What do Christians have for Yom Kippur? Mark 1:9-15 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Our next word from the Biblical text is Repent, Repentance. The ten days that began with Rosh Hashanah and ending last Thursday with Yom Kippur impose upon Jews the demand to contemplate their lives, their behavior and attitudes and seek ways to change. Repentance and reform and renewal, announced with the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn), culminate on the holiest day, Yom Kippur (“the day of atonement”).
This morning I am asking the question, What do Christians have for Yom Kippur? What is the place of repentance in Christian practice?
*** A young man from a socially prominent family returns to his native grounds from military duty. He encounters a girl he had known as a youth now grown up to be very beautiful. He is overwhelmed with love and desire. But she is unavailable, being a servant in the family household. During his visit, he importunes her and entices her into the greenhouse where they make love. She awakes the next morning with expectations of continuing the romance, but he’s already gone and has only left her a note. In the note, is a $100 bill, to her horror. She soon finds she is pregnant and is fired for it and ostracized from the community. The baby dies in infancy.
By some ten years later our young man has attained a major rank in the military and plays quite the dandy about town with his friends and their women. One day he is called for jury duty and listens to the case against three petty thieves, one of whom is a woman accused of murdering one of their victims. The accused murderer admits to being a prostitute and having robbed a customer, but denies the murder. The judge accepts the jury’s guilty verdict and sentences her to five years hard labor. Over the course of the trial, our officer recognizes her to be the young woman he degraded and disgraced. Immediately he realizes the connection between his actions and her fate. He approaches the judge on the spot and tries to get the verdict reversed. To no avail. He importunes him to reduce the sentence. To no avail. Our officer uses his rank to get into the offices of people high in the criminal justice system. To no avail. All the time, he is trying to get into the prison where she is kept in order to visit her, and when he finally does he begs for her forgiveness. She won’t have any of it. “I’ll get you out, I’ll save you. Just forgive me.” “You only want to save your eternal soul.” She sends him, baffled, away. Nevertheless, he manages to talk to her again as she is being transferred from the prison to the train taking prisoners to the labor camps, and he promises he will follow her and wait for her with the intention of marrying her. “I want to save you.” To no avail.
Over time as her sentence proceeds, she falls in love with another prisoner and eventually she decides she will marry him upon release. She tells our officer, who by now has forsaken his own family and fortune and taken up the cause of all prisoners because of the penal system’s bestial abuse of them. He resigns himself to her decision and, still unforgiven, blesses their plans to marry. But the whole ordeal has converted him to a life of reforming prisons and the criminal justice system.
I have just told you the plot of Leo Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection, published in 1899, which runs to 450 pages. The importance of our story can be found in that day in the jury box. Prince Dmitri Neklyudov was smitten with the realization that he is the cause of her downfall. Cause and effect were welded together in a lightning crack. He is instantly remorseful and sincerely knows he must seek her forgiveness. He is incredulous at the verdict because he knows her character and she is innocent. After repeated attempts to get her off, and with repeated visits to her in the prison, he asked her forgiveness which she declined to do over and over. This could be a story about forgiveness, because it raises the ethical issue of whether she was wrong to refuse it to him. But it’s not about forgiveness. The story is about repentance, which can lead, even without the forgiveness, to resurrection, hence the title of the novel. Prince Neklyudov found, in the five years he traveled with the prison train to Siberia, that he had found a purpose in life. It is interesting to note that an alternative translation of the title was “The Awakening,” suggesting that just seeing himself for what he was restored his life to him. He changed, without benefit of her forgiveness, anyway. And this only reflects the painful reality of life that forgiveness does not always come in one’s own lifetime or that of the person you seek forgiveness from.
Jesus is another word for Forgiveness. But, Repentance occupies the entire foreground of the Christian gospel. The word “repent” is among the first words Jesus utters in the gospel record, as you heard in the text for today. It means “to turn,” that is, to turn toward God, or in the Yom Kippur liturgy, to return to God (TeShuva). That is, return to good standing with God and with the community. To be in right relation with God is a definition of happiness. The health of human society depends upon the health of human relations, and repair of human injury is indispensable. Repent, mind you, is not the same as remorse which is a feeling, a bad feeling. To repent, on the other hand, is an action--to repent is to turn toward the light. In fact, it is like turning on the light when you go into a darkened walk-in closet, all of a sudden you see everything. It makes you want to say, “My God, why didn’t you tell me?” God’s answer would be, “I did--in Jesus.” The light enables you to re-order your life and your whole sense of self.
This is the whole point of the Jewish High Holy Days which concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the return to God’s good graces is fulfilled, or set in motion for the next year. And what do Christians have for Yom Kippur?
Since we are spiritual descendants of Judaism, the Christian year has several close parallels. There is no single “day of atonement” as such, although communion Sundays involve the same repentance and resolve to amend. The 50 days of Lent leading up to Holy Week and Easter represent a comparable spirit, being a time of special contemplation of our lives in relation to Christ’s. But the focus, unfortunately, can fall exclusively on Christ’s sufferings.
In Judaism and in Chrisitianity, the penitent attempts to make a clean breast of things, so that the weight of the past with its sin and errors, its hurts and violations, can be wiped away. Jews wish each other “to a good year,” but Christians don’t exactly have an expression we share after communion. It’s an open question what we could devise for our good wishes. Something, I hope, that would convey that this is your moment to step out of the mire of time toward the light, toward eternity from which you can see where you really are. All else is vanity, vanity as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes says, compared to the light. Turn, return, to it. Amen.
The Labor of Our Bodies and the Work of Our Hands
It was a day just like this one, 20 years ago yesterday. A perfect fall morning with high blue skies in the Northeast. And then, and then . . . Now, after a week of mourning of all those lost on that day, we realize that was the day “first responders” took on a whole new meaning. Underneath it all, we are still in shock.
I. As the 21st year following 9/11 opens today, we actually see a world the way it was when Genesis was written, in one important respect anyway. We see a world ever struggling to escape the bonds of earthly necessity—the bonds which nature dictates to us, the need for food, shelter and security—we see a world in which people and nations are willing to do literally anything to secure its goods and its comforts. Because, inside every person is a living creature who must bow to the demands of nature, demands as ironclad as the force of gravity.
Genesis refers to the most basic fact of life—Nature does not give up nourishment to man, or woman, without effort. You can’t eat the forests or the deserts or the seas. Survival must be extracted forcibly from “Mother” nature. Work, Genesis says, hard work is men’s fate, and women’s too, to be precise. Just as the woman suffers pangs with every childbirth, the man suffers the pangs of endless toil— (it is the same word in Hebrew, according to Robert Alter’s notes). So nothing can be taken for granted either in the creating or in the sustaining of life. Gains are not permanent—any given creature is only a sometime success who must renew, secure, and guarantee that success against a change of fortune or circumstance.
It’s just as true of nations as it is of people—how else are we to explain a rich country like the United States needing to shore up its own bountiful resources with a worldwide network of military bases to defend our “national interests”? Did we really have to spend 20 years, and how many lives!, defending this consumer existence of ours? Deep down inside, humans and nations suffer from serial insecurity.
This is our world, this is our experience today. Genesis pierced straight to the heart of the human condition—to be human is to suffer in these two particular ways in which we are subject to Nature. And so it is that people are always prone to dream of a by-gone blissful state of perfection, a “before.” Nevertheless, every day, we humans must awake from that dream in a terrain of contingency and terror, scrapping and scraping the means of subsistence from a grudging soil and painfully delivering ever more mouths to feed and to defend from other human predators.
II. Through every era of human history, we have sought to dispel the “curse” and bring nature under our control, to make nature yield more with less effort—through the eras of tool making, agronomy, refining minerals, the bronze age, the iron age, the industrial age, the atomic age, and the computer age. The human has resorted to gain any mortal advantage over competitors and threats—it’s a jungle out there--just let your guard down and find out.
Genesis pierces straight to the heart of the human condition, nor has subsequent history invalidated Genesis’ description of human life. Except we abhor toil, and every society has arranged it so somebody is tending to the body and its needs, tending to the fields and animals, butchering and cleaning, hauling and digging, sustaining the fuel supply of the human engine. The life of the laborer is deemed so unfulfilling that humans invented indentured servitude or slavery—acquiring a labor force through taking prisoners of war, or by some other means like the slave trade we engaged in—thus creating a caste system or a servant class.
The closer you labor in nature, the lower the status in society you occupy, the lower you are paid, the less you are valued (see the new film, “Worth,” about setting the insurance compensations for 9/11 survivors and families.) If you’ve watched a season of Downton Abbey, you’ve seen this pernicious principle at work. Likewise, if you’ve ever seen Chris Rock’s routine comparing “jobs and careers.”
And you can even see this economic arrangement in the backdrop of this morning’s parable, too. Jesus has a theological point to make, which is to assure his listeners that, come early or late, God will always receive you. But to make his point, Jesus as usual resorts to a commonplace of life which everyone would recognize—laborers lining up by the fields hoping to get hired for the day. I saw them myself in L.A., gathering every morning under the freeway cloverleafs, lining up behind the trucks waiting to load up laborers and hoping to be chosen.
In our parable, the landowner sees himself as beneficent in giving everybody the same wage for the day, but that’s not the way the laborers see things. But the vulnerability of the laborers is quite apparent, and fairness to them would mean paying them more than the late comers. The laborer depends totally on how the landowner chooses to define “generosity.”
Civilization has only sporadically tried to protect the laborer even as it protects itself from Nature. Mechanization and the industrial revolution seemed only to have made things worse.
What a history humans have woven out of work—toil, slavery, danger, disease, wealth, happiness, war!
III. But that’s why church is so important. To dispel the “curse” as Genesis saw it, we have only to commit to community. To dispel the curse of labor that led to the subordination of women and servants and slaves, day laborers, wage earners, and caregivers, God called us to create community. Not as a social group with its hierarchies and cliques, but as a kind of “mutual aid” society. Not like when my wife and I join the MFA and drop in occasionally on this or that exhibit, which is OK for what it is. But the church is much more, it is a flotation device in the storm of life as nature shaped it. Nor is it either just a refuge from the hazards of nature but where we pull the human back from our inhumanity in times of duress.
The Bible depicts our expulsion from Eden into Christ’s church, passing through Sinai, Zion, Jerusalem, and Golgotha on the way. Through this passage, we learned from Martin Luther that all labor and work is godly in God’s eyes. In truth, the church brings us to love life and to love the world as it is. Pope Francis envisioned the church as a sort of “field hospital.” And so we are, although not staffed with doctors for the patients but wherein we all minister to each other. And the healing balm that is applied starts and ends with the process of Christ’s forgiveness wherein we repent, reform and find renewal. Let us be the church. Let us be Eliot Church, for the sake of those in and around this community and region. Amen. Rev. Richard Chrisman, September 12, 2021
Are women people? What a question! Of course women are people. Why would I ask such a question? Because, to judge from the piece of anti-abortion legislation that went into effect in Texas last week, and without objection from the U.S. Supreme Court, not everybody thinks so. This law makes abortion illegal after 6 weeks (before a woman is barely aware of being pregnant), and it allows a citizen to sue any party to the arranging, paying for or providing of an abortion (pitting private citizen against citizen). Its excesses betray an ulterior motive than saving babies’ lives, which for many supporting the Texas bill, may be so. But, for many others, it’s manifestly also about reversing women’s emancipation.
This law is just the caboose on the long train of legislation going back 100 years meant to make not only abortion but also contraception and sex education and reproductive health barely available to women there or anywhere in this country. The unusual fierceness of the Texas law intensifies the long resistance to women’s emancipation.
How can we avoid the conclusion that some people view women as just so much potting soil, in one commentator’s phrase? Women’s suffrage took 50 years of exertion and sometimes violence before the 19th Amendment was passed in 1919, the ratification process having come down to a single vote in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The marriage laws kept a manhole cover over women’s heads until women’s suffrage made change possible. The Equal Rights Amendment passed in the U.S. Congress in 1972 but was ultimately defeated in the state ratification process in 1980. Women’s right to self-determination seems like the last thing Americans will stand for. Many Americans act as if they do not trust women as adult people.
The concern may well be to save babies’ lives, but if so, why should this be done on the backs of women alone--two people are responsible, but they are not both being held responsible. The anti-reproductive rights laws transfer the entire responsibility to one party alone for something that two people do together, one hopes consensually (obviously not in the cases of rape and incest). The anti-abortion position transfers the entire burden exclusively to the woman.
The abortion debate is legitimate, with truth to be found on both sides of the conflict, and I am not going to rehearse that debate here. What is NOT legitimate is abusing the Bible to rationalize your position against abortion.
Howard Moody, the renowned minister of Judson Memorial Church in NYC and an outspoken participant in the abortion debate of the 1960s, always said, “Leave the Bible out of it.” But you can’t--it’s embedded in our culture and in our assumptions. For instance, abortion and reproductive freedom opponents openly state that woman should be under a man’s rule, and the Bible tells them so. They cite as their evidence the creation story (the second one) in Genesis (chapters 2 and 3) where God created a woman out of Adam’s rib and assigned her as Adam’s “helpmeet.” They cite that Eve was created second chronologically which establishes her subordination to Adam. They blame her disobedience as the cause of their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But here are my objections to this abuse of the Bible.
You can’t make doctrine out of poetry. This creation story is a fanciful, wholly fictional answer to the question, “How did we get here? Who are we?” This portion of Genesis reads like the script of a Christmas pageant, where animals talk and God walks around demanding answers.
What you learn from this story is the importance of taking responsibility for our actions, which the pair does not do: Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the snake. If there is anything like an “original sin” in this story, it is evading culpability. The genders here are equal in their evasion of culpability.
Their expulsion from Eden was not a “Fall,” or a punishment for anything, because the “curses” on the pair simply reflect the reality of planetary life. The myth of “the Fall,” so-called, begun in Genesis, argued by St. Augustine, and elaborated by the poet John Milton in over 10,000 lines of epic verse, is factual for many Christians. The only facts are life’s sufferings. Labor pains may feel like a curse to women, but they are simply the result of quadrupeds going upright and becoming bi-peds, complicating the birth canal. And Adam is told what everybody knows: subsistence and survival have to be extracted from Nature and so is fated, not “condemned,” to live by the sweat of his brow. (And by the way, the snake is also cursed with having to grovel in the dirt.) Theirs is not a “Fall” (which is not a Biblical term anyway) but an Entrance into reality as they leave a Paradise imagined by the narrator to have preceded our existence as we know it. Eve is not to be blamed for human suffering at all, as church doctrine asserts.
Why can such a story be in the Bible, if it is as fanciful as I claim--? Because, it dramatizes the first observations and feelings of one particular society about our earthly life. The writers of Genesis preserved this legend to explain the painful facts of human life as we experience them. They imagined a previous life of perfection without suffering, and they concluded that we can only have “fallen” from that state as punishment of some kind. It’s one guess. But a deeper look at Genesis 2-3 reveals woman’s true fate on earth, and man’s.
The forces of nature which humans have faced throughout eras of changing climates and circumstances as well as, most importantly, the burden of overwhelming reproductive demands, they all require management. Society has had to employ parental controls, institutional (church) controls, and cultural controls to keep child bearing within the capacities of child rearing. Self-management is ultimately called for. Abstinence, when enforced, will work, but it has seldom worked voluntarily (except as part of religious vocation). Contraception has been practiced throughout history, until the Church pounced on it (v. Humanae Vitae, 1968). Abortion has also had an ancient history, because if unwanted, or unintended, pregnancies are not stopped, the direction of personal history can change drastically. Abortion is a last resort, and women will take it if absolutely necessary. Isn’t it best for us to get out of the way? We really have no choice but to trust the woman with this decision. After all, the men are often not there except to legislate what, after the fact, a woman does with her body.
Compare the three versions of Eve. Paula Stallworth’s woman [from poem entitled "I Am A Woman": email RevRick for a copy.] is 3-dimensional, sure of her powers. In Genesis, Eve is 2-dimensional, a free agent with a partner. In church doctrine, Eve is 1-dimensional, alone guilty of causing human suffering. Take your pick.
Woman is trustworthy. I’m not pro-choice or anti-choice. I believe we have NO choice but to trust her with her decision.