Grace Falls All Over The Place
Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (7:11-16)
"To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another." - Christian Wiman
These words come from an essayist and poet by the name of Christian Wiman, one of the persons Fr. Michael Plekon introduces to his readers in his excellent book, UNCOMMON PRAYER. All of his books are worth reading and this one particularly so. It speaks of prayer as life – not something we do, but something we become, prayer as life, not as an addition, but the very heart of existence itself. The people in Fr. Michael’s book are people like you and me who have awakened to the presence of God in the small and large details of life, inside and outside the church. It is a celebration of what the incarnation really means and how it is lived by those who have faith in it.
The Gospel this morning shows Christ wading into the suffering of the world outside the gates of the little town of Nain. He meets the deep, wrenching sorrow of the widow head-on without flinching. His presence reveals the presence of the kingdom, the power of God in the world of human suffering. The Incarnation encompasses all things. "Grace," as Sara Miles, writes, "falls all over the place."
Let me quote something else from Wiman’s writings that touched me deeply.
"If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can’t float over the chaos of pain and the particles in which we’re mired, and we can’t think of him gliding among our ancestors as some shiny, sinless superhero…What is most moving and durable about Jesus are the moments of pure – at times, even helpless: 'My God, my God' – humanity. No, God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle. There’s no release from reality, no 'outside' or 'beyond' from which some transforming touch might come. But what a relief it can be to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of change, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck."
Jesus does not "float" over us, he lives among us and in us and through us. He does not reach down out of a faraway heaven when we call out to him, he reaches out from within our own humanity all the time. To integrate grace into our lives, we must wake up to the fact that it is, and always has been, present in us. Grace is the very air we breathe and we are awakened to it in the church sacramentally in water and with bread and wine and oil and in the world through the sacrament of selfless charity. Remember that in Orthodox theology there are not seven sacraments. The number is infinite for we regard all of life as sacrament!
It is when we become conscious of grace and welcome it into the "bright abyss" of our lives that integration occurs – when we are willing to be grateful for all things, becoming ships with open sails to catch every wind, trusting the process of the Spirit’s relentless movement in us and all things towards Oneness and Communion – never denial, never avoidance, always openness, not either/or, but always both and. It begins with mindfulness of the smallest details of living which later reveals itself to have actually been in the end mindfulness of God himself.
And today we see in the Gospel how grace invades the realm of death and the unspeakable sorrow of a widowed mother.
And not only her sorrow, for no suffering is individual and isolated, Christ enters the world of suffering. "Weep with those who weep," he says, not out of pity, rather out of co-suffering empathy. The tears of mothers and fathers everywhere whose children are taken by senseless violence are our tears. The horror of Newtown is ours, the terror felt by the frightened 13 year old boy shot in the back as he fled by police is the same fear that sometimes grips us in the middle of the night, the suffering of the ten year old special needs boy set afire by two of his peers in Texas is ours! The suffering of migrants is ours and we cannot separate ourselves from it without losing our souls.
As the suffering is ours, the solution is also ours. We must become love and prayer incarnate, conduits of grace, messengers of Christ's compassion, passion-bearers of the suffering of this world. To do so is to become what Christ was, utterly selfless and utterly empty, open to all and closed to none.
There is a famous saying by Abba Joseph with which Mary Oliver opens the book of poems she wrote after the death of her partner. The Abbot was approached by a novice who asked what he needed to do more than he had already done to be saved. The Abbot lifted his hands and said, "If you want, you can become like this," and his fingers began to burn like candles.
If we want, if we desire, in the midst of this sorrowful world, we can become "all flame," all prayer, all love, manifesting the truth of incarnation in our own bodies. The connection with God and with all things, so neatly woven into our flesh and souls by God, can break forth into each present moment if we allow it. "The Word of the Lord never returns to him without accomplishing its purpose." Light shines even when we close our eyes.
It is not too much to say that we must become so integrated with grace, so enflamed with Divine Love, so one with God, that when we pass through this world, people will say of us what they said of Jesus in Nain, "God has visited his people."