Undeserved Abundance (and Hardship)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you ever seen
In your life
Than the way the sun
Relaxed and easy,
Floats toward the horizon
And into the clouds or the hills,
Or the rumpled sea,
And is gone –
And how it slides again
Out of the blackness,
On the other side of the world,
Like a red flower
Streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
Say, on a morning in early summer,
At its perfect imperial distance –
And have you ever felt for anything
Such wild love –
Do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
A word billowing enough
For the pleasure
That fills you,
As the sun
As it warms you
As you stand there,
Or have you too
Turned from this world –
Or have you too
This poem by Mary Oliver, “The Sun” captures the essential qualities of grace, for it is grace I wish to speak of this morning. Grace, one of those old theological words from earlier days and earlier traditions among us; grace, one of those “traditional religious” words that grow dry and pious from overuse and misunderstanding; indeed, grace is what I did wish to speak of this day. My title, “Undeserved Abundance” was meant to tug at a fresh way of seeing this old word and breaking open a deeper understanding for us. Undeserved: all the standard theologians over the ages have agreed that Grace is a gift, a gift you do not deserve, earn, or merit; you just receive, it is given to you, poured out. It just happens. Abundance: because it is always around you, always available, always awaiting your notice. Grace: undeserved abundance.
Someone once said Grace is when you receive what you do not deserve, and mercy is when you do not receive what you deserve. Grace is blessings and abundance, undeserved. It didn’t have to be like that, it might not have happened that way, but it did. What did you ever do to deserve ripe cantaloupe or true friends or lilac bushes or this church community? Did you happen to notice “the way the sun every evening, relaxed and easy, floats toward the horizon”? The sun does this every evening. It does not care what your day was like or if your actions warrant this gift, it is there for you all the same, all you must do is – notice.
UU minister, Peter Fleck tells us, “Grace is a blessing, a blessing that is undeserved, unsolicited, and unexpected, a blessing that brings a sense of the divine order into our lives. The ways of grace are mysterious, we cannot figure them out. But we know grace by its fruits, by the blessings of its works.” (Come As You Are) Grace is a blessing, he says. And I would add that with grace, your abundant blessings become more evident to you. The blessing of grace allows you to see the manifold blessings that surround your days and fill your life. And have you ever seen how the sun “slides again out of the blackness, every morning, on the other side of the world, like a red flower streaming upward on its heavenly oils”?
One of my theology professors at the Methodist seminary I attended liked to share a personal story from his childhood as a parable toward understanding grace. He describes a time when he and his older brother were at the beach, they had the standard brotherly competitive streak that often resulted in contests and races. Well, the race that took place in the story my professor told was a race from the beach out to the floating dock marking one corner boundary of the deep end in the lake. As they tore across the beach, they stayed neck and neck; but in the water, the older boy seemed to just slip through the water while the younger pulled and strained and kicked with all his might. As his older brother slipped further and further ahead, the young boy who would become my theology professor, realized his error. He was spending all his energy to fight the water, while his brother was riding the water, using the power of the water more than his own strength to get through the water. It downed on him suddenly, his brother always won these races in the water because his brother did not fight the water; he used the water.
With this story before us, our professor would pause dramatically (I’d heard him tell the story twice and he did this both times,) he would pause and then say, “That is what grace is like. It is always there, we’re swimming in it! It is always available to us, but we must first stop fighting to be in control, we must relax our own need to move forward by our own power alone, we must relax and accept the gift before we actually feel its power in our lives.”
Frederick Beuchner speaks of grace as a gift, but adds, “There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.” You do have some work to do. As with the story my theology professor liked to tell, you don’t just float on the water to get to the dock, you still need to kick your legs and move your arms. You don’t need to fight it, but you do still need to kick a little. You need to be open to it, you need to notice. Have you ever noticed “the way the sun every evening, relaxed and easy, floats toward the horizon”? “Have you ever seen anything in your life more wonderful”?
In speaking of grace this way, as a blessing, as a way of noticing the world, as a way of being in the world, as a style issue, we would do well to not lose sight of that old traditional interpretation whereby Grace was the demonstration of God’s love for you. Beuchner characterizes grace this way: “The grace of God means something like: here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.” (Listen To Your Life)
This now, is powerful stuff. I can attest to this, it is powerful and awesome to be loved this way. But here is where we begin to get sticky. “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.” That’s the title of a song from the musical Godspell, but it is also the sentiment of many people. All the good stuff comes from God, but what about the rest? Where do the hurricanes come from? Do insurance companies still use the phrase, “Act of God” to describe natural disasters?
Natural disasters are certainly undeserved. Despite some examples of Bad Theology, most people do not honestly believe that God sends Hurricanes and Tsunamis as a means of dispensing divine justice and punishment. Of course, there are those few who are always tempted into Bad Theology by events such as this. Like the story of the preacher on the Sunday after a tornado swept through town telling his people on Sunday morning, “I went past where the Methodist Church was before the tornado. But it is there no longer. I drove over to see the Presbyterian Church, but it was gone. The Catholic Church on Main Street and the Baptist Church near the green, — both gone. But our church was spared; God chose to leave our church standing.” That is just Bad Theology.
And there are those who have taken the bait and slipped into a similar bad theology about the events surrounding hurricane Katrina. The people of New Orleans did not deserved this, the people in the surrounding areas were not ‘collateral damage’ if you will, as if they were unfortunately caught in the path of God’s just retribution. No. The suffering and hardship they have experienced was undeserved and outside their control.
And I shutter to hear the phrase “Act of God” in connection with this disaster, indeed I see far too much in this disaster that was the act of people, or perhaps the lack of action on the part of people. When the levees broke, that was no act of God; that was the lack of funding from the federal government despite repeated appeals from scientists and engineers. When FEMA’s response was so slow and feeble, that was no act of God; that was the act of the neo-conservative administration hell-bent of gutting the infrastructure by placing unqualified cronies in charge of under-funded domestic programs. When the hurricane crashed so easily through the Mississippi delta region, that was not an act of God; that was the act of several consecutive government administrations, though in large part this current one which drained and destroyed as much as 20 million acres of wetlands which served as a natural buffer against such volatile storms. When so many thousands of people were not evacuated from the city, that was not an act of God; that was the negligent hubris of a town that only planned for a level 3 or below storm, and had no plan in place for a storm of this level. I’ll even go so far as to say the immenseness of this hurricane was no act of God; even that we can connect to the effects of the increased temperature of the oceans due to global warming (which the Bush administration still denies is a reality)! In my reckoning, the vast blame for this catastrophic loss of life can be laid not upon the hurricane itself, but on the appalling lack of preparation and response from the city, the state, and the federal government. This was not an act of God; this was a colossal failure of leadership.
This devastation was no act of God. “Here is the world,” Beuchner wrote. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.” That is grace. Grace is not only found in noticing the beauty of the sunset. Grace is always around us, always available; it is as if we are swimming in it. Grace is found in the way we come to see life as a blessing. It is found in the way we come to see the abundance of what we have, for at a moment we may no longer have it.
My life is filled with undeserved abundance. I have the love of my wife and children. I do not deserve it, I did not win it or earn it or buy it. It is a gift for which I strive to worthy. Yet at those times when I prove unworthy of that love, they love me anyway. It is a gift. I have a home, I have meaningful work, I have a car enough money to pay for its fuel. I have certainly worked for these things, earned them you could say; but through no fault of my own, I could lose it all. And yet, there might still be grace. There might still be such abundance in my life that it fills my heart and keeps me going.
And I can become a vehicle for grace for others. “Have you ever felt for anything such wild love,” Mary Oliver’s poem asks. Have you ever loved anything the way you are loved? I am unwilling to call the hurricane an act of God, but an open hearted response to the devastation… I would be willing to let God have the credit for that. If I reach out with generous compassion, I could call that an act of God. I could call that grace.
How could you become an agent of grace. How might you allow some of your own undeserved abundance to pour out to those with undeserved suffering and hardship? I read a story yesterday on the Beliefnet website. Deane knew I was looking for stories about grace and about Katrina, she pointed out to me a webpage in the Beliefnet site that contained dozens of stories of hope and help rendered to those in need. One story grabbed me. It was about a woman from New Orleans named Mabel who walked though neck-deep flood waters with her children, her sister, and her sister’s children to get out of the city, only to run into such disorganization and chaos that walking two miles with seven other behind her and her own head just barely above water was merely the first step in the journey to safety. Mabel got her family to the super dome, (you remember the super dome, the one that was next to the other levee that hadn’t broken yet.) The chaos in the dome was terrifying. “The crowd grew crazier every minute,” she said. “Guns were being fired in the dome; there were no lights in the rest room.” I can’t bear to tell you what was going on in those dark bathrooms.
Mabel and her family spent the night in the dome while empty buses sat outside the dome, buses that would remain empty until the next afternoon; buses that eventually took her and her family to the Astrodome in Houston. In Houston, Mabel tracked down her own mother, her other three sisters and their kids. She’s had enough of waiting, however. She walked over to a cell phone dealer a few blocks from the dome. She had lost her cell phone in the New Orleans muck and she had no money, but she had an account with them and they agreed to just bill her. So she got her phone and started making calls. Mabel called the South West Unitarian Church.
I stared at this article and felt suddenly disoriented. Was this a Unitarian Universalist website? No. Was I in the middle of an article specifically geared toward UUs? No. Have you ever had that experience where you bump into somebody you know in a setting you’re not used to seeing them; like stumbling into your neighbor at a wedding taking place out of town? Well, I was a little disoriented to find Unitarianism cropping up in this article. It turns out the author of this article I was halfway through is a syndicated newspaper columnist and president of a mid-sized Unitarian Universalist church in Georgia. And it turns out, Mabel and her children, her mother, her sisters, and all her sisters’ children landed in the care of that congregation. “By the time you read this,” Lisa McLeod writes, “my church will have fed Mabel’s family and all her sisters’ families’ breakfast. And my neighborhood will have delivered 19 duffel bags filled with clothes, toys and toiletries.”
Here in Binghamton, we have been jumping around trying to find the best way to offer our help. Many of us have sent money, several have tried to organize various efforts to send stuff down to Louisiana, or to open our homes and bring people up here to us. We’ve made a few informal contacts such as Lisa McLeod had done with Mabel. We’ve also connected with UU congregation down south in the effected areas, and we’re tapped in to the Red Cross effort to relocate people. The people managing these efforts will have a table set up in the social hall to help you better understand the specifics of what we are striving toward and how you can take part.
Here then, is an opportunity to reach out and serve as an agent of grace for others. Here then, is an opportunity to allow your own underserved abundance to pour out and help those in the midst of undeserved suffering and hardship. Grace is a gift, it is undeserved and unearned. It is a gift that will fill your days beyond measure if you will but reach out for it. And how amazing will that grace be if you find the ways to be an agent of it, to serve the hurting world.
In a world without end, may it be so.