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Sunday Message for September 3, 2023


I would like to start today by reading you the story The Quilt Makers Gift by Jeff Brumbeau & Gail de Marken

There was once a quilt maker who kept a house in the blue misty mountains up high. Even the oldest, great great grandfather could not recall a time when she was not up there sewing away.....

Some said there was magic in her fingers. Some whispered that her needle and cloth were gifts of the bewitched. And still others said that the quilts really fell to earth from the shoulders of passing angels....

(Many who were wealthy wanted her quilts, but she replied to them) "I give my quilts to those who are poor or homeless. They are not for the rich."

Now at this time there also lived a very powerful and greedy king who liked nothing better than to receive presents. He had hundreds of thousands of beautiful gifts.

Things that shimmered and glittered and glowed; things mystical and magical; things whimsical and practical. So many, many things that the king kept a list of all the lists of things he owned.

And yet with all these marvelous treasures, the king never smiled. He was not happy. "Somewhere,' he said, there must be some one beautiful thing that will make me happy. And I will have it."

One day a soldier ran in with news about a magical quiltmaker who lived in the mountains.

"How is it that this person has never given me one of her quilts as a gift?"

"She only makes them for the poor; and she will not sell them for any amount of money."

The king went to the home of the quilt maker and told her: "I want one of those quilts; it might be the one thing that will finally make me happy."

The woman thought and thought and then replied, "Make a present of everything you own; and then I'll make a quilt for you."

The king was furious. "I don't give things away; I take them."

The king marched the woman up to a tall mountain where he had his royal iron-makers make a thick bracelet of iron. They then chained her to a rock in the cave of a sleeping bear.

When the bear awakened and saw the woman in his cave, he stood on his mighty hind legs and gave a roar that rattled her bones. "It's no wonder you're so grouchy,' the Quilt maker said, "You've nothing but rocks to rest your head at night. Let me make you a great big pillow.

And that is what she did. No one had ever been so kind to the bear before (it was almost more than he could bear) so he broke the iron bracelet and asked her to stay the night.

Now though the king was very good at being greedy, he was very bad at being mean. All that night he could not sleep for thinking about what he had done. He wailed, "Oh my, Oh my, what have I done."

When he saw the bear having cookies and tea with the quilt maker, he relented, and he lamented - "What can I do, kind lady, who can tame bears - what can I do to be happy?"

"As I say, give away all your toys and I'll sew a quilt for you. With each gift that you give, I'll add another piece to your quilt."

"Oh, All right; if I must, I must."

The king gave away all his toys - and you know what? The people were very happy. They all danced and sang and made merry. (and Lo and behold, the king began to smile - and his smile grew wider and wider, until it filled his face).

"How can it be,' the king cried out, "How can I feel so happy about giving my toys away?"

And the king kept on giving and giving

On and on the quilt maker worked, and piece by piece, the king's quilt grew more and more beautiful. Finally she was finished, and went to give it to the king.

After a long search she found him.

"What's this?" cried the king.

"As I promised you long ago, when you are poor, then I will give you a quilt.'

"But I am not poor," I may look less bountiful; but in truth my heart is full to bursting, filled with memories of all the smiles I've given - and with my new-found ability to smile.

And then - as you may have already guessed, the king left his kingdom and married the quilt maker.

By day the quilt maker sewed the beautiful quilts she would not sell; and at night the king took them down to the town.

There he searched out the poor and downhearted, never happier than when he was giving something away.

Never happier than when he was teaching people to smile.a

So today I am talking about The Wages of Grace. I have some other pieces I would like to share with you from a collection of Life Prayers, selected by Elizabeth Roberts. They come from chapter seven of that collection, itself entitled 'Moments of Grace.'b

The first one was written by Henry David Thoreau. He says:

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of head or hands. Sometimes, of a summer's morning, after having taken my usual bath. I sat in my summer doorway from sunrise until noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around.

I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were NOT time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.c

And the next piece was written by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He writes:

Our true home is in the present moment. To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water.
The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.

Peace is all around us: in the world and in nature and within us, in our bodies and spirits.

Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed.

It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice.d

And the final reading comes from James Broughton. He says:

This is it - and I am it - and you are it - and so is that.
And he is it - and she is it - and it is it - and that is that.
Oh it is this - and it is thus - And it is them - and it is us.
And it is now - and here it is - and here we are - so this is it.

And that, as they are wont to say, is that!e

"That is that -- And here it is -- And here we are -- And this is it." There have been moments in my life when I want to say to God, "That can't be so." This can't be it. If this is it, I'm out of here. Of course, if "this is it," where, would I go? Toledo? Gary, Indiana? Hawaii? Nope - all them places are a part of the "this that is it." And that, as they say, is that!

To say that "this is it" - well that certainly leads us to the question, "Is this all there is?" We don't always ask that question -- of course we don't. We are usually too busy: doing this or that, or thinking about doing that or this. We are, most of the time, too busy doing anything but asking that question. But however busy we are, however happy we may be, however fulfilled we may feel - there will always come the time when that question pops up: IS THIS ALL THERE IS?

Let me illustrate with a story. There was a man who served as a ministerial intern. His name was Tom Burdett. His mentor was the Reverend John Burton Wolf.

John was just getting ready to retire when he got there; just getting to retire after thirty-five years of a phenomenally successful ministry that had seen his church grow to be just about the largest Unitarian Church in the world. Tom learned many, many things from John Wolf; including an understanding of what Grace is and how Grace works in the world. And Grace matters tremendously in our lives.

Tom saw Grace at work with a crystal clarity, maybe saw it for the first time in his life, at a Memorial Service which John Wolf facilitated at. A woman had just died of leukemia, died after a long and arduous struggle to conquer that disease. She died, leaving behind a husband and two children - two girls, ages about ten and twelve. The family was sitting in the front row of a jam-packed sanctuary.

It was a remarkably moving service, as most all of John's were. At the end of the service, John walked up to the two girls, who had been crying, sobbing softly into their handkerchiefs. John went up to them. And he smiled. His was the warmest, most compassionate, most magical smile you have ever seen. And the girls, both of them, smiled back at him.

Tom could hardly wait until his next mentoring session. "How could you smile like that? How could you keep from crying yourself? And why, why did you smile right then and there? Why?" Tom wasn't questioning his actions. Having been there, he knew that what he did was right. He knew it because of the returned smiles of the girls. But he had to know how he did it, and why?

John Wolf's response was as follows. "I smiled to let them know that there were still smiles left in the world."

And then John talked about Grace, which he defined for Tom as "an opening up to the goodness available in the world." Grace is an opening up to the Goodness available in the world; a goodness that is often hidden in times of pain and sorrow; and often taken for granted when the times are good.f

And that makes sense. When times are good - "Who needs help in opening up to the goodness available in the world?" When you get straight "A's" on your report card, you don't need help; when you are madly, truly, deeply in love, you don't need help; when the world is your oyster, don't need help.

But then come the dark times, as they always will. And then the question is posed (often by you and to you) "Is this all there is?" Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once described priests in the following terms (and I am paraphrasing here). "They are silly men in their silly starched collars, walking around doing nothing - doing nothing until the horror hits home." And when the horror hits home, then Grace is called for and needed, and those same priests who had seemed slightly ridiculous become terribly important. For they, in the Roman Catholic tradition, are the conduits for Grace, the stream through which Grace flows into our hearts.g

We need Grace in our lives, just as we need each other. The quilt maker from our story this morning knew that people needed Grace. She knew that; and so she quilted her quilts. And she reserved those quilts for the poor, those in need, indeed, of the warmth that grace allows. There is a very real sense, of course, in which we all are poor, even the wealthiest among us. Why, even the king was poor. So impoverished was he that he needed to fill his treasury with all the toys that the world had to offer. And all those toys, served the sole and singular purpose of hiding his neediness from himself and from the world.

But we can only hide so long - before that question is asked about the "this that is it." The question is asked, "Is this all there is?" Without Grace, the answer is, "Yes, this is all there is - life's a 'turd' sandwich; and then you die". With Grace, the answer becomes, "Yes this is all there is. Let us rejoice in this and be glad."

So where do we get Grace? Where is the article to be purchased, and what is its cost. What are the wages of Grace? We have heard from the Bible what the "wages of sin" are supposed to be. Suffering and death, as I recall. But what are the wages of Grace; and where can I get some?

Jacqueline Kennedy would have directed you to one of her silly, stiff collared priests. Roman Catholicism is a sacramental religion. 'What is a sacrament?' asks the Baltimore Catechism. And the answer: "A sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give Grace." Grace comes from God; and is administered through the Sacraments. For the Roman Catholics, there are seven sacraments; for the Episcopalians, I believe there are five; and for the Lutherans, maybe two.

How many sacraments do we recognize as Unity students? None of course, none at all. We stand with Luther that there should be a "priesthood of all believers." We stand with Calvin that priests have no sacramental power. We are ministers yes - but there's nothing mystical here, nothing magical here, just the words of God spoke by one of God's children.

If Grace gets delivered through the sacraments; and there are no sacraments - well does it not follow that there is no Grace? It might seem so.

Well, I am here this morning to let you in on a secret: GRACE DOES HAPPEN. I won't say that "Grace exists" in the sense that existence means "matter filling up space," like an automobile or a washing machine. Grace does not "exist" like that. Grace is too dynamic to exist like that, too dynamic to exist, "washing machine style." What Grace does is GRACE HAPPENS.

Grace happens when we can open ourselves up to the goodness available in the world. Grace happens, when John Wolf can bring a smile to bear upon the world, in times of tragedy and turmoil. Grace happens when the magical sewer of quilts brings a smile to the king's face by teaching him how to be generous. Grace happens, to the extent that we let it happen.

Ours is not a sacramental religion. We have no ready-made, 'one-size-fits-all" conduit for Grace. Ours is not a sacramental religion; but we still do need Grace. In our faith, you and I channel Grace, each to the other.

Do you recall the wonderful prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, the one that begins,
"Lord, make me a channel for your Grace,
That where there was hate, I may bring love....
For it is through loving that we are loved in return"?

Grace happens! But we need each other's help to facilitate that happening.

Grace is not an inside job. One cannot be both the conduit for and the recipient of Grace - any more than a greedy old king can make himself smile by buying up all the toys in creation.

Do you know the distinction between a Buddhist heaven and a Buddhist hell?

A Buddhist hell takes the following form. A man or a woman is brought into a banquet hall. There is a plentiful table set up, filled with the finest of delicacies. Around that table sit the residents of hell. But though the table is filled - with turkeys and hams, with steaks and seafood, along with a generous number of vegetarian offerings - though the table is filled to the brim, the people sitting at the table are all of them thin, gaunt beyond words. A hellish sort of rigor mortis has set in, set in at the elbows, so they cannot close their arms. And they are tied to their chairs, so that they cannot bend over, the better to dive into a cherry pie. In hell, people starve - though a world of plenty sits right before them.

A Buddhist heaven goes as follows. A man or a woman is found sitting at that very same table, with the same food, the same rigor mortis of the elbows, the same ropes keeping her/him in a sitting position. The difference, the singular and solitary difference that makes all the difference is that, in a Buddhist heaven, people feed each other. People feed each other; and THAT is how Grace happens.

The title of this morning's sermon is The Wages of Grace. That would seem to be an unlikely title - for surely, though Grace happens, one cannot buy it. It is not for sale; it is not a purchasable commodity. You cannot buy it - but it's not cheap, either!

There is no such thing as 'Cheap Grace.' GRACE HAPPENS, freely and with no strings attached. But Grace Happens, best by far, when we are present to pass it on, one to another. And in so doing, we feel needed, feel loved, feel very much a necessary channel which allows that Grace to flow unhindered.

This is a canvass sermon. We need your help: both the help of your time and the help of your purse. We need your help because we need you, in order that Grace may continue to happen!

We have no sacraments, no "outward signs" which serve as a conduit for Grace. What we do have is each other; well, we can thank each other, and thank God and thank Goodness that Grace does happen. And if it does not happen?

Well, better not to think about that. Better not to think about a world wherein no one can bring a smile to those who suffer. Better not to think about a world in which everyone hordes her/his own toys, and no one is content. Better not to think about a world in which all of us are in it for ourselves; and "God help us all."

There is Grace at work in the world. Henry David Thoreau saw it unfold on a summer's morning, while the birds sang all around. Such Grace allowed him to grow "like corn in the night" - far better than any "work of the hands" would have done."

There is Grace at work in the world. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of its miraculous power. This is the Grace that allows for us to be present in the moment, "for the miracle is not to walk on water; the miracle is to be able to appreciate the beauty that is available here and now. It is not a matter if faith; it is a matter of practice!"

There is Grace at work in the world. The Reverend John Burton Wolf showed us its power as he smiled a smile, and with that smile brought a temporary pause to suffering.

There is Grace at work in the world. The magical quilt maker teaches the greedy king how to be generous; and in so doing helps him to smile the whole day through.

There is Grace at work in the world. And here it is - and this is it - and I am it - and you are it - and we are it. And that, as they say is that.

aThe Quilt Makers Gift Jeff Brumbeau & Gail de Marken
bLife Prayers, Elizabeth Roberts. chapter seven 'Moments of Grace.'
cHenry David Thoreau
dThich Nhat Hanh
eJames Broughton
fTom Burdett
gJacqueline Kennedy Onassis

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