What’s Grace Got to Do With It?

It’s time to rehabilitate grace. You don’t have to believe in God or original sin to experience grace. You can be a humanist, you can be an atheist, you can be someone who doubts everything you hear, and grace is still there for us. It can have a place in our thinking, it can have a place in our living and our loving. Grace provides a pathway out of guilt, fear and shame, and a path into new life and healing.

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on January 11th.  A sermon it is meant to be heard rather than read, and that influences the style of its writing.

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I am wondering this morning what grace means at the end of a week that saw 17 people gunned down by religious extremists in France and the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado. That’s two hate crimes this week, two acts of terror.

I find myself looking for grace, wanting some assurance that under all this chaos, under the violence and the fear, under the grief and anger, under the distrust, there is something bigger than this, something that can’t be shaken even by the most horrendous things that happen in the world and in our own lives. I’m looking for something that is stronger and more beautiful and more resilient than the things that create such damage. I’m looking for grace.

This month our worship theme is grace. The grace we receive, the grace we offer, the grace that happens. What is grace?   Where does it come from?   What does it mean?

If you were raised Christian, and I was, many of us received an understanding of grace that we grew uncomfortable with. This understanding of grace is couched in the theology of original sin and it goes something like this:

Way back when the world was created, we humans were created pure and unblemished, placed in the Garden of Eden. However, Adam and Eve could not resist the temptations of the serpent and bit into that apple. Their whole perspective changed and for the first time they felt fear and shame. God figured this out pretty quickly and banished them from the Garden of Eden. Their punishment was that human life would now mean suffering. All of humanity was now stained with that original sin of Adam and Eve and our life would be hard because of it. But, God never stopped wanting us to have more than that. He sent his son Jesus to come and be with us and teach us a new way to live.   God then decided to put all the sin of the world on his son and let him be killed. Our sins were killed with him. This would save us from that original sin of Adam and Eve and give us new life. God’s grace is that we are saved not by our own actions but rather by his generosity. Grace is something we have been given, something that we do not deserve and could not earn.

Many of us turned away from this understanding of grace because we just couldn’t buy into the assumption that to be human should mean to suffer, or that every human carried an original sin. It seemed only to create guilt and fear and shame. It was hard for us to imagine that humanity is beyond redemption, or that a tiny baby could be born with sin.

The sad thing is, that the way we many of us learned to look at grace actually kept us from it. I don’t think that you can get to grace through shame and fear and guilt. These feelings blind us and they imprison us. They put up a wall between us and the grace that is always there for us.

I think it’s time to rehabilitate grace. You don’t have to believe in God or original sin to experience grace. You can be a humanist, you can be an atheist, you can be someone who doubts everything you hear, and grace is still there for us. It can have a place in our thinking, it can have a place in our living and our loving. Grace provides a pathway out of guilt and fear and shame and into new life and healing.

Our children’s story this morning, The Great Ibex, gives us a different paradigm for grace. When the Ibex leaps over that chasm and sees the king thrown off his horse, there is no sense that the king is in this predicament because he deserves it, that some kind of divine justice has happened. Instead, the Ibex’s heart softens. A man is suffering and will surely die if he does not turn around. Grace happens because the Ibex sees the king’s humanity and is moved by it.

It doesn’t stop there. Grace continues because the King is also changed. What I find most interesting is the King’s first response when he sees the Ibex. “I’m a beast!” he says, echoing the kind of shame and guilt that many of us were taught to express in the face of grace. The Ibex doesn’t go for it.  He invites the King onto his back and gets him out of danger.

There are two things about this story that I want to hold up here.

First, when King asks him what he can do in return, the Ibex says, “Stop killing for sport. Don’t use our lives for your amusement.”  The Ibex asked the King to change his life because of the grace he had experienced.

Second, notice that the Ibex didn’t ask the king for anything before he saved him. He could have used the king’s life as a bargaining chip. “I’ll save you if you do this for me.” He didn’t use the king’s disadvantage for his own well being. I doubt that the Ibex would have asked for anything if the King had not offered. He simply would have saved the King because it was the right thing to do. He saved the King with no demands, and only asked the King for what we wanted after the king offered.

There is so much grace in this story: the Ibex, who turned around and offers the King life-saving help with nothing asked in return; and, the King, who accepts the gift. We can use this story as a way to anchor grace in every part of our lives and to save ourselves from some of the ways we are taught to look at each other.

I was reading an article some time ago about changing trends in the ways we understand our relationships with other people. This author, and I wish I could remember her name, remarked that it seemed to her that people determine each other’s worth by how it helps us advance our own agenda. This isn’t new. People have been doing this forever, but she has seen a marked change, in that this is becoming the primary way we have started viewing each other and measuring each other’s worth, by how it benefits us personally. This is a modus operandi not only in our business lives, but increasingly in our personal lives.

I see this happening for us at this time for two reasons. There are probably more, but two come to mind.

Firstly, we see in American society the kind of fragmentation of community and family in a way never seen before.   Most of us live far from our families and many of us have uprooted many times, leaving behind friendships and community. When I was young, I had this feeling that life was infinite, that if I moved on, or someone moved on, there would always be someone to replace them. I don’t feel that way anymore. You cannot simply replace people. There is always something lost that you cannot simply find in a new person. I think that in our highly mobile society there is always some part of ourselves that is grieving, either because we have left or someone has left us. One of the normal responses to that continuous loss is to protect ourselves by holding back from each other’s humanity. That makes it much easier to see people only in terms of what they can offer us.

Another reason is because corporate values have gained the status of religious values in modern American society. The corporate world has gain such hegemonic power that we begin to see all of life through a corporate lens. All of you know that in the corporate world your sole value to the organization you work for is how you benefit that organization. It’s what you do not who you are. That makes sense when there is a bottom line! We all know that all those glossy mission statements and personnel initiatives are really about improving your performance for the well being of the corporation you work for. And that’s o.k. The problem is that by giving that value system such power, almost sacred power, we are carrying those assumptions into our private lives and seeing each other the same way we are seen in our work lives.

My concern is that this represents a decline in the experience of life itself. When you see a person only as a tool for your own path, and when you are seen as a tool by others, the result is a gradual dehumanization.   Instead of seeing the beauty and complexity of human life, we see a myriad of competing agendas whose value is measured only by whether it advances our agenda or stands in the way of it.

We assume everyone has an agenda. When that happens, life becomes a series of power struggles.   There is always reason to distrust. There is always reason to be afraid and cautious, to worry about what lies around the next bend in the road. Everything becomes competitive. I have no problem with competitiveness when it helps us to excel. I am a highly competitive person myself. I also know that there are times when we cross the line and competitiveness no longer becomes about being our best self, but about a ceaseless jockeying for position and power.

When you think about it, what happened in Paris this week and what happened in Colorado are extreme versions of this same dynamic – where people are dehumanized, seen only as chess pieces in a game.   These acts of terror were designed to steal life for the purposes of a larger agenda.

It’s very tempting when something horrible like this happens to demonize those who commit these horrendous acts, to make them as unlike us as possible. I see it a bit differently.   These acts of terror are at the extreme end of a continuum that has changed all of us, where we value people primarily by how they benefit us. Most of us would not consciously take this constant jockeying for power to the place where it includes intentional loss of life. But, I would say we lose our lives in all kinds of ways beyond physical death when we live this way. Seeing others primarily as chess pieces in our own game is a kind of death, for us and for them.   It’s also true that some of the deep systems that shape our world – economic systems, political systems, religious systems, environmental systems – systems that we participate in, are like a massive chess game that ends up in loss of life and loss of hope and possibility.

How can you receive grace when you’re always wondering what the person offering it really wants? How can you offer grace when you’re already planning how it will benefit you?

True grace is when we set aside our agendas, when we let go of the ceaseless search for more power and be in another’s presence, open to the fullness of their spirit and how we might be changed by it. In my opinion, the most effective resistance to acts of terror is to refuse to continue the terror in the way we treat others. Acts of terror are meant to make us respond to life with fear. When we respond to acts of terror with fear-based decisions, the terrorist has won. We have finished the job for them.

Grace happens when we set aside fear and when we set aside the game that values people only for what they can do for us. It’s not an easy thing to do. We are trained to be afraid, trained to distrust. Can you imagine what it took for the Ibex to stop running? He knew he was safe. He had outrun the King and his horse. Why not just keep going?

Imagine this. Imagine that the Ibex kept running and that the King somehow managed to get out of the forest. The King might have gone home frustrated at his unsuccessful hunt, and probably come back out again as soon as his health permitted. The Ibex could very well have found himself once again the object of the king’s pursuit, and maybe this time he wouldn’t have made it. He might have fallen to the cycle of the hunt. Because the Ibex turned around and faced the person who was his enemy, the cycle was broken. The hunt stopped. The Ibex and the King saw each other’s mutual value and broke the pattern.

This is grace.

Theologian Paul Tillich writes that,  “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. …. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.”

Grace breaks the pattern of dehumanization that we are part of.   Each of us is the Ibex, running from an enemy. Each of us is also the King, chasing the object of our desires. Grace happens when we stop running and when we stop chasing. Imagine what life would be like if the hunt stopped?

What hunt needs to stop in your own life? One of the things that drew me into Unitarian Universalism, perhaps it drew you as well, is that I saw in this faith tradition a way out of some of the cycles in my life that kept me from accepting grace. I was hunter and hunted and I was so tired. I wanted to journey with people who lived a different way. Our whole approach to life is to release to grace, to trust that when you withdraw from that power struggle, life isn’t going to crash in. Instead we are free, liberated. This is how we channel the human spirit. This is how we manifest the holy.

This week, I would invite you to spend some time reflecting on where in your life you struggle the most. What you running from?   What are you pursuing? What would happen if you stopped running? What would happen if you stopped the pursuit? Is it possible that grace is waiting for you?

May the spirit of life, the spirit that frees and liberates, be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.

copyright of Rev. Krista Taves.

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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