What Are You Listening For? A Yom Kippur Homily

Yom Kippur comes with urgency. Once it ends, the verdict on our fate for the upcoming year, firmly and finally, is sealed by God. 

Therefore we say, “Today we promise to change for the better during the coming year. On other days of the year, we talk much and often, but today we think.”

This is not just any old sort of thinking. The thoughts we think today are what God seals us in with. 

Our fate will follow our thinking.

So today we must think thoughts that help create positive change in our future. 

Today we must think thoughts that welcome in new horizons. 

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So think about this story. Two friends are walking down the sidewalk of a busy city street. Noise surrounds them: wind, cars, people talking. One of the friends suddenly turned to the other and said, “I hear a cricket!” To which her friend responded, “No way! With all this noise? Besides, I’ve never seen a cricket in the city.” 

But the first friend insisted and said, “No, really—I really did hear a cricket.” At which point she led her friend across the street to a big cement planter with a tree in it. She pushed back some leaves, and there’s the little cricket, resting on the topsoil. Her friend is all like, “How did you do that? You must have superhuman hearing!” 

The first friend replied,“There’s nothing superhuman involved at all. Watch this.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out a handful of loose change, and threw it on the sidewalk. Instantly, everyone within thirty feet swiveled toward the sound of falling money. “See,” she said, “it’s nothing superhuman. It’s all just a matter of what you are listening for.” 

What are you listening for, as you think about the new year? 

The story asks this profound question, and so would one of our Unitarian Universalist ancestor prophets, if he were here thinking with us in this Yom Kippur time of urgency. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson.   

In one of his essays he says, “There is a soul at the center of nature, and over the will of every person, so that none of us can wrong the universe. It has so infused its strong enchantment into nature that we prosper when we accept its advice; but when we struggle to wound its creatures, our hands are glued to our sides, or they beat our own breasts. The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.” 

All of what Emerson is saying is distilled in the image of the cricket. There is saving wisdom to be had in this world and in our hearts. It is above all natural. But so often we can feel cut off from it. But faith is a power to listen for it. Faith makes lowly listening possible. Lowly listening brings us back into the grace of life and makes us prosper.

Who knows what the new year before us will bring. The universe will be what it will be. And on Yom Kippur God requires us to think about how WE will act and react in the future, even though we have no clue whatsoever of the specifics of that future. 

Whether or not God is being unfair in requiring this of us is another sermon. 

But what is certain is that we are faithful in our thinking if we focus on two things: (1) cultivating a spirit of acceptance that we are going to be surprised a lot, and (2) cultivating a spirit of trust that guidance will come when we need it, in the form of some sort of cricket, and that cricket is going to say the right words we need to hear, and all we need to do is learn how to be listening for it and not distracted by the clash and smash of metal coins on pavement. 

That’s the key piece right there. Learning how to listen to the right things. 

The story tells the truth. Imagine a net that catches fish. In a similar way, our attention works to catch perceptions and ideas. But often the holes in our attention nets can be too small to admit the most important things, which are large, like a sense of meaning, a sense of mission and a willingness to serve. But these big things can be strained out, and what comes through is just the mundane small sound of coins falling on concrete.

Sometimes what makes the holes in our attention net too small is getting caught up in time-crunched, dog-eat-dog lifestyles in which there’s no room to breathe. We want to be better people but we are simply too busy! There is a famous psychology experiment that was conducted on students studying for the ministry. They were told that they had to discuss the story of the good Samaritan in another building on campus. On their way to that other building, they encountered a homeless person who needed help. Some of the seminarians stopped. Others hurried on. Just like in the gospel story.

But the difference between the two groups of seminarians wasn’t about anyone being a bad person. They were preparing to be ministers, for Buddha’s sake! But the seminarians who stopped to help had been told that they had plenty of time to get over to the next building and didn’t need to rush. The seminarians who didn’t stop had been told that they were late and needed to hurry. 

How often do we fail to be the change we wish to see in the world because we are in a hurry? 

Sometimes, being available to hear the lowly word of the cricket means slowing down. Just that.

And always, being available to hear that lowly word means letting go of resentments, letting go of regrets, letting go again and again and again.  

Some of us are exiting the old year and entering the new one with bodies or souls in pain. And we are shaking a fist in God’s face, demanding to know why. 

We must for sure feel our anger and our grief. We cannot cut ourselves off from that. But when we have felt our anger and our grief enough and we sense that there’s another step we can take, perhaps that step is to ask, not Why? But, What now?

Especially in the most terrible of times, the soul at the center of nature that Emerson talks about has advice to offer. True wellness is not necessarily an absence of pain or illness. It’s more about the presence of larger vision and meaning. Physical suffering is just not the worst thing that can happen to us; the worst thing that can happen is to stop living, to stop trying, to stop loving when there is yet more time available to live and to try and to love! 

But resentments can harden. Hardening, the holes in our attention nets shrink down, and all we end up perceiving and thinking are things to resent. If the hurts and failures and disappointments of the past dominate our vision, then the new future spreading out before us won’t be new at all, and will just repeat the past like a broken record. 

No inner silence, no inner poise, no inner peace. 

Ultimately, the story of the cricket is telling us, Trust life. Trust in its Mystery and Wonder, which come as naturally as any cricket. Enter into the Mystery and Wonder fearlessly. Enter into adversity with hope to learn again what true wellness really means.

From the inside-out, we will live every moment of every day until we die. 

So—what ARE you listening for on this momentous day? What are you listening for in your personal relationships, in your family, in your job, in your life as a citizen of Atlanta and Georgia and these United States? What are you listening for in the congregational life here at UUCA? 

Think hard on this, today, for God seals us in with the thoughts we think today.

Yom Kippur comes with urgency. 

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