Manifold grace

American poet Mary Oliver asks her readers three questions, both at the beginning and the end of her best-known poem, The Summer Day.[1]

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Who made the world? she asks with childlike wonder. Who made the swan, and the black bear, and the grasshopper, all the marvelous creatures who are the world with us and share it with us? Her words invite our attention to follow hers to see the particular grasshopper who is eating sugar out of her hand, and to notice the peculiar back-and-forth movement of the grasshopper’s jaw, how large her eyes, how pale her forearms are, how thoroughly she washes her face, and how she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, Oliver writes. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I’ve been doing all day.

And this is where she turns to us who have read or listened to her words, and asks us, Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

At the beginning her questions move from wondering about the world and who made it to the wonders of one small creature and one moment, and at the end her questions move from wondering what to do with the gift of one day to asking very directly what it is you and I plan to do with the gift of our one wild and precious life.

I don’t quite know what to tell her. I’m a little surprised; nobody has asked me anything like it in decades. My initial response is the thought that it’s a question for young men and women but don’t we each give the answer with our lives, each day, each moment, whether we’re sixteen, twenty-seven, forty-two, or ninety-four?

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Oliver asks. First Peter isn’t poetry, it’s prose and praise, but in the passage we heard this morning it walks with us into very similar territory. “The end of all things is near,” it says. “Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, maintain constant love for one another.” Faced with the nearness of the end of all things, we are to be alert, awake, attentive, and of sober, uncluttered and disciplined mind so that we may pray. Faced with the nearness of the end of all things, we are to be attentive to the precious gift of each moment and each day, so we may receive and live it well, which is, according to First Peter, prayerfully. We receive and live the gift with gratitude to the Giver, so that God may be glorified in all things. And, above all, we live the gift of life by loving one another.

First Peter brings up hospitality in order to unfold further love’s meaning in the community of believers. In the early years of the church hospitality was an essential aspect of worship and fellowship; believers who owned homes had to be willing to open the doors for the church to gather on the Lord’s Day and on other occasions to worship, to eat, and to collect and distribute resources for the poor. And if families had a spare bedroom, they were expected to let itinerant church workers stay with them. At the end of his letter to the Romans, in a little half-sentence that tells us a lot about congregational life in the first century, the Apostle Paul sends greetings from “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church” (Rom 16:23). Love in the household of God means hospitality: welcoming the family of God into one’s home and caring for each of them with the gifts of wash basin and towel, of food and drink, blanket and pillow.

Be hospitable to one another without complaining – this attitude of generous welcome easily translates into other areas of life together: people making room for each other, people letting the needs of others determine their actions, people making space for new and unfamiliar customs and ideas, people giving each other space to grow and change. Hospitality is love’s demand not merely for those who own large homes and whose pantries are always well-stocked for company; all members of God’s household, all whom Jesus calls his brothers and sisters are to be hospitable and generous.

“Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” This isn’t poetry, but it’s beautiful prose; it’s gospel prose. We’re invited to see ourselves not as owners, earners, or consumers as the dominant narratives of our culture relentlessly suggest. We’re invited to see ourselves as recipients of gifts whose Giver is generous beyond compare, and we’re asked to consider how to make use of these gifts in ways that honor the Giver.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Now that I’ve had a little time to think about it, the question no longer renders me speechless. I want to live so as to discover every layer, every aspect of the manifold grace of God. I want to explore its immeasurable depth and width and height; I want to see, taste, feel, hear, and smell manifold grace; I want to walk in it, float in it, dig in it, bathe in it; I want to name it, sing it, praise it— manifold, manifold grace. In the company of Jesus, I want to know all that I’ve been given and I want to give and be part of the giving, to the glory of God.

The universe, the galaxies, the earth, the soil, the air, the ocean, and all living things – what a marvelous thing to be alive and be part of it all! Stewardship is such a dry, withered word, taken from the dictionary of management, when wonder is called for, and praise and care. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; and we’re all every creature, from the largest to the smallest recipients of the manifold grace of God. The depth of this grace has been revealed to us in the life and death of Jesus. We find ourselves addressed by the risen Christ as friends and co-conspirators of the kingdom, and we are given the joyful privilege and awesome responsibility to let the manifold witness of our life together become a complete reflection of the glory of God. Stewardship isn’t just about the checks we write — it’s about the life we live together in Christ. It’s about all the ways in which we give ourselves to this new life by serving one another in the one household of God.

Earlier in First Peter, in chapter 2, we read, “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And what is it we offer? Our attention, our wonder, our praise, our moments and our days, the work of our hands and the meditations of our hearts, all that we’ve been given: the manifold grace of God.

 

[1] Mary Oliver, House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), 60. For a little background, see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver#about and http://maryoliver.beacon.org/

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