Random grace. Casual grace. Saving grace. Universal grace. Transcendent grace. Transformative grace. All are here around us and among us. This is why we live constantly in grace.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Have a look at the cover illustration (right) on our order of service this morning.
Something about this image jumps out within the theme of Grace. It caught the eye of the office administrator of my former church: a single daisy with only four thready leaves, growing up through a crack in a concrete sidewalk. When I see it, my first thought is to wonder why Debbie ever noticed it and she says she’s not sure. But then I realize that this image shows grace in action in a simple, subtle way.
Imagine how many times this flower misses being destroyed, never to be seen, never to reach the purpose of its existence. How many inattentive people—barely conscious of their surroundings, lost in thought, fighting fear, oblivious to nature, distracted by their iPods, dreading the demands of work—walked by this spot as this flower is growing? How many of them are superstitious and see only the crack not to step on, but blind to the flower?
From this point of view, the existence of this flower is random chance, and some see the existence of the whole Universe as random chance and further that every event that happens is merely random. I wonder, though, when we bring our view in closer and closer towards our personal lives, our community life and intimate lives—I doubt whether that is how we experience it.
Instead, I think we tend to find thousands of reasons to be glad, to feel comforted and held by who and what is around us, and by what happens to us. When we do, whether we use the word or not, we open ourselves to a state of grace, in which we recognize how much of our lives is simply given to us. Even when we work, fight and struggle, so many positives which come to us, do so without our effort. This is the first form of grace: we see it in the simple fact that a daisy survives to be 6 inches tall in a crack of concrete. I call this ‘random grace.’
But there’s more to see in this remarkable daisy. I mentioned how many disasters don’t happen that would have destroyed this lovely living thing, but there must be many people who see this little flower and offer it a moment of mercy which they probably never think of again. How many passersby alter their step a couple of inches barely thinking about it, but showing in that moment their engagement with and respect for this fragile life? This is grace in a different form: we don’t just experience grace, we offer it as well. Even in some of our tiniest acts, we show that our life is united with other life, whether a flower, a human being, or life itself. Let’s call this ‘casual grace.’
This is far more important than we realize, especially as our communities and indeed our world becomes more complicated. With the thousands of Canadians and immigrants constantly moving into our megalopolis, it’s no wonder that so many feel anonymous here, unrecognized, and surrounded by people who seem detached or cold. A simple act of courtesy tells someone, “I for one am not abandoning you to obscurity or invisibility; I see you and will offer you this moment of connection—but I’ll never think of it again.”
It takes such little effort to make small gestures to strangers that quietly assure all of us that we are in community. In one glance of eyes, there can be a question, permission, gratitude and welcome. Of course, many folks do offer this social reassurance, but if there is one simple thing that we all can do to improve where we live, it’s always to offer strangers simple signs that they are not alone; that we’re in this life together. These offerings of casual grace might disappear from our minds, but they don’t disappear from the world. They ripple out.
Returning to the daisy, there's even another form of grace that we can find in this picture. Imagine how it might lift your day to see this lone, hardy flower showing its face to you some morning. Then, imagine the possibility that one lonely, burdened, perhaps even abandoned person in the depth of despair happens to see this daisy, growing and surviving where it is: how that might offer a tiny pleasure. Or if the daisy seems too flimsy an example, imagine that it represents the grander scale in which someone in interior peril suddenly perceives beauty or meaning within a bleak, anonymous, uncaring view of the world. Imagine the injection of hope or endurance that such a moment might offer. This is ‘saving grace.’
Though we may not know it, we walk around our world with the capacity of offering saving grace. Think of this as the flip side of the mundane and unwitting brutality with which people can thoughtlessly treat each other. If a sharp comment, sideways smile or miniscule flash of contempt can hurt someone, ending the possibility of meaningful connection, then the opposite effect must also be possible. One common point made by those who have near-death experiences is learning that it's the small actions of life that are most important in the end. Such is the power of community and of each one of us in our capacity to offer saving grace.
Many UUs have difficulty with the idea of grace because of how it’s presented in theologies other than our own. Some Christians, for instance, see Grace as an act or blessing of God received through the workings of the Holy Spirit. Further, among those who use the word this way, some feel that only such an experience of God's active grace can assure heavenly salvation. Various religions offer different methods or rituals so that believers can receive grace.
But let us not be deterred by those specific ideas of grace because there is grace within our theology that can act upon us. I first encountered when I was a Bahá’í the idea that divine grace is so necessary that, were it to stop for a moment, all of creation would cease to be. In this view, grace is universal and unselective; grace flows into not just every human being but every atomic particle. Those of us who are humanist could see this grace acting through the laws of physics. And given that physicists give quarks ‘flavours’ like ‘strange’ and ‘charm,’ I've always hoped, if someone ever discovers a Grand Unifying Theory of Everything, that it be named Love or Grace. That would be grandly unifying.
A rational humanist might want to use the word ‘grace’ because it is associated with wonder, awe and gratitude. These feelings are available not only to the religious; in fact, they are essential characteristics of religious humanism, and are part of what people mean who sees themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” We can stand in wonder at what could be called this ‘universal grace.’
Some of us receive mystical grace that doesn’t come with a religious label, or reflect traditional theology. These are far more common among us than many UUs think. One quotation in our Time for Centering this morning says this grace “strikes like a wave of light breaking into our darkness.” It conveys that “you are accepted; you do not need to do anything now; perhaps later.” I love that part.
My most profound moment of grace eighteen years ago gives me a rare sense that I do not have to do anything to deserve grace, and that it has nothing to do with what I’ve done or will do, or what I’ve earned or will promise. My sense of self is altered forever; this is ‘transcendent grace’ which in itself is life-changing. Everyday moments become more meaningful; people we love feel even more precious; people we don’t know become companions in the world, if only for the moment we share a square of cracked sidewalk.
Out of this entirely free, transcendent grace comes my drive to do something in response to it. That’s why I’m here today: expressing profound gratitude for grace by offering ministry. I’m talking about my case now; transcendent grace requires nothing of us, but within us we may yearn to respond. That yearning, which we may not even be aware of, might be what splits the concrete within our beings, opening a crack for transcendence to enter.
If we respond to a moment of transcendent grace with yearning, we open ourselves to ‘transforming grace,’ that which will guide us whenever we remember to turn our sight back to it. It may sound as though ‘transformative’ is superior to ‘transcendent’ but I don’t mean that; simply I think one must precede the other. I also believe we have to become partners with grace in order to transform and that there’s an active, ongoing interaction between willingness and grace.
Sometimes we lose sight of even powerfully transforming grace, but it’s always there to reconnect with; sometimes we are less willing than other times, but, remember: we don’t have to do anything. There may be another time when we will want to. Meanwhile, we always have the grace of others to help, to comfort, to guide and even to pull us.
Random grace. Casual grace. Saving grace. Universal grace. Transcendent grace. Transforming grace. All are here around us and among us. This is why we live constantly in grace.
It is wondrous. It is awesome. It is a gift.
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