Sunday, September 23, 2007


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday September 23rd, 2007

READING - “First they came...” by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)

I want to say just a little about the reading that I’ve chosen for today. As I was researching this, I discovered at least a half-dozen different versions of this text, none of which were exactly the same. The version engraved on the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, for example, is a little different from the one at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, which in turn varies from the most popular English version (which has been cast in the form of a poem, and frequently reproduced on posters, tee shirts, coffee mugs and the like), which is also different from the version printed by Time magazine in 1989, or the version which appeared in the Congressional Record in 1968.

When Niemöller’s words first started to become widely known in the United States back in the 1950’s, the Communists he mentioned were somehow miraculously transubstantiated into “Socialists,” since at the time Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover were busy rounding up Communists themselves right here in America. Likewise, there is a passage which frequently appears in Niemöller’s original manuscripts about the mentally ill, “the sick, the so-called incurables” which rarely is found in English translations.

And my favorite variation actually has nothing to do with Niemöller’s original speeches, but rather was inspired by allegations made by the Reverend Jerry Falwell back in 1999 regarding the ambiguous sexual identity of a character on a BBC children’s program being widely aired on PBS here in the US, because he had purple fur, a triangle on top of his head, and carried a purse (otherwise known as a “magic bag”). Within a few weeks it was all over the internet: “First they came for Tinky Winky, but I remained silent, because I wasn’t a Teletubby. Then they came for Bert and Ernie...” and on it went from there....

But the truth is, there is no “authoritative” version of Niemöller’s original words. What we are witnessing instead is an excellent example of the natural process by which “oral tradition” gradually becomes written down, and thus canonized as “Scripture.” Niemöller’s original words were part of what might be thought of as a “set piece” -- language he often repeated in sermons and other speeches throughout his career, often in a slightly different form depending upon his audience and the particular context. In time, others picked up on what he had said, cleaned it up a little and gave it a fresh coat of polish, and maybe even a little twist (today we might say “spin”) so that the text might better reflect the perspective and opinions of the editor. And before you know it, the words themselves take on an authority all their own, and the actual language of the original author becomes lost in obscurity.

And yet there is a greater principle illustrated in this process as well. We would do well to remember that something isn’t necessarily true simply because “it is written.” Rather, the reason it was written down at all is because somebody, somewhere, once thought that it was true. And whatever truth that statement may contain would still be true regardless of who originally said it, or wherever it was we may have happened to read it first ourselves.

And on that note...

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Kommunist.

Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.

Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,
habe ich nicht protestiert;
ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.

Als sie die Juden holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Jude.

Als sie mich holten,
gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte

[When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.]


I heard a story the other day about a nine-year-old boy who prayed, faithfully, every night for six months that God would give him a bicycle for his birthday. The birthday came and went with no bike, so the little boy went to the minister of his church to find out why God hadn’t answered his prayers.

“But that’s not the way God works,” the minister explained. “God’s gift to us when we pray is that He forgives our sins. Do you understand the difference between praying for forgiveness, and praying for a bicycle?”

“I think so,” said the little boy. And on his way back home, he stole the minister’s kid's bike....

We don’t generally talk that much about “sin” here in the Unitarian church, but I do want to say a little something about it this morning, because if I don’t my main topic of “Atonement” isn’t going to make much sense. There’s a tendency in our culture, I think, to think of sins mainly as something that we do. There are big sins, the Top Ten (like Murder and Adultery, which I like to think of as “Presidential” sins); and then there are a bunch of smaller ones, like drinking and smoking, swearing, dancing, and playing cards...all of which are apparently equally offensive to God, Who in His Infinite Wisdom (or at least many of us were told this when we were children) punishes people for their sins by sending them to Hell for all Eternity.

But this explanation of sin really misses the mark on a lot of different levels. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “sin” means literally “to be off target” -- to be misguided or misdirected, to be aiming in the wrong direction. In the statement of faith prepared by the United Church of Christ at the time of their merger with the Evangelical and Reformed Churches in the late 1950’s, they used the word “aimlessness” to characterize the state of sin, an anomie which a faithful trust in God corrects by giving our lives their proper focus and purpose and direction again.

This is also why the 19th century Universalists could argue that there was no hell, and that sin itself was its own worst punishment, because it leads us astray from the path that leads to the fulfillment of our true potential as spiritual beings; and that ultimately All Souls shall grow into Harmony with the Divine, because God (thank God) is a whole lot better (and wiser and kinder and more patient and forgiving) than we are.

Likewise, the word “repentance” means literally “to turn around” -- and specifically to change or transform our minds: metanoia, just as “metamorphosis” means a change of shape. And the etymology of the word “atonement” is obvious on its face. “At-One-Ment” -- to be in accord, to be of one mind.

Of course, in many religious traditions this process of reconciliation often times also requires an act of Sacrifice -- a word which (again - I hope all these etymologies aren’t becoming too tedious) means literally “to make sacred” -- in effect, giving up something that is valuable to us in order to acknowledge our gratitude for something even more valuable. And within traditional Christian theology, this language of “repentance,” “sacrifice” and “atonement” eventually led to a doctrine known as the “vicarious” or Subsitutionary Atonement -- sometimes referred to simply as “the Ransom Theory.” According to this theology, God provides the atoning sacrifice himself by allowing his son to be crucified (that is, sacrificed) on our behalf. It’s a very subtle and sophisticated idea, which in the hands of televangelists has become almost incomprehensible.

But there is an earlier and even simpler doctrine known as the “Exemplary” Atonement, which basically suggests that it is the example of Jesus’s own faithfulness in the face of death, like that of Socrates (who likewise faced his unjust execution with a similar unwavering courage and confidence in the truth of his principles), which has the power to transform our minds, and turn our lives around. A very human Jesus teaches us the power of devotion, fidelity and sacrifice by both precept and example, both word and deed, inspiring others to go and do likewise...and Western Civilization has never been the same.

There’s just one more big idea I want to run by you here this morning, and this is the notion of “collective” sin, along with the question: “How can we, as individuals, atone for the sins of our culture?” Last week I suggested that a certain amount of Xenophobia has probably been hardwired by evolution right into the very architecture of our brains themselves. But as individuals, we each have the ability to resist this instinctive suspicion of (and even hostility toward) strangers, and to practice instead an ethic of tolerance and hospitality, leading eventually to greater mutual understanding and even mutual respect: a very practical and palpable form of “atonement.”

But when the primitive and collective prejudices of an entire culture are combined with the awesome, impersonal power of modern industrial technology, the result is typically a lot less benign, and often even some form of genocide. We saw this most vividly in the Nazi holocaust of the Second World War, but sadly this is only the most overwhelming and obviously evil example of an increasingly pervasive and widespread phenomenon. Our Weapons of Mass Destruction have become so powerful that even a single “loose nuke” in the hands of one of the many marginalized and fanatical groups of people who share this planet potentially makes them capable of murdering millions of souls in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, it is increasingly obvious that the industrial civilization which created these terrifying weapons in the first place is also in danger of extinguishing itself and everything else on the planet, simply as a result of its own unrestrained excess. “This is the way the world ends,” the poet T.S. Eliot observed nearly a century ago now. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.” But more to the point, how do we now turn ourselves around from this misguided path of self-destruction? How do we “transform our minds,” and get ourselves back on target again?

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Jewish “Day of Atonement” which completes the eight-day period following the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, known as the “Days of Awe” -- a time which (with the possible exception of Passover), is the most solemn and sacred season of the Jewish calendar. Yet observant Jews also understand that these eight days are simple one component of a much longer season of repentance and reconciliation, which began a month earlier, in the Jewish Lunar month of Elul, and continues on next week with the festival of Sukkoth or “booths” -- a sort of Jewish Thanksgiving when families build temporary outdoor huts in which to eat their meals, in order to remind themselves of the forty years their ancestors spent wandering in the Wilderness of Sinai; and also perform acts of charity, to express their gratitude for the blessing of a bountiful harvest.

In her commentary of the 27th Psalm (a Psalm which is often read during the month of Elul leading up to the High Holy Days themselves), Rabbi Amy Scheinerman observes that Atonement is best understood as the final stage of Repentance, during which individuals at last become reconciled to those from whom they have been estranged, at the completion of a much more extensive process of introspective self-examination and reflection.

The process begins by accepting Responsibility: by letting go of the temptation to judge and blame others for our disappointments in life, and instead looking within ourselves in order to identify possible sources of misguided thought which have led us astray. Let's face it, none of us is perfect. And we can always find someone else to point the finger at in order to explain away our failings. But what's the point of that? At least if we are willing to try to see ourselves honestly, and to take responsibility for own failures and shortcomings, we also potentially become empowered to overcome those failings, and in turn take full advantage of this magnificent opportunity we have been given by the Universe, which is the gift of life itself.

The next step is one of expressing our Regret. When I was younger, I often used to wonder which is ultimately more regrettable: the things we do and wish we hadn’t, or the things we didn’t do, and wish we had. But now that I’m older this is pretty much a no-brainer. Yes, it’s true that there are always dramatic exceptions that prove the rule, that sometimes people do truly horrible things they later regret profoundly because of the terrible impact their actions have had on their own lives and the lives of others. But human beings are also remarkably resilient creatures; while over time, the cumulative regret of the things we wish we had done but will now never get a chance to do again can begin to feel almost overwhelming. And these regrets are not just your traditional “sins of omission.” In a sense, they are a profound expression of grief over the reality of our own mortality itself, and the desire to make more of our lives than we have. Which is also why the expression of Regret also sometimes manifests itself in the resolution to have “no regrets” -- in other words, to live one’s life in the here and now as fully and courageously as possible.

The third step is one of Rejection -- which might be thought of as “repentance” in the most literal sense: to turn away from attitudes and behaviors which have led us astray in the past, and literally “transform our minds” so that we see the world from a different perspective, and can proceed in a new direction. And this brings us at last to the step of Resolution, which includes both acts of Restitution, or making amends for our past faults, and also the act of Reconciliation itself, in which we attempt to repair relationships which have been damaged or broken, and become “at one” with those from whom we were estranged.

It's in this connection that I want to talk about the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase which means Repairing (or Restoring or Perfecting) the World. In the Mishnah, Tikkun Olam was often used as a justification for rules or practices which are not really part of the Torah, but which are followed because they help to avoid bad social consequences. But the concept really took on a much wider significance in the 16th century, thanks to the Kabbalistic Rabbi Isaac Luria, who taught his followers that God created the world as a sort of vessel or mirror in order to reflect His Glory...but that the emanations of this Divine Light were so brilliant and powerful that the world was catastrophically shattered into countless shards, each of which contains or reflects a small portion of the divine spark, but which together (like the pieces of a shattered mirror) reflect back only a distorted image of God's original light. And so the purpose of human life is Tikkun Olam -- to Repair the World by bringing together and mending the broken pieces which are our individual souls, so that Creation might once more accurately reflect the glorious brilliance of its Creator.

And how is this done? In all the usual ways, of course: through study, meditation, and prayer, through the doing of Mitzvoth, or goods deeds, and more specifically through the faithful practice of Peace, Justice, and Compassion, not just on an individual, but on a societal level. We repair the world by repairing our relationships with one another and with God. We allow our lives to reflect the divine spark which illuminates all creation, then join together with other enlightened individuals in order to mend the breaks, bridge the gaps, and heal the wounds that divide and estrange us.

As I mentioned earlier, this past week Jews all over the world observed their High Holy Days, which began with Rosh Hashanah, and concluded yesterday with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement -- an all-day fast, combined with several lengthy prayer services, which actually began an hour before sunset on Friday, and ended 25 hours later with a single, long lingering note on the Shofar. Yom Kipper is specifically a day of introspection and repentance, as well as a day of reconciliation and forgiveness -- a time to make peace not only with God, but also with your neighbors, whom you have likely also sinned against over the course of the year, and from whom you should therefore also seek forgiveness. And yet as difficult (and even painful) as this may sound, the Talmud actually considers Yom Kippur a happy day, because if people have properly observed the holiday, by the time the fast ends they will feel both a great catharsis, and also a deep sense of serenity from having been restored to right relationship with both the Creator, and with everyone they know.

The task of Atonement, and the challenge of Repairing the World, are intimately connected. We begin with the optimistic enthusiasm of youth, which believes that all things are possible for those who are faithful to their vision and their values, and in the end we turn that vision on ourselves as we explore the enduring value of a single human life. There's a story told about the Hasidic master Rebbe Chaim of Tzanz, who in his old age remarked that over the course of many decades, he had first given up his youthful ambitions to change the whole world, and then later, his bold plans to transform his community and family. He was, in the end, hoping merely to better his own self somewhat before his time to leave this earth arrived. We repair the world one person at a time, beginning with our own personal efforts to heal, to be reconciled, to forgive and be forgiven.

I posed a question today in the title of my sermon: “Is It Ever Too Late to Atone?” And I hope by now it’s abundantly clear that the answer, at least in MY opinion, is “of course not.” But I’d also like to add that there’s no better time to begin than right now, in the present moment. In her Rosh Hashanah poem "Return," weblogger Rachel Barenblat, (better known as “The Velveteen Rabbi”) suggests that the only question that really matters is:

How to make it new:
each year the same missing
of the same marks,
the same petitions
and apologies.

We were impatient, unkind.
We let ego rule the day
and forgot to be thankful.
We allowed our fears
to distance us.

But every year
the ascent through Elul
does its magic,
shakes old bitterness
from our hands and hearts.

We sit awake, itemizing
ways we want to change.
We try not to mind
that this year's list
looks just like last.

The conversation gets
easier as we limber up.
Soon we can stretch farther
than we ever imagined.
We breathe deeper.

By the time we reach the top
we've forgotten
how nervous we were
that repeating the climb
wasn't worth the work.

Creation gleams before us.
The view from here matters
not because it's different
from last year
but because we are

and the way to reach God
is one breath at a time,
one step, one word,
every second a chance
to reorient, repeat, return.