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Shine, by Rev. Josh Pawelek, April 28, 2024

A Meditation on Grace (Rev. Josh Pawelek)


Where are my keys? I gotta go. I gotta go. Have you seen my keys?

Did you look on the key hook in the coat closet?

They’re not there.

Did you look in the junk drawer?

Not there.

Did you look on your desk?

Yes, not there.

Have you tried your pants pockets? 

Thanks honey. Bye. Love you!

 

Grace is like that. Not a gift from on high you don’t deserve. Not a light shining down reserved for just a few lucky souls. Not a way for the faithful to trust they’re saved from some depravity they’ve been told is who they are.

 

No. Grace is like finding your car keys, which were never really lost. You’d just forgotten, for a moment, where they were.

 

Grace is like clear sight after the rain. You just needed to wait out the storm.

 

It needs to be said, grace is for everyone. The fount of every blessing. The great spirit resting in us always, at all times. The love that guides us always, at all times. We don’t have to wait, anxious, fearful, wondering, “will we ever measure up?” “Will we ever get it right?” Will we ever deserve it?”

 

Grace is already ours. The gifts of this world – people, creatures, nature, beauty, creativity, love, compassion, generosity, star fish, trees, oceans, mountains, faith – already ours. We don’t have to wait for something beyond us to act. We just have to remember, the grace of the world is already ours.

 

Amen and blessed be.





Shine (Rev. Josh Pawelek)


“Woah. Heaven let your light shine down”—a lyric from the 1993 hit song, “Shine,” by the Georgia-based (and, in my view, somewhat derivative) rock band “Collective Soul.” I’ve always liked the song, never loved it. But then, country music superstar Dolly Parton—not, in my view, derivative at all—heard “Shine” on the radio, loved it, and recorded it on her 2001 album, “Little Sparrow.” For that performance she won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal performance. As I pay very little attention to commercial country music—that’s a different sermon—I never knew Dolly Parton had recorded this song or that she’d won an award for it. It only recently came to my attention as the soundtrack to the closing scene of the final episode of the fourth season of the HBO series, “The Righteous Gemstones,” which follows the fortunes and, more specifically, the misfortunes of an evangelical Christian family who operate a successful mega church, somewhere in America. The fourth season aired this year. Again, that’s where I heard Dolly Parton’s version of “Shine” for the first time, twenty-two years after she recorded it.

            I recommend “The Righteous Gemstones.” Our family loves it. It’s funny. It’s raw. It’s touching. Trigger warning: it’s exceedingly crass and does at times feature some of the typical and unnecessary HBO prurience.  It stars John Goodman as Eli Gemstone, the wise though flawed family patriarch, a televangelist with a sordid past, aging and trying to retire, but very reticent to leave his still-thriving church empire to his three completely dysfunctional adult children. The Gemstone family struggles. They fight with each other. They threaten each other. At times they hate each other. They each in their own way grieve the untimely death of the family matriarch, Eli’s late wife, the children’s mother, Aimee Leigh Gemstone. Extended family members jockey for access to the Gemstone’s wealth and power. Church staff and others in the wider world jockey for the same access. Other mega church families compete with them.

Eli’s children rarely respond well. They make mistakes but aren’t sure how to apologize. They cause harm, but aren’t sure how to acknowledge and atone for their actions. They are flawed people who know how to say the word ‘redemption’—know how to preach it—but don’t quite know how to actually be redeemed, aren’t quite aware that what they preach might actually apply to them. They are lost, wandering, searching, struggling, arrogant, even broken people who need some grace. Spoiler alert: in that final scene, though none of their issues are fully resolved, though they still have a lot of work to do, a lot of healing to do, a lot of relationship repair and building to do, they are, at least for the moment, reconciled to each other. They are together, enjoying each other’s company, loving each other, momentarily redeemed, experiencing at least some temporary grace. Aimee Leigh’s spirit is visually watching over them as they take turns driving a church-owned Monster Truck called “The Redeemer” across a field on their property, and Dolly Parton’s “Shine” plays in the background. None of them got what they wanted, really. But somehow they got what they needed. I cried.

            Heaven let your light shine down.

            That’s how I landed here this morning, talking about grace. The song sparked the idea. The song is our sacred text for this morning. I originally called this sermon “Grace for Unitarian Universalists,” though now I just call it “Shine.” In my newsletter announcement I wrote “Sometimes we get what we don’t deserve … and it’s wonderful. One traditional religious term for this phenomenon is grace, though Unitarian Universalists typically don’t embrace this term, [not in its traditional sense]. Given that, what might grace look like for UUs?” Please know it was entirely unconscious on my part to plan a sermon on grace for UUs for this particular Sunday, but I confess to you how strongly I feel we here, in this UU congregation, right now, we need some grace. Over the last year we’ve had a challenging discussion about proposed changes to Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws. Not everyone has been directly involved in the discussion, but for those who have, relationships have been strained, some perhaps broken.  We need some grace. Heaven let your light shine down.

And now we’re approaching our Annual Meeting in May, at which we will consider changes to our UUSE Constitution, some of which refer to our institutional relationship to the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our Policy Board has been operating in good faith, trying to make the best decisions possible about how to structure that meeting, while also experiencing fairly intense pressure on multiple fronts to structure it in specific ways. Most of you are not involved in these discussions, but there are certainly rumors flying around about them, and some inaccurate information. Without getting too deep into the weeds, I’ll give you one example: there’s a rumor that one of the votes we’re considering for the Annual Meeting would end our congregational affiliation with the UUA. This isn’t true. The taskforce that worked on the package of proposed constitutional changes has been very clear there is no proposal for us to end our affiliation with the UUA. The proposal in question would make it easier to end affiliation in the future if the congregation feels it is necessary. Some are concerned this is still too much too soon and prefer a discernment period. There’s a lot of gray. For those involved, this experience has strained, perhaps even broken relationships. We need some grace. Heaven let your light shine down.

I remain completely confident that everyone who wants to speak at our Annual Meetinng will have an opportunity to speak, and every item that people want to vote on will come up for a vote. And a congregation-wide discernment process about our relationship to the UUA will commence sometime this spring. The Policy Board’s process, as messy as it has been, has gotten us to the point where I can feel this confidence. I know—believe me, I know—the Board’s decisions are unsatisfying to people on all sides of these various debates, but they are solid decisions and that’s why I feel confident. I commend the Policy Board for its work. Though understandable under the circumstances, it’s also not normal for UUSE Policy Board members to feel such pressure in relation to setting our Annual Meeting agenda. The pressure exists because people care deeply. That’s a good thing. But it makes governance very difficult. We need some grace. Heaven let your light shine down.

We need some grace because none of it will end with our Annual Meeting. The UUA General Assembly will vote on the proposal to change Article 2 of its bylaws in June. Whatever the outcome, I suspect it will create more tension, anxiety, and possibly conflict here. Heaven let your light shine down.

And then in June of 2025, the UUA will publish proposed changes to the rest of its bylaws. I suspect those proposals will create more tension, anxiety and possibly conflict here.  We need some grace. Heaven let your light shine down.

I’ll stop saying that now. It’s a nice metaphor once or twice, but at some point it begs the theological question, “Heaven?” Totally legit question. Many answers. For example, some of you are sure there is no Heaven. Some of you will speak of Heaven, but limit your speaking to a vision of Heaven on Earth. Some of you won’t rule out Heaven; you’re convinced the standard depiction of angels, clouds, harps and pearly gates is a fiction; but you’re not sure what images will adequately replace that standard. Some of you wonder about and lean toward the notion that a spiritual realm beyond this physical realm exists, that there is some continuation of our essence after we die, even if our consciousness ends. My late father, a highly regarded molecular biologist who published more than a hundred articles in major scientific journals, an agnostic UU Humanist, deeply grounded in the scientific method, was convinced of the reality of an enduring spiritual realm beyond this physical realm. He called it Heaven.

When we start digging into the metaphor from the song, there’s a lot there to consider. But it it’s not just a consideration of Heaven. What about the light? Is there a light that shines down? If so, what is its source? What is its power in our lives? Does it shine down, i.e., are we sure Heaven is up? Might it shine around? Or within? Or between? And perhaps most importantly, who’s doing the shining? And if they are shining their light down on me, why me, and not someone else? Or why us and not some other people? What did we do to deserve it? Is there something special about us, or did the shiner just randomly pick us? Or—Universalism—doesn’t the light shine on everyone, and we just forgot that minor theological tidbit from our religious heritage? But if that’s the case, then the lyric shouldn’t be “Heaven let your light shine down.” It should be something like, “Let me – or let us – remember Heaven’s omnipresent light.”

Theology’s fun!

All this is a set-up for talking about grace. Here’s a traditional Christina definition of grace from Van A. Harvey’s A Handbook of Theological Terms, a little reference book I acquired during my seminary years. “Grace is perhaps the most crucial concept in Christian theology because it refers to the free and unmerited act through which God restores his estranged creatures to himself.” [1] In other words, Heaven let your light shine down. Though most Christian churches accept this formal definition, how grace actually works and what it achieves are topics they’ve heatedly debated for two thousand years. If I may make a very general statement, it is my impression that for Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists, over the last century, but stemming back to the 18th-century influence of the European Enlightenment on our faith traditions (the de-emphasis of the supernatural and the emphasis on reason in religion) traditional understandings of grace haven’t meant very much to us.

The fact that this gift from God—this light shining down, whatever it may be, is unmerited, is a problem for us. “Unmerited” is a tricky word. Too often implies that we don’t actually deserve it. Our human flaws, foibles and fragilities, our weaknesses, our losing it from time to time, in this traditional theology, are signs of an innate depravity or sinfulness. God’s grace is a gift we don’t deserve. But this is not how religious liberals have understood humanity and human nature for the past three hundred years. Yes, human beings have flaws. Yes, human beings have proven capable of astounding cruelty and evil. But that does not mean there is some innate depravity, some enduring, inherent sinfulness from which we must be saved by some power beyond us who thinks we don’t deserve it but is willing to grant us grace anyways.

No, we liberal religious people perceive and honor the inherent goodness in people. That’s our starting place. We try to nurture and develop that goodness in ourselves and our children. We fully realize that people make mistakes, cause harm, abuse power, but we do not confuse that with innate, inescapable sinfulness, or with human destiny. We believe each human being holds a spark of the divine. Though we articulate many different understandings of that spark, that divinity, that sacredness, that holiness, what our Unitarian forebears called that “likeness to God,” that inherent worth and dignity, it is non-negotiable for us. And it is universal. So we don’t intuitively recognize a divine judge determining whether or not we merit reconciliation with him. Most of us have rejected what I call vertical notions of the divine: God transcendent, distant, distinct, and up above, handing down grace we don’t deserve with no explanation.

Our liberal theology tends to be horizontal. The divine is not above, but amidst; not beyond, but within; not distant, but immanent; not inscrutable, but deeply knowable—knowable in the person sitting next to you, right now. That person sitting next to you is a source of divine grace. It is knowable in your neighbor, your co-worker, your teacher, your student, the one you help and in the one who helps you—all sources of divine grace. You are a source of divine grace.

When our text for this morning says “Love is in the water / Love is in the air,” or “Teach me how to speak / Teach me how to share,” it is much more in line with how we as liberal religious people experience grace: the gifts of an immanent divinity—infused into the world around us and manifesting in people, creatures, nature, art, creativity,  music, beauty—life-giving gifts always available to us if we pay attention, always accessible to us if we remain open; gifts sometimes coming to us in surprising ways, serendipitous ways, ways we never expected, ways that feel novel, new and clear now that the rain has gone, but gifts which were actually always there, waiting for us to remember, waiting for us to wake up, waiting for us to come home.

Come, thou fount of every blessing. Great spirit come and rest in me. Friends, we need grace. Let us remember we are gifts to each other, and gifts to the world. Let us remember those around us are gifts to us, that indeed the world is a gift to us. Grace abounds, even if the metaphors don’t always line up.

Heaven let you light shine down.

Or maybe we make it more simple. Shine. Shine. Shine.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Harvey, Van A., “Grace,” A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1964) p. 108.

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