Unitarian Universalist Meeting House
December 9, 2018
We are well into the season of wonder. Two weeks ago I talked about the stress and chaos and loneliness of the holidays. Last week I talked about the Hanukkah story, how the miracle of one day’s supply of lamp oil lasting eight days took place against the backdrop of a brutal war of liberation. Tomorrow is the last day of Hanukkah but we are also well into the season of Advent which will lead us into Christmas. And we are awash in miracle stories.
As UUs, perhaps the most natural stance for us to take towards stories of Annunciation, Virgin Birth, Shepherds and Angels, or the Journey of the Wise Men following a Moving Star, is one of extreme skepticism. UU Minister Chris Raible a generation ago put out a little book of parodies of famous hymns for skeptical UUs, and perhaps the most memorable was God Rest Ye Unitarians.
God rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay, Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day. When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say, O tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact, Glad tidings of reason and fact. Our current Christmas customs came from Persia and from Greece, From solstice celebrations of the ancient Middle East. This whole darn Christmas spiel is just another pagan feast. O tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact, Glad tidings of reason and fact. There was no star of Bethlehem, there was no angels' song, There could not have been wise men for the trip would take too long. The stories in the Bible are historically wrong, O tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact, Glad tidings of reason and fact.
With recent Biblical scholarship, we now have a bunch of ancient texts about Jesus, but only two – the Gospels of Luke and Matthew – mention anything about the circumstances of his birth. And these two are inconsistent. Luke has the shepherds and angels, the trip to Bethlehem and the birth in a manger, Matthew has the Magi and King Herod and the moving star. Most New Testament scholars believe that Luke and Matthew were written after the year 80 of the Common Era, that is, eighty years after the birth they describe, fifty years after Jesus was crucified. It is unlikely that either Gospel writer was an eyewitness to that birth.
Now miracle birth stories abound in religious literature. The miracle birth narratives of Jesus parallel those of other great religious leaders. When Confucius was born, there appeared in the sky two fiery dragons writhing, then five old sages, and then five musicians. When the child had been born, they noticed five red characters on his chest, and these were finally translated as a prophecy that he would be a great king.
Of course, the prophecy was wrong: Confucius never was a king, but he was a wise man who taught kings how to rule justly.
Before the Buddha was born, it was said that his mother’s womb became transparent and she could see her baby there. She gave birth standing up, and four devas or heavenly spirits were there to catch the child; there was no blood or other fluid or dirt, but the child descended as a precious jewel wrapped in a beautiful cloth, and at the moment of his birth, there were two showers of rain, one warm and one cool.
Miracle birth stories are a way of honoring a great religious leader, a person who shows us new levels of insight, who reveals to us new truths about the world or about ourselves.
They are a way the writer is saying, “pay attention to this guy.” For miracle stories are a way of saying that God has smiled on our enterprise. Are they, in today’s language, “fake news?” Let’s just say their historical veracity is not the point.
The Universalists had a miracle story which is often told: John Murray, a refugee from England had sailed to America determined to start his life over and never preach again, but his ship was blown off course and ran aground on the New Jersey Coast. An illiterate but successful farmer named Thomas Potter had become convinced that a loving God did not condemn any person to Hell, and God directed him to build a chapel in the corner of this cornfield for the preacher who would come and preach this truth of universal salvation. Murray met Potter while he was walking on the road in search of some food for the ship’s crew; the ship could not be gotten off the bar until the wind shifted direction. Potter gave him some fish for them, and on hearing of Murray’s theological convictions, determined he had been sent by God. Murray refused Potter’s pleas to preach, but then relented and said he would if the wind did not shift before Sunday. The wind held its direction until Murray had finished preaching to a packed house that Sunday, and then shifted to allow the ship to proceed on.
Here in Chatham we had a Universalist church from 1823 until 1960, the first one established on Cape Cod. When the first building was built, a member of the church wrote that several orthodox Christians were praying over the building materials which had been brought in by barge, that the tide would wash them out to sea before the building could be built. But the tide did not do that, and the building was built despite the opposition of the orthodox. That church outgrew its first two buildings, and in the 1870s they erected their third building, on Main Street just beyond where the Orpheum theater is now. Just after the building was completed, there was a hurricane which destroyed the surrounding buildings but left the new church building intact, which is why ever after it was called “the church the hurricane built.” A kind of miracle.
What is a miracle? Because we live in a scientific age, we tend to discount any story of a miracle which violates what we think we know of the laws of nature. Newton and Galileo and their collaborators disenchanted the world-view which had preceded the scientific age. That world-view said God was supreme and if God felt like stopping the sun in its tracks, God would jolly well do so. The scientists painted a picture of a world which ran on impersonal law which could be described mathematically. The first generation of clergy after the scientific revolution argued that Jesus was the son of God and the miracles related in the Gospels were proof of his divine authority, because only God would have enough power to suspend the laws of nature to allow walking on water, virgin birth or resurrection of the dead.
Once at General Assembly I was in a worship service which featured a dramatic re-enactment of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The minister assumed the role of a woman in the crowd following Jesus in the loaves and fishes story. The way this story is told in the bible, Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of five thousand with two barley loaves and five small fishes. As the minister retold, or rather reenacted the story, it turned out that the woman in the crowd had brought a little bit of food that day for herself and her two children to eat on the road back home. When they started calling out for people to contribute to the common basket, she held back because she was saving this food for herself and her own. But then something came over her, she had a change of heart. Suddenly sharing with everyone on that hillside became more important than keeping the food for herself. And as she opened her cloak to contribute the food she’d been hoarding, she saw that everyone else in the crowd was doing the same thing.
So the miracle happened, the crowd got fed. But the miracle happened through a change of heart.
I think that’s how a lot of miracles happen. I often tell the old story of the atheist and the Loch Ness monster. The atheist is fishing alone in a small boat in Loch Ness when there is suddenly a roiling of the water, and right next to his boat, the Loch Ness Monster rears his huge head. The atheist starts rowing away as fast as he can, but the monster pursues him and chomps away the back third of the boat in one bite. This propels the poor atheist into the sky where he yells, “God, help me.” Then the scene freezes and a voice comes from the clouds, “what did you say? I thought you didn’t believe in me?” The atheist replies, “give me a break, until ten seconds ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness monster?” God says, “what do you want me to do?” The atheist says, “can’t you just make the monster disappear?” God says, “No, that’s what people like you don’t understand. I don’t do magic, I can just change people’s hearts.” So the atheist thinks and says, “well make the monster a Christian, then.” So the scene unfreezes and the atheist starts back down into the waiting jaws of the monster who gets a beautiful peaceful smile on his face, folds his claws heavenwards and says, “for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.”
Miracles. The Unitarian side of our religious heritage grew out of Enlightenment values. The earliest generation of clergy after the scientific revolution, as I said, held that the laws of nature generally applied but the miracles recounted in the Bible were proof of the power of God and Jesus. Emerson rejected this thinking. In his Divinity School Address of 1838, God was not supernatural, God was identical with the laws of nature, though these also included moral laws. Jesus was God incarnate, but so were and are the rest of us when we think as he thought. But Emerson said that Jesus’ great insight got debased and corrupted in the generation following his death, so that Christian orthodoxy said he was Jehovah come down from heaven, and anyone who claims he was a mere man should be killed.
As far as miracles, Emerson strongly believed that the true miracles were not those which violated the laws of nature, but the grandeur of the everyday world presented to our senses.
“[Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”
The blowing clover and falling rain are miracles, Emerson said, not the turning of water into wine or walking on water.
That passage from Emerson caught the fancy of the spiritual writer Thomas Moore. Some of you may have read his book called Care of the Soul. In a more recent book, Moore comments on this Emerson quote:
“I’d become a follower of Emerson for that one sentence: the miracle of ‘the blowing clover and the falling rain.’ Just imagine what it would do for your religion if you shifted your sense of the miraculous from some astounding feat of a master magician to a profound appreciation of the miracle of rain. You would be a different kind of person living a different kind of life. You wouldn’t be sad from the weight of your religious obligations, but rather joyful at the beauty and holiness of the natural world. You’d be happy, open and graceful, all because of your positive, world-based spiritual vision.”
What’s important in our lives is not whether Jesus walked on water or turned water into wine but the everyday miracles all around us.
In 2014, Pope Francis made a statement that God is not a magician. Contrary to what you read in Genesis, God did not create the world with the wave of a wand. Instead, He
“created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment."
The rain and the blowing clover are miracles which happen in front of your eyes, out there in the world. But perhaps the most extraordinary of miracles are the ones that happen behind your eyes, in here.
As my great colleague Forrest Church knew he was dying, he preached the experience in an extraordinary sermon which was later expanded into a book about love and death.
While many people in Forrest Church’s position may think the premature shortening of his life is a raw deal, Church was struck by how amazing it is that he or any of us has life at all:
“There’s a theological point here, with which I’ll close. ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ we ask when things turn against us, forgetting that we did nothing to deserve being placed in the way of trouble and joy in the first place. The odds against each one of us being here this morning to pose such a question are so mind-staggering that they cannot be computed....
Your parents had to couple at precisely the right moment for the one possible sperm to fertilize the one possible egg that would result in your conception. Right then, the odds were still a million to one against your being the answer to the question your biological parents were consciously or unconsciously posing. And that’s just the beginning of the miracle. The same unlikely happenstance must repeat itself throughout the generations. Going back ten generations, this miracle must repeat itself one thousand times— one million two hundred fifty thousand times going back only twenty generations.”
My friends, your very existence here is most improbable. Forrest Church calls it a miracle. But it is not a one-in-a kind miracle, like making the sun go backwards. It is an everyday miracle, for every day people do make babies, every day new humans come into the world.
On Christmas Eve, we will say Sophia Lyon Fahs’ great reading, “each night a child is born is a holy night.” Each person born is holy, or as Peter Mayer’s song has it, everything is holy now.
Let me close with a word about our situation. This congregation was born in 1996 in a series of wonderous events we call the Miracle on Main St. We are hoping for a second miracle to sustain us in the months and years ahead. We are only here today because of a miraculous act of great generosity by one of our members last year.
Remember Tinkerbell in Peter Pan? Tinkerbell was a fairy, but when she was down and her light was about to go out, she asked the little boys and girls to believe in her. This belief enabled her to recover and be strong. Maybe what we need is a Tinkerbell here, a belief in miracles strong enough to make them happen.
Miracles. Belief. We can do it, friends. I’ll close with the words of Seamus Healy, the great poet of Northern Ireland, in a poem called “The Cure At Troy”
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing,
The utter self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightening and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
Justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
May it be so.
Song: Holy Now by Peter Mayer
When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything is holy now
When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything’s a miracle
Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one