A Fierce Grace
Rev. Joe Cherry
Rev. Joe Cherry
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
"I want to seize Fate by the throat!"
This quote is attributed to Ludwig van Beethoven.
In Beethoven, we have a famous story of a man at odds with himself. A brilliant composer slowly going deaf. His tinnitus drove him to cut off the legs of his piano, so both it and he could lay on the ground, so that he could still "hear" the music he was composing.
And such music he composed! It's been said that Bach expressed God's structure and order through his music, that Mozart showed God's laugher and Beethoven gave us God's Thunder.
What a cruel trick, then, for Fate to play on such a man as he.
Of course Ludwig isn't the only person in history who has lost physical vitality as he aged. But part of what makes his story remarkable is his remarkable gift, that he could no longer enjoy in the way he had in his youth.
When I was a young musician, this story struck fear deep into my heart, and made me weep.
And yet Ludwig continued composing.
As many have done in the past, and some are doing today, I'm sure Beethoven asked God, with tears streaming down his face, "Why?!"
And yet there must also have been moments of shocking beauty in Beethoven's life.
Like in all of ours.
What brings that to us?
One of the great topics in Unitarian Universalism today is the role of Grace in our lives.
It is a greater divider, this topic of grace.
It's messy. It's unpredictable.
It's not something that we can create with our own sheer force of will.
I'd like to quote a 19th Century Universalist woman to you right now. Her name was Eunice Waite Cobb. She wasn't famous in her own right, though two of her sons became somewhat well-known artists. I came across this quote quite randomly.
I do not ask for this faith because I shrink from paying the great debt of nature. But I ask for it that I may have respect for myself - that I may feel life is worth living - that good is worth striving for above and beyond its mere return of earth. And above all else, I ask for that faith because it makes life grand, and gives to us sublime possibilities. And further, it gives a substance of joy and bliss which nothing earthly ever gave, and which nothing of earth can take away.
Mrs. Cobb does not take her faith as the default position, as the lowest common denominator, as the easy thing. She challenges herself, and her reader, to strive, to work for their beliefs. And she also lays out an expected reward for her labor. Her life will be made grand by her faith, and a joy that nothing on earth can give or take away will be hers.
We rarely make statements of faith like this anymore.
My faith is not about accepting the easiest answer, a relativistic stance of believing in all things and no things at once. Like Eunice Cobb, I embrace this faith for both its work and our promise of a life made better by that work ... and by something unstated: Grace.
As Unitarian Universalists, I've noticed that we don't speak much about things like grace. We like to think of ourselves as being the directors of our own success and happiness. I'm comfortable in that theology. If I work hard and am a good person, my life will have meaning and that shall be my reward.
Except there are a lot of people who work hard who don't get the same sorts of benefits that I've gotten; that many of us have gotten.
Like the actions of the three goddesses called the Graces in Ancient Greece, we can't see what life offers us. Sometimes we get more than we deserve and sometimes less, seemingly at random, out of our control. Whereas these ancient goddess called Graces of Fates, clipped the strands of the lives of mortals, blindly, without regard to the mortals they were sending to Hades, I prefer to think of grace as a gift, a generosity from what many may call God.
Perhaps if we engage our faith more strongly, having greater intent with that unknown component of Grace we might be more willing to see our fellow humans with greater charity, no, clarity in our hearts. We might be less ready to pathologize them, and have a ready-made solution to their problems.
I'm not suggesting that this pathologizing is born from a place of cruelty. Part of human development is learning to categorize things. Ask any toddler who's just learning to talk, and you'll find out that what's known as a dog to them might be a dog, or a kitten, or a cow. Eventually that child will be able to discern patterns and realize that a dog is only one of many four-legged creatures with whom we share our world.
But also as we grow, we begin to lump things and people into categories, and unless we're careful, we may over look important details which distinguish one thing from another. We might mistake a white youngster with dreads for a homeless person, or a young person of color as a member of the hotel staff.
There are others who have worked as hard, if not harder, than we have, who will likely never see the benefits we have now.
This has been a hard realization for me. My parents are laborers. I was a laborer for most of my working career to date. But that's all changing for me, and I now find myself in a different part of the map. My employability is no longer about how many words a minute I can type, or how much I can lift, or how many tables I can serve effectively.
And suddenly I find myself the guy who doesn't operate the copy machine or take out the trash from the church office, because that's no longer "required" of me. It's no longer in my job description. However, I'm not blind to the reality that there are going to be times when I am typing, making copies, answering phones and yes, even taking out the trash.
I worked hard to get here, and I'm pretty sure we've all worked hard.
But what about grace? What part does grace play in our successes? Why do we tend to omit grace from our own reflections, not as individuals, but as a whole faith?
Is it because to focus on grace would cause us to focus on the things we can't control? That which will not respond solely to labor and reason; the things that our sheer force of will and planning, have seemingly no effect on? Is it because to focus on grace would cause us to focus on the other- worldly?
I have heard over and over that Unitarian Universalism doesn't deal well with tragedy, loss and the more difficult sides of life. Focusing on grace more often might help us to do that.
Once we know in our bones, and can admit freely, that we are not in complete control of our lives, we can begin to really know that others are not as well. Hopefully, we can then move away from a patrician model of charity and into real relationships with people who aren't as fortunate as we and from whom we can learn a lot about being in the world.
We are not bad people, and I hope you won't think for a moment that I'm suggesting that we don't try to make the world a better place.
[Here Rev. Joe talked about eight members who went to the city council meeting the week before, to speak against a law that would make it illegal for homeless people to "camp out" in public.]
One might say that those citizens who show up to a city council meeting are performing a heroic deed. True, it's not dragon-slaying, and in this case those 15 citizens who spoke against the ordinance, compared to the one who only half-heartedly spoke pro-ordinance, didn't prevail. But still the efforts must continue.
One modern hero-to-many, who has worked for the past few decades to make the world a better, prettier, and frankly more fabulous place is singer, actor, super-model, and drag queen RuPaul Charles.
RuPaul became, in the early 1990's the world's first Drag Superstar. Yes, there was Milton Berle in the past, but his drag was always meant for humor. True, it was never a cruel humor directed at lady-boys, but a way to subvert the dominant gender paradigm, and get a practically guaranteed laugh.
RuPaul was a skinny black boy from the deep south, who donned a wig and heels as part of his own emerging identity.
I first saw RuPaul on television. I was watching coverage of the 1993 March on Washington for Gay Rights.
Newly out of the closet and financially unable to attend in person, I hungrily watched every moment of news coverage I could find at the time. And then I saw her, RuPaul. Tall, fierce, huge hair, and dressed like an American Flag. This was about the time that her "Supermodel" album came out.
RuPaul went on to star in a few movies, made more music and while generally famous in the BGLTQ community, wasn't making too big a splash any more.
And then she got her own show "RuPaul's Drag Race." Season 4 just ended a few weeks ago.
There are several catch phrases from the show each season that are used and over-used by the girls competing to be America's Next Drag Queen Superstar.
But there has been one phrase that has been a mainstay from the very beginning. At the end of every show, after one of the contestants have been sent home, and before the dancing begins, RuPaul asks the girls "If you can't love yourself, how the Hell are you gonna love anybody else? Can I get an Amen up in here?!?"
And the Amen comes.
And not just from the stage. Like thousands watching the show each week, at home we all shout "Amen!"
When the topic of Fierce Grace was suggested for this morning's service, my first thought was "I have to quote RuPaul!"
It may seem like a funny thing to quote a drag queen as a theologian.
Think about what it means for a human being who spent their childhood in the deep, segregated South; a little black, gay boy, who grows up to be arguably the World's Most Famous Drag Queen. What might she know about grace?
I think she knows more than a little bit about being fierce, too.
RuPaul's very humanist challenge, "If you can't love yourself ...", is something that I think we can all relate to. There is no reliance on a power higher than you in her statement, and yet grace is there, lurking between the words. No man is an island, no person is an island, and no drag queen makes it on her own. There have been kind words, helping hands and tears dried by a tender friend along the way.
Perhaps your own journey has included kind words, helping hands and tears dried by those who love you.
In so many words, a fierce grace.
I do think with grace as our focus, we might approach our justice work from a different position. In our immigration class that concluded just a few weeks ago, we put a quote up. Sometimes credited to Lila Watson, Australian Aboriginal woman, in response to mission workers, and sometimes credited to Liberation Theologian Paulo Frerie, it is on the wall: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together."
In truth, our liberation is dependent on the liberation of all.
Allow grace to enter your lives. Allow grace to be expressed through your actions. Through grace we can help bring forth a world more just, where all are celebrated for who they are.
If we continue to recognize that the Spirit is loving and by seeking the companionship of a purpose greater than ourselves, we may become as radically loving as our best selves hope to be.
May we be so bold.
June 10, 2012
Copyright by Rev. Joe Cherry. If you liked it or want to use parts of it, please contact him:
This is from a collection of sermons by Rev. Joe Cherry.
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