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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Amazing Grace

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 23, 2001

 

If I wrote the Bible, this would be Chapter One, my Genesis, as it were. They’re words from the modern theologian Matthew Fox:

“We now know we have this common creation story, common to every culture in the world today, that approximately 20 billion years ago there was a fireball that filled the universe as the universe expanded for 750 thousand years. We now know, and this was discovered only in the last few years, that if the expansion of that fireball had happened one millionth of a millionth of a second slower or faster over the 750 thousand years, you and I would not be here today… And there’s story after story like that. If the overall temperature of that 750 thousand year period had been one degree warmer or colder, you and I would not be here today. Mother Earth would not have evolved as a hospitable place for our people. This is what Julian of Norwich, the 15th century creationist meant when she said, ‘We have been loved from before the beginning.’”

“Loved from before the beginning.” Amazing grace!

For many years, “grace” was a religious concept kind of foreign to us as Unitarian Universalists. We didn’t seem much interested in grace. We were religious do- do- doers. Religion, for us, had to be alive, in this world. From the beginnings of both of our movements here in America, we were into doing good works—reforming society—changing the world. Social reform, social service, temperance, abolition, women’s rights, world peace, ending poverty, civil rights for all people— all these movements had influential Unitarians and Universalists among their leaders, and our faith was defined, largely, by how it operated in the world, in society.

So, maybe, back in the early 1980s, the people putting together our new UU hymnal (which eventually came to be known as Singing the Living Tradition, our gray hymnal) were more than a little surprised when they took a survey and asked UUs which hymn that hadn’t been in the old hymn book they would like to see in the new one. And the overwhelming choice was—“Amazing Grace”.

We never talked much, religiously, about grace. Maybe that was something missing from our faith—a hunger deep inside many of us that our religion wasn’t quite getting at. Well, we talk more about things like grace in our churches these days. In light of the horrendous events of recent days, that’s probably a very good thing, because I think we need an awareness of grace in our lives now, more than ever.

A sense of grace reminds us that there are deep currents of Being in which we all live and move and have our being. A sense of grace reminds us that we did not weave the web of life, but are merely strands in it. It reminds us that the gift of life is not something we are given because we’ve earned it, but something we are given simply because we are.

“Our true home is the present moment,” Thich Nhat Hahn has written. “To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now. Peace is all around us; in the world and in nature and within us, in our bodies and spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed. It is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of practice.”

A sense of grace opens us up to the goodness—the blessedness—of the world, of life. It is an opening up to the goodness that is often hidden at times of sorrow, and that we take for granted when times are good. They’re all about grace, these lives of ours. They’re all about feeling— sensing-- deeply knowing-- the giftedness—the divine reality at the center of all life.

The “cosmic companionship” of grace (as Dr. King put it) can be with us, truly 24/7; it is like a friend or lover who never, never leaves us alone. Grace shows its divine face to us in many different ways—in as many ways as there are drops of water in the ocean, as there are individual moments in the hours of our days.

Sometimes, we find grace in other people—those we love, or even complete strangers: when we touch one another’s souls in deep and meaningful conversation; when we thank someone for holding the door for us at the post office, and look into their eyes, and see not a stranger but a fellow human being upon this Earth.

We find it in great works of art, or literature, or music that touch our souls—that seem, somehow, to have been created “just for us”.

Of course, we find it in nature, too—perhaps most of all: in the thrill of new life in the spring; in the refulgent beauty and abundance of summer; in the glorious death dance of fall colors; in the glistening of the moon at midnight on the newly-fallen snow…

“Graces comes in all those moments that life gives us gifts not because we deserve them, but because we are,” wrote Kate Rohde.

And the poet Mary Oliver has written:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles in the desert, repenting. 
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
Are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers,
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air,
Are heading home again. 
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things. 

Grace is knowing our place in the web of life, in the family of all things, and feeling blest by that place. Grace is knowing (not just in our heads, but deep in our very beings) that “life is a gift for which we are grateful” and celebrating (with our whole beings) the wonders and mysteries of this great gift.

Where does grace come from? Does it come straight from the Hand of the God (as those of us who are theists might believe)— or is it completely serendipitous-- what a lovely word that is— (as those of you who are humanists might believe). Is it from God, or is it just the result of the interplay between us and the cosmos, between us and all that is?

Who cares? I don’t think it really matters where grace comes from. What matters is that is is­—and that we know that it is. And that means opening ourselves up to the workings of grace in our lives:

If we run from grace, seeking shelter
under the lean-to of modern life…
don’t be surprised if the rain stops
and grace goes elsewhere…

One day, the story goes, a young professor went to visit a Zen master and asked to receive enlightenment. The master offered the professor a cup of tea. So the master began to pour the tea into the empty cup in front of his guest, and he just kept pouring and pouring and pouring, till the tea had overflowed the cup, and the saucer and was all over the table. But he just kept pouring…

Finally, the young professor couldn’t contain himself any longer. “Stop!” he shouted. “Stop! The cup is full. It can’t hold any more,”

“Exactly like you,” the Zen master replied. “How can you be open to receive enlightenment if you are already so full of yourself?”

How can we be open to receive grace, if we are already so full of our agenda, our plans, our need to control everything? Simone Weil wrote: “Grace fills the empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a space to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”

When life is going too well, our human hubris might lead us to think we don’t need grace—that we’ve done it all ourselves. But what about at times like these: dark and frightening times, sad and tragic times? Where is grace at a time like this?

Grace is a gift of the spirit. It is not a guarantee that life is all joy, always easy, or ever just.

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness,” the great theologian Paul Tillich once wrote. “It strikes us when we walk through the dark valleys or a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation from life is deeper than usual… It strikes us when, year after year, the longed for perfection of life doesn’t appear, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes, at that moment, a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and its is as though a voice is saying, ‘You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.’ … Do not seek for anything… do not perform anything… do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that [acceptance] happens to us, we experience grace.”

In our pain, in our fear, in our anger, in our confusion, we are accepted. We are accepted because we share this garment of life—this garment of grace--with one another. We are not here to have all the answers to all of life’s mysteries. We are here to be with, and take care of, one another. Knowing that—living life that way-- is grace.

The destruction of the World Trade Center was certainly not a moment of grace. It was a moment (excruciatingly ugly moments) of evil. But could those moments be, somehow, transformed. Watered by love and justice, by compassion and wisdom, could that horrible event be transformed into a time of deep, transforming grace for our nation, and for our world? So we can at least hope; so we can at least pray.

Grace is a gift, freely given. It’s ours for the taking; it has no price tag attached. It requires nothing of us, really.

But for all those moments of grace that we are offered truly to transform us, they must come alive within us, and work through us.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” asks Mary Oliver. And then, knowing the answer, she asks us: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Life is too short not to be lived genuinely and lovingly.

That’s the lesson the boys in this morning’s reading learned when they sacrificed the (largely) Western, (largely) male imperative to win—be #1—get to the top and stay on top—in order to be part of a moment of grace and transform the life of one of their fellow creatures, to give him a sense of worth, a sense of deep belonging. They let go of a part of who they were to become part of something bigger than you or me or any of us.

That’s the lesson the king learned in the story of the quilt maker we shared earlier with the children. It was something the quilt maker always knew, as the the words of St. Francis of Assisi echoed in her heart:

Where there is hate, let us bring love;
Where there is sorrow, joy.
Let us strive more to comfort than to be comforted,
To understand others than to be understood;
To love others than to be loved.

 For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in letting our little, petty selves die
That we are born to eternal life—
And to the most Amazing, Amazing Grace.

 


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