Nestled up a bit in the valley is a house. It is like a lot of houses. It has walls, and windows, and doors. I know things about the house, things a lot of other people don’t. On quiet days, mostly on Mondays, doves roost and coo together in pairs on the lawn. There is nothing quite like disturbing a dozen doves canoodling. Other birds have made their home there, have raised their children there, right where the gutter meets the drain outside the office window. Their contributions to conversations on the phone or on videoconference make everybody on the other end of the line…really, really jealous. Golden plovers shimmer and shine, while gathering what they need to feed their families. At night, the front lawn and the ramp to the lot are overrun…slowly…very slowly…by snails. Giant ones. Still, sleepless nights are kept company by a heavenly host of stars there. And the crescent moon spreads wide its Cheshire-Cat grin, almost like a knowing brother, awaiting the golden morning, when mist will catch the rainbows cast wide and perfect by sister sun. Many people will live an entire life and never see a house like this house. Nestled up a bit in the valley.
Of course, I’m talking about the house next door to this house. I mean, explaining this to you now, I can see how you might have thought I was talking about this house, but I’m really talking about our neighbor’s house. It’s really something to see.
All joking aside, today is Earth Day. It’s not exactly the kind of holiday we’re used to celebrating here in the U.S. Not being entirely sure the best way to celebrate this holiday even though it’s been around since 1970, I did what I imagine a lot of us did: stopped over to Walgreens, searched and searched for the Earth Day section in the card aisle. Funniest thing, though. Couldn’t find the section. Did any of you?
There was the Nurses Day section, and rightfully so. The kindness and care that the nursing profession offers each one of us is worthy of a lot. And a card is a good start. We would also find cards for the fast approaching Administrative Professionals Day. We can all agree here that recognition and gratitude to our own administrator, Suzette, is worthy of a card. But among all of the cards, there were none for Earth Day.
Marie led us in a time of sharing of the blessings we’ve received from this earth. Something seemed entirely right about that. It seemed like the right way to acknowledge this day for so many of us. And wouldn’t it make more sense than a card?
It’s hard to imagine a Spirit of the Earth hoping that we might cut down a tree, grind it to a pulp, add chemicals to the pulp, then dry it out, put that piece of dried pulp into another, specially folded piece of dried tree pulp, and then put the letter in a box where a truck, run on fossil fuels extracted from the Earth would pick up the letter, deliver it somewhere, and then someday in the coming weeks, another truck, also run on fossil fuels, will pick up this piece of pulp that was discarded, so that it can reside somewhere back in the earth, maybe in a landfill, or perhaps in the atmosphere, burned along with other discarded goods. Yes, something tells me that these are not the ways we are called to celebrate or to remember Earth Day this year, or any year. So let us rejoice that there is no Earth Day section at our local Walgreens, shall we?
When we shared with one another the blessing the earth has been to each one of us we are reminded of something important, something we talk about every time new members join our congregation. It’s the notion that a blessing is only a blessing when it is shared. By listening aloud to what others feel blessed by, we offer the gift of listening while receiving the gift of hearing. And the warmth and understanding that comes with the blessing of sharing like this reminds us that there is more to remembering a day like this than a card in the mail.
Experiences we treasure the most are not experiences that arrive in the mail. The things that mean the most are experiences that arrive unbidden, that arrive unasked-for. And there is a word for receiving a blessing, a gift, an experience, especially with others, that was unbidden or unasked-for. And that word is grace.
Now, grace is one of those words, right? It’s one of those words some of us, probably a lot of us here, well, we’ve got a little history with it, right? Some of us might hear the word “grace” and think of sitting at the dinner table, and being thankful or “these thy gifts.” Others of us might have a slightly more painful recollection of grace as a word that represents a hope, a hope that we will be saved from a time of eternal trial, something that only the force saving us from that trial can grant. That’s a hard way for many of us to think about grace, even still.
And some of us might not have any reaction at all. It’s just another word, which in some ways is the best of all—a nice clean slate. But whatever occurs, there are reactions to that word, grace. Maybe right in our bodies, right in this place, when we heard the word grace, some people’s minds just snapped shut. Or you wondered, “Where are we going with this? Is he gonna finally out himself as the closet evangelist I feared he was?” Well, yes. But not like you might be thinking.
See, there are ministers in our tradition who are making a life’s work of trying to reclaim some of the religious words that were taken and held hostage by some of our colleagues in other traditions. And I applaud their efforts. That is important, rehabilitative work. But frankly, getting into what other religious groups think grace is isn’t interesting in the slightest. And there is a reason for that.
It’s not because there is some simple, clearly defined definition of grace that those groups are missing…even though there is.
It’s not because there is some great body of theological writing that sorts through this thorny theological issue and supports an open and affirming view of grace…even though there is.
And it’s not even that there is some Unitarian Universalist alternate meaning for grace that sidesteps some of these questions…even though there is.
No. It’s a lot simpler than that. There is a very simple solution to the trouble others like to make around the word grace. Because whenever the word Grace is spoken in my presence I cannot see anything other than the one-minute sequence in Rear Window, the classic film by Alfred Hitchcock, when Grace Kelly enters Jimmy Stewart’s apartment. Laugh if you want, but Grace Kelly is no laughing matter.
Her face appears in the shot, framed with a scarf, and as she moves closer to kiss Jimmy Stewart hello, her profile eclipses Jimmy Stewart’s face, like the earth passing in front of the sun, and then she moves through the apartment as if carried by little invisible birds from place to place, until she fulfils all that anyone could ever know of grace. So if you are struggling with the concept of grace, you’re welcome. You may have a new definition for the cost of a video rental.
Now, because not everyone has the gift of distraction I have, there are some other ways to think about grace, that which we receive that is unbidden or unasked-for. And some of them are a little closer to home that a movie filmed in 1954.
Grace comes in any number of forms, really, if you know where to look. Let’s just take a few, shall we?
38, that is the number of people from our own community and throughout our surrounding community who came together this year for an entire weekend of Jubilee training with Paula Cole-Jones. That was a good number.
21, that is the number of people who have “signed the book” and become members of this community in the past year.
3, that is the number of organizations whose missions to address homelessness, to counter racism and oppression, and to seek humane solutions to criminal justice reform, all missions in concert with our own, we have supported with our shared plate offerings.
2, that is the number of parades we marched in together, sharing a message of unquestioning love and compassion, set to music, to all who see us.
2, that is the number of times our pop-up choir has taken part in worship, enlivening the beautiful community of music makers here among us.
1, that is the number of congregations who had adopted the 8th Principle, answering the call to take discernable steps toward dismantling systems of oppression in our world, before this congregation decided to adopt it.
In these walls, in the streets, in your hearts, the work you believe is important, the work you want to see in the world, the work it takes to change this world into somewhere compassion grows, somewhere justice thrives, somewhere joy rings out anew, that work is getting done. And getting done right.
And here’s the thing. No matter how many committees, teams, working groups, boards, councils, or task forces we sit on, no matter how much we might hope it to be true, none, none of these things were accomplished alone. Not one of us here made all these things happen, right? I know for some of you it feels like that’s the case sometimes. But already, there is more happening here in our community than any one person could possibly do alone.
All of these blessings come from sharing with one another. So that what we are receiving, what we are getting, in response to those who made Jubilee possible, in response to the remarkable people who organize an entire demonstration against gun violence, in response to you precious hopeful souls to inscribed your name in the history of this congregation, what we are getting, is the shared blessing that we could never have received alone, for which we would never have known to ask, for which we would never have known to bid come into our lives. It doesn’t work like that—grace. No.
It just happens. It just comes. It just arrives. That is how grace enters upon the scene. Like the sure motion of the earth on the tides with a beauty that is truly indescribable, no matter how much our words strain to name it, they fall short. And so, we call it grace.
After the service today, something new is going to happen. We are going to sing Hawaii Aloha, that is not the new part. But after we sing together, there will be ten people around the church. They are there because our annual pledge drive begins…well…right now. So these ten people, people you’ll likely recognize, will each have ten of these (a pledge form). For those of you who have no idea what these are, and for those of you who think you have an idea of what these are, and for anyone else who is just curious, some people around call these “pledge forms.” The implication by that name is that you will fill them out and pledge a certain amount of money to your community here. And that is one way to think of it. It’s a totally practical and useful way to think of it, actually.
But consider for a moment, whether these are not so much forms for you to make a pledge to your community, but whether these are ways of showing gratitude for the pledges made by your community to you on a daily, on an hourly, on a second-by-second basis, the pledge your Board of Directors makes to prudently and wisely guide our community, the pledge these volunteer musicians make every Sunday to bring joy into your hearts, the pledge the hospitality team makes to be sure there is coffee to converse over, the Building and Grounds team makes to keep this building running, the RE team makes to care for the children of our community, the Worship Team makes to enliven your spirit, the pledge I make to speak words of love and understanding, the pledge I made this past week to stay with you, this congregation I love, for another year.
And there are so many more pledges people make to one another here. Because it is the pledge every person makes here, here in the only Unitarian Universalist fellowship on these islands with a place to call home, to take one another’s hands every week and sing out against a hurting world so that we can know some part of love.
Yeah, these are pledge forms.
Yeah, they support all of these things that you’ve come to love and expect about this community we share.
But they are also something more.
How we choose to dream together, not only of what has been, what we know and love, but how we choose to dream together of what might be, what we can’t in this moment possibly conceive of, what might give us all a chance to offer our neighbors, our friends, our beloved family here, something beautiful, something sacred, something we have never known before, something unbidden, something unasked-for. That is also what these are asking you to consider. Because the finest, the most outstanding parts of any life, are always, always, those parts, those moments, those gifts, which don’t arrive in the usual ways, by truck or by mail, but rather they appear, maybe suddenly, maybe over time, but the appear in ways we cannot fully imagine, and stay with us forever.
See…there is a home. It’s nestled up a bit in the valley. It is not like any other home I know. The people there are different than people in other places. Somehow the things we do in this life matter there. They teach their children to love all the children of the earth there, even when loving some of the earth’s children is hard. They talk about all kinds of things there—science, psychology, religion, music, popular music—but somehow, everything they talk about ends up being about loving each other a little better every day.
There are people there who seem to work day and night to make a place where the broken hearted, the scared, and the lonely will find peace, and calm, and comfort. Breezes blow through that home, and they carry the hopes of so many who may one day know the home we have found here. There are many houses like it, but there is no other home like it on earth.
No one there knows for sure what’s coming, but that’s OK. Hope lives there.
No one there believes in anything exactly the same way, but that’s OK, too. Faith still lives there.
And no one there can glimpse fully all of the new blessings each new person they meet might share with them, and that’s OK. That’s what we’re counting on. That’s why grace lives there, too, nestled up in the valley a bit, where our heart is, at home.
And may it ever be so.