“Miracles”

Worship Script 2


"A UU View of Miracles"

Worship Script (2 of 5)

 

OPENING WORDS

House of Welcoming by Orlanda Brugnola

Here find a house of welcoming
Here find vision and hope
Here be received as you truly are
Unique and beautiful
Your journey acknowledged
Your love honored
Let us rejoice together

 

HYMN #295 Sing Out Praises for the Journey

 

FIRST READING

The Likelihood of the Unlikely, From Come As You Are, by Peter Fleck

The book of Ecclesiastes is the one biblical book that denies the unexpected: “there is nothing new under the sun.” These words depict a disenchanted world, a world in which the unlikely has been traded for the obvious, the unexpected for the routine. But we live by dint of the unexpected. If the obvious would always prevail, if life were foreseeable, if everything would follow as the might the day, if there were no room for the discontinuous, the surprising, the miraculous, life would not be worth living. Thank God, that is not the way it is. As W. H. Auden described it, “the inevitable is what seems to happen to you purely by chance.” Life is not lived by the rule but by the exception to the rule. We live by the likelihood of the unlikely.

Consider the the life of Moses. He was an exception to the rule if there ever was one. According to Pharaoh's commandment “that every son that is born [ to the Hebrews] ye shal cast into the river,” Moses should have been drowned at birth. But the inevitable did not happen. THanks to a most unexpected turn of events, he survived and was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter as her son. After he had grown up, Pharaoh learned of his existence and sought to kill him, but Moses fled to the land of Midian, out of Pharaoh’s jurisdiction. There he married a daughter of the local priest. He was keeping his faith-in-law’s flock when the normal course of events was interrupted once again. God spoke out of a burning bush and changed Moses to prevail upon Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go.

Do I believe in the literal truth of this story? No. But I do believe that the story describes how things happens in this world. Not only Moses’ life and the lives of other biblical giants but also our more modest lives develop from one unlikely, often seemingly miraculous event to another.

 

SECOND READING
Excerpts from Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Jesus Christ 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 man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of 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.' But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! [...] He 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.

 

HYMN #293 O Star of Truth

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES
Faith Is Like A Walking Stick Story By Gary Kowalski

How many of you like to go hiking? I have a number of walks nearby that I like. Hunger Mountain, Snake Mountain and others. Or if we don’t want to drive, my wife and I just go down to our local park where in just a few steps you can forget you’re in the city. Sometimes we bring our dog Smokey along and Smokey isn’t as strong or fast as he used to be. But that’s okay because I’m not as young or fast as I used to be either. And Smokey reminds me to slow down.

A walk in the woods isn’t a race, after all. It’s not all about seeing how fast you can go, or how quickly you can get to the end of the trail. A walk can be like a meditation, a series of moments to be aware of all the sights and sounds along the way. If you’re in too big a hurry, you forget to hear the birds sing and might not see that little mushroom growing under the tree, the one with the yellow cap.

But even when you take your time, a walk can sometimes be tough going. What if it starts to rain? And what if there’s a wet, soggy, boggy place where the stepping stones are few and far between? Well, in those cases, I’ve found a couple of things that help. First of all, it helps to have a friend or two along, because then even if it starts to pour and the raindrops are trickling down your nose, you can always sing a song together, and it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you’re singing an old Beatles song. And for those soggy, boggy places, if you can’t have a friend along, there’s nothing like a walking stick, which helps you keep your balance, and whether you’re walking up hill or down makes you a little steadier on your legs.

Walking sticks make me think about our faith, Unitarian Universalism, which is a little different from other religions. Because for us, life is like a long walk, or a journey. It starts when we’re little children and just learning about our world, and then grows as we grow. With each step, we’re always gathering more information and gaining more experiences, finding out about ourselves and as we explore our beliefs change. The things we imagine might be true when we’re six years old are different from the dreams we have when we’re sixty. And none of us is just certain where or how the trail ends, or what we’ll find when we finally reach the mountain top. But we know that other people have walked this way before and that gives us the hope and courage to continue on the adventure.

Now just like on a long trail, life sometimes gets a little tough and can even be scary. And that’s why it helps to have friends, and a spiritual community like this one And at times we start to lose our balance and begin to fall down. And then it’s handy to have a walking stick along.

Unitarian Universalism, our religion, is like a walking stick. It’s not a religion that solves all our problems. It’s not a religion that can magically lift us over the muddy places. It’s not a religion that spares us the necessity to dig deep and struggle when there’s a big boulder we have to climb over or other challenges come along. But it is a religion that can help us keep our equilibrium, that helps us keep our feet on the ground, which reminds us when the going gets hard that each of us is strong, each of us is resilient, each of us is capable, however we identify our gender, our ethnicity, our race; whether we’re big or little. And Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encourages each one of us to find and make our own beliefs—not a one-size fits all religion—but one we constantly tool and re-tool as we go.

So this is my personal walking stick. (Show kids my stick.) It even has my initials on it, G.K. But each of you will have the opportunity to make your own stick, just the right size and weight, the right thickness so you can have a firm grip, to help you go wherever you need to go. And as Unitarian Universalists, you too can find and make a religion you can call your own.

 

MEDITATION
By Denise Levertov

Marvelous Truth, confront us at every turn, in every guises, iron ball, egg, dark horse, shadow, cloud of breath on the air,

Dwell in our crowded hearts, our steaming bathrooms, kitchens full of things to be done, the ordinary streets.

Thrust close your smile that we know you, terrible joy.

 

CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN

Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives.  As you do, you may briefly share what it is.  We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.

 

SERMON

by Scotty McLennan
 

I have several dozen books about Unitarian Universalism in my home office. I looked through them all, and only three have any kind of entry in their index or table of contents for “miracles.” In one the index reference is to “miracles, impossibility of,” and the associated text takes a scientific perspective. A second book, on the history of Unitarian Universalism, relates the question of miracles to three nineteenth century ministers: Andrews Norton, William Henry Furness, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. By the twentieth century no Unitarians or Universalists seemed to care enough about miracles even to discuss them. The third reference is in a chapter entitled “How Miraculous Are Miracles?” from a 1987 Beacon Press book by Unitarian Universalist minister Peter Fleck. He ends up saying that miracles don’t exist in the sense of a violation of the law of nature by God. Not a terribly auspicious start for a sermon on Unitarian Universalist view of miracles. I could simply stop now and assert: There are no miracles for Unitarian Universalists. Period.


But actually I don’t think that’s true. Moreover, our tradition has had a dramatic impact on all of Protestant Christianity’s understanding of miracles in the modern era. That historical impact continues today, and I think it’s worth exploring. So I’ll forge on. There are two classic Christian positions on miracles that have inspired debate up to the present time. Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century understood a miracle to be something that occurred completely beyond the order of nature. Miracles are literally supernatural in the sense that they are events that happen, as he put it, “outside the ordinary processes of the whole of created nature.”


Nine centuries before Aquinas, Augustine took a different stance. For him there was only one miracle: creation itself. All of nature and all natural processes are miraculous because they reflect the creative nature of God. Miracles aren’t contrary to the laws of nature; they’re simply outside of what human beings know of nature. They are activities that produce an effect of wonder or awe on the human beholder.


We moderns then might say, Wonder and awe until they are explained scientifically, so that we can then see exactly how they align with the laws of nature. Or we might say, Wonder and awe are actually enhanced for me through scientific explanation: How wonderful—how awesome—is this creation, this natural order in which I find myself! Hallelujah! Protestant reformers took a different tack, starting in the sixteenth century. They agreed that miracles—in the sense of particular divine interventions in the natural world—had occurred in biblical times, but then they claimed that miracles had ceased to occur anywhere in the world or anytime thereafter. As Martin Luther wrote, all claims of miracles happening in his time were a “tom foolery” of the devil, devised for “chasing people hither and yon.”


Protestants stressed the importance of the biblical text in Christian life. Most reformers agreed with John Calvin that believers’ confidence should rest on God’s promises in the sacred text of the Bible alone and not on any kinds of signs and wonders that they might claim to have experienced personally or that were testified to by their contemporaries. This became known as the cessationist view of miracles: miracles had ceased at the end of the biblical era.
For over three hundred years, from the sixteenth century well into the nineteenth, Protestants were in near consensus on the view that miracles had ceased to occur. The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution bolstered this outlook. David Hume, in a 1748 book, provided a philosophically fatal blow to any claim that miracles can be founded on evidence. Meanwhile, scientists denied that miracles could co-exist with the natural laws of the universe. They began to offer scientific explanations for many miracles described in the Bible. And theologians developed understandings of religion that made the idea of miracles religiously irrelevant.


Then in the nineteenth century along came English Romantic poets and American Transcendentalists (whom Unitarian Universalists hold in high esteem). William Wordsworth wrote that he had personally “felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.” Coleridge described a “beauty-making power” that had personally freed him from “dejection,” from “Reality’s dark dream.”


American Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was particularly hard on the Protestant understanding of miracles as having ceased with biblical times. He explained how that was twice wrong: first, that human beings had been “senseless clods until instructed by miracles” in the biblical age, and second, that God had now been removed from active engagement in the world, leaving us only to read our Bibles. That would mean that the current generation is “to have no sense of the presence of God in the world,” relying only on “past relics of the divine presence.”


This view meant, Parker scoffed, that people of the nineteenth century had been “born in the latter days and dotage of mankind, and can only get light, by raking amid the ashes of the past, and blowing its [embers]…now almost extinct.” Since this Protestant understanding of miracles had made God absent from the world, it was not surprising to Parker that there was a crisis of faith among modern believers.


Parker’s contemporary Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson was even harder on both the cessationist view of miracles, and on philosophical and scientific critiques of miracles as not being founded in evidence. Emerson found the power of religion to come not from sterile analysis of a biblical text but from personal intuition. In his famous 1838 “Divinity School Address” at Harvard he explained that Jesus “spoke of miracles; for he felt man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth… But the word Miracle, as pronounced by the Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster.” That was for two reasons. First, because the church assumed an absence of God from the world after the biblical era.
Second, because those who saw God as still intervening from time to time in the natural order radically misunderstood how God is present. God, declared Emerson, is not a watchmaker who then periodically tinkers with the creation he long ago established. Instead, God is one with all that exists—miracles are “one with the blowing clover and the flowing rain.” The great miracle is the energizing force of the universe itself. In Emerson’s words,


“One mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool.”


The Protestant world never recovered from the Romantic-Transcendentalist challenge. The cessationist view of miracles collapsed, and by the twentieth century sharp conflicts had arisen over questions of miracles. On the one hand, there were those in the church who rejected miracles entirely, including the claim that there had been miracles during the time of the Bible. They spoke of Christian identity as being tied to the character and moral teachings of Jesus, not to his allegedly miraculous acts.


On the other hand, faith healing took off, as many Christians now claimed not only to have experienced miraculous cures and divine interventions in their own lives, but also to be able to produce medical miracles themselves by divine forces working through them. A Time magazine poll has found that just under 70% of all Americans today believe in miracles actively occurring in the world. The modern age has dramatic crosscurrents of the Jesus Seminar whittling away at the gospel miracles, while at the same time respected medical journals publish studies on the effect of prayer on healing.
My personal preference regarding miracles is to see them as poetry, not in the realm of history and science and logic. I prefer the Augustinian view of seeing the miraculous in the regular processes of nature itself, rather than the Thomistic view of miracles happening outside of or contrary to the order of nature. I resonate to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that “the Highest dwells within us,” although we’re not usually in touch with that reality. “There is a deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us… It comes to the lowly and simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is…proud; it comes as insight; it comes as security and grandeur.”


Emerson does not assume that all of us will know this life force all of the time, or even some of the time. Yet, it can arrive through spiritual disciplines like meditation and prayer and through moral disciplines of character building. Then, when it comes, it seems miraculous. “When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.”

 

HYMN #123 Spirit of Life

 

BENEDICTION

Blessed with Question by Ma Theresa Gustilo Gallardo

Some came here to be blessed with answers in a tumultuous world.
Let us hope too, however, that many of us have been blessed with questions
to direct us with a clarity of mind to steer our logic towards kindness and justice always.