Do any of you remember the Cincinnati Zoo story back from 2016? It was a story that not only swept every news outlet, but also every news comment section and social media platform, as well as playground side conversations, school conversations, and water coolers at workplaces. One of those big, gripping, divisive stories.
What happened back in May of 2016 at the Cincinnati Zoo was that a three-year-old boy somehow ended up in the gorilla exhibit. He slipped away from his parents and found himself in the custody of an endangered and beloved animal—the zoo’s 300-pound beautiful silverback gorilla, Harambe, who both cradled the child and also dragged him through the water moat in his enclosure rather violently, terrifying the gathered crowd. The zookeepers had to make the heart-breaking decision to take Harambe’s life in order to save the boy’s life. Animal rights activists blew up the internet with #justiceforHarambe and protested outside the zoo. Parents and animal lovers started debating about whether human children’s lives are more important than gorilla’s lives.
And everybody started looking for someone to blame—it’s just what we do, right? Blaming the zoo for not securing their gorilla exhibit, blaming the zookeepers for shooting an animal they were charged with protecting, blaming the human species for putting animals in captivity for their education and entertainment to begin with, blaming the three-year-old for not respecting rules: what is wrong with kids these days?
But the most vitriolic and vicious, hateful, of public attacks, was directed at the parents, especially by other parents.
So, here’s what apparently happened: on that spring day, the mom took out her phone to take a picture, and her three-year-old disappeared, and she searched and searched until, to her horror, she discovered him in the gorilla habitat. And this small act, this completely innocuous day-in-the-life-of-a-caregiver moment, I looked away for a moment and my child was gone, brought out a stunning, stunning, lack of understanding, lack of compassion, lack of GRACE from others.

This past week I revisited the tens of thousands of Facebook comments directed at this mother from parents saying that they “have never” let their children out of their sight, and their kid would “never” end up in a similar fate. Internet comment sections were full of people saying that the parents who lost their child at the zoo should be imprisoned and sterilized, their kids taken away. 430,000 people, mainly other parents, signed a petition to bring criminal charges against them.

A colleague of mine shared this satirical headline and these thoughts with me back when this was making daily headlines: “Rescue Mission Launched as Thousands of Internet Commenters are Stranded on Moral High Ground.” And my colleague wrote, “Those of us who are not stranded on moral high ground know this truth: most of us parents and caregivers are just trying to get through the day, very aware of the fact that we are lucky our kids weren’t eaten by a gorilla yet. There but for the grace of God go all of us.”

Why is it so hard to get here? I suspect that for the parents who found themselves stranded on moral high ground–oh trust me, I’ve been there–seeing themselves in that imperfect mom moment was just too terrifying to bear.

The strange paradox here is that when we bravely, for it is an act of bravery, move closer to one another–to one another’s utterly fallible human-ness–extend a bit of grace, we become recipients of it as well. For we all need it. I sense this is what Barbara Brown Taylor means when she writes about the up-close, grace-filled encounter with one another being a place to “glimpse life.” Humanity.

Social scientist Brene Brown articulates grace this way: “people are hard to hate close up. Move in.” Because when we do, we glimpse ourselves. That’s why. There but for the grace of God go all of us. For the truth is, the truth is, we humans, in our varied and colorful and countless ways of messing up and getting it wrong and, yes, hurting one another, are more connected than we are dis-connected. I have to believe this. I have to put my faith in this.

So many religious leaders place the word God at this encounter-place, as our reading did today. Of course, as Unitarian Universalists, this word ‘God’ leaves many of us wanting–an easy substitution word is simply Love. Love of the stranger, the person who you do not understand, who is not familiar, who is making a mess of things. YES! Those! And that moving in close to these our siblings, believing in the possibility of our 1st principle that teaches us about the worth and dignity of every, every, every human being: well it is in and through this that we glimpse Love. Capital L.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called this Agape Love. A Love that was at the center of his movement and the center of his FAITH. A restorative, binding, eye-to-eye, person-to-person, move-in love. He wrote,“Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… therefore if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavages of a broken community.”

Gosh, we see this all the time right. Many of us have participated in this. Many of us have been on the receiving end of this hate.

I struggle every day with callousness. Who among us finds it easy to practice grace with everyone you meet? In real time. Everyone you meet. Lucinda Williams sang a song called Compassion, whose words were written by her poet father, Miller Williams:

Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it…For you do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.  

I have these words printed and taped to my dashboard in my car. When dealing with Boston traffic while simultaneously listening to the news, I need words like these in my midst.

And you know, this orientation to my fellows, Amazing Grace, as our well-known hymn is titled, it’s the cornerstone of my Faith. The practice of it anyways. For goodness knows I struggle. Last week I reminded you that living our faith is a ‘return again’ journey–we flit away all the time. We can always be called back. None of us live this out perfectly. Enough with moral and religious purity. And yes, UU’s do this too–oh can we be unbending moral purists. I say, enough.

I am certain that extending grace as the lived cornerstone of my faith is because for so many years, I needed it. Anyone here who has suffered from addiction, or been in its wake, knows this well. As someone who has sat in a jail cell–and not for good works in the world–and been believed to be a top-to-bottom wretch of a person in society, despicable and unforgiveable by many, I can’t begin to describe the feeling of receiving kindness and compassion, from those who against all understanding and reason, extended me a bit of grace.

And I promised them and myself that I would dedicate my life to offering this to others. And some days I wish I hadn’t made this promise. Trust me.

And I want to be clear, I’m not talking about wholesale forgiveness here. Or inviting perpetrators of harm into your living rooms. NO. I’m talking about loosening the vice-grip many of us have on hate and blame and condemnation, disembodied from humanity. This doesn’t mean we don’t create healthy boundaries or hold people accountable. But we resist de-humanizing them. And we ask ourselves, ‘could this be me’? Where does hatred or callousness or imperfection live in me? That’s Amazing Grace, my friends. And our faith does call us to this. It does.

In response to the tragedy at the Cincannati Zoo. UU minister Rev. Diane Dowgiert wrote the following piece and submitted it to newspapers, many of which published it. I will read an abridged version of it that begins:

My thoughts on the tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo:

I am the adventurous child that feels safe enough in the world to climb over a fence and into the world of a caged gorilla at the zoo.

I am the gorilla that reacts with instincts that are at once tender and frightened.

I am the zookeeper that must respond quickly, with their best judgment, to the impossible unfolding drama…

I am the sharp shooter that pulls the trigger and releases the bullet that ends the gorilla’s life…

I am the parent of the adventurous child that clutches their racing heart and holds their churning stomach.

I am the zookeeper that must live with the consequences of their decision, being forever more questioned, and even reviled for their gut-wrenching choice.

I am the child whose life is now marked by a terror no one else will ever understand.

I am the parent whose life is now marked by a terror and a guilt no one else will ever understand…

I am the person that rushes to judgment and finds some comfort in assigning blame.

I am the person that must live in this world where there are no easy answers, where people just like me are called to respond to circumstances that I have only visited in my worst nightmares.

I am the person that finds within myself a capacity for compassion and an embrace for ambiguity that stretches me into the fullness of what it means to be human.

And this, this, this, is why we come to church. Not to claim moral and ethical purity, but to cultivate within ourselves a “capacity for compassion and an embrace for ambiguity that stretches us into the fullness of what it means to be human.” Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saves a wretch like me…

I hope you fold this Amazing Grace-ness into your exploration of faith, your language of reverence. Who and where might you extend it towards today? Can you inch yourself, if only just a smidge, closer to the ambiguity that is this thing called being human? Just an inch.

WE are about to receive the blessing that is music, and this hymn is all about loving the hell out of this beautiful broken world. For as our UUA president, the Rev. Susan Frederick Gray says, “No one, NO ONE, is outside the circle of love.” That’s capital L, love my friends. May it soothe your soul and stretch the Amazing Grace that resides within us all. Within us all. Amen. Hymn #323 Break Not the Circle.

Reverend Sophia Lyons
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Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.