“What Really Matters”
Rev. Dan Schatz
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
September 12, 2021
The cell phone blared. BEEP BEEP BEEP! We picked it up and read the message. “National Weather Service: TORNADO WARNING in this area until 4:45 EDT. Take shelter now in a basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. If you are outdoors, in a mobile home, or in a vehicle, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect yourself from flying debris. Check media.”
It wasn’t how we expected to spend our Wednesday afternoon. Geeta and I both had work to do – but we all headed to the basement, just to err on the side of caution. Our to do lists mattered – but safety matters more. Of course, we were lucky. The tornado stayed well away from West Chester, although some of our neighbors to the west were not so fortunate.
It’s funny how quickly events can change the way we look at things. What were your big anxieties at the beginning of 2020? In February of that year I was fretting about a few things in our congregation, and complaining a lot about some foot issues I was going through. They were serious foot problems, too. For awhile I wondered if I’d have to start doing my sermons sitting down. A month later I was sitting down for all my sermons, and I’m still here in this chair. Next week, weather permitting, I get to stand up, and see many of you in person, and won’t that be nice?
There’s nothing like a pandemic to reset your priorities. Very quickly, the questions that mattered to me moved from “How are people handling two services?” to “How can I keep my family alive?” and “Who will I lose that I love?” It’s a pretty big difference.
Time passed – a lot more time than we expected. School and work moved home for us, and as we learned how to wear masks and be safer during the pandemic, some of those questions about what really matters began to shift. It stopped being about my family and very quickly became a question of our human family. What do we owe one another? What is our responsibility to each other?
If a pandemic teaches us anything, it’s that we are one community, whether we like it or not. We depend on each other. The toxic ideology of “me first,” and “I can do whatever I want” costs real lives and does incalculable damage. Yes, we take care of ourselves and our family; it’s our first instinct, and it’s a good one. We also turn to others.
The storm that blasted our community a week and a half ago is much the same. Like the drought and fires in the West, it is the product of a changing climate, and a reminder that we cannot exist only for ourselves.
To me this was also the deep lesson of September 11, although I sometimes feel we have missed it too often. In the United States we are used to feeling safe and protected and apart from the world, and the events of that day brought home in a powerful way our need to engage with people everywhere, not as adversaries, but as co-creators of a better earth and a better humanity. We, still, I believe, have much to learn.
In Jewish tradition, the High Holy Days, and in particular the days between the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, are set aside for heart searching. We look within, and we also look to each other. We pay our debts, we seek and offer forgiveness, and when we see that something needs to be changed, we set ourselves to the task.
This year, as I look within and around me, I keep coming back to an ancient Talmudic text, three famous sentences from the great Rabbi Hillel. “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?”
In his own way, I think Rabbi Hillel went through what so many are experiencing in this time of epidemic and climate disaster, and what many went through in a different way twenty years ago. We begin by looking to our immediate needs, but then we turn to others.
As personal and introspective as the Jewish high holy days can be, at heart they are about community. The confessions read in the Yom Kippur liturgy don’t say “I,” they say “We.” “We have done wrong.” “We will atone.” We, the people together, will make amends together for all the wrongs of all the people.” If there is damage to be repaired it is up to all of us to do that work.
And the damage to the earth, to humanity, and to the ideal of justice is plain to see. In the tradition of Yom Kippur, the entire community owns this damage and the entire community owns the work. That isn’t to say it’s not more some people’s responsibility than others – but we forget that we one humanity at our peril.
What would our confessions be? This year especially, what would we confess on behalf of all humanity?
We have denied science.
We have derided and alienated those with whom we disagree.
We have failed to consider the fears of those who mistrust us.
We have become comfortable in our privilege.
We have abused the rights of women.
We have been too content in a society
that does not value education.
We have placed the lives and safety of children in low regard.
We have not listened.
We have allowed ourselves to look down on others.
We have been impatient.
We have failed to protect one another.
We have placed the autonomy of a few over the needs of all.
It’s a sobering list, and there is more we could add. I doubt if all of it applies to any of us, but I’m fairly certain that some of it applies to all of us. I know I am overly comfortable. I know that, with my racial, gender, educational, and sexual privilege, not to mention my strong liberal bias, I have occasionally been pretty insufferable. Every once in awhile someone calls me on it, and I treasure such moments, painful as they are, because these things can be hard to see when we’re in the middle of them, and if we are here to grow, love, and serve, we need such moments of truth telling.
But it’s still a hard list to read, especially in the context of Yom Kippur, with its rituals of fasting and confession. It’s natural to feel guilty or ashamed, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Martin Buber, the great Hasidic theologian, taught that part of atonement is letting go of the guilt and shame we feel. If we’re stuck in that headspace, being hard on ourselves and obsessing with what we did wrong or failed to do right, then we haven’t really atoned. We haven’t moved on. How can we ask God or other people to forgive us if we are unwilling to forgive ourselves? Atonement and renewal require us to face hard truth, but they also require us not to stop there.
We need to know who we are honestly and completely, as individuals and as a people, and that means acknowledging beauty, selflessness, courage, and all the ways we make this world better. Imagine another kind of list – a litany not of confessions, but of celebrations of goodness and kindness.
We have given selflessly.
We have remembered those who are suffering.
We have honored caregivers.
We have sacrificed comforts for the good of others.
We have sought truth.
We have organized for justice.
We have had the courage to change our opinions.
We have made hard decisions even when they hurt our pride.
We have looked after one another.
We have strengthened community.
We have embraced love.
We are whole people, and we are one people, inextricably bound to each other, and this also is part of Jewish teaching. Martin Buber reminds us that unlike Christianity, Judaism isn’t overly concerned with personal salvation. Judaism, he says, “regards each… soul as a serving member of God’s creation.” We atone not for the sake of purifying ourselves, he says, but “for the sake of the work which [we are] destined to perform in the world.”
We are not for ourselves, only. And if not now, when?
The turning of the High Holy Days means recognizing the fullness of ourselves and making a choice. This is how I will live. This is what I will put into the world. This is how I will do my part for myself and for others. This what I owe myself, my God, if that is my theology, my family, my community, my country, my species, my planet. This is what really matters.
What will we do this year, that matters? Imagine the litany of promises we could make.
We will take responsibility for one another.
We will feed the hungry.
We will serve the needs of children.
We will create art that brings beauty and truth to the earth.
We will act for the climate.
We will help strangers.
We will embrace community.
We will be patient, in times of anxious waiting.
We will forgo quick gratification.
We will do justice.
We will create peace.
What will you do this year that matters? Think of one thing. It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture. You don’t have to fix every problem. It just has to matter. If you’re not in a position to help the people of Afghanistan or Haiti, you can ask yourself – who can I help, here and now? How can I add goodness to the world? The smallest act of kindness is healing balm.
In doing what really matters, whether it’s large or simple, we come into the fullness of our humanity. We beckon the fullness of community. We serve life. We begin again in love.
You have a gift, and that gift matters. If not now, when?
You are a gift to the world.
May the coming year
be blessed with sweetness
of your living.