New Year's arrived Friday night at Congregation Tifereth Israel and throughout the world. Surrounded by hundreds of people celebrating year 5767, I joined in the lilting songs of joyful proclamation, the mournful songs of longing, and the universal proclamation: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" as Hebrew grasped our tongues and God held our hearts as one.
It is a humbling experience to gather in worship with a religious people who have pushed back the darkness of death for more than 5766 years. Rabbi Irving Greenberg says in The Jewish Way, "Judaism is a religion of life against death." Six million Jews perished in the horrors of the Holocaust only 65 years ago and yet, on Friday night, all day yesterday and today as we worship at this hour, Rosh Ha-Shanah once again dramatically confronts death with a cheer of "l'chaim" - "To Life!" One passage, one prayer after another honors God and life - not by denying death but by facing it down.
The ritual of Rosh Ha-Shanah takes the form of a courtroom drama in which God is the judge and everyone who comes into God's presence is tried for his or her life. In fact, according to one Jewish prayer book, even the "hosts of heaven" are called to account at this time. Neither humans nor angels escape this sweeping indictment. In the end, life and mercy win out over death and judgement, but not without days of existential trial. During this trial, each man and woman must undergo intense self-scrutiny - reviewing the past year's deeds and misdeeds, both major and minor. Each must ask for forgiveness from anyone they have wronged - and when possible - make full restitution. The tradition says that God forgives only the sins we have committed against Him, but not those committed against other people.
The purpose of this ritual is to move each soul in Judaism to "Teshuvah" or repentance. Friday, Rabbi Berman interpreted, "Teshuvah" not only as "repentance," but also as "returning." We are called to return to God. God's decision is whether or not to accept the repentance of the one returning. God's acceptance means ending up in the Book of Life as opposed to the Book of Death. It is no wonder these days are known as the "Days of Awe."
For those who have been through Alcoholics Anonymous or are familiar with 12-step programs, you know that making a personal, searching and fearless moral inventory is one of the 12 steps. Whether in Judaism at Rosh Ha-Shanah or in the language of 12-step programs, cleansing oneself of misdeeds or lack of deeds is a process each of us would be wise to engage. When was the last time you made a fearless and searching, personal moral inventory of your life? These days of awe for the year 5767 may be set apart for you to do so. I encourage you to engage the prayers and drama of so doing of repentance and returning to God. You may enter into the fullness of life lived for God!
James 4:8 writes this differently. James says, "Draw near to God and God will draw near to you." From James 3:18-4:10, we are reminded that conversion is a continuing process and an essential element in spiritual transformation. While you might think James is addressing those "in the world" who explicitly embrace envy and whose competitive natures lead them to war, violence, and murder, he is not. He is speaking to the Christian community who gather in Jesus' name, but whose attitudes, actions, and faith life bear little resemblance to way of Jesus.
James is talking to you and me and present day Christians. James is concerned that we have lost touch with God and the ways of heaven. James gets real personal. He wants us to repent, to return to God, to draw near to God (paraphrased from The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XII, p. 212). This passage reminds us that the evil we experience in this world through social upheaval and violence and war and murder is not simply the result of inadequate social structures, but is above all the result of a diseased human freedom that has committed itself to human wisdom and human power over the wisdom and power of God (Ibid, p. 213). With diseased human freedom in operation, seizing what belongs to others becomes the end of those who have lost touch with reality and whose sick freedom has no boundaries.
Do you not see this? Have you not experienced this disease in commerce, trade, religion and politics - locally, nationally, and globally? Too many of those in power on this globe- Americans and others - if we were to look in the mirror, we would see out-on-control freedom staring back at us - using the language of God but languishing in the strains of unrestrained power. No God - certainly not the God we know in Jesus Christ - would ever confer a blessing on such abuse of diseased freedom.
In the 1960's Seasons of Celebration, contemplative Trappist monk, Thomas Merton wrote these words that reflect the spirit of the times in which we live:
Man today has lost consciousness of his need for truth. What he seeks is power. (In this way) Truth is made to serve the ends of power. Truth is of no value unless it is expedient. When truth is not expedient, then it is deliberately manipulated and twisted to serve the aims of the powerful. Objective truth is considered irrelevant. It is derided by the powerful, who can change truth to suit themselves, and bend it this way and that for the sake of ambition and fortune. (Quoted in Through the Year with Thomas Merton, January 30, "A Need for Truth," Doubleday Image Books, 1985, p. 17).
To repent, to return, to draw near to God is not simple. It is not easy. And yet, it is honest work. It is genuine spirituality. It is faith in action. For, to draw near to God is to follow the path of responsible (not unrestrained) freedom. To draw near to God is to seek the truth of Christ, not the expedient "truth" which serves the ends of power.
If you do not pray, if you do not seek God in your life, if you are not clear about God, you will tend to shy away toward something more accessible, like your own conscious state.
But, as Gregory Vlastos writes:
To talk about commitment brings one face to face with the question of God, so that one cannot dodge it . . . God is that within and beyond the universe which expresses the greatest good which now is and ever can be; the direction of life against death, the direction of unity against discord, the direction of creation and increasing growth against destruction and decay. God is the power of good in all its various forms . . .
In what form and by what nature do you experience God as you draw near to him? James Russell Lowell writes: "I experience God this way - God is in all that liberates and lifts; In all that humbles, sweetens and consoles." How true! But, what do you say? How do you experience the God whom you draw near to God? How do allow God to draw near to you?
Do you draw near to God in nature - the majesty of mountains and the colors of sunrise and sunset? In the quiet time beside blessed waters whose streams roll over the rocks of ages? In the lapping of the water from ocean depths to sandy beaches or rocky ones? By the shores of God's great lakes?
Do you draw near to God in silence? In the still silence of your prayer time? In the stillness of the night?
Do you draw near to God in worship? In the music - in anthems sweet, Hymns of praise or musical interludes which wrap your soul in comfort or bliss? In communion, the prayers, the presence, the community of the faithful, the still small voice of God whispering in your ear - or perhaps the cooing of a child in your pew?
Do you draw near to God in the love of others, in family or friends? In words of scripture? In words of literature? In words of Love?
I have found the nearness of God in all of the above and more. I draw near to God when I turn my life over to the care of God. It is that simple and that difficult. God takes charge when I let go. God is in the unexpected and the uncontrolled. God is in the peace that passes understanding - the peace of Christ - the peace . . .
Draw near to God - however you find and discover God. As you do, you will find that God draws near to you.
In these "days of awe," let us close with this poem from Robert Nathan.
Now from the world the light of God is gone,
And we in darkness move and are afraid,
Some blaming heaven for the evil done,
And some each other for the part they played.
And all the woes on God are strictly laid,
For being absent from these earthly ills,
Who set the trees to be the noontime shade,
And placed the stars in beauty on the hills.
Turn not away and cry that all is lost;
It is not so, the world is in God's hands
As once it was when Egypt's mighty host
Rode to the sea and vanished in the sands.
For still the heart by love and pity wrung,
Finds the same God as when the world was young.
Go in peace, to draw near to God and allow God to draw near to you. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church