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Presented April 24, 2011, by Steve Wiegenstein
For the sun and the dawn which we did not create;
For the moon and the evening which we did not make;
For food which we plant but cannot grow;
For friends and loved ones we have not earned and cannot buy;
For this gathered company which welcomes us as we are from wherever we have come;
For all our free churches that keep us human and encourage us in our quest for beauty, truth and love;
For all things which come to us as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves;
Gifts of life and love and friendship, we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.
In the tomb of the soul, we carry secret yearnings, pains, frustrations, loneliness, fears, regrets, worries.
In the tomb of the soul, we take refuge from the world and its heaviness.
In the tomb of the soul, we wrap ourselves in the security of darkness.
Sometimes this is a comfort. Sometimes it is an escape.
Sometimes it prepares us for existence. Sometimes it insulates us from life.
Sometimes this tomb-life gives us time to feel the pain of the world and reach out to heal others. Sometimes it numbs us and locks us up with our own concerns.
In this season where light and dark balance the day, we seek balance for ourselves.
Grateful for the darkness that has nourished us, we push away the stone and invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities within us and among us -- possibilities for new life in ourselves and in our world.
It is eternity now.
I am in the midst of it.
It is about me, in the sunshine;
I am in it, as the butterfly in the light-laden air.
Nothing has to come,
It is now.
Now is eternity,
Now is the immortal life.
I suppose most of you heard the news last week that a filmmaker announced the discovery of some of the nails from the True Cross. Now aside from the obvious holes in this story -- which were pointed out by media worldwide -- the thing that interests me about that claim is that one, it still gets attention in the first place, and two, it seems to call to us in some deep and strange way. As Fox Mulder in "The X-Files" would say, "I want to believe."
My thoughts for today center on the subject of miracles, or at least the things we call miracles. I avoid the word most of the time, because it conjures up an image I don't want to associate with -- those credulous souls who follow stories of nails from the cross, or images of Mary in their morning toast, and such. Straining to find the miraculous always feels like a cop-out to me, a run toward an escapist, unnecessarily supernatural view of life. I have to ask the question: so what if those are nails from Jesus' cross, instead of nails from somebody else's, or nails from some other first-century wood construction? What difference does it make? Do we really need a physical object to prove the value of the Sermon on the Mount? Apparently we do. On vacation trips to Europe, we have visited basilicas and cathedrals built in the Middle Ages around some relic, the bone of a saint and so forth. I would like to think we have advanced beyond medieval beliefs, but perhaps we have not.
And perhaps that's not all bad. I understand the veneration of objects. I'm prone to the veneration of objects myself, as those who have tried to get me to part with a favorite old worn-out shirt or broken watch can testify. But it's more than just sentiment that draws me to the physical, to the world of nails and shirts and watches. I believe the world of the here and now provides us with the only experience of the miraculous we are ever likely to get -- and hopefully, all we will ever need.
There are two kinds of miracles I'm talking about here, and I want to distinguish between them. One is what you might call natural miracles, or expected miracles, if that's not too contradictory a phrase. In March, the branches of the redbud are bare. Then in April, almost overnight it seems, those wet brown sticks are covered with flowers of the most delicate and beautiful hue. How the heck did that happen? Or a child is born. Where there was one life, there are now two. The phrase "miracle of childbirth" is used so often that it has become a cliché, but it's a cliché because it's so true. Childbirth is a miracle. The coming of spring is a miracle. People are generous without expectation of return, thoughtful in unexpected ways, kind to strangers. All these things are miraculous.
But what I'm thinking more about today is a different sort of miracle, the kind that doesn't happen every year, or with any sense of expectation. I want to meditate on these events because that's what we're thinking about at Easter.
There are several popular books and videos, and a quasi-religious or spiritual movement that goes with them, by the name of "Expect a Miracle." I don't like to be the skeptic on Easter Sunday, but if you expect it, it's not much of a miracle, is it? For my money, a miracle is something that happens suddenly and unexpectedly -- thus the title of my talk today.
When the sudden intervenes in our lives, it is disconcerting, uncanny, and really rather frightening. The Easter passages in the gospels convey this: After Joseph of Arimathea begs the body of Jesus from Pilate and places it in a newly-hewn tomb, female followers from Galilee show up a couple of days later to perform the "woman's work" of anointing the body. Instead they find two strangers in "shining garments" who scare the heck out of them and make the cryptic remark, "Why seek ye the living among the dead?" Then Jesus himself appears on the road to Emmaus and at dinner that night, "and they were terrified and affrighted." And why wouldn't they be? Intrusions of the uncanny into our ordinary schemes are disturbing, even if they're to our good. They're not normal.
But my focus today is not on the specifically religious aspects of the miraculous. I want to think about the sudden as a broader phenomenon, something that happens to us in all parts of our lives. Once in a while -- a rare once in a while -- an event comes to us suddenly and unexpectedly, and life takes an irrevocable turn in a new direction.
I was prompted to these thoughts by the events in the Middle East that have unfolded over the past couple of months. All the conventional wisdom of decades and decades of observers was overturned in what seemed like the blink of an eye. The common people of the Middle East don't have democratic yearnings. The despots who rule those countries can never be brought down through public pressure -- all they know is force or the fear of force. Islam is antithetical to democracy. Myth after myth tumbled, and we are left with a new reality, one that is uncertain, unpredictable, dangerous, and thrilling.
What happens in situations like that can be best described, I think, as the replacement of one reality with another. Some of you may remember the 1996 movie "Sliding Doors," which plays with the idea of parallel realities. In the movie, we see how the life of the character played by Gwenyth Paltrow changes dramatically depending on the simple act of missing or catching a train. It's a nice, brain-teasing concept -- the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil leading to a tornado in Texas, to cite the famous phrase -- but I think it's more often true that when our reality gets altered, we recognize that moment quite well. It happens with a crash and a bang, not the quiet flapping of wings.
I recently had occasion to talk with a former student who told me he was going to become a father in a few months. I gave him what is probably the oldest, most clichéd piece of insight there is: "Get ready, because your life is about to change permanently." Childbirth is one of those expected miracles I mentioned earlier, and I imagine those of you who are parents know the feeling I'm talking about here -- the sense that comes over you that your life has just taken a major and irreversible turn. It's somewhere between "Oh, how wonderful" and "Oh my god" and contains a little bit of both. Welcome it or fear it, either way you know that something big has just happened to you and your life will never be the same.
The same is true with the unexpected events that alter the course of our lives. A casual conversation leads to a job offer that will take you to a new place and cause you to become a new person. You meet someone and know that a turning of the heart is about to happen. You learn a truth about yourself through failure. When these events occur, you can feel the world shift. You know that your life has just made a sharp turn down a new street, and the sign on the street says "One Way."
I remember very distinctly the first time I got fired from a job, at age 20. Driving home, I actually had to pull off the road and collect myself, I was so disoriented and breathless. That was my first encounter with "the sudden" in my life, and two things stick out in my memory of that event. One is how disconcerting it was to be shown what someone else thought of me, especially when that picture was so dramatically at odds with the picture of myself that I tried to project to everyone around me, and more or less believed myself. Like most people that age, I was pretty self-centered -- not entirely in the pejorative sense, but simply in the sense that young people have only seen the world and themselves through their own eyes. For the most part; they haven't been forced to triangulate their self-opinions with the opinions of others, having inherited their views from parents and friends. In my case those views were largely positive, so when I was pulled into the boss's office and told that I "wasn't working out," it was a shock and a half.
The other central recollection I have of that event is that although it was a shock, it wasn't really that much of a surprise. Seismic events tend to be accompanied by pre-quakes; tornadoes have gathering clouds. Thus it is with the suddens of our lives -- we kind of know they are due. Our response to them is more often "I knew this was coming" than "How could this happen to me?"
As you can tell by my examples, I think the miraculous and the catastrophic are near cousins. For every Egypt there is a Libya. And we can't always tell at the outset which is which. That marvelous guy who seems to sense your every feeling may turn out to be the creep who breaks your heart. That jerk who rides you at work every minute may be the person who senses your potential and sticks by you in a moment of crisis.
To return to Easter for a moment, one of the interesting side-stories for me in the sequence of events is that of Peter, contained in all three of the synoptic gospels. It has the atmosphere of a folk tale, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it has pre-Biblical origins. For those of you who don't remember it, here is the outline: After the Passover meal in which Jesus predicts his crucifixion, Peter insists he will never deny him; but Jesus tells him, "this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice." And of course that's what happens. Jesus is betrayed, Peter denies him, the rooster crows, and Peter "went out, and wept bitterly."
I like the human truth in this passage. Who among us hasn't overestimated our capabilities at some point? Peter thought he was tougher than he was and learned an unpleasant truth about himself. And I like the fact that this story of frailty, regret, and eventual recovery is embedded in the larger cosmic drama of the universal Christian story, which involves both catastrophe and miracle on a much grander scale.
And that story reminds me of something else about miracles. Miracles don't happen without desperation. In fact, the necessary context of a miracle is the desperate circumstance from which it arises. If I am rich or healthy, a sudden influx of money or continued health is no miracle -- it's pretty much what comes to me. It's only the dying or desperate who need miracles. For Lazarus to come forth, he first had to be dead and rotten.
But you also have to be ready for that new reality when it happens. We all know people who freeze up when confronted with a sudden change in their lives. They don't necessarily fear the sudden, they just don't know what to do with it. I watched a television documentary on the Japanese tsunami a few weeks ago. There was one piece of footage, taken from high ground, of people standing to watch the tsunami arrive. The town below seemed largely empty. But as the video progressed, I could see people in the flat country below, walking between houses, and a delivery truck making a stop. I thought, "What are you doing? There's a tsunami coming!" The high ground was thick with people, so it was clear that the town had been warned. But some of them were choosing to ignore the sudden, to pretend that it wasn't happening, in hopes I suppose that pretending would make it go away. The same is true of miracles. When I think about the amazing events that happened in Tunisia in December and January, events that triggered the entire sequence of popular uprisings that spread across the Mideast and continue to this day, I remember that it all began with what could have been simply an isolated tragedy -- the self-immolation of a street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi in protest of his humiliation and mistreatment by a government official -- and I realize that this event need not have set off the chain of events that followed. The people of Tunisia were ready to seize the sudden, and thus create a "miracle" out of what could have been merely a missed opportunity.
So what do all these observations add up to when we think about the intrusions of the sudden into our lives? I'd say this: We know that sudden and dramatic things happen to us all, both wonderful and terrible. We can't always predict them although we recognize them when they arrive, the way we recognize a big splash of water in our faces. You'll remember the popular but vulgar bumper sticker from a decade ago that said "Something happens," with that "something" being a term that I have not yet brought myself to utter from this pulpit. Well, it does happen, but miracles happen too, if we define miracles as unexpected, unexplainable, powerfully good things. But you had better not expect them, because you can't count on them, and people who sit around expecting miracles are fair game for the con men. The best you can do is be ready -- be open to the possibility and ready to step through that sliding door if it chances to open.
There's a song by Leonard Cohen called "Waiting for the Miracle" that sums up this feeling. One verse puts it this way:
"When you've fallen on the highway
and you're lying in the rain,
when they ask you how you're doing,
of course you'll say you can't complain.
If you're squeezed for information,
that's when you have to play it dumb:
You just say you're out there waiting.
Waiting for the miracle to come."
A promise through the ages rings, that something always, always sings.
Not just in May, in finch-filled bower, but in December's coldest hour,
A note of hope sustains us all.
A life is made of many things: bright stars, bleak years, and broken rings.
Can it be true that through all things, there always, always something sings?
The universal song of life.
Entombed within our deep despair, our pain seems more than we can bear;
But days shall pass, and nature knows that deep beneath the winter snow
A rose lies curled and hums its song.
For something always, always sings. This is the message Easter brings;
From deep despair and perished things a green shoot always, always springs,
And something always, always sings.
Help us to be the always hopeful
gardeners of the spirit
who know that without darkness
nothing comes to birth
as without light
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.