“What’s Amazing About Grace?”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, January 27, 2019
At The First Parish in Bedford
Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
And I love that even in the toughest moments, when we’re all sweating it – when we’re worried that the bill won’t pass, and it seems like all is lost – Barack never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise. Just like his grandmother, he just keeps getting up and moving forward… with patience and wisdom, and courage and grace.
But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people,
and do our best to help them find their own grace.
That’s what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day.
“Small Wire,” by Anne Sexton, adapted
is a great weight
hung on a small wire,
as doth the spider
hang her baby on a thin web,
as doth the vine,
twiggy and wooden,
hold up grapes
as many angels
dance on the head of a pin.
God does not need
too much wire to keep Him there,
just a thin vein,
with blood pushing back and forth in it,
and some love.
As it has been said:
Love and a cough
cannot be concealed.
Even a small cough.
Even a small love.
So if you have only a thin wire,
God does not mind.
He will enter your hands
as easily as ten cents used to
bring forth a Coke.
“Grace” by Frederick Buechner
After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.
Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.
The grace of God means something like: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.
Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
So you’ll recall that this sermon is a continuation of the sermon I preached three weeks ago with the unlikely title, “Paradoxical Interventions: With Reference to Reverend Billy, Sanctuary, and Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 Silent Film ‘The Circus’” Tonight I go to Sudbury where I will join the 117th annual retreat of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn, a convocation of mad Unitarian Universalist monks. We will have our rituals and our high jinks and we will present papers assigned to us by the Prior, the head monk, who this year is the Rev. Hank Peirce from Reading. Hank instructed me, thusly: “I would like you to write about Rev. Billy’s idea of sanctuary, and sharing sanctuary as a church then expanding it to the whole world al-la a Universal sanctuary.”
As I noted previously, this assignment makes pretty much no sense to me whatsoever. I feel like I’m being asked to juggle a few balls and pins, some flaming torches, spinning plates, and then I’m tossed a kitten and a whizzing chainsaw. In other words, I am not to blame for this mess. Hank Peirce. Revhank1@gmail.com.
The only commonality I can imagine, the only unifying thread that brings these disparate topics together is that each is unexpected, improbable, counter-intuitive.
I’m not going to remind you of the antics of Rev. Billy but he and his merry band of Stop Shopping activist gospel pranksters bring an improbable kind of eye and ear-popping astonishment to causes of social and environmental justice. Earthalujah!
That we would provide physical sanctuary to an undocumented woman – room and board and a legal defense and an army of volunteers to defy tyranny and empire – well, that’s an unusual and improbable thing for any church to do.
In my last sermon, I used Charlie Chaplin’s film The Circus as another way of illustrating the power of the improbable. The Little Tramp bumbles into a dispirited circus ruled by a tyrannical ring-master, and by his ridiculous unselfconscious antics he liberates the oppressed. In a dark time, laughter liberates.
The poet Anne Sexton described her faith as “a great weight hung on a small wire;” and thus the theme I’m trying to distill is that sometimes a very nearly invisible homeopathic distillate and tincture of health and healing and wholeness can reverberate with a power and glory that far exceeds its perceived earthly value. “Thou canst not stir a flower, without troubling of a star,” said Francis Thompson.
So where I’m going with this is where Hank (firstname.lastname@example.org) asked me to go: “to expand this to the whole world al-la a Universal sanctuary.”
I believe that Unitarian Universalism is a potent and even explosive distillation, tincture and titration of the unexpected, such that not only may we topple oppressive systems by the subversive interjection of the unexpected but that this faith may also revivify and breathe life into the dead bones that all too often are our own dead bones.
My friends, the Fraters, are an especially Universalist group and the common thread I am trying to find, the thin wire upon which we may hang the great weight of faith, is – I think – more allied with Universalism than with Unitarianism. It’s a simplification but, indeed, Unitarians are a heady and rather rational bunch. “We believe in one God, at most,” etc. The Universalists are more heart-centered and a bit more non-rational, less bound by the strictures of reason.
The Universalists say, All may be saved; all may grow into harmony with the divine. This is an unexpected and improbable gospel! We live in a culture of “you get what you deserve,” “you reap what you sow.” Universalism says the blessings of life are boundless; grace abounds. I’ll be coming back to grace.
Somewhere I found an old 19th century evangelical Christian tract that denounces Universalism, “Reasons for Not Embracing the Doctrine of Universal Salvation.”
“The greater part of the community who are believers in divine revelation, and persons of industrious and virtuous habits, though not professedly pious, will reject the doctrine, and avoid the preaching that attempts to propagate it. But
If there are in the community any deists who have opposed Christianity until their opposition has become unpopular, these when the trumpet of Universalism is blown, will be among the first professed converts to the faith, that, being screened from odium by the name of Christian, they may still aim their poisoned shafts against the cause of evangelical truth.
The profane swearers in a town or city, together with those who are accustomed to neglect public worship, and violate the Sabbath by business or amusements, will become diligent in their attendance upon the worship which is conducted by preachers of universal salvation.
If there are any persons in the community who are unfaithful in the conjugal relation, and who are accustomed to drink “stolen waters” as sweeter than their own, these are usually much pleased to hear that there is no hell and that “adulterers” shall inherit the kingdom of God.”…
I have noticed also, that intemperate persons are generally very ready to attend when the doctrine of universal salvation is preached near them, and hear with much satisfaction that the path of the drunkard leads as directly to heaven as the path of the just.
Another portion of the audience of a Universalist preacher is commonly made up of young men and boys of loose habits. Those “whose feet,” according to the Bible, “go down to death, and whose steps take hold on hell,” delight to hear it proved that the Bible lies, and that “fornicators” shall “inherit the kingdom of God.”
Those persons who have been awakened to a sense of their guilt and danger, and have as often relapsed into a stupid or irreligious state, and who are always annoyed and irritated by the doctrines of grace, are much inclined to seek rest under the preaching of Universalists, and there get their consciences quieted by hearing that there is no day of judgment, and no punishment for the wicked.”
Well, all you deists, you bearers of unpopular opinions, you profane swearers, you who neglect public worship, you who are unfaithful, adulterous, intemperate, ye of loose habits and fornicators, you who sometimes live with a sense of guilt and danger and stupidity, the irreligious, annoyed and irritated – does that about cover all of you? – none of us, no one else, and no one anywhere is banished from grace and possibility.
Rev. Billy proclaims Earthalujah! – Earth is our sacred sanctuary. Those who rise in defense of the scorned and undocumented, those who keep faith with the fallen – these are acts of mercy and grace.
Now it probably won’t surprise any of you to know that I tend not to rely on a lot of theological language. My religion is pretty darn this-worldly: what I know of revelation is revealed in the here-and-now and the ordinary. One need not seek the supernatural, for as George Orwell once said, “To see what is in front of our nose is a constant struggle.”
And so it may come to you as a surprise and, indeed, it comes to me as a surprise that the common thread, the thin wire, I am looking for that connects not only Rev. Billy and sanctuary and Charlie Chaplin, and Universalism is a theological word; and that is the word, “grace.”
The essence of grace is that it is unexpected and improbable. Grace seems to go against every human instinct. We are naturally drawn to cause-and-effect, to covenants, to karma, to reaping what we sow, to getting what we deserve, to earning what we receive.
Grace is different. Grace is an unmerited favor, given alike to the deserving and the undeserving. My mentor in ministry, Gordon McKeeman (a Frater, by the way) was fond of quoting Kahlil Gibran, “You say, ‘I would give, but only to the deserving.’ The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live…”
Grace is hard to understand because it’s not entirely rational. Bono, lead singer of U2, says, Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.”
I love the image of “The Kind Confessor.” This etching is framed in my office. Ours is an abundant faith, not a stingy one. Grace and blessing and forgiveness are available to all of us, if we are willing to receive it. Saints and sinners. There’s a great church in Colorado called the House for All Saints and Sinners (HFASS). It’s one grace-filled half-assed church, and I would wish that we be similarly famous.
This is the radical equality at the heart of Universalism: none shall be cast into outer darkness.
A writer named Peter Wehner has said, “If you find yourself in the company of people whose hearts have been captured by grace, count yourself lucky. They love us despite our messy lives, stay connected to us through our struggles, always holding out the hope of redemption. When relationships are broken…it’s grace that causes people not to give up, to extend the invitation to reconnect, to work through misunderstandings with sensitivity and transparency.
You don’t sense hard edges, dogmatism or self-righteous judgment from gracious people. There’s a tenderness about them that opens doors that had previously been bolted shut. People who have been transformed by grace have a special place in their hearts for those living in the shadows of society. They’re easily moved by stories of suffering and step into the breach to heal. And grace properly understood always produces gratitude.”
Of course, the idea of grace can be misused by those who don’t want to be held accountable for their actions. Later this winter we will welcome a one-man performance by a man who re-enacts Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran martyr executed by the Nazis who coined the term “cheap grace.” It is challenging to balance justice and grace, but the biggest problem we have today is not that there is too much grace but that grace is too often absent from our public and personal lives.
Grace is often said to be a gift of God, “God’s grace;” and if that works for you, great. But I don’t think it matters much what you believe or disbelieve. Grace abides as “some combination of generosity and magnanimity, kindness and forgiveness, and empathy…all above the ordinary call of duty, and bestowed even (or especially?) when not particularly earned.”
Well, I’m pretty much done with this juggling act. That which unifies Rev. Billy, and sanctuary, and Charlie Chaplin, and Universalism, the kitten and the chainsaw, is that small unexpected and improbable, empire shattering, soul-rearranging tincture called grace.
My mentor, Frater McKeeman used to say two other things. Approvingly, quoting Emerson, he would appeal to his parishioners, saying “There are sermons foolishly spoken that may be wisely heard.” I too appeal to your wise hearing. Revhank1@gmail.com.
And McKeeman further said words that we may imagine being spoken by The Kind Confessor: Blessings! Manifold, diverse, and plentiful.
Blessings! Manifold, diverse, and plentiful.
All together now: Blessings! Manifold, diverse, and plentiful.
Oh so plentiful. Amen.
Saints and sinners, let’s sing…
“Who Said This?” – Mary Oliver
Something whispered something
that was not even a word.
It was more like a silence
that was understandable.
I was standing
at the edge of the pond.
Nothing living, what we call living,
was in sight.
And yet, the voice entered me,
with so much happiness.
And there was nothing there
but the water, the sky, the grass.