Awe and Confession (Winton Boyd) 4.8.17

This is the first in a series of sermons inspired by voices outside the Christian tradition.  Today, we begin with the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel 

Audio version of Awe and Confession by Winton Boyd

One of the joys of our Dane Sanctuary Coalition has been the chance to work alongside committed activists from several Jewish congregations. Later today, I’ll be part of a panel at one of them, sharing a bit of our process to become a sanctuary congregation in 2017. In late December, I had the chance to meet with 3 leaders from this group to outline the questions our congregation faced and the things we were learning. After thanking me for meeting with them in the week leading up to Christmas, they jokingly asked if I might become a Jew so I could join them as they went through their discussion process. What a gift to even be able to joke, what a gift to share a common quest with a tradition that many of us know so little about. The beauty of these interactions, whenever they come, remind us how valuable it is to see the world from a lens different than our own. To relish the beauty of another tradition, another set of terms, but a shared passion for justice. Conversations and relationships like this have led to the creation of a sermon series this spring in which we’ll be exploring thinkers and theologians outside the Christian tradition, including Jewish writers, Buddhist leaders, and women poets.

Today we explore some of the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was born in Warsaw to a long line of Hasidic Rabbis. He studied philosophy in Germany but was expelled back to Warsaw during the Nazi reign. He escaped Poland just weeks before the Nazi invasion and settled in the United States.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, his writings contributed greatly to the spiritual renewal of Judaism, especially in this country. He looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet – calling on the word of God, challenging Jews to attend to issues of justice.

At the same time, he was passionately interfaith, once called the ‘apostle to the gentiles.’ He raised a prophetic challenge to the social issues of his day, including marching with Martin Luther King, and protesting Vietnam. He appears beside King in several of the most iconic photographs of the civil rights era – including the march to Selma and protesting Vietnam at Arlington National Cemetery.

Protesting Vietnam at Arlington National Cemetery

It’s impossible to condense his lifetime of work into a couple of sermons, but amidst the craziness of our time, his almost forgotten voice is one that can help us gain perspective on the now.

In today’s terms, Heschel would be described as a social liberal and a theological conservative. What this means, I think, is he had a high view of God; and a Holocaust informed view of humanity. He knew the power of destruction within the human spirit. Together, this shaped how he imagined us moving forward on pressing social issues.

“Stand still and consider the wondrous works of the Lord,” Heschel often quoted from the book of Job in the Old Testament. The problem, he reflected, is our sense of wonder is declining, and as it does, our humanity deteriorates and also our ability to be aware of God’s presence.

His faith was shaped by a simple truth. “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.” (Heschel, Essential Writings, p. 46) Or, “the beginning of wisdom is the awe of God.” (p. 57) Regardless of how theistic our faith is, how ‘personal’ our sense of God is in our lives, I think we can appreciate that reverence for a Spirit of Life that is greater than us is crucial to a full life.

This, however, was coupled with Heschel’s belief in the way the human ego prevents us from understanding God. “I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, conceit; the end of embarrassment (is) a callousness that (points to) the end of humanity.”

He continues, “(our) world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas….I shudder at the thought of a society ruled by people who are absolutely certain of their wisdom, by people to whom everything in the world is crystal clear, whose minds know no mystery, no uncertainty…The truth of being human is gratitude; its secret appreciation.” (p.56)

While this statement was written in 1964, I can think of no truer or clearer statement of our current predicament. Oh, that we would remember what it is like, as a culture, to be embarrassed, or to see our pettiness; to confess our small mindedness.

Said another way, “prayer begins where our power ends.”  It is only in our recognition of human limits that we can draw on sacred and divine power. It is only in being sufficiently ‘embarrassed’ that we can live into the challenge, the divine demand for action. (p. 48)


Peter Marty, in this week’s Christian Century magazine, nuanced this sentiment even more. In response to yet another school shooting (are we ever going to be sufficiently embarrassed by these shootings as a culture?), he writes, “A similar pattern emerges every time … The coverage moves in to explore the shooter’s motives; we combine guesswork and curiosity as people puzzle over how such a dastardly act could happen. Good people don’t do this kind of thing, the reasoning goes. Only bad ones do.

This thinking helps feed the narrative that God makes only two kinds of people. One kind is righteous and can be trusted to behave honorably regardless of what they have in their hands. The other is unrighteous and cannot be trusted for any good.

Marty continues, “The problem with this crude dichotomy is that it rests on a naïve view of human nature. If only evil people committing evil deeds could be separated from the rest of us, we might be fine. ‘But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.’   Reinhold Niebuhr said that often evil is not done by obviously evil people but by righteous people who forget the limits of their righteousness.

He concludes, ‘sorting through the thicket of self-righteousness is complicated. Self-criticism can be tough to engage. Admitting individual wrong is hard. We fall in love with our moral positions.’ (Christian Century, April 11, 2018)


At our Thursday meditation group we had a conversation on some of these same kinds of topics and wondered if life was a mystery or if it was messy. Or both. A ‘messtory.’

On this first Sunday after Easter, it is good to remember how much mess and mystery existed in our crucifixion and resurrection stories.

If the faithful way forward combines awe and confession ( a ritual response to Heschel’s ‘embarrassment’), what does awe look like in our life? When and where do we tap into it? How intentional, in the midst of busyness, are we in paying attention to and soaking in the awesomeness around us?

On Easter Sunday, I stood in the freezing cold just behind this window at 6 a.m. In the dark, the one thing that was clearly visible was the full moon. It was magical and quite honestly, made getting up that morning worth it. I did not linger (the windchill was 8*), but I was blessed with the gift of appreciation in those quiet few seconds.

Your awe probably comes in different ways (like from inside).   The real question is, how do we create space in our lives for it?

It’s one of the reasons I love church. Gathering together – here and in the many other places we gather – can be a discipline in finding awe – if we allow it to be. Last Sunday, as with every Sunday, I felt a deep reverence watching all kinds of interactions among God’s people. Broken people, all of us, finding connection and finding solace in community. The wondrous works of the Lord are all around for those who are looking.

Of course this kind of awe can be found everywhere. The daily, practical question is, ‘how can we remember to look?’

And if we are one of those prone to finding fault with ourselves before anyone else, how to we remember to find awe in our own creation? In a lovely talk on Wednesday night about non violence and the environment, Activist and priest, John Dear, invoked our need for kindness – starting with kindness towards ourselves and moving out to others. I think the same could be said for awe. If we are not in awe of our own life, it will be hard to feel true awe in others or in God’s creation. So, for some of us, the first prayer can and should be, “instill me with reverence, God of creation, for how you created ME in your image too.”

Sometimes awe takes the form of deep appreciation for where life has brought us amidst the uncertainties or struggles.

Having an April Fools joke played on me last Sunday, under the direction of Julie Mazer and the children she works with, helped me cherish the amazing path my life has taken in this congregation and among many waves of children. I cherish the blessings, the challenges, the history, and even the future. And even as I cherish that in just a few minutes you will be moving forward by naming a search committee to replace me, I was struck by Heschel’s reminder – ‘prayer begins where my power ends.’ J   The truth of being human is gratitude; its secret appreciation.

And what about the other side of Heschel’s balance? What does confessing our small mindedness look like?

I think something I need to confess is the way I have minimized the need for confession. Like many of you, I’ve often thought the worldwide church overdoes flagellation and sin, and needs to rebalance with appropriate blessing and affirmation. And I do believe in original blessing. But have I swung too far? Have I, as liberal and progressive Christian, placed too much confidence in humanity – and even worse – in our brand of humanity? Have I forgotten how small our imagination is at times; have I too often equated our imagination with God’s and thus made those with ‘other’ kinds of imaginations the ‘evil’ ones?

The beauty of our progressive faith is our willingness to embrace the complexity of the God within the limits of the human ego. Use whatever words you want, but how can we help each other maintain this balance between originally blessed and forever sinful? Possessing the divine spark of wonder and light; while also capable of incredible destruction. Each one of us.

It is my hope that Heschel’s call for the both/and of Godliness and Godlessness within us will be an antidote to the temptation of smugness. Not a day goes by when we read or listen to the news that we aren’t invited to a feast of self-righteousness. I hope we can help each other – by our humility and honesty – remember to confess, to pray, to turn to wonder and mystery when hearts can’t understand. But it is also my hope that together we can share awe, remind one another and everyone we meet of the beautiful mysteries of life and spring and humanity and love.

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