River of Grace

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, May 26, 2019.

“’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free, ’tis a gift to come down where you ought to be.” I love that hymn from the Shakers. Several weeks ago my study group, a dozen UU ministers who gather twice a year, traveled to Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire so we could experience directly what they had created there. The Shakers are all gone now, but their spirit still pervades that place, in their buildings, and the furniture they made, and the land they farmed. 

In their work and in their worship, the Shakers knew how to put themselves in the way of grace. Our trip to Canterbury reminded me of what a sacred place looks like and feels like. How I feel better in such a place; it’s like being in church. It certainly has something to do with beauty, and with the care people have taken in a place over the years, and with an attentiveness to the Spirit. And it can happen anywhere.

The Shakers saw their work as a kind of prayer, that was just as deep and important as their traditional praying. They developed a kind of whole-body religion: head and heart and hands working and worshipping together. They had a saying that expressed their spirituality: “hands to work, hearts to God.” And I wonder, have you ever experienced this? When you are fully engaged in something, and you realize how happy and at peace you are, in that moment you are in a state of grace. You may have this experience cooking for those you love, or doing chores, or feeding people at our Community Meals, or working in a garden, or making art. Hands to work, hearts to that fathomless mystery that is all around, if we will only notice. Who among us couldn’t use more of that? 

I’ve loved this month of grace, when we’ve been reflecting on what grace is; where we find it and how we partake of it. I regularly and often experience this community as a place of grace; in the joy and in the hard places too. So many occasions for grace. 

I’m thinking of Sandra’s beautiful sermon last Sunday about her humanist hunt for grace, and I loved what she said about grace being available to everyone, and her idea that grace can take time, and practice and effort; her understanding that grace isn’t dependent on God; that we are here to share and bless one another with grace. Amen and yes to all that! And to the idea from science that she lifted up, that there can be grace in the shift from the more detail- and linear-oriented left brain to the “right brain’s creative, fluid connection to the universe.” And this is where I want to go today, toward that creative, fluid connection to the universe. Because that is certainly one way that I experience grace.

When I am still, when I get beneath the surface of things, I sense we are connected in ways that I can’t fully articulate or understand. That we are part of a great energy, a great Love, a great oneness. As the Universalist minister David Bumbaugh put it, “beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” This is what I want to remind you of today, that we are part of a big and ongoing river of grace, that is flowing through the world and into our lives, our hearts and souls and bodies, inviting us to remember that life is good, and a gift. Inviting us hear the music of the universe and join, joyfully, in the chorus. 

We all go through times of dryness in our lives, times of feeling lost and disconnected. But if you hang in there, if you ask for help, it is from that place of seeming lostness that you can be found, that a new way of being can emerge. This is easier said than done, of course, but when you find yourself in a place of dryness or desolation, try not to despair, because it is in that very place where, eventually, a new source of living water will spring up, often where you least expect it. This is my experience, and my faith: that there is source of goodness flowing like a river, that is there, that is here, to nourish us and bless us, and it will never dry up. And I hope you can trust this too.

Though I have this image of a river in mind, this is not a fishing sermon. But I do have a story with fishing in it, that’s related to the first hymn we sang today, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” There’s a verse that didn’t make it into our hymnal, and a couple of summers ago, on a fishing trip to Yellowstone, that verse became my companion. I was there earlier in the summer than usual, and as life would have it, it had been a particularly snowy winter out there. All that snow takes a while to melt, and it runs off the mountains into the rivers, and this runoff brings a halt to the fishing for over a month in late spring and early summer. When I arrived, the Yellowstone River, my favorite place to fish, was roaring; high, cold, and un-fishable. So I had to look for other rivers. Searching for those waters, hoping to find some fish, I became aware of how fragile it all is; how utterly dependent I am on good fortune, on luck, on grace. Not just in fishing; also in life. And as I walked along those rivers, searching for that mysterious blessing that is bestowed by trout, I starting singing the verse our hymnal left out: “Oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.”

This became my theme song for that trip, and my prayer: “Oh to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.” Because those somewhat adverse conditions forced me to explore new waters, and led me to new and unexpected experiences of beauty and joy and grace.

That’s how life is, right? We like to plan and prepare, we have hopes and expectations, and things seldom work out the way we imagine or plan. Sometimes better than we hoped, and sometimes worse. A funny thing about grace is that it can show up when you least expect it, and sometimes in the most surprising places and disguises. A person you don’t like that much surprises you with kindness. On a day when everything you’re prepared seems to be going wrong, someone tells you how much it all meant to them. For me, one of the blessings of being in community is that my perceptions and judgments are always being challenged, being corrected and updated, by new experiences and new information. Isn’t this a kind of grace? 

When grace comes, it can feel like relief or peace or ease. But grace is not a fair-weather friend. It is especially important and especially needed in the hard times, and that’s when it seems to show up, and when it’s most powerful, like the sun breaking through a hole in the clouds. Could it be that we are more likely to experience grace when we’ve been broken open, because that’s when we’ve let down our guard, and it’s then that grace can find a way in? I’m not saying grace is magic, like rainbows or unicorns, or that bad things always work out okay in the end. No—I just know that there is more to the story than pain and brokenness. There are people who show up and help out, who don’t run away from trouble, and there is a spirit of grace, flowing like a river, all around us. Haven’t you felt it?

Rachel Held Evans was a young woman who got sick and died in the prime of her life. Through her writing, she effectively had a church online, and her courage and generosity of spirit brought grace to people she never got to meet. She showed religious people how to be better humans, encouraging us to get out of our heads and into our lives and relationships. Reflecting on her own life, (in this blog post) she wrote, “The quality I most want to nurture is grace—for myself, for the people around me, and for this planet I call home. I want to be less judgmental and more open. I want to be quicker to forgive myself when I make a mistake. I want to look for the divine under every stone, down every forgotten street, and in every puddle of rain. I want to give others the benefit of the doubt. I want to make more casseroles and give more time.  I want to listen better to those who live differently than me. I want to forgive. I want to let go.  I want to relax a little and let my guard down and not take things quite so seriously. I want grace to move from my head into my heart and my hands, so that I live up to my name.”

In this season, when the grass is green and growing, when birds are singing and building nests, in this season that invites us to say yes to life, can you trust that there is a river of grace flowing in our world? A spirit of love and possibility. In a world that knows too much of pain and brokenness, a spirit of healing and wholeness. 

There is a river, flowing in our souls and in the universe. There is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together. Can you trust that? Let us be open to that river of grace. Which is always there, inviting us to receive its blessing and then, to pass it on. Now and always, this dance of receiving and giving. receiving and giving.