“A Season of Miracles” by Mark W. Harris – December 14, 2008

“A Season of Miracles” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – December 14, 2008

Opening Words – from Emerson’s Divinity School Address

Jesus belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of humankind (man). One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates the divine (himself) in man and woman, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of the (his) world. He said in this jubilee of sublime emotion, “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.” . . . He spoke of miracles; for he felt that human ( man’s) life was a miracle, and all that we do (all that man doth), and he knew that this daily miracle shines as the character ascends.”

Sermon – “A Season of Miracles”

I am often confused as to why so many people call the big event of this Christmas celebration, a virgin birth. Don’t they mean a virgin conception, or maybe that immaculate thing is about how Mary was conceived? Growing up Protestant, I was kind of baffled by all this. Or is it about sex, and the story is describing a young girl, who has not been married before? It is all kind of absurd to many liberals anyway. What difference does it make? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about what we do with our lives, than with what kind of lineage we claim? We know now that the ancients wanted to somehow embellish this story to make Jesus more special. God is made the parent, and the child is conceived by miraculous means, a divine zap. Apparently Zoraster, the central figure in the now nearly defunct religion, Zorastrianism, was also conceived in a virginal way. We also know that the Biblical stories we make so much of, Matthew and Luke, are very different tales that we sometimes meld together, and neither has any historical validity, even if we set up crèches in our homes, or sing Away in a Manger so that we make it seem as though they do. The birth stories about Jesus are a kind of Jewish midrash, or compilation of ancient teachings. They build on earlier stories, not only from other religions, but mostly from the Hebrew scriptures, where this kind of holy conception, birth and life events are predicted. Among these are Isaiah 7:14, where it says “Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” These were handy references for those Gospel authors to implement.

We Unitarian Universalists usually do not ascribe to any theories that conception can be anything other than natural. There is no holy spirit floating around looking for special earthly partners. Yet modern times has produced many different kinds of conceptions that we might actually term miraculous; in vitro fertilization comes to mind. Just a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how Andrea’s brother’s doctor had pronounced his cure from asthma, as a miracle. What do we mean by this term miracle? Many of you know my story of being hit by a rogue wave off of Pemaquid Point in Maine, and being dragged out to sea. Some people might say that surviving that kind of encounter was nothing short of miraculous. That’s true, and yet the miracle could have turned out otherwise. I could have been a victim of the wave, too, just as the 911 person said to Andrea over the phone. The last person prior to me who was hit by a wave at Pemaquid was drowned. In fact we often use this term miracle to describe something good or fortuitous or lucky that happened to us, that could have also been a tragedy, too. Sometimes conceiving babies by non conventional means does not work out for some. There is no miracle baby. The special diet may not work for the affliction with asthma, and so there is no miracle cure, and Kevin might still be wheezing. We don’t survive the crash, and so the life we might have been grateful for if we or our loved one survived, is now another tragedy.

Baseball fans may remember the 1914 Miracle Braves, who played in Boston then. This was a team that was in last place on July 4th, and went on to a four game sweep of the Athletics in the World Series. They did something that seemed unlikely, or would not have been predicted, and the amazing nature of this victory or comeback or success against insurmountable odds is deserving of the word, miracle. So, too the miracle USA hockey team could have lost in the 1980 Olympics, and we would never have heard the announcer say, “Do you believe in miracles?”, as the final seconds ticked off the clock, and the evil Russians were defeated. All of these amazing events are declared miracles after they have occurred. Annie Sullivan would not have been the miracle worker if her efforts with Helen Keller resulted in failure, but they didn’t. How often the word comes up in history or in our lives. The unexpected, the amazing, and even the unexplainable all receive the word miracle. Yet no one here would probably ascribe a fortuitous turn of events as a sign of God favoring you and bestowing a miracle upon you. You either got lucky or you made an amazing effort, and somehow it worked.

A major event in our own liberal religious history was called the Miracles Controversy. This was fueled by those radical Transcendentalists, who you heard from in the opening words. Emerson said the Christian definition of miracle was Monster when he gave his famous address before the graduating ministerial students at Harvard. For the Christian Unitarians, the special revelation of their faith had to be confirmed by the miraculous nature of what Jesus did, how he was conceived, lived as a miracle working healer, and was resurrected from the dead. Without those miracles, Christianity was meaningless. Miracles were what made it a revealed faith. The Transcendentalists responded that the truth of Christianity did not need these old stories, but that its power depended upon our awareness of the divine spirit that was made manifest in the life of Jesus, and could also be seen in our lives as well. Jesus spoke of miracles because he believed all of life is a miracle. This is reiterated in a story one of my students from Andover Newton sent me this week. Morgan McLean wrote, “My UU miracle story is from Easter a few years ago when Susan Archer (the minister) asked the kids at the service what a miracle was. A (precocious) ten year old girl (in a proud UU RE moment) said “a miracle is an unexplainable phenomenon that some people believe God creates.” After the laughs stopped, Susan asked if anyone had ever seen a miracle. A four year old shot up his hand to announce “I saw a flower on my way to church today.” Exactly.

Unitarian Universalists believe in miracles, but we see them in different ways than what is traditionally defined as miracle. I believe each of our lives would be spiritually deeper if we embraced this sense of miracles in our midst. The first year I was in theological school I was Director of Religious Education in Davis, California. The RE program was responsible for the Christmas Eve service, and we decided to write and perform a modern day nativity. As a result of this effort, our story had two homeless hippies wandering around San Francisco, wearing the proverbial flowers in their hair. The woman was pregnant, as a result of some indiscretion at a rock festival. The parental lineage was unclear, but nevertheless this one guy was willing to stick by her. Turned away from the St. Francis Hotel on Nob Hill in the city, they somehow ended up at the Unitarian Church of Davis, and various characters there, the live-in sextons, the minister, and the chair of the board welcomed them in some way, and facilitated a warm place with heat, food, and friends for the wandering couple, with the craziest of immaculate conceptions culminating in a birth that could have been a disaster, but was in fact miraculous, partly because we recognize that every birth is miraculous. Every new life is an amazing confluence of miraculous biological history and events that renew life, and offers us new chances or new possibilities for making life, not only endure, but also be more compassionate, more whole.

I thought of this experience of mine when I read the description in the New Yorker of Bishop Paul Moore preaching on Christmas Eve, and his daughter Honor seeing the story as something very real, and very close by, and yet still miraculous. The man has lost his job; they are homeless, and they are turned away because they are African -American. Their life circumstances bring a degree of abject fear. They end up in a less than desirable setting, the garage, and then amidst the rags, the baby is born. Honor Moore says that she could see this story happening right there in her neighborhood. The story, she says, is told in a new way, and while it is the ancient miracle story, it becomes very real in the present. So it tells us that the miracle is present to us, and that it is happening right now. The implication is that the miracle happens every day. Miracle in this sense, asks us what do we see, when we look with our eyes.

Look at your hands. What do you see? Do you see how much work they have done? Think of every bone and muscle and tendon and nerve acting in concert with your brain day after day to do all that you do. Truly amazing! Do you picture these hands holding another, caring for another in the most compassionate way. Do you see them caressing a baby, your baby, holding that diminutive head, and rocking back and forth. Do you see them patting that arched back waiting for the satisfaction of milk? We look at the chest that heaves in breathing, and the softness of skin like nothing you have ever touched before, and the smile that beckons you with warmth and love that owes nothing and only asks for your smile in return. That baby is the quintessential miracle of life returning again and again, so that it might continue, that it might make us a more peaceful and loving race of beings, that he or she might be the messiah among us who would teach us all to be less selfish and more welcoming to new life, if we would only open our eyes and hearts to the miracle of life. This sense of miracle is attitudinal. It comprises a kind of reverence for all of life. It is the little girl who saw the flower on the way to church, and noticed it. It is about looking and noticing. Who among us is in pain, or who planted a flower or a tree so that we might breathe as a people for one more day, or that we as a people might see all the beauty all around us that is flowering every single day?

On the plane ride back here from Seattle yesterday, I was reading a book about the Peabody sisters from Salem. Sophia, the youngest, was an artist, and she eventually married the great writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was an invalid for many years, with horrible migraines. The book describes her going to Cuba to attempt to revive her constitution. While there for a year, she was exposed to easy access to wild nature. As she thought about returning to New England, she said she could see more now in a blade of grass than she had ever seen before. She had a Transcendentalist understanding of the divine years before anyone else had expressed it in this way. What do you see when you look? How deep do you go?

If a miracle is about looking deeper at the everyday, at what is around us, then it is also about having a response to life that embodies gratitude. Miracles as described in the story of Jesus are not simply miraculous events that result in a great good. In fact, if you read the Gospels you will see that sometimes Jesus cannot perform the miracle at all or sometimes it takes a second try, and sometimes it is not even desired. Kate Braestrup’s understanding of miracle in Here If You Need Me, is helpful here. All these amazing things that we call miracles, are not necessarily good or lasting things. Someone may not want them. That something great happened once also means that eventually the life that was saved will die. No miracle is forever. Every miracle is not wanted. Braestrup then goes on to describe an instance when a miracle did not happen. All the right set of circumstances did not collude so that this woman could live. She ends up murdered.

She says anything can happen, but only one thing will. It may not be the desired thing, but when it is, and we are given what we desire, then the true miracle comes in the measure of gratitude we feel. Those are the moments when we say a miracle happened. My life was saved. Somehow the water threw me up on rocks. When my oldest son Joel was born, and he was rushed to the neonatal intensive care, there was a fear that he was hopelessly sick due to sepsis. Yet the infection we feared was not present. Hallelujah, the child will live. When we are lucky or when we achieve something great because of our effort or when it is just a crazy set of happenstance, then a miracle is defined when are like the one leper who gives thanks. Gratitude means that we feel fortunate, humble, thankful for whatever we have received. It begins with the basics of life – If there is a roof over our head, or food to eat, or a friend to talk to or health to appreciate or a job to keep. Among these are the miracles that have kept us in life another year. Andrea’s brother rejoices because his health has returned. He can breathe. We not only see the miracle in the life around us, we also give thanks for the life we are given, and it is especially obvious when the life is preserved in a miraculous way. I am here another day. It is a response to life. Can we be grateful for life?

If we see the beautiful miracle of the baby, and feel the gratitude that life is preserved, then we also know that the final part of the miracle is that we can open our hearts in compassion. Everything is given over to the service of love. Every Christmas for me as long as I live will be marked by an immense tragedy which occurred when I was a young minister. On December 24, 1982, when I was minister in Palmer, MA, a young husband and wife who I had conducted a wedding ceremony for were killed along with the man’s father, and the couple’s one year old baby, who I was scheduled to dedicate after the holidays. They were killed in an auto accident by a car driven by a 16 year old drunk driver. The funeral service for all four victims was held a few days later in the church. I wrote this in the church newsletter, reflecting the love of mostly strangers who opened their hearts to this tragedy with profound compassion:

“There was an older man who was out shoveling all of the walks. There was a call from a town official saying that all the snow would be cleared away. There were cards from many who needed to share themselves in words. There was an abundance of food. There were touching hands, glances of care, hugs of warmth – you came to help. Many church members lived through a terrible tragedy over the Christmas holiday. It darkened the starry sky of new birth. You cried and I cried, again and again. It has been a practice of mine to quote the words of the Song of Solomon – “Love is as strong as death” – on sympathy cards. I believe until the last week of December, they were just that – words. Now and only now, I know they are the truth.”

So while I live with the tragedy, I also live with a vibrant memory of the incredibly loving response to this great pain by people all around me. During the conference I was just at, someone said that failure is a time of great opportunity. Failure means that all we hoped and prayed for did not happen – the relationship failed, the child died. And yet when all goes wrong, the doors are also open to something new and miraculous happening. It may not. There is no guarantee that hearts will open, but the miracle occurs when they do. On the rocks or carrying the illness or coming back from defeat, we can get lucky, or not, but there are also often elements of attitude and effort, and so when we see, when we appreciate, and when we act, a space for a miracle is created in our lives. Life is filled with tragedy, and only the miracle of the compassionate heart can fill some of the void left by such pain. The failure means that things can change. The possibility is there. It is a season of the birth of the possible. And so we look to see if the miracle might happen. May we remember the miracle of love – in what we see around us, in what we feel in response to life, and in what we do in relationship with one another. That miracle waiting to be born in each of us this season.

Closing Words – from The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

Miracles, Miracles! I want you to do something here and now. Perform some miracles to make us believe in you. . . “Everything is a miracle, old man,” Jesus replied. “What further miracles do you want? Look below you: even the humblest blade of grass has its guardian angel who stands by and helps it to grow. Look above you: what a miracle is the star-filled sky! And if you close your eyes, old man, what a miracle the world within us! What a star-filled sky is our heart!”