I remember the first real strawberry I ever had. I will never forget it. I was living in Texas and I was in middle school. Out in our back yard, there was a tiny little plot of land that lay between our patio and our pool. My sister decided once to till this tiny plot of land about the size of a large world atlas. And she planted a few things there in the ground. One of the things she planted was a strawberry plant.
She tended all the plants in her atlas-sized plot. It was hard. There is a lot of sun in Texas. It took some work protecting and watering the plants. But she did it. And soon, there on the vine, were things I had never seen before. The first fruits of this plant and the first time I had ever seen anything like this. They were realstrawberries. They started as tiny white bulbs and grew to greenish, more shapely forms. Until they were at last heart-shaped, demure, and radiantly red. The seeds populating the outer skin lay uniform and elegant against the blazing color of the fruit. And the time came when my sister asked if I’d like to try one.
Before I tell you about that experience, please call first into your mind, those grotesque, tasteless, monstrosities also often referred to as strawberries. Recall if you will the last time you tasted one of these things and what it left you wanting. Maybe you have never had a real strawberry straight from the earth. But nowimagine a tiny, delicate shape in your palm. Like a tiny, perfect heart. The seeds are downy soft around the fruit. It is literally warmed by the Texas sun, not cold from a storage facility and trucked in across thousands of miles. And the taste of the fruit, the explosion of what a strawberry is, created in me forever, the conviction that there are actually two different fruits called strawberries on this earth. There are the ones like this, the true, the real, from the infinitesimal molecule of the fruit, to the infinitely greater delight the fruit brings the world over, there are these things that are thoroughly strawberry. And then there are the others. The waxy, the bland, the ponderous and misshapen embodiments and manifestations of something else, something thoroughly un-strawberry—in a phrase: disappointment in the flesh.
And such was the new world of strawberries for me that afternoon following a simple harvest under an unforgiving Texas sun. I bet you all had no idea how strongly I felt about strawberries.
As we heard in the reading, though, strawberries for some are part of the very instant between two worlds, above and below. And we are now suspended in the very time described in our liturgy as the Days of Awe between the New Year first celebrated 5,779 years ago by our Jewish forebears and the Day of Atonement coming this week, Yom Kippur. This is the time when the Book of Life lays open once more for a review of how we’re doing.
Now, the Book of Life is not one of those things featured prominently in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is no account in the scriptures of God presenting to Moses the Book of Life and explaining to Moses about the yearly accounting God would be doing. The most direct reference to some kind of Book of Life comes in one line of one psalm. It reads: “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.”Jewish scholars note that perhaps a more accurate name for the book according to the Hebrew would be the Book of the Living, and not the Book of Life.There are other examples of heavenly ledgers of sorts throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, but this is the only place where the name Book of the Living appears.And there are many examples of heavenly ledgers, though they were really tablets, in ancient Mesopotamia, tens of centuries before our Jewish forebears wrote of them in the psalm. But the Book of the Living isdescribed in detail in the Talmud, comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, where much Jewish ceremonial law is written and where ancient rabbinic discussions of the Hebrew Scriptures and laws are recorded.
What is said to happen at this time is really that threebooks are opened. The Talmud says this: “three books are opened in heaven on Rosh Ha-Shanah one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed in the Book of Life, the thoroughly wicked in the Book of Death, while the fate of the intermediate is suspended until the Day of Atonement.”And so it is now, right now, in this time, that the season of the Jewish New Year suggests we consider the approaching Day of Atonement, and set right the ledger of our lives, and move, hopefully, into the pages of the Book of the Living. We are literally, well more like existentially, in suspense.
Now, as someone who has spent some time in Unitarian Universalist circles I have heard all the jokes. There’s the one that I think circulates among my ministerial colleagues at times behind my back that goes like this. “Ah, Unitarian Universalists: a group made up of Universalists, who believe that God is too good to damn any of them. And Unitarians, who believe that theyare too good for any God to damn.” That usually gets a Unitarian Universalist amen. But all joking aside, this little bit of humor, like most humor, comes from truth. And in this case it’s the truth that much of our history is grounded in the idea of universal salvation, which in turn leads to the ideas that this worldis the one we should be most concerned with.
One of the hallmarks of our tradition is encouraging individuals to learn and to explore thisuniverse we populate and to draw from that experience one’s own set of beliefs. Whether through feeling or through study, or through other means, we hope that all arrive at a set of core values and practices that shape a way of experiencing this shared universe as a place of meaning. We heard one example of this learning this morning.
Some of you noticed, I’m sure, the lyrics we sang to our gathering song. It might have been hard for you not to sing the old lyrics. But Jason Shelton, one of the leaders in our movement, who wrote that song, who loves that song, asked anyone who ever sings that song again to sing it with these lyrics. And part of the reason he asks this are the descriptions, by people who can’t walk, people who can’t stand, who explained to him the painful experiences of feeling apart from the community when songs that celebrate or feature abilities they lack are used as centerpieces like this one is.
Now, there are many, many voices, even voices of people who lack the very abilities affected by this change, who did not feel excluded or otherwise impacted by the original lyrics. They actually miss the old lyrics and they like the story of the creation of that song. I mean, the creation of that song is the stuff of Unitarian Universalist legend. In 2004, when a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage was proposed, then President of the UUA, Bill Sinkford, took a call from a reporter in his office about the UUA’s opposition. Jason Shelton was in the office at the time and heard Sinkford say, “We are standing on the side of love.” And the song, according to Jason Shelton, nearly jumped off the page for him and became something of a movement.
But now, in 2018, I don’t think Bill Sinkford would mind my sharing this, but due to his own physical challenges, he sometimes uses a scooter. And the pulpit, of his own church, in Portland, Oregon, was not accessible for him by scooter, was not accessible to anyone in the choir or on the chancel who needed this kind of assistance. So if you were wondering where I was last weekend, it was to answer the call of love I received when that church asked me to take part in a fundraiser to make their chancel fully accessible, and that’s what I did and I got to be present to see one of their lay leaders light that chalice in the church from his scooter for the first time.
Here in the Days of Awe, we are held between two realities. As if there were tigers above, tigers below, we come together in these times, suspended in one of the thin spaces when so many believe the divine draws so near to so many of our lives. For it is in the Days of Awe when we are called to action, not merely to contemplation. These are the days when the Jewish members of our human family counsel that we seek, we ask, we sometimes beg forgiveness, for pardon from those we’ve wronged. We gotta work for it, friends. Action.
And these are the days when we do the internal work it takes, the real, hard, deep work it takes at times to grant forgiveness to those who have shown their sincere repentance, who have sought atonement in their hearts. Action.
And I know. I know. That in at least one, if not dozens, of the hearts we have gathered here today, when the word forgiveness was spoken aloud, a little wall, or maybe only a tiny brick, some separation went up against the idea that we might forgive someone who has wronged us, who has wronged the world. And I want to be clear. That reflex is healthy. That reflex is there to protect you. I will not venture here into those questions considered by minds that contemplate and lives that have seen the very worst of humanity, and suggest that forgiveness is some kind of simple tonic for those complex, compound wrongs. That would cheapen both the act of forgiveness and the trauma that occurred. Even the ancient rituals of atonement in the earliest Jewish communities required in some cases three years, three yearsof the transgressor proving that they had changed their ways and to affirmatively seek forgiveness. There was no cheap grace in the ancient Jewish kingdoms my friends, let me tell you.
And even today, in our time, some forms of forgiveness take so much, are so filled with power, that they pass out of human understanding. The idea that some people forgive others for the things that they have done, at times, surpasses much of our own comprehension.
VIDEO PLAYS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3IdpjUr4JA
I played this video because there is no way to walk out of this sacred moment, after knowing that this story is a true story, and to comprehend the capacity of the human heart to do the work of forgiveness in the same way as you did before learning this story. The very knowledge that someone, somewhere, did this thing in our shared world, changed the world forever, even if only in a small way.
And that is the power for forgiveness. That is the power of the work of atonement. There is a reason this practice has been part of the communities of our shared human family, across the millennia, for as far as history can record. Ask anyone who has done something painful, hurtful, something dreadful to another person. Ask them what the world was like before they felt forgiven. Ask them what the world was like after they felt they were forgiven. The world before is a bland, misshapen, and tasteless void. Compared to the world they found that is sharp, warm, and flourishing, almost like the same name for two completely different things.
Sometimes, it is the unrelenting beating of the blazing heat of our wrongs that gives rise to the real, the best, the brightest fruit of our spirits, of our hearts. It is what drives us to seek a new way, whether that be forgiveness by those we harmed, whether that be a life remade to prevent any more suffering we may have caused, even if we aren’t forgiven by those we harmed yet, whether that be rewriting songs, righting wrongs, or heaven forbid, taking a moment, in the quiet of a new dawning day, to silence the loudest critic many of us will ever know, and to begin the work of forgiving ourselves, to atone for the ways we so often, so mistreat the divine, the awe inspiring, the tender, the loving spirit inside each one of us.
In the beginning, there was nothing. There was a flat shapeless void. Until a tiny white bulb of a promise flowered under a blazing fire in the sky, breaking forth from a tiny patch that might well have been the entire face of the earth, and carried with it the hope, the future, the promise, that a member of our human family, would pluck it from its vine, and offer the fruit of a new creation to another member of our human family, that we might begin again, in love, that we might answer the call of love. And in that one act, change the world for someone, forever.
And may it always be so.
For greater detail, you can read “A gesture of love” by Kimberly French, UU World, Fall 2017 also available here: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/gesture-love.