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Undeserved Necessity – 5/12/2013

Back in 1950, the choir of the West Side Baptist Church in Beatrice, NE met on Wednesday evenings. Practice was scheduled to begin at 7:20. Some folks made it a habit to get there early, some tended to arrive right on time, a few might come straggling in late, but the warm-ups and the singing did, in fact, dependably begin by 7:25, each evening. So it was that on March 1st, 1950, Rev. Walter Klempel made sure to light the furnace at the church in order to keep out the late winter cold. At 7:27 that evening, that lit furnace ignited a natural gas leak from a pipe running underneath the street outside the church building. There was a fantastic explosion. The walls blew out, the roof caved in, and the steeple flew through the air and landed in the street some distance away. The combustion left the building a smoking ruin.

But choir member Lucille Jones was caught up in a radio program that wouldn’t end until 7:30 that night. Her friend Dorothy Wood waited for her, and so neither of them were there. Sadie and Royena Estes had a car that wouldn’t start. High school student Ladona Vandergrift was delayed by her geometry homework, which kept her from picking up the Estes sisters and from being on time herself. The choir director’s daughter who played piano for the rehearsal fell asleep after dinner and woke up late, keeping them both away from the church. Pastor Klempel had gone home for dinner and planned to bring his whole family back to the church with him, but when his daughter need a new dress after dinner, they were all delayed by the ironing of it. And Joyce Black dawdled at home because it was cold out that night and she didn’t relish even walking across the street from her house to the church, which exploded just as she opened her door. Of the more than fifteen people who were planning and expected to be in the West Side Baptist Church the night it exploded, all of them were somewhere else instead. There was terrible destruction, but no injury or loss of life.

The common religious interpretation of this story, including the one held by the West Side congregation itself, which rebuilt and still exists, is that this was a miraculous act of divine mercy. My message this morning is the final installment of a series of sermons offering some possible definitions of religious terms that are important to our tradition. The particular subject is grace – a word sometimes used to describe circumstances like the very happy delaying of those choir members in Beatrice, NE.[i]

In a number of religious systems, and in Christianity in particular, grace is an idea about which there is a strong consensus at the general level, and major disagreement at the level of specifics. So that the terms justifying, sanctifying and prevenient grace all have particular, sometimes disputed meanings. I won’t get into those meanings right now; they will not be questions on the final exam this morning, nor do I expect them to appear on the far grander, cosmic one which follows for us all. But the general meaning of grace is the mercy, gift, or favor of God, particularly something that saves or protects people from dangers both physical and spiritual. In the biblical story of the flood, the warning to Noah and the instructions to build an ark and save the animals and his family have been considered an example of grace. In Christian teaching, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of a happy afterlife are chief expressions of grace. The traditional teaching also holds that grace is something that cannot be earned or deserved: it is a gift, and not a right.

The one special type of grace I

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will talk about here is called “irresistible grace.” This is the doctrine that human beings are so innately bad that they are incapable of even wishing to be good, but that God chooses a select few and makes them so. This is tied up with the insidious idea, which is still abroad in the world today, that all observable circumstances are an expression of divine will. So people who are rich are rich because God wants them to be, and people who suffer, suffer because God desires it. People deserve only suffering and pain, and it is only God’s intervention that causes any other sort of fate. These ideas are important to us as Unitarian Universalists because of how loudly and emphatically we have opposed them.

Our tradition affirms a long list of things that all people deserve: justice, compassion, love; food, shelter, safety; freedom of conscience, and a voice in decisions that affect them. Anyone who lives in this world discovers quickly, however, that these things do not fall equally and automatically to all people. There are a great many things that all of us deserve but only some of us receive. So we and our ancestors have found it essential to the work of religion to struggle in the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. To try to meet the basic physical and spiritual needs of ourselves and others, and to identify and challenge the structures and systems that caused those needs to go unmet to begin with. This is why we answered doctrines of innate human depravity with hope in the capacities of the human soul, why we countered eternal damnation with universal salvation, and why Unitarians and Universalists have played major roles in movements against slavery, heterosexism, economic injustice and religious intolerance in North America and Europe. Our belief that the work of religion is to serve human need is also the motive behind our free supper program here at First Parish, and our determination, in the face of more than a few challenges, to serve as a temporary overnight shelter for homeless families in the Family Promise program. All people deserve to have such basic needs met.

But there is still at least one great gift that all of us need but which I believe none of us can be said to have earned: the gift of being alive. Before I existed, I had no merit to argue from. It might be said that a life that isn’t alive yet is a morally clean slate, but then I was no cleaner than any of the uncountable other people who might have existed instead of me. It is a staggering privilege to be, not just because of the grandeur of the world and the wonder of existence, but because there are only so many human beings who have or ever will exist – yet there are an infinite number of people who might have existed, if things had unfolded just a little bit differently. The you who was born in June instead of May, or in Cincinnati instead of Cleveland. The you who was born with a different hair color, different gender, different body type, or different set of parents. An impossible number of yous were possible; only one of you happened. And the one of you that happened is phenomenally lucky to have happened.

Which brings me to the definition of grace I want to offer you this morning: grace is luck redeemed by the purpose we put it to. It’s a fairly common idea that the seemingly disconnected events of reality are part of some vast and inscrutable plan. Simply put, that everything happens for a reason, a part of a larger, higher cause. I believe that evidence does not bear this out – that for every church choir spared from a natural gas explosion, there are catalogs of tragedies both horrible and horribly mundane in which people no less holy, lives no less precious, were lost to something equally arbitrary. Still, I cannot claim to know what is unknowable, and nor can anyone else. That leaves us in a world where things happen either without a larger cosmic purpose or without any knowable one. So instead of trying to find the hidden sacred reason for some great sorrow or joy which befalls us, our work is to find the best purpose to which that joy or sorrow can be put. This applies equally to winning the lottery, breaking your neck, getting divorced, becoming pregnant, or losing the Super Bowl. Something in your life has changed. How your life proceeds is never fully in your control, but you can choose its direction some, and the direction towards which you bend your life can grant some meaning, after the fact, to whatever changed it.

In the Hindu tradition, the great philosopher Ramanuja drew a line between what he called “cat grace” and “monkey grace.” A mother cat, when she sees that her child is in danger – or when she sees the same child doing something she does not think he should be doing – picks the kitten up by the scruff of the neck. She simply moves him to where she wants him to go, and his best contribution to her effort is to simply not resist. A mother monkey, on the other hand, carries and cares for her child, but needs the child’s cooperation: the baby monkey must cling to her mother.[ii] Grace is a fluid, unpredictable force, but opening ourselves to it sometimes means submission and sometimes means actively grabbing a hold. In the wake of hardship, some way forward might present itself easily: a loved one dies and we devote our energies to helping work against their illness, or to comforting other people in grief or pain. Something like this does not restore the dead or make senseless things sensible, but it is a light in the shadow.

Then, sometimes our expectations are turned on their heads. There is a legend of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and his travels with the prophet Elijah. One night they were guests of an elderly couple who were so poor their only valued possession was a single cow. They were kind and generous with their hospitality, but after the visitors left, Rabbi Joshua heard the prophet praying that their cow should die. The two next stayed with a wealthy man who treated them poorly and did not offer them even a crust of bread. When they were back on the road, Rabbi Joshua heard Elijah pray that a dangerous crack in the wall of the man’s house should be repaired. They came to a town where the people refused to welcome or greet them, yet as they left, Elijah blessed them with the wish that they all should become leaders in their village. Then they entered a town where the people were warm and kind and shared all that they had. As they left, Elijah pronounced his hope that only one of them should ever become a leader. Finally, Rabbi Joshua couldn’t take it any longer, and asked the prophet why he had done these things, returned good with evil and evil with good. Elijah explained that he only prayed for the cow to die in place of the old woman, so that she and her husband would have more time together. The crack in the wall held a great treasure hidden behind it; Elijah had prayed that it be sealed so the unkind owner of the house would not gain more riches to hoard. The pronouncement on the unwelcoming town was not a blessing, but a curse: when everyone believes they ought to be the leader, no one thinks of or listens to anyone but themselves. And the wish for the welcoming town had been genuine: it is better to have a single leader, who takes seriously their responsibility, and whom the people can trust.[iii] Just like Rabbi Joshua, we cannot know everything that will come from a single event: good can follow evil, and what seems a blessing can also bring a curse.

So much has already been said by so many, myself included, about the response to the recent bombings in Boston. About the random circumstances that put some in harm’s way and others in unique positions to act with courage and to save lives. Among these many stories are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have come to Boston to visit with amputees, give them advice on life with a prosthesis, and offer encouragement as fellow members of a relatively small club. It would be presumptuous and insulting to say that one person’s deep loss was meant to equip them to help another person endure a similar fate. We can find great lessons in our suffering but there are always other ways to learn. As a thing unto itself, suffering is fundamentally purposeless. How we respond to suffering, on the other hand, can be profoundly purposeful.

Voltaire’s famous character Candide is a young optimist who endures a series of great misfortunes and misadventures. At the close of his story, Candide’s mentor Pangloss recounts these events; some bizarre and improbable, most sorrowful and unpleasant. Yet, Pangloss insists that they live in the best of all possible worlds, for if any of these terrible things had not befallen Candide, he would not have found his way to the relative peace and happiness of a quiet farming life. “Well observed,” replied Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.” We cannot control the whole world. We cannot fully know the world, in its boundless complexity. Even to judge the world, vast as it is, is a questionable undertaking for our limited selves. But we can affect the piece of time and existence in which we find ourselves. Fortunes fair and foul may buffet us – but let us cultivate our gardens.

We had no right to expect to live before we lived. We each come to reach this moment by some combination of luck, mercy, hard work, and the generosity of others, including the women who bore us in their bodies. Our lives, and all lives, depend upon such undeserved necessity. Even in a world where there is as much to mourn as to praise, our good fortune to simply be in it should move us to give meaning to that luck, by seeking to make the world we share a more just and compassionate place.

[ii] Fred Clothey, Religion in India: An Historical Introduction

[iii] From the Pesikta Rabbati


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