I fell down a lot when I was a kid, so many times that I can’t count them. I always had skinned and scabby knees. All kids fall a fair amount I suppose, my own children certainly took some tumbles. I may have fallen more than is usual, however, as I had polio when I was just a year old, and my legs are a bit uneven which can throw my coordination off. It was hard to learn to skip, and I never learned to skate. I am just not physically graceful.
As adult I have only had three falls that were at all serious, which is really quite miraculous.
Once was just this last Sunday, thankfully just after and not just before I lead my first worship service at a new church. There is a step in the back of the chancel that was not yet embedded in my memory. While I was putting my things together before heading to the social hour, I tripped on that step, and down I went. No major damage, but my shoulder is still sore from where I landed. The first service at a new church is a big deal.
The time before was in my driveway in Ogden, Utah. I was on my way to the church where I was to lead worship for the congregation and for the attendees of our district assembly. There were Unitarian Universalists from all over the western states, and the sanctuary was packed. It was very big deal to be leading worship for that gathering. I preached that day with a black eye and a scab on my chin. I also damaged one of my knees in that fall, a knee that still gives me some trouble.
The first time I took a big fall as an adult was after going out to Thai food with an old and very dear friend. We left the restaurant and crossed the street on our way to the car. The pavement was uneven, and I tripped and my face landed on the curb. I broke my glasses that time. The next day I got on a plane to DC for my very first meeting with the then Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Kenneth Apfel. The meeting was an extremely big deal, something the organization I worked with had put a lot of effort into setting up. I met him with a black eye, taped-up glasses, and a few scabs on my face.
I don’t fall often, obviously, partly as I tend to be fairly careful knowing how clumsy I can be. I do trip a lot. But it seems my serious falls have all been at times where something significant is happening. It is likely just a random coincidence. I don’t always fall down at momentous occasions. I might have stumbled a bit at my wedding, but I definitely did not fall to the ground.
We can draw some meaning even from random events, if we want to do so.
These three falls of mine all happened around events that were highlights of my professional careers, moments that I felt both lucky and honored to have experienced. Moments of grace, if you will.
We can’t all be graceful, but our lives really can be full of grace.
How’s that for finding an accidental blessing?
The worship theme for today is “serve with grace.” What does that mean? Is anyone here named Grace? If so, she must be amazing if everyone wants to serve with her.
OK, that was a really bad joke. Not my fault. Someone told it earlier this week and I just couldn’t get it out of my head. Now I have passed it on to you. Can we get rid of it together? Take a breath, let it out, and let’s start over. Whew!
Grace is a “what” and not a “who”. You knew that, right?
But do you know what grace is? There are a couple of popular definitions. One is simple elegance. “Oh, that dancer moves with such grace.” Or, I could be really “graceful” if I weren’t so clumsy. One can also use the term to mean do honor to, as in “thank you for gracing us with your presence.”
Both of those definitions apply today. We hope our board members and religious exploration teachers will serve with grace, that they will perform their tasks on behalf of the congregation with a measure of grace and that their efforts will not be too terribly clumsy. They also honor us by agreeing to serve.
There is also a theological definition of grace, which is the one we are going to spend a little more time on today. We are, after all, a church, and theology is our business.
The tradition Christian definition of grace is “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.”
When we say “grace” before a meal, we are thanking God for the blessing of the food that we have been given. One of the roots of the word grace is gratitude.
So, according to that definition, grace is unearned. Sinners are saved by the grace of God, not by anything they do or don’t do. Of course, as in virtually every theological issue, there are many different perspectives on what that means. There have been huge, painful, and sometimes bloody arguments, over the issue of how someone is saved. Is it all up to God? Is it salvation by grace? Or is it based upon what you do, how you live your life? That would be salvation by works. There is a third possibility that is popular mainly among more conservative Christians. That is salvation by belief. If you believe certain things, then you will be saved. If you don’t, you will go to hell.
Because of the openness of our Unitarian Universalist faith, where we actually encourage doubts and diversity of beliefs, that third definition of salvation really doesn’t work for most of us.
We aren’t going to dig very deep today into what salvation might mean to us, but briefly salvation doesn’t have to mean a place in heaven. It can simply be the ability to lead a worthwhile and meaningful life. A belief in an afterlife is not required.
Historically, the Unitarian half of our tradition has been heavily into salvation by works. If you do good things and serve others, you save not only yourself, but you also help to save the world. The Universalists, on the other hand, stressed that God loves us all, no matter what we do or what we believe. We are all worthy and we are all saved.
I think the phrase, “serve with grace,” rather nicely brings both of those ideas together. Yes, it is important to serve others, but a measure of grace is also critical.
The theologian Paul Tillich had this to say about grace.
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.”
Have any of you ever felt like that? It is the cold dark night of the soul that many speak of. It is what brings some people to church.
Tillich goes on:
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.”
So grace in the theological sense is a deep sense of not just self-acceptance, but of knowing we are accepted by something larger than ourselves. We are acceptable. There is a prayer I say to myself sometimes before worship. It goes, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.”
It is a prayer that asks for grace.
I think grace happens. I think it happens here. Maybe not every Sunday, and maybe not for everyone, but it happens. I have felt it. I have felt it in myself when delivering a sermon that when I finished writing it felt dull and just not very good. But then something happens. More words come to me, and I say some things that I hadn’t written down. I skip over entire paragraphs, and somehow there is a magical connection. You seem to hear what I really meant to say. Some of you hear words I don’t even speak. You hear what you need to hear in that moment and we experience together a moment of grace. Grace also happens sometimes when I go through the list of who is welcome, which is everybody. Some of you have felt those words in a way that you have been hungering for. Yes, we welcome you. No matter who you are, what you believe, and what you have done or haven’t done.
This church community offers that holy blessing, that grace to everyone who comes through our doors. Or at least we try. It is our intention and our practice, but sometimes we fail.
We want our leaders to serve with grace in the sense that as we welcome their leadership, we also accept them as they are.
We know that they are imperfect humans beings who will do the best they can, but sometimes they will, as we all do, fall short.
I have explained before that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, not a creedal one. It is about promises to do things, not adherence to a set of particular beliefs. You might have noticed that in the covenants we recited earlier, the board members and teachers promised to “do their best.” We need to leave some room for grace to happen. We break our covenants with each other frequently, but then, we go back to them and try again.
Two more quotes about grace.
The Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones, a Unitarian Universalist Minister had this to say:
“For me, grace is, first and foremost, this spiritual experience. It’s that “unexpected gift,” tangible or intangible, that comes from a flesh-and-blood friend or stranger. It’s that mysterious in-breaking of wonder and thankfulness that frees our spirits from despair. It’s those times when something goes unexpectedly right just when everything seems to be going wrong”
And my friend the Rev. Fred Muir, who was also my internship supervisor says, “Grace happens, if you’ll reach out and take it. Hence the mystery that makes grace amazing: while on the one hand you can’t do anything to force grace because grace happens, at the same time if you don’t create the opportunity, if you’re not open to it, if you’re not willing to receive it, then there won’t be grace.”
So we are back to amazing grace. My wish for all of you, for our board of trustees and our teachers, but also for the rest of you, is that you will serve with grace. Create the opportunities in your life where grace can happen. Feel its approach and let it in. Whatever is happening in your life right now, know that you are worthy; that you are good enough and that your best is absolutely terrific. Feel the spirit that loves you, whether you image that as God or simply as the power to do good that we all have within us. Let that spirit in. Serve what calls you. Do what is meant for you to do. Do it with grace and with joy.
How narrow is the gauge
Of the tracks you’re riding on?
How steep the grade
How long the journey?
Are you the engineer
Opening the throttle?
Shall you drive
The bullet train?
Maybe ride instead
The lone caboose
With a view of where
If you take the sleeper car
You’ll be surprised
At the journey’s end
I think I can
I think we can
Leave the tracks behind
Forge a path
Among the trees
Stand silent by a stream
The highway gleams
The whistle blows
The river winds its way
Beneath it all
The earth still turns
Among the stars
Riding the rails of grace
Through the universe