Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 12, 2010
If I wrote the Bible, this would be Chapter One, my book of Genesis. These words were actually written by the contemporary 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!
Now, I know that “grace” might be one of those religious terms that gets some of
us a little antsy perhaps, or at least gets us scratching our heads or knitting
our brows. You would think that Unitarian Universalists wouldn’t be much
interested in a somewhat metaphysical theological concept like “grace”. We seems
a bit too this-worldly in our religious perspective for that. We don’t usually
think of ourselves as deep contemplatives, but rather as religious do-ers.
Deeds, not creeds, we say. Religion, for us, has to be alive, in this
world. From the beginnings of both of our movements here in
So, it came as something of a surprise to the people putting together our new UU hymnal (the gray hymnal) back in the 1980s, when they took a survey and asked us Unitarian Universalists which hymn that hadn’t been in the old hymn book (the so-called “blue” hymnal, which this church never had interestingly) they would like to see in the new one that was being planned. And the overwhelming choice was—“Amazing Grace”. Go figure.
Back in the old days of our faith (and it occurs to me that only in Unitarian Universalism would we mean the 1980s when we say “the old days of our faith”)—but anyway, back then in the gray dawn of our ecclesiastical ancient history, we never talked much, religiously, about grace. (There were times when we didn’t talk much about religion, either, perhaps; but certainly, we didn’t talk about things like grace.)
Perhaps, just perhaps, that hymnbook survey showed that we sensed that we were somewhat the poorer for it; that maybe there was something missing from our approach to spiritual matters; a spiritual hunger deep inside that our religion wasn’t quite getting at.
Well, times change; even religions change; ours especially, perhaps. I think it’s fair to say that we talk more about things like grace in our churches these days. We’re more likely to employ what our association’s former president, William Sinkford, described as a “language of reverence”. In light of all we’ve seen over the years, in the world, in our own lives, I, for one, think that this is probably a good thing. My opinion is that 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 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—that “something more”— 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 a 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—holy 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; or simply 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 wayfarer upon this earth.
We experience grace in great works of art, or literature, or music that touch us deeply, and shake our souls—that seem, somehow, to have been created “just for us”, that speak to us directly and transcendently in that holy moment we have before us.
Of course, we experience grace in nature, too—maybe most of all in nature: 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 on the newly-fallen snow…
“Graces comes in all those moments that life gives us gifts not because we deserve them, but because we [simply] are,” wrote Kate Rohde.
Grace is knowing our place in the web of life, in the family of all beings, and finding blessing 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 that great gift.
Where does grace come from? Does it come straight from the Hand of the God (as some of us would, indeed, say)— or is it completely serendipitous-- what a lovely word that is— (as others might say). Is it from God, or is it just the result of the interplay between us and the cosmos, between who we are, and all that is?
Does it matter, really? Less important than where grace comes from, I think, is that grace is—and that we know that it is. Knowing that grace is means opening ourselves up to the workings of grace in our lives:
If we run from grace, seeking shelter
How do we not “run from grace”? How do we become channels of grace instead?
There’s a story that tells of 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 the Zen master 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 once 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 all those dark and frightening times, sad and tragic times that we experience as well? Where is grace at times like those?
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 can still feel accepted. We are accepted because we share this garment of life—this garment of grace--with one another. We are not here to be able to explain away all the mysteries life, past, present, and future. We are here to be with, and take care of, one another. Knowing that—living life that way-- is to live a graceful (and grace-filled) life; it is to grow into harmony with the divine.
Grace is a gift, freely given. It’s ours for the taking; it has no price tag attached. It requires nothing of us, really—nothing except to live with our hearts open to its ministrations.
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?”
“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 a lesson we all learn far too often to ignore.
It is the lesson that beats at the very heart of this blessed Christmas season, that is celebrated in the solitary life of that great man we remember at Christmas.
It is life’s great lesson that echoes in the simple yet profound words of the prayer of St. Francis:
Where there is hate, let us bring love;
For it is in giving that we receive;