Standing On The Side Of Love In Statesboro, Georgia

Can You Say ATONEMENT?

September 23, 2007

Rev. Jane Page

 

Earlier this week when I was working on this sermon, I also took some time to watch the news on television.  And the main story on all the news show was, “OJ is in Jail.”  One of the TV hosts remarked at the glee which seemed to be on the faces of those interviewed about this – and admitted that he himself had chuckled with delight when he heard about it.  Why did so many folks – perhaps even you and I – have a strong positive “YES” reaction?

 

Well, somebody with more psychological training that I have can shed some light on that emotional response.  But I do know that most of us want to see the Universe as sometimes being fair – sometimes serving justice.  If, indeed, OJ Simpson got away with murder – then perhaps his getting caught in that motel room provides a little of that justice that we long for.  We want some accountability – at least for others, but maybe also for ourselves.

 

My religious naturalist theology tells me that this is probably something that evolved with human beings and allowed for our continuation as a species that uses cooperation with others as a primary means for survival.  In any case – this idea – that one must pay somehow or seek forgiveness for her wrongdoings – became a part of our religions.

This weekend Jews around the world celebrated their most holy day, Yom Kippur.  This is the holy day that is observed by even many secular Jews who do not attend synagogue any other time of the year. Of course, the same thing occurs with Christians at Easter.

Yom Kippur follows the holy days of Rosh Hashana. Together these days are known as the Days of Awe. Yom Kippur is essentially the last chance one has to get straight with God before He inscribes your name in the book of judgement.

This holy day is based on teachings from the book of Leviticus

 

…In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work … For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L-RD. -Leviticus 16:29-30

 

But Yom Kippur does not literally mean Day of Atonement.  Kippur means covering.  So it is a day of covering for ones sins – although the translation that both Jews and Christians now use includes the word Atonement.  How did that word get it there?  And what is the meaning of it?

 

It turns out that Atonement was a word invented in the early 16th century by Englishman William Tyndale.  According to a biography, Tyndale was determined to translate the Bible into English.  The Englishman was convinced that the way to God was through his word and that scripture should be available even to common people.  A clergyman was reported to have argued against this idea by proclaiming: “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” In turn Tyndale made his prophetic response: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, I will cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Tyndale)

 

Well, as you might imagine with that kind of risky talk and behavior, Tyndale was eventually tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1536.  BUT, not before he had produced his translations of the New and Old Testaments.  The later King James Version actually uses much of the Tyndale translation.

 

Tyndale was also a student of Bible Doctrine and did not believe that words like reconciliation and repentance and ransom provided the full meaning given to the doctrine of salvation through the death of Jesus.  His understanding was that we were separated from God with Adam’s fall and needed to become one with his spirit again – therefore the use of the words At One.  The word “one” was pronounced at that time in the Old English way – without a W sound at the beginning. (Some English words – like “only” have survived with this older sound.)  So the word he used combined “at” and “o-n-e” for atone – and went on to a noun form called atonement.  By the way, Tyndale is also responsible for the words “Jehovah,” “Passover,” and “scapegoat.”  So now the word atonement is used by both Jews and Christians.  The Jews use it in connection with Yom Kippur and Christians use it in their doctrines of salvation through the death of Jesus.

 

Now this is the doctrine of atonement that I grew up hearing about and eventually rejecting.  And I quit using the word atonement until more recently, because I could not separate it from the idea that Jesus was thought to have died a brutal, gruesome, death because I could not lead a perfect life.

 

But – not all Christians in our history have viewed atonement that way.  As time went by – some Christians began to talk about atonement differently.  And one of the leading thinkers of a new way to regard Atonement was our own Universalist ancestor Hosea Ballou.

 

Now since most of us did not grow up as Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have this history as part of our heritage.  So forgive me for giving you a dose of Universalist religious education now – in this worship service.  I think it’s important that we know about this faith that many of us now call our own.  And Hosea Ballou and his doctrine of Atonement are an important part of that history.

 

Hosea was born in 1771, the 11th child of a Calvinistic Baptist Preacher.  (We would call those the Primitive Baptists today.)  His mother died when he was two.  He had a very  minimal formal education – probably equaling 3rd grade.

 

In his teens, Ballou was confronted by the challenge of the message of universal salvation, preached in the area by Caleb Rich and others. He found utterly convincing St. Paul’s statement, “Therefore as by the offense of one [Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one [Christ] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” (www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/hoseaballou.html)

 

Ballou was ordained to Universalist ministry and became an itinerant preacher in New England where he preached both universal salvation and Unitarianism – rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity.

 

In A Treatise on Atonement, 1805, Ballou put great stress on the use of reason in interpreting the Scriptures. The core of the book, as the title implies, was Ballou’s reformulation of the doctrine of atonement. As finite creatures, he argued, human beings are incapable of offending an infinite God. Therefore, he rejected the orthodox argument that the death of Jesus Christ was designed to appease an angry God, and replaced it with the idea that God is a being of eternal love who seeks the happiness of his human children. It is not God who must be reconciled to human beings, but human beings who must be reconciled to God. Ballou was convinced that once people realized this, they would take pleasure in living a moral life and doing good works. (www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/hoseaballou.html)

And of course he pointed to Jesus as a model for living that life and doing those works – not as a life that had to be sacrificed for us to become reconciled to God.

 

I envy our past President Carol Simonson.  She grew up the daughter of a Universalist minister and was taught this much more loving version of atonement.  Therefore, she probably never felt like she had to reject it.  She doesn’t have some of the same problems and anger to some of the “church language’ that some of us do, because it wasn’t used in the same ways that some experienced as a painful rejection of them.

 

And as you all know from my other “Can You Say” sermons, I’ve worked hard it recent years to reclaim some of the language of my heritage which can help me in my own spiritual growth.  And today, I share with you that “atonement” can be a helpful word for us as Unitarian Universalists.  Regardless of our theologies, we do have the need to be whole – not to be separated from whatever it is that we consider to be sacred or divine or good.  Some of us may call that God or Goddess – while others refer to spirit or Universe or simply the goodness of humanity or nature.  In any case, we realize that when we have done something to hurt others or this world in which we live, we need to reconciliation.  We need atonement.

 

And before we can become one with our God or our deeper spiritual selves or the Universe or the Divine, it’s often necessary to get ourselves right with others first.  That’s what happens in the days before Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition when folks try to repair things with others – make amends if you will.  And I’ve found the same thing is true for me.  I might try to walk the labyrinth and feel one with nature, but if I’ve just said something that I know was painful to a family member or something – it’s pretty hard to get to that place.  Those who are in 12 step programs know that making amends is a vital part of their recovery.  And I’ve found that the sooner I can do this, the better it is for me and others.  Now making amends is more than just apologizing.  It’s trying our best to make it right again.  This summer we were able to see a humorous example of this when Kevin Crabtree presented a video of the sit-com, “My Name is Earl.”  This fellow named Earl was a really bad guy – and now he’s trying to be a good guy – and to do that he’s made a list of everyone he’s harmed in some way since childhood and is going about trying to undo the damage he’s done.  And of course, it’s pretty hilarious because sometimes to UNDO something may be worse or impossible.  But at least Earl is trying.  And he’s growing in the process.

 

And that’s not a bad place to be.  Trying — and hopefully growing.

 

Now that I’m a minister, I’ve found that folks sometimes share things with me that they have regrets about or that they felt they could have done better.  Now Catholics have this built into their spiritual practice as the time for confession.  And the priest can ABSOLVE their wrongdoing by prescribing a certain number of “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” to be said.  I’ve wondered if we don’t also have this need. Maybe I should prescribe a recitation of the principle which is most closely allied with the “sin” in question.

 

Didn’t recycle last week – say the 7th principle seven times – one for each day you failed to recycle.

 

You made fun of the minister’s southern accent?  Goodness Gracious!  For that you need to recite the first principle ten times.

 

Or maybe the absolution could be the singing of “Spirit of Life” or the lighting of candles of concern.  In reality, most of us know that the way to absolve ourselves in not in recitations but in doing.  We say that we are a faith of deeds – not creeds.  And perhaps, it’s ridiculous and often even counterproductive to address the old wrong.  But we can try to do something good.   And usually that’s what my conversations with folks usually end up supporting.  Mainly folks want to be heard – to know they are okay – and to talk through the best ways to address their concerns.  And I’m always happy to have these or any other conversations folks may want to have with me.

 

Sometimes though, after doing what we can to make amends, I think that we may need a little something more to help us toward an atonement that is more divine and healing.  For the last couple of years, we’ve had an end of the year fire ritual that I think stives to meet this need.  But we can also include some ritual in our services in which we give voice to the idea that we’ve messed up ourselves and that others have hurt us – but that we can seek forgiveness and forgive.  And that’s what I invite you to do now.

 

Our hymnal includes a Litany of Atonement that I’d like for us to recite together.  It’s # 637 in the back of your hymnal.  This litany was written by Robert Eller-Isaacs and includes many of the “sins” that we may need to address.  And yes – I did use the word sin – which means “missing the mark.”  Instead of reading this as a responsive reading, I’m going to ask that we read both the regular print and the italics together.  Because I think it helps to actually provide our own voices in efforts to seek atonement.

 

Please join me in reading this Litany of Atonement:

 

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference.

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

 

For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible;

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

 

For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause;

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

 

For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others;

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love;

 

For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone;

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

 

For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit;

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

 

For losing sight of our unity;

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

 

For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness;

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

 

MAY IT BE SO!

AMEN.

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