, yet again, come.