A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Mark D. Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 28 January 1996
We are astounded that people believe that Jesus fed a multitude with five loaves and two fish, walked on water, restored sight to the blind, changed water into wine, and that he ultimately rose from the dead. We are perplexed that so many people read the Bible as fact instead of as metaphor. We just can't believe in a God who inserts him or herself into the world in supernatural ways, so we seek answers that are consistent with the laws of nature, as we know them.
Unitarian Universalists are a people who have so solidly embraced modernity that we simply don't know what to make of miracles. We are children of the Enlightenment - rationalists imbued with a spirit of scepticism and a belief in empiricism. We agree with the philosopher David Hume who saw miracles as "a violation of the laws of nature." We claim as our own Thomas Jefferson, who cut and pasted the passages of the gospels of the Bible together into a narrative without miracles. We resonate with Theodore Parker, the 19th century radical Unitarian minister who questioned taking "an oriental poem for a grave history of miraculous events; [and accepting] a picture sketched by some glowing eastern imagination, never intended to be taken for a reality, as a proof that the Infinite God spoke in human words..."
Miracles pose a problem for us but they were not a problem for the biblical mind. Our ancestors had a mindset, a way of viewing the world and a set of presuppositions that were very different from our own. Biblical scholars tell us that miracle stories were a popular form of recitation known in every Middle Eastern culture. However, for us to talk about miracles we have to struggle with the presuppositions we make about the nature of God, about the authority of the Bible, about the nature of faith and reason.
As a people who see God as the mystery from which the universe emerged, that power, which created, undergirds and infuses all existence. We are a religious people who read the Bible as literature. Like its many authors we wrestle with ultimate questions of morality, meaning and mortality, but, unlike them, we depend upon reason rather than revelation as our primary source of knowledge. We rely upon reason and yet we must ultimately acknowledge that we are sustained by faith in life. For reason cannot penetrate the ultimate mystery of existence. Yet life is unpredictable, and the fears that beset us often smother hope and ignite despair. Thus we need faith - a religious perspective that can engender hope in the face of so much that is unknown and threatening, a religion that will support us without demanding that we embrace nonsense.
The malarkey we reject are miracles - violations of the orderly aspect of the world. However, it is not the miracle of the creation that we reject but that a Supreme Being accomplished it in seven days. It is not the miraculous that we reject but rather the notion that miracle are proof of Jesus' divine nature - which is to say that miracles were sign of his greatness. We know his greatness was not found in the miracle of the loaves, nor in rising from the dead but in the ethic of love that he lived and proclaimed. It is not the miraculous we reject but rather using miracles to bolster a faith; a faith which sees in miracles supernatural intervention. Miracles are not a divine sleight of hand done to prove he's top. We don't believe in such miracles because they run counter to our experience and understanding - the universe has an order which never violates the divine will, for order is the embodiment of the divine which permeates our lives at every moment.
It is easy to disparage belief miracles. To understand miracles is harder. To do so we must begin with the experience. To experience a miracle is to know a sense of wonder, reverence and awe - to intuit the immeasurable power beyond oneself. It is the experience that we Unitarian Universalists claim as our first source: "the direct experience of that transcendent mystery and wonder, affirmed in all culture, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life." Thus the miraculous is to be found in every facet of creation including our own lives.
"Slow Miracles," the title of today's sermon comes from a book written our colleague Gretchen Thompson. Its subtitle is "Urban Women Fighting for Liberation." As I read the stories she recounted I recognised these women, as the women who inspired me when I worked in a settlement house. They, like Gretchen, worked tirelessly with the oppressed, and challenged me to do more. As I read I began to be able to discern the miracles that surround me everyday.
Gretchen tells the story of Laura:
"Vice-Chair of the Board, she stood at the front of the room near the two displays about which she was leading the discussion. As people spoke, she summarised, interpreted, pushed where she needed to push, encouraged where she saw fit. The Chair himself at one point questioned her discretion. She brushed him aside like a crumb on a carpet, politely, of course. Her large, lovely eyes ended the exchange with a slow blink.
The arch of Laura's brow, the strong, slender curve of her neck, the grace of her poised arm, the distinct quietude of her voice, all bespoke a queen's eloquence. There was very little - perhaps nothing - to suggest the extent to which she had been shoved around, beaten up, abused, or held down.
Yet she had been. Behind the innocuous-seeming white front door of the lovely suburban house of her childhood, someone had hurt her. She was smart, so it didn't take much for her to learn. A slap here, a welt there, and then all it took were words.
Words there had been aplenty - screamed words, abusing words.
"I could just kill you, you stupid child!"
"You better watch out, or I'm gonna shake you, shake you till your teeth rattle."
"Do it, or I'll snatch you bald-headed, you stupid little girl."
"Can't you do anything right! Why are you so stupid?"
These words, from her mother's twisted, angry mouth, had worked their way on her, diminished her inside, made her wish she could disappear, made her believe she was nothing - worthy of nothing, deserving of nothing, capable of nothing. For years and years she lived in fear, perpetually flinched for the blow that would surely come, for the words that would name her worthlessness.
On rare occasions a tuft of grass will push its way through concrete, as unlikely as it sounds. When the concrete is first poured, it seems so hard and strong, much stronger than any tiny seeds it might cover up. But time can bring change. The concrete, in all its brittle strength, will crack and buckle. The seeds, ever hungry for sun and life, will begin to grow. They will push their way through, laboring arduously on a slow miracle.
That's what Laura is. A slow miracle." [pp. 51-52]
Gretchen's stories reinforced for me the fact that miracles surround us everyday. You are slow miracles unfolding before one another's eyes. In the context of a religious community transformations occur that defy explanation - old ways of thinking dissolve, rock hard patterns of behaviour crack open, emotional scars heal, timid individuals grow brave, those who can hardly care for themselves learning to care for the world. When we come here seeking wholeness in a spirit of faithfulness to our purposes and principles something marvellous transpires. When we come here striving to love even as we are loved, something miraculous happens. I have not seen the dead rise but I have seen the suicidal yearn to live. I have not witnessed the scales fall from the eyes of the blind but I have seen the unseeing gain understanding. I have not tasted water that has been turned to wine but have seen grief give way to joy. I have not seen the lame walk but I have seen human spirits crippled by abuse dance. I have not seen loaves multiply but I have seen overflowing generosity.
I have seen miracles, and they renew my faith. Such wonders make me believe in life and its possibilities. Such transformations make me marvel at the resilience of the human spirit. Glowing orange sunsets are beautiful but so are you, like so many tufts of tender green grass pushing up in the cracks between life's hard places. I know that slow miracles are taking shape within each of you at this very moment and that when we gather in community there is more than enough to feed our souls; there is enough feed many more.