Finding Grace

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 22 May 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


The worship theme here at Throop Church for the month of May is grace. At the beginning of the month we heard Lynn Sexton speak of grace as “ease, help, kindness, and thoughtfulness,” and as a treasure we must learn to accept, and to bestow. Two weeks ago, Reverend Tera asked us to reflect on how well we are able to receive gifts with gratitude and grace; and last week she spoke of grace-filled leadership, grounded in relationship, covenant, and accountability. Just a moment ago we saw a live demonstration of one form of grace!1

Today I also will speak of grace — but I would like to use this exploration of grace as an example of an evolution of ideas. Unitarian Universalism today is a faith tradition that includes people with many different beliefs. We say that our faith draws on a number of sources: direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder; words and deeds of prophetic people throughout history; wisdom from the world’s religions; Jewish and Christian teachings that call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves; humanist teachings that counsel us to trust also in reason and science; and Earth-centered traditions that celebrate the circle of life and the rhythms of nature.

The religious meaning of grace is centered in a very Christian tradition. But I, as a humanist, have found meaning in the concept.

Is this a paradox? Well, this congregation was founded in 1886 by Universalists — Christians who believed in a loving God who finds worth in every person. They built this sanctuary in 1923, and thought it fitting to place images of Jesus and Mary and John the Evangelist and two archangels above the chancel. And yet now, today, here we are gathered — people with many beliefs; with a humanist at the pulpit; in front of these images that represent one strand of our spiritual history.

This is a paradox. And it is who we are.


So what is the Christian conception of grace? For most Christians, grace is God’s gift to humanity of love, mercy, and salvation; it’s a magnanimous gift, given to us despite our flaws.

Catholics believe that God’s grace was granted to people through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and that people are free to accept or decline this gift of grace. The Calvinist conception of grace is different: it is a gift one cannot refuse. At the beginning of time, God granted grace to a select group — the elect — and no matter what they do while they are on this Earth, the elect will go to heaven. And, likewise, no matter what the non-elect do — no matter whether they devote their lives to good works, no matter how fervent their faith — they will not go to heaven.

Other versions of Protestantism have other variations of this belief. But the one common thread throughout them all is that grace is a gift that humans do not deserve. Whether because of original sin or because of humanity’s total depravity, we do not deserve God’s gift of salvation.

So that’s the definition we’re starting from:

Grace is the gift from God of salvation, which we do not deserve.

How might that definition be adapted to be more meaningful to more of us?


Before we continue to explore this, I’d like to say something about an interesting twist to the “we are undeserving” aspect of grace, relating to the history of Universalism in America.

Most of the early American Universalists were Calvinists; they did believe that God had divided people up into the elect and the non-elect. But the Universalists differed from most Calvinists, because they believed that nobody belonged to the group of non-elect people… they believed that everyone is elect.

And for some Universalists, this idea came from their own sense of feeling undeserving of grace. This was the case, for example, for George de Benneville, a Universalist of French descent who came to America in 1741, after facing religious persecution in Europe. When he was young, de Benneville had a vision of himself burning in hell, because of what he perceived to be his sins, sins he described as “too many and too great to be forgiven.” But later on in life he had another vision, of Christ praying for his soul, and he became convinced that he was saved by grace. He wrote:

[…] having myself been the chief of sinners, and God […] had granted me mercy and the pardon of all my sins, and plucked me as a brand out of Hell, I could not have a doubt but the whole world would be saved by the same power.

In other words: “I was a really rotten guy, and if God has saved me, he must have saved everyone!”

The Universalists took the idea that “we are not worthy”, and viewed it as “we are all equally worthy”, and then deduced that “if some of us are saved, we all are.”


So. Back to grace. Our first definition is that

Grace is the gift from God of salvation, which we do not deserve.

Now, my personal humanistic theology doesn’t include the ideas of God, or of salvation in this sense. So the first step in my personal evolution of the idea of grace changes this definition to be

Grace is a life-changing gift that we do not deserve.

While we sit and ponder whether that might be a good definition, let me ask another question:


Do people ever get what they deserve?

It’s a very compelling idea to believe that they do. And most societies are structured so that people who break the rules will get a comeuppance. But sometimes people do seem to get away with things, and that can be very frustrating.

Our desire for justice can fit into our religious beliefs. For example, in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, there is the idea of karma. The specific beliefs about karma vary among these faiths, but the general idea is that consequences flow from actions. It’s not that some god is sitting in judgement of your actions and dealing out rewards and punishments; it’s that the actions themselves lead to positive or negative outcomes. So, for example, if you constantly lie to other people, you may lose your ability to trust others, or even to trust yourself. I have heard this expressed as “you are not punished for your sins, you are punished by them.”2

Of course, sometimes the outcomes of your actions do not become apparent in your present lifetime; and, likewise, sometimes outcomes in your present lifetime are due to actions from previous lives, according to this philosophy.

This is in contrast to Judaism and Christianity, where an all-seeing God judges, and inflicts consequences, either in this life, or — in Christianity — in an afterlife.

These ideas fit in well with our innate desire for justice. But there is a darker side to thinking that people get what they deserve. When you hear of something bad happening to someone — a car accident, or an illness — do you ever find yourself thinking of reasons why the same thing won’t happen to you? “Oh, they must have been texting while driving.” Or, “I would never walk in a neighborhood like that at night.” Or, “Of course he got cancer; have you seen what he eats?”

I can feel this urge in myself. It’s an urge of denial. It’s not wanting to face the fact that sometimes completely random events beyond our control can completely upset our lives. It’s too frightening to consider the drunk driver crossing over the median and heading right towards us; too frightening to consider the randomness of illness. This is one reason why people think that it is safer to drive than to fly, even though by many measures it is not; with driving, there is an illusion that you have complete control; you’re holding onto the steering wheel, aren’t you?

So I distrust the idea of people “getting what they deserve” in some cosmic sense. And it’s for that reason that in my own mind, I modify the definition of grace. Instead of

Grace is a life-changing gift that we do not deserve,

how about

Grace is a life-changing gift that we were not guaranteed.


Now that brings in the concept of contingency — the idea that things could be otherwise than they are.

Jane Kenyon wrote a poem called Otherwise3:

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.


Grace is a life-changing gift that we were not guaranteed.

That feels like a definition that resonates with me.

Grace is a life-changing gift that could have been otherwise.

I think of good things in my life — of loved ones, of friends — and even though I work to make those relationships strong, there are so many random elements, so many ways that things could have been otherwise, despite all my efforts. If you’re willing, think for a moment of your own life, of a friend, of a partner, of a job you love, of a community that supports you. And think of how your life need not have included that friend, that partner, that job, that community, if things had been different. Grace.


Just over a year ago, Reverend Tera messaged me on Facebook, and asked me — out of the blue — what my plans for a ministerial internship were. I hadn’t even started thinking of internships; I had expected that I would have to wait at least a year, and maybe two, before figuring out how to fit one into my life. But Tera said that Throop was ready for a part-time two-year intern.

I talked with my wife, and we weighed the pros and cons. It was not a slam-dunk decision. We had to figure whether a crazy commute from San Diego would be sustainable. I had to arrange things with my employer. Even after my employer agreed to let me work at 60% time for two years, we had to deal with the indisputable mathematical fact that 60% time at my job and 50% time at an internship adds up to more time than there is. There are so many reasons why this internship might not have come about.

But it did come about. And now, in my life, I have this congregation, and all the people in it. Grace.

This is the last sermon I preach before taking the summer off. I will be here on Thursday for my usual weekday in the office, and I will be here next Sunday assisting with the service, but that’s it until September. I will miss you all, but during the summer I will rest, and do math, and take courses at seminary, and perform a wedding, and I will come back in the fall ready for a second, and even better, year with you.


I’d like to close with a story. The musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson tells of a time she was visiting her brother, an anthropologist, in a Tzotzil village in Mexico. She lived with the women of the village, and helped as best she could with their daily work. She says that the name they gave her — “Loscha” — means, roughly, “the ugly one with the jewels.”

Anderson says4:

Now ugly, OK, I was awfully tall by local standards. But what did they mean by the jewels? I didn’t find out what this meant until one night, when I was taking my contact lenses out, and — since I’d lost the case — I was carefully placing them on the sleeping shelf [in the yurt where everyone slept]; suddenly I noticed that everyone was staring at me and I realized that none of the Tzotzil had ever seen glasses, much less contacts, and that these were the jewels, the transparent, perfectly round, jewels that I carefully hid on the shelf at night and then put for safekeeping into my eyes every morning.

So I may have been ugly but so what? I had the Jewels.

Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.


May we all see with fresh eyes the grace that is in our lives, the jewels we may take for granted, that in some other universe we might not have.


Image credit: Detail of Botticelli’s Primavera, ca. 1482. Via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. In the form of dancers from the Lineage Dance Company, with whom we were sharing that day’s collection plate. 
  2. See the Fake Buddha Quote web site for a discussion of the provenance of this phrasing. Spoiler: It was not said by Buddha. 
  3. From Jane Kenyon, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1996. Copyright 1996 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon. All rights reserved. Reproduced here by permission of Graywolf Press. For further permissions information, contact Permissions Department, Graywolf Press, 2402 University Ave., Ste. 203, St Paul, MN 55114. This poem also appears in Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems, and was one of the poems selected for the Library of Congress’s Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools
  4. Transcribed by the author from “The Ugly One with the Jewels”, from The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories

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