A Season of Grace

Prelude: Sally Mitchell

Chiming of the Singing Bowl: Brian Freeman

Words of Welcome and Announcements: Brian Freeman

Good morning! I am Brian Freeman, a Worship Associate here at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sandy Springs, Georgia. 

Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation seeks to create loving community, inspire joy and spiritual growth, and support courageous action. All are welcome, as together we journey towards justice and equity by learning, caring, and acting together.

We especially welcome any newcomers and visitors we have today.  I hope you’ll join us after worship for coffee hour… from the comfort of your own homes. You can just stay right here when the service ends. There is no need to leave this zoom call, we will begin coffee hour as soon as the postlude is over. 

If you haven’t already, now is a great time to grab whatever materials you’ll need to light your own chalice if you’d like that to be part of your worship experience today.

As always, kindly set your phones to worship mode; we won’t know, but I think you might enjoy the hour free from distractions. And feel free to check in on your social media of choice to let your friends and family know about this place of caring you’ve found today. Our congregation is an exciting place to be, and we love it when you share the good news. 

And although we cannot be physically together to greet each other today with hugs, high-fives, smiles, and words of love, we are all together in spirit and each and every one of us is welcome.  

We have one announcement today:  

Next week, May 2, join us in person for our  second parking lot service with Rev. Misha and the Youth Worship Associates, as we  celebrate flower communion. This service will also be broadcast on Zoom.

Now let us prepare for our time together with a piano meditation, “There’s A River Flowing” played by Jim Pearce.

Music: Jim Pearce “There’s A River Flowing”

Call to Worship: Tony Barbagallo

These words are taken from the Gulistan of Sa’di – a landmark of Persian literature, and perhaps its single most influential work of prose.

“He told the chamberlain of the morning breeze to spread out the emerald carpet and, having commanded the nurse of vernal clouds to cherish the daughters of plants in the cradle of the earth,
The trees donned the new year’s robe and clothed their breast with the garment of green foliage, whilst their offspring, the branches, adorned their heads with blossoms at the approach of the season of the roses.
Also the juice of the cane became delicious honey by his power, and the date a lofty tree by his care.”

Come let us join together in service during this season of beauty and bounty.

Lighting of the Chalice: Elissa Branum-Martin 

Story Wisdom: Adia Fields-Udofia “The Bad Seed

Reading: Brian Freeman

When I looked up the definition of Grace on the Merriam-Webster website, the first definition and examples were all related to God:

1a: unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification
b: a virtue coming from God
c: a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance

This definition fits with the vague feelings around Grace that I had growing up in a Christian household. Especially around spring and Easter the idea that Jesus and the resurrection was an embodiment of Grace from a “god” in Heaven or “heavenly father” was prevalent. Yet, this definition of Grace, only flowing from outside of us – such as a God, can leave a UU or Humanist without grace.

In contrast Dictionary.Com defines grace as “A favor or Goodwill” or “A manifestation of favor, especially by a superior” Now these definitions I can work with.

In a way, part of my spiritual journey has been finding my way from the first definition to the second definition, which I have found more empowering.

As a child I viewed goodwill or fortune in my life as grace bestowed on me by a God in heaven, outside of myself and being completely out of my control. Of course this left me feeling powerless to change my circumstances. I had to wait for some one/some thing outside myself to bestow favor on me and improve my circumstances. In essence I was trapped in an abusive, painful life and was waiting for “grace” to save me – yet feeling it would never come.

In college and beyond I’ve sought answers outside of my original church upbringing. As I’ve grown, matured, and changed, I no longer view grace as solely the providence of some supernatural “divine” being. I now believe we can all be instruments of grace, both small and large to ourselves and others. We don’t need to wait for something outside of us to bestow Grace on our lives.

Grace – a favor or goodwill – another side of compassion or love. Combining the the best of first definition and the second it becomes unconditional goodwill or unconditional love. This unconditional grace can flow from truly understanding the living the 1st principle. Recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person – and we’re included in every person.

Many of us can benefit from showing ourselves Grace. Some of us can be our own worst critics. Judging our words and deeds more harshly than anyone else. If we can shed our inner critic and replace it with the voice of grace and compassion we can embody a healthy self-love.

 When we can look beyond a person (or our own) actions and see their inherent worth we can grant them grace or compassion. This grace isn’t earned by their words or actions but stems from recognizing our shared humanity perhaps our shared divinity. I think we can all benefit from sharing more grace in our lives.

And now the song, “Meditation On Breathing” by Sarah Dan Jones.

Interlude: Sarah Dan Jones “Meditation On Breathing”

Joys and Sorrows: Valerie Johnson

Good Morning. I am Valerie Johnson, a member of Northwest’s Care Corps Team, and I’m here to bring you the Joys and Sorrows this morning. And I invite you all now, those of you with Joys and Sorrows to share with our congregation here gathered virtually, to open the chat box at the bottom of your screen and enter your Joys and Sorrows there. 

Joys and Sorrows is our time in this space to honor these sacred moments and milestones. For our Ritual, we have water and we have river stones. Smooth and heavy in our hands, these river stones symbolize life’s pleasures and times of ease and life’s burdens and times of heaviness. The water in our bowl is a precious natural resource. We use it sparingly, reminding us of the preciousness of each life and its unique journey. 

This first is a stone of concern for John Weinert, who continues to be in a long-term rehab facility following a fall. Please keep John as well as Penny Raney in your thoughts. Cards and emails are welcome.

These stones of concern are for Ryan Wilson, and his aunt Marti Wilson. Ryan is recovering from a long hospitalization at home. Please keep Marti and Ryan in mind. Cards, phone calls, and emails are welcome.

This next stone is a stone of sorrow for Tony Barbagallo and his family. Tony’s cousin in Italy, Pippino, passed away last week of cancer. Tony has many fond memories of their times together.

And now a stone of joy for Rev. Misha. She is recovering and feeling much better. 

This last stone is for all of the joys and sorrows that remain unspoken.

We also have several birthdays to celebrate this week.   

Stephanie Bullard 04/22
Ellington Chau 04/26

Prayer and Meditation: Valerie Johnson

Please join me in the spirit of prayer or meditation.

Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. 
This is our great covenant;
to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. 
Because caring is a calling and all of us are called. 

May it be so.

Philip Rogers will now sing Bridge Over Troubled Water by Paul Simon.

Music Interlude: Philip Rogers “Bridge Over Troubled Water”

Sermon: Tony Barbagallo

Spring, Rebirth, Renewal –

I am enveloped in the annual renewal of spirit known as spring. The bursting forth of nature as the days grow longer overwhelms the senses. It’s breathtaking.

Just a few weeks ago, I was returning from my weekend duty of ski patrolling in North Carolina when I realized, “It’s happening”. I’m not driving home in the dark. The days are getting longer, that means the vernal equinox is coming, and spring is not too far behind.

And sure enough, within the span of a few weeks, the brown and gray of dead, dry leaves and twigs along the creek we pass on our daily walk near our house was being replaced by little green sprouts. Day by day those became more plentiful and started to sprout buds. And those became flowers.

Not to be outdone, the trees above began their annual show. Have you noticed that with trees it starts subtly? The bare, and seemingly dead branches, begin to look not so dead. They get a different hue to them. Not quite green, but maybe a greener shade of brown? Or in some cases a reddish hue? And they look heavy. I’m not sure what that means, but instead of looking dead, dry and brittle, they look fat and heavy. You know that something’s happening.

It’s only a few days later that you realize that the tips of most of those tree branches are fat and getting fatter. Their budding out. In some cases the buds become leaves. In others, the buds become flowers that precede the leaves, which invariably follow.

And the different species of trees don’t do it all at the same time. Just a week or two ago Kristen said to me, “I think the dogwood in the back is dead. The rest of the trees are in full swing, but I checked that dogwood, and I think it’s gone. It’s okay, there’s that Japanese Maple nearby that’s really grown even taller than the dogwood, so it’s not like we’ll have a bare spot back there.”

A few days later I noticed the blossoms on the dogwood. “Not dead yet,” I said to Kris, “just a little late to the party.”

What a party. And there are more players.

“The hummingbirds are back!” Kristen announced last week. I can’t keep track of all the different types of birds and when they appear, but let me say that the plant kingdom doesn’t have anything on the animal kingdom in this annual parade.

I don’t know if it was the cardinals or the robins that were first.

But let me say that even before the birds showed up, I could tell something was in the air.  And it was bugs. Insects.

Again, Kristen and I do a 2 mile urban walk every morning, and so we get to see things change day to day. And at some point I felt it, “Bam! That was a bug that just flew into me. I hadn’t seen a flying bug of any sort since November? Maybe October?

Bugs are coming out – and they are young and stupid flying into me like that. But if bugs are out, the rest of their food chain must be in motion. Plants to pollinate, and birds, bats or larger bugs to eat them.

Sure enough, there was a big fat robin redbreast sitting on a lawn within a day or two of that bug hitting me. Now, I don’t know if Robins eat flying insects also. That robin was probably looking for earthworms in the grass, and may not even eat the likes of the guy that whacked into me. But I do know that if there’s a bug walking, crawling or flying, there’s somebody’s gonna’ eat it, and they aren’t going to be far behind in making an appearance.

Was that before or after we noticed the cardinals swooping through our back yard?

I don’t know. But it definitely was a few more weeks before the official notice that the hummingbirds have returned took place.

Not just stupid, but annoying bugs too.

We have our annual battle with carpenter bees that are slowly but surely eating our backyard shed. They just love that cedar I think. Every year, those big, fat, noisy bees return. They don’t appear to sting. But they are seemingly oblivious of humans. It’s like having miniature drones in the backyard.

They make that buzzing noise and they’re hovering around just out of reach and sort of checking us out.  They’re probably thinking, are we edible?

And the show is continuing. We just returned to Atlanta on Monday from a weekend out west and found a different set of Azaleas blooming in our backyard. The tall pink ones were blooming before we left, and now the shorter white ones are all in bloom. The ferns are no longer little sprouts, and getting taller. And it’s a good year for our Irises.

I enjoy this spectacle every year. It’s really the show of shows. And it’s free. I don’t have to pay anything for a front row seat. I see it walking down the block. Driving home. And mostly, in my backyard.

Those of you who know me a little, know that my spiritual path is through my connection with nature.

Regardless of the season, I find that – for me – the window to the divine that I can peak through is the natural world and the resultant reminder of my place in it – regardless how small. And this is my springtime meditation.

I am not the master of my backyard, but just another creature passing through. If I wasn’t here, the plants, the bugs, the birds would come anyway. The hummingbirds might not find the feeder that Kristen tends, and pass this little patch of land by. And the ornamental and specimen plants might not last. And those noisy, nosey drones of carpenter bees would eventually consume that shed and move on.

But the native plants and trees would still bloom and leaf out, the associated and wide array of bugs would still keep coming to pollinate them, and the birds will follow the feast of insects that results.

Oh yes, the show must go on. And it will.

This year however, something else has been a part of my springtime meditation.

– Family and reconnecting.

Maybe it’s because of the past year’s Covid isolation, or because many of my family and friends have successfully been vaccinated, but this year springtime has made me think of getting together and reconnecting with friends and especially with family.

As I watch the unfolding of the season, this rebirth and renewal has made me think of reinvigorating connections with those closest to me. As the birds build nests to start this year’s family, and the fox – yes we have a family of foxes in our in-town neighborhood, the rabbits, deer and coyote are starting their new families, I am thinking about how long it has been since our family and friends have sat around a table and shared time together.

It’s been over a year since I last saw my sister in Dallas. We mutually decided that it wouldn’t be wise for us to physically get together for either Thanksgiving or Christmas this past year.

Some of you who know me better know that Thanksgiving has traditionally been the holiday we shared with my sister and her family, alternating the hosting between our house in Atlanta and her place in Dallas. After her husband and my nephew died she was on her own for several years, with only my late nephew’s dog – Grover – for company. The year before last I flew out to Dallas so that she wouldn’t have to drive alone with Grover to Atlanta. It was a long, but fun drive spending all day and late into the night together, and we ended up driving it all in one go, arriving in Atlanta after midnight. So it was quite a sacrifice for us to give up on getting together.

And then there’s my step-dad, Henry and my Uncle Bobby and my Aunt Lina in New York that we haven’t seen in a long time.

I used to see my step-father Henry 4-5 times a year, especially because he opted to stay living close to my mentally handicapped sister after my mom passed away a few years ago. So we would see him whenever we visited my sister, and Kris and I usually picked him up to visit her at her group home together.  We haven’t seen him since Anita’s burial last August.

We had told Henry, and the circle of friends he shared with my late mother, to stay away from the burial because it just wasn’t a good idea for 80 somethings to be getting together at the height of the Covid summer of 2020. We plan to do a real memorial service for my sister this summer, when we hope that it will be okay to get together safely. We told him, we’ll get together then.

Of course who pulls up to the grave site just before we begin the burial? Of course it’s Henry, and my step-sister Lucy.

Oh, and their whole circle of friends – my mother’s and Henry’s – all come tottering along too.

I tried to be gracious and thankful for their coming, while at the same time telling them they were all crazy to be risking their health by doing so. Thankfully it was a pretty breezy, albeit blazingly hot, day, so Covid exposure was probably pretty minimal.

As I recount this, you may be thinking, and I am too, that I’ve lost a lot of family. But instead of thinking that it’s sad, I have been thinking that I’ve been pretty lucky to have had that much family to care about and to be cared for in return.

And so we come to the theme of this Sermon.

I thought I’d say that in case you’re lost and wondering if I have a point here. I do, and I’m going to try to square this circle now.

The theme of the month is “grace”.  

When I volunteered to do this service, I had these ideas in my head about the season and rebirth, reconnecting, family, and thought, “how does that tie in with Grace”?  

That led me to reflect upon what we actually mean by grace. I mean, I have this notion of “The Grace of God” from my catholic upbringing.  And we used to recite, “Hail Mary, full of grace”, but again I was never entirely clear about what exactly that means. I used to equate it with, “Jesus loves me, this I know, ‘cause the bible tells me so.”

So, I was feeling a little challenged about this theme of grace and how it ties into my adult, agnostic life.

The dictionary tells me that in Christian theology, grace refers to the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

The free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

I get uneasy with things like God, salvation and sinners. But let me parse this a bit and see if I can salvage something here.

The free and unmerited favor…manifested in the bestowal of blessings. Maybe I can work with that.

My life is blessed. I often say I have been lucky, or fortunate; that things have worked out really well. I’ve been blessed.

It’s not that I haven’t worked, and sometimes hard, for the things – and by this I mostly mean material things – that I have. But I also recognize that much of life is not truly a meritocracy, and I am the beneficiary of advantages and good fortune that I didn’t directly earn. Loving parents, a safe home to grow up in, access to education, etc. I didn’t earn these things through my hard work or tenacity. I was blessed with them.

I can go through the pecking order of things I think are important in life: Health, loved ones, the health of loved ones, my security and the security of loved ones, good friends and their well-being. I have had some influence on these things, through choices I make, like diet and exercise, being loving and caring to others, who I choose for friends and life partners, etc. But I recognize that I’ve been fortunate on all these scores.

I’ve been blessed.

So is this warm fuzzy feeling I get when I am musing about the return of spring, the turning of nature’s wheel, the possibility of re-connecting with my remaining family and my friends, while also recognizing that I have and have had a pretty good run of things; Is that feeling that things are alright, and maybe are going to be alright “Grace”?  

I’m saying yes.

I believe that if I am open to it, I can see the blessings in my life and experience this state of grace. The unmerited, unearned blessings of life and the world around me. I live in a world of grace.

And what can I do with this grace? Should I do anything with it? How does it make life better for those around me?

I believe I can share this grace with others, as I am with you, now, by calling attention to our collective ability to experience it. It may be as simple as sitting still for a moment and enjoying a little pleasant sunshine, or the sound of rain on the roof, or reflecting on a kind gesture. Or perhaps a practice like meditation, or yoga. But I believe it is there for all of us.

And I further believe that we can share grace. That we can be conduits of that grace through our actions and deeds. Through a simple smile or gesture of good will.

The other day I was washing my hands in a public restroom and an adult male next to me was muttering and sort of playing with the water. I assessed that he had some developmental or mental disability. Then I realized he was responding to someone outside the rest room and telling them in a child-like voice that yes mommy I am washing my hands. He stopped playing with the water and walked out. I finished up, grabbed an extra paper towel and on the way out the door saw the man’s mother inspecting his hands. I handed her the paper towel and said, “I don’t think he dried those hands.” She smiled at me and said, “Thank you very much”.

It wasn’t anything at all, but an unmerited little deed on my part that was what – a “blessing?” – To her. To the son? To me? Who was blessed in that exchange? Maybe all of us.

This leads me to Practices:

I was cautioned, while writing this, that perhaps experiencing “Grace” is easier for me, because my path has been easier or because I have more things. While I acknowledge my privileged upbringing and circumstances, I also disagree that those are the source of, or the manifestations of grace. I find the idea that anyone’s God blesses them with material things appalling. Like, “Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Right?

Over the years, I have observed and been envious of people with far less things than I have that were able to experience and manifest grace. People that seemed to have very little, but were abundantly happy and grateful. I thought then and still do that they knew something. I believe now that I have a glimpse of what that is. And I think that the practice of reflecting on my blessings helps me to recognize it.  

I call attention to the fact that we are in the Islamic month of Ramadan. This month our Muslim friends and neighbors engage in the spiritual ritual of fasting. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities. Muslims believe that Ramadan teaches them to practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate, thus encouraging actions of generosity and charity (zakat).[63]

My friend, Saeed (a Sufi practitioner of Islam) says that fasting teaches him to be present and separate from physical needs. In addition to fasting the Quran tells him to abstain from bad thoughts and actions. “Strengthening the state of heart” is the term he uses – in Sufism the heart is the gateway to the soul. Through fasting he says, he is trying to make himself more in tune to the world, away from his physical needs and corporal desires. In this way he hopes he can be more receptive to the blessings in his life.

Keeping with my Islamic theme here, I again quote our opening poet Sa’di, who wrote:

“O Contentment, make me rich! For without thee there is no wealth.”

This idea of contentment. Enough. That wealth is not measured in having more things or money, but in the ability to enjoy the blessing of being alive. Having just enough to pause and smell the roses.

I commend to you the writings of both Sa’di and Rumi on this subject of contentment. They had a lot to say about it. Many of which you may recognize as the basis for common sayings we use today.    

I recognize that Ramadan is about much more than just opening oneself up to be receptive to – to recognize if you will – the blessings in one’s life. However I like this idea of having a spiritual practice to remind myself of how fortunate I truly am.

In my case, it’s a meditation in the garden or during our walk in the abundance of spring. For others it can be service and doing volunteer work. For other it is a more traditional practice like fasting and prayer.

I believe it is important, because, if we do this, and internalize this feeling of grace, then we are so much more able to reflect that feeling to each other, in those little gestures, words and deeds that make our days infinitely more cheerful and fulfilling. I ask again, “Who was blessed when I handed that mother a paper towel to dry her son’s hands?” I know I was.

And so I ask you all now and as you go forth from here, to think, what is it that you do to remind yourself of how blessed you truly are?

How do you experience Grace?

For it is surely there and all about us in this season of abundance and spectacle that we call spring.

Blessed be, and may it be so.

Music: Voices of Northwest “Rivers of Grace”

Offering: Introduction by Brian Freeman

We give to remind ourselves how many gifts we have to offer.
We give to remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
We give with the faith that, together, we have enough.
We give to say yes to something we value. 
With our gifts, freely given, may we say yes to the values of our faith. Our offering will now be given and gratefully received.

Dedication of the Offering: Brian Freeman

Now please join me in the dedication of our offering. To the work of this congregation, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our offerings and the best of who we are.

Benediction: Tony Barbagallo

The 13th-century Persian poet, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī said:

The leaf of every tree brings a message from the unseen world. Look, every falling leaf is a blessing.
Let us go forth from this service to experience the blessings of the season and share with friends and strangers alike this state of grace.

May it be so.

Postlude: Jim Pearce