Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst
The second of three in the summer sermon series on the music that inspires us and keeps us honest. Each service will be a reflection on a UU hymn and a popular tune that complements it.
Music by Dave Williamson.
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CALL TO WORSHIP
Unitarian Universalism affirms:
That Creation is too grand, complex, and
mysterious to be captured in a narrow creed. That is why we cherish individual
freedom of belief. At the same time our convictions lead us to other
affirmations . . .
That the blessings of life are available
to everyone, not just the Chosen or the Saved;
That Creation itself is Holy -- the earth
and all its creatures, the stars in all their glory;
That the Sacred or Divine, the Precious
and Profound, are made evident not in the miraculous or supernatural but in the
simple and the everyday;
That human beings, joined in
collaboration with the gifts of grace, are responsible for the planet and its
That every one of us is held in
Creation's hand -- a part of the interdependent cosmic web -- and hence
strangers need not be enemies;
That no one is saved until we All are
saved, where All means the whole of Creation;
That the paradox of life is to love it
all the more, even though we ultimately lose it.
World January/February, 1990 - William Schulz
REFLECTION Right and Wrong
The words and
music to “We Shall Overcome” express such strong faith that all wrongs will
eventually be made right. I find this
hymn so reassuring in the face of so much that is clearly wrong in our world.
Religion was invented by human beings to help us figure out what is right from
what is wrong. And despite thousands of
years of trying, a clear understanding of right and wrong is still, at best, a
work in progress. Unitarian
Universalists accept that revelation or truth is not sealed, that it is very much
an open-ended process. So it is that the
revelation, the new understanding of what is right and true, comes through each
of us, through every human being and everything that exists. Every decision and action we each make is
part of the story of what is right and what is wrong.
In this series
of services on the Soundtrack of our Lives, one hymn stands out for me. I think it is one of the most popular hymns
in America and is sung in a fairly diverse range of religious traditions. “Amazing Grace” is about how one man
discerned right from wrong. The struggle
for doing the right thing, for freedom in this country has its own
soundtrack. “Amazing Grace”, “We Shall
Overcome”, and later we will sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” - because these
songs were created out of the struggle for freedom and justice for all
humanity, not just a chosen few. The
tune to “We Shall Overcome” was a traditional spiritual, but the words were
changed from “I shall overcome” to “we shall overcome” to express
the importance of unity, solidarity, in the struggle for dignity and
freedom from oppression.
The story behind the hymn “Amazing Grace”
is an interesting example of how right and wrong are complicated and the
emerging truth is revealing itself through time and through people just like
John Newton was an Englishman who lived
from 1725 to 1807. He wrote the words for "Amazing Grace" after
having a conversion experience, an experience he called grace. As a young man,
John Newton was a slave trader. He sailed to Africa many times and brought
Africans to Jamaica, where he sold them as slaves. One day his ship nearly sank
in a storm. Newton prayed to be saved, and the ship and its crew survived.
Because of that experience, he began to pray regularly, and then to treat his human
cargo better. Finally, one day he realized that what he was doing was wrong,
and so he gave it up. He ordered his crew to turn the ship around and take its
prisoners back home to Africa. Newton returned to England, where he began to
fight for an end to slavery. He had finally seen the profound wrong in the
slave trade. His words to "Amazing Grace" tell the story of his great
change from a man who engaged in the human slave trade to a man who fought
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!
Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
It took a
terrible fear-filled storm and lots of reflection to turn John Newton from a
life devoted to the evils of slavery. In
the end, he gave up his livelihood, his economic prosperity, to do the right
thing. To take in the depths of his own
wretchedness must have been a profoundly difficult, life-shattering
experience. How could he have faced the
faces of his human cargo every day and not seen their humanity and their
suffering? I am pretty sure he must have
thought his occupation was normal, even meriting some praise as an
entrepreneurial venture. Somehow, John
Newton and many, many others were convinced that people whose skin was a
different color, whose language and culture where different from their own,
were sub-human, not people at all. They
believed that they were not doing wrong and that it was OK, normal, just doing
business to enslave African men, women and children and ship them across the
ocean to be worked to death.
It must have
been some powerful, powerful bolt of grace to turn that ship around!
STORY WISDOM Pandora’s
If Pandora were alive today, she would probably sneak a peek at every gift
under her Christmas tree. However, Pandora lived in very ancient times,
according to a Greek myth. She herself was a gift, a special gift that Zeus
sent to Earth. Zeus was the head god of all the gods and goddesses who lived on
Mount Olympus in ancient Greece. He was angry at the human race because a rebel
god, Prometheus, had given people the gift of fire. But that's another story.
In this story, Pandora went to Earth and caused a huge problem because of
her curiosity. When Zeus sent Pandora to Earth, he gave her to Epimetheus as a
wife. Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus, paid no attention when Prometheus
said to be careful of any gift from Zeus.
In fact, Epimetheus thought Pandora was a wonderful gift and a wonderful
wife. She was bright and she was beautiful and she was a good musician. She was
also curious, of course, but Epimetheus had no reason to worry about that.
Epimetheus also liked a second gift that Zeus presented. So did Pandora. The
gift was a beautiful wooden box that anybody who saw it would admire. There was
only one hitch. The box was locked, and Zeus warned them never to open it.
For a while, that was not a problem. Life was beautiful in those days. There
was no sickness. People never grew old or died. Everyone was happy, and that
included the newlyweds.
Except for one thing—that box. Pandora could not stop wondering what was in
it. Every time she looked at it, she wondered more. She asked Epimetheus to
open it, but he said no. He wanted to make Pandora happy, but he was not about
to cross Zeus.
Then one day Epimetheus left the house. Pandora tried to keep her eyes off
the box, but she could not. She was just like a little kid left alone with the
Christmas tree today. First, she looked at the box. Then she touched it. Then
she lifted it up and shook it. Then, finally, after hours and hours of smelling
and feeling and shaking and wondering, she could not stand the temptation any
more. She broke the box open.
Instead of the jewels she hoped to find, instead of the pleasures she
wanted, evils flew out; evils that still fly around today. One was hate and
another was jealousy. Then came anger, hunger, cruelty, poverty, sickness, and
Pandora screamed and slammed down the lid. But it was already too late, and
the lid did not quite close. She lifted it again to slam it even harder, and
one more thing came floating out. This one last thing was good. It was hope.
Maybe Zeus was happy about Pandora's Box, but humans were not. The world now
had evil in it. Things would never be the same. Still, not everything was
ruined. People had the one thing they needed to keep going despite their new
problems. They had hope.
PRAYER AND MEDITATION
by Frederick Buechner,
from Wishful Thinking: A
Seeker’s ABC, published
by Harper Collins in 1973.
After centuries of handling and
mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn, nobody’s much
interested any more. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even
derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.
Grace is something you can never get but
can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about,
any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good
looks or bring about your own birth.
A good sleep is grace and so are good
dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you
is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
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.
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.
Maybe being able to reach out and touch it is a gift, too.
The centering thought in your order of service is just the beginning of a
Grace means more than gifts. In grace something is
transcended, once and for all overcome. Grace happens in spite of something; it
happens in spite of separateness and alienation. Grace means that life is once
again united with life, self is reconciled with self. Grace means accepting the
abandoned one. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful vocation. It transforms
guilt to trust and courage. The word grace has something triumphant in it.
- Yrjo Kallinen
This lovely surprise in times of despair, this grace we talk of seems like a
fickle friend to me. I want to know
where grace was for all those poor men and women and children whose lives were
destroyed by the institution of slavery.
I realize that the very definition of grace is that it is unexpected and
undeserved, but to me if anyone deserved that experience of relief and hope, it
was those who themselves were enslaved.
Perhaps this grace that comes from outside ourselves was there for them,
and I just do not know about it. The question of why the slaves may not have
experienced grace as John Newton did is dangerous and insulting. Human beings
who are enslaved do not live to tell about their experiences. They are not
allowed to be known for anything, let alone writing hymns. Spirituals are
anonymous creations written by the human beings whose true names were stolen
along with everything else worthwhile. But spirituals contain more power than those
other hymns. The power of a spiritual cannot be the property of anyone.
The word ‘wretch’ in Amazing Grace is so problematic that our hymnal gives
us an alternative, “soul.” For me, the
word wretch is a good one. I do feel like a wretch when I face the complexities
of racism. To be a wretch describes that
great powerless despair. But more
important is the phrase “blind, but now I see.”
There is so much about privilege ( for those of us who are white) that
blinds us to the experience of our brothers and sisters. To share that
experience and to relate to it is the transforming vision we should all hope
for. For if we could walk in each
other’s shoes we would not allow blind privilege to exist. I know human beings are capable of such
compassion. We are not just slaves and
masters. We all have elements of both
and are better than either. We live in a
wretched system that lets some have an easy time, an unknown wind at their
backs while others struggle into the wind daily.
There’s a phrase I like and use, “There but for grace go I…” I used it once in a letter to the editor and
it was published as, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Oh well!
The distinction for me is that, as an agnostic, I know grace exists but
I’m not sure who or what to attribute it to.
This grace described by Christians as God’s gift is insufficient if it
allows the experience of the oppressed
to continue to exist unrelieved.
You see, I agree with Bill Schulz who said in our opening words that, “That
the Sacred or Divine, the Precious and Profound, are made evident not in the
miraculous or supernatural but in the simple and the everyday.”
Grace is exceptional, amazing by definition. Yet the ordinary every day that I find holy
is touched by something like grace as well.
Grace enters at our worst moments.
When desperation fills us, when all hope is lost, some gentleness, some
breath of fresh air lifts us up. Paul
Tillich writes of grace:
"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. It strikes us when year,
after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old
compulsion reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all
joy and courage. 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."
I know such undeserved relief from our
wretchedness truly exists. Transformation is not just a product of
happenstance. It is not just something
that pops into our moments of despair.
Transformation has to be participatory.
Bill Schulz: “(That) human beings, joined in collaboration with the
gifts of grace, are responsible for the planet and its future;”
While grace may or may not strike when we need it, we have to try to change
what is wrong. If grace does mean
“accepting the abandoned one”, we have to try for reconciliation, not just with
ourselves, but with the lost and the cast out. We have to try to heal what is
broken. We have to reach out to those who suffer from systems that would deny
their dignity and humanity because – there, but for grace, go I.
REFLECTION Righting Wrongs
It would be such
a gift to the world for hatred and prejudice and inequality to just disappear.
Struck by grace! But the kind of grace that is an unexpected gift is in seeming
short supply. Whatever troubles beset us
as a country seem to be multiplied for people who are black or Hispanic. As a group, they suffer higher rates of
unemployment: 16% vs. the national 9.5 %. Higher drop-out rates and higher
rates of incarceration should be telling us that something is going on –
something is profoundly wrong.
Assembly in June, I heard well known antiracist activist and white ally Tim
Wise speak. And his analysis of our
current situation was helpful to me. He described our predicament with the
phrase “diversity does not create equity”.
While the United States is in fact growing in racial and cultural diversity,
and some of us talk about celebrating that diversity (which is a good thing),
the task at hand is to actively create equity for those who continue to be
disenfranchised and marginalized in our system of governance and justice.
Our nation is in
a dangerous time of great transition and high anxiety. Tim Wise described a perfect storm of white
anxiety created by four factors:
election of a man of color as president. This may not be the most important
reason for our anxiety, but up until this recent election leadership by white
men was the norm. This change is very
hard for some people to accept.
meltdown. The double-digit employment for whites is new, though for Blacks and
Latino it was always higher. White
Americans have the luxury of believing that if you do everything right, work
hard, stay in school, stay late, etc. everything will be OK – but this is a
lie. People of color always knew it was
a lie, but whites are just realizing that the system is tilted to favor the
wealthy and corporations.
popular culture… artists are blending in unexpected ways. This week Marvel
Comics announced a new Spider-Man who is black and Hispanic. Just another example of the blending going on
all around us.
are experiencing a demographic shift: in 30 years, half of the population of
the US will be non-white.
changes challenge the dominant white cultural assumptions. They shake people up
and cause an anxious response to these troubled times. Rather than joining with others who are
hurting the tendency for some is to blame others. As you are aware, the Tea Party has convinced
people who have no health insurance themselves that they do not want it,
because any kind of universal health care would pay for others, as well. The romanticized wish to return to a time of
low taxes and small government is just that – a romantic ideal that never
really existed. In truth, in the 1950’s
the tax rates were much higher, and blacks and other people of color lived in a
desperate, segregated apartheid. The American dream was simply not available to
them. The Civil Rights movement of the
1960’s began changing this divided and unequal society. Tim Wise explains this
better than I can, so I’m recommending you listen to his talk in the recorded
sessions from GA at UUA.org.
With the Civil
Rights movement’s effort to integrate public life, our government and our taxes
help all people. There is a somewhat more equitable distribution of help. This
is the threat that the Tea Party leverages. They try to disempower, shrink,
dismantle, discredit the public sphere. They say what is public, available to
all, is wrong because it is inherently redistributive because it takes ‘my’
money and gives it to ‘them.’
The response to
an ethic which is ripping us apart like this is to stand together, provide
grace for one another. The divide and conquer strategy which is tearing down our
civilization, the one we have built with our own hands and money is destroying
all of us – ‘us and them’ – whomever “they” may be!
Tim Wise said
the solution is simple. It is
solidarity, unity – instead of ‘I’, ‘We’.
Standing together, we have each other’s backs. “You will come through your travails as have
millions of others before you.” These
tough times affect so many people of every kind. All of us deserve grace. Standing together,
we, the United States may be great again, we may live up to our ideals of
freedom and justice, equality, equity for all.
As James Baldwin
said, “Life is not an academic matter.”
Because we are alive, we show up for each other. Because we live and are held in a web of
interdependence and relationship, we are the embodiment of grace to one
another. Grace doesn’t strike always
from out the blue – we provide it for each other.
Our challenge is
to make Monmouth County a fair and equitable place for all the people who live
here. Our Social Action Committee met
Wednesday night, and they are doing so much on our behalf. But they cannot do it alone. Every one of us must put our shoulder to the
wheel. To calm the wild anxieties around
us, we must offer healing and hope. One
of the ideas I heard Wednesday was to create a support group for folks facing
unemployment. That would help ease the isolation and hopelessness so many of
our members are facing right now. We
support the work of the UUA Advocacy and NJ Legislative Ministry so that laws
can be changed to be fair for all. We feed the hungry and house the homeless
because their needs must be met right now.
Economic justice is linked to our fears and anxieties about race, but it
is much bigger than even that. Economic justice is for all. We can work on
together, we, you and I right here in this room will be strong enough to get
through this troubled, stormy passage. It is true that anxious people do not
always think very clearly! We must work on being less anxious, less isolated.
The box has been opened and we cannot ever go back to an imaginary
innocence. Instead calm, engaged,
curious still, rather than agitated and angry, we can be a blessing to the
world. We can be grace-filled agents of justice and freedom in full measure for
all the earth and her people. My friends, there is enough grace to go around. I
do pray it may be so. Amen.