from Pablo Casals, in honor of our service of Dedication of Parents and Children:
When one looks about at the miraculous diversity of our universe—at the miraculous world that each person, each tree, each leaf is—how can one help but believe in something greater than oneself, something that cannot be described, cannot be named?
Here in Puerto Rico each morning after I return from the seashore, I have breakfast and immediately afterward I go to the piano and I play two Preludes and Fugues of Bach. I have done that every day of my life for the last 79 years. I began to learn to play the piano at four.
I knew at 10 that Bach existed, and immediately I began to play the Preludes and Fugues every morning without fail, except when I was on a train or a ship and there was no piano to play.
I treat music as something divine, as I treat every human being. Every human being is a miracle. The world is a miracle.
Think how no two grains of sand are alike. How there is not one voice like another, not one nose like another, how in millions and billions of living and non-living things in the universe no two are alike.
This is the wonderful, amazing miracle, and we live in it, we are part of it. How can we not celebrate this life?
Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and never will be again. and what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two makes four and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also say to each of them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed, there has never been a child like you. And look at your body — what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have a capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work — we must all work — to make this world worthy of its children.
Sermon Readings: Three Miracle Stories
1. Exodus 3: 1 – 6
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ and he said, ‘Here am I.’ Then he said, ‘Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ And he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the god of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
2. Mark 5: 24 – 34
And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.’ And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, ‘Who touched my garments?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing about you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’ And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
3. Muhammad’s Night Journey
The night journey is a story based on a passage from the Koran: “Glory be to Him who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque, the precincts of which have been blessed, that we might show him some of our signs.”
The sages have Muhammad tell his own story, saying:
Then a white (horse) was brought to me…I was carried on it, and Gabriel set out with me till we reached the nearest heaven. When he asked for the gate to be opened, it was asked, ‘Who is it?’ Gabriel answered, ‘Gabriel.’ It was asked, ‘Who is accompanying you?’ Gabriel replied, ‘Muhammad.’ It was asked, ‘Has Muhammad been called? (chosen as a messenger of Allah?)’ Gabriel replied in the affirmative. Then it was said, ‘He is welcomed. What an excellent visit his is!’ The gate was opened, and when I went over the first heaven, I saw Adam there. Gabriel said to me, ‘this is your father, Adam; pay him your greetings.’ So I greeted him and he returned the greeting to me and said, ‘You are welcomed, O pious son and pious Prophet.’
Then Gabriel ascended with me till we reached the second heaven. Gabriel asked for the gate to be opened… (the same questions were asked and) the gate was opened. When I went over the second heaven, there I saw John the Baptist and Jesus who were cousins of each other. Gabriel said to me, “There are John and Jesus; pay them your greetings.’ So I greeted them and both of them returned my greetings to me and said, ‘You are welcomed, O pious brother and pious Prophet.
(Muhammad reached the highest heaven.) Then he saw his Lord-glorified and exalted be He—and the Prophet—upon whom be Allah’s blessing and peace—fell on his face in obeisance. Thereupon his Lord spoke to him, saying: ‘O Muhammad.’ He answered, ‘Here am I, O Lord.’ He said, ‘Ask!’ And the Prophet replied, ‘Thou didst take Abraham as a friend, and didst give to him a great kingdom. Thou didst speak to Moses face to face. To David Thou didst give a great kingdom, causing iron to be soft to him and setting the mountains at his service. To serve Solomon Thou didst set jinn (spirits of this world) and men and Satans, making the winds do his bidding, and didst give him such a kingdom as none after him had. Thou didst teach Jesus the Gospel and the Torah, didst make him one who could cure the born blind and the lepers and raise the dead to life by Thy permission. Him and his mother didst Thou guard against Satan … so that Satan had no power over them.’
Then Allah—glorified and exalted be he—said, ‘But you have I taken as My beloved one…and I have sent you to mankind as a whole, to be a bringer of good tidings…I have made your community the best community that has appeared among mankind…you have I made the first Prophet to be created, the last to be sent…”
Note: To dig deeper see: The Book of Miracles: the meaning of the miracles stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, by Kenneth Woodward, Simon and Schuster, 2000
Sermon: “It’s a Miracle!”
My daughter Sue was a free thinker from day one. As a Unitarian Universalist she knew she didn’t have to say she believed things she didn’t really believe—that she would not be criticized, at least at home or in church—for her theological beliefs. A few hours after she had given birth to her first child, Alex, I arrived at the hospital and she was holding Alex and she handed him to me, with tears in her eyes and said, “Dad, this is a miracle.”
I knew exactly what she meant, and we shared a profound moment, and during these thirteen years, as Alex and his sister Hannah have been growing up, we’ve continued to share the sense of the wonder of it all, as well as the many challenges.
“It’s a miracle,” she said. But she wasn’t suggesting immaculate conception or virgin birth. It was natural, as natural as could be—yet there was a sense of the wonder of it all—the sense of the miracle wrapped up on that little bundle she named Alexander Hall Hildreth.
There’s something about life—something deep, perhaps deeper than we can name.
There is that in me—I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me. I do not know it—it is without a name—it is a word unsaid, it is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol. Do you see O my brothers and sisters? It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness.
—From Song of Myself, chapter 50, edited
The religions put stories to this unutterable essence—they’re the miracle stories.
To know the stories is the beginning of developing an appreciation of the various religions. We need to know those stories, to reflect on them, to appreciate them.
Moses encountered God in the burning bush; the woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years was healed merely by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment; Muhammad ascended to heaven, greeted all those who had preceded him and encountered God who told him that he was to be the final and greatest Prophet.
Miracle stories serve several purposes. We humans have a longing to believe … to believe that we are not alone in the universe, that there is a Creator—or Creative Force—who knows we’re here, and cares about our individual lives, with whom we can visit … or converse, at least.
There’s a longing to believe, even as there is a feeling that we can’t really know about such things — things that are beyond our comprehension.
So, there’s a longing, and a need to believe, on the one hand; and there’s a need to acknowledge that there are things impossible to know. Both hold an important place in this human experience we call Life.
You know the old adage: “There are not atheists in foxholes.” It’s often told to suggest that everyone whose life is threatened will come around and believe in God—that is, won’t be an atheist.
In truth the adage only suggests that when we are in deep trouble we are open to help from whatever source.
Pain and suffering open us up to something deeper than we’ve felt before. It’s not uncommon for people who have suffered to say that it was the suffering itself that brought them to a deeper spiritual awareness.
The adage that there are no atheists in foxholes suggests that extreme experiences strip us to the core and change us forever—or at least for the remainder of this natural life.
The Red Sea parted, allowing the Israelites to cross over from bondage to freedom. This bondage to freedom theme is central to Judaism and touches on something that is central to each of us—the question of freedom: what is freedom, really? How does one’s spirituality enter this question?
The story of the Red Sea parting and then closing in on and drowning the Egyptians who were pursuing the Israelites is central to the idea that the Jews were God’s chosen people, that God took sides, and will take sides.
Christianity and Islam, the other peoples of the book, as they are called, carry this central idea into their own stories—the idea that God takes sides, and has taken theirs.
Christian theology says that Jesus, unlike Moses, is not only an agent of God, but is God in human flesh, come to earth to save humankind, or, some others say, to save the true believers.
The story from Islamic oral tradition, Muhammad’s Night Journey, acknowledges the other people of the book — Moses and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Jesus, but it puts Muhammad at the top of the heap: the best! Of course: all the religions do it, just like the ancient tribes, or the modern tribes we call high school, or alma mater, etc.
Did you notice, also, that this Islamic story has God or Allah say: “I have sent you to mankind as a whole…” This is universalism, with a small ‘u.’ It distinguishes Islam from the other ‘peoples of the book.’ It goes beyond the idea of the ‘chosen people,’ or ‘the only ones who will be saved.’ It includes ‘mankind as a whole.’
The miracle stories are often dismissed as bogus superstitions.
Our Unitarian forebear, Thomas Jefferson, spent a good deal of his time, both during his term in office and afterward, cleaning up the Bible.
He wanted to distill what he believed to be the true religion of Jesus, the philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, the moral lessons in the teachings attributed to Jesus.
With a razor blade he cut and pasted, and he gathered the pieces into a work which the U. S. Congress published in 1904 under the title: The Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
We Unitarian Universalists look upon that work with some pride. We call it ‘the Jefferson Bible.’ We like the idea of cutting and pasting—it suggests what each of us does, in fact. We like the idea of Jesus as a teacher of morality and a philosopher.
We would just as soon cut out the miracle stories altogether.
Or we would think of them as poetry: he makes a blind man see, is a metaphor for helping someone to understand something they’d been blind to before.
A woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years touches the hem of his garment and is healed, and we say, ‘Well, her faith made her well…it’s in the mind…she believed, so it happened.’
We may fail to see more—to see the miracle in the story, from her point of view. In those days, in that culture, when a woman was hemorrhaging or bleeding she was considered unclean and left alone. The miracle, perhaps, is that this woman who had spent such a long time suffering from her isolation finally felt whole — perhaps she was in love and felt loved in return, and isn’t that a miracle?
To dismiss the miracle stories out of hand may be to miss an opportunity for deeper insight, even a deeper insight into the self, as well as others.
The miracle stories in each of the world religions were told long after the death of the miracle-makers—Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and even the Buddha, and Confucius and Lao Tze, each of whom said what Emerson later said: “To aim to convert a man by miracles is a profanation of the soul.”
Jesus, you remember, never wrote anything down; everything we know, or think we know, about Jesus was written long after his death. Jefferson thought that the miracle stories went against everything Jesus taught.
The Buddha, we are told, refused to perform miracles—he was dead set against the idea.
In the Koran, we’re told, Muhammad rejects every request to work miracles. Muhammad said that the Koran itself is a miracle, and it’s the only miracle that the Muslim needs.
The miracles attributed to Muhammad come from the oral tradition, or ahadith.
The miracle stories are told, first and foremost, to prove that the hero was touched by God, thereby helping the believer or practitioner to feel touched by proxy.
True believers in the three Western religions believe that their sacred books, the Torah, the Gospels, and the Koran were not written by mere mortals—they were written by God who dictated them word for word. How can you dismiss or disagree with the word of God?!
Others, who also want to be thought of as true believers, say that the Spirit of God moved in those who wrote the sacred books.
As Unitarian Universalists we want to understand the religions of the world; we want and need, I think, to understand the genesis of the religious impulse within ourselves. What is it? Where does it come from?
We humans have a longing to feel at home in the world; we have a longing to feel respected or, one might say, loved. We need to believe that we are capable of understanding what’s going on around us and in us.
When the Buddha says that the task of life is to wake up, that’s what I think he means: to be awake is to be conscious and to be aware of what’s happening.
To be awake and aware, to pay attention, that’s what it’s all about — bottom line. And it’s the most difficult, demanding thing we do…with our children, our spouses partners and friends. What’s being asked is that we pay attention, and by paying attention we develop a sense of appreciation.
By appreciation I mean ‘the recognition of the qualities in other people, that they feel valued by us.
By appreciation I mean a deep sense of gratitude.
By appreciation I mean a deeper, delicate awareness or aesthetic sense.
That’s what I suggested last week about my experience at the bottom of the muddy pond, when Bobby McCarthy pulled me out and saved my life.
I tried also to suggest that there have been many, many people who have influenced me in lots of ways and they, too, in a sense, have saved my life, though not in such a dramatic fashion.
We are saved from the sin of pride when we are made humble; we are saved from shallowness when we are brought to our knees by one of life’s many painful struggles.
Miracles, then, transcend the natural laws of the universe, what we call ‘the laws of science.’ That’s why people who say they believe in science often fail to understand or to appreciate the human depths out of which each of the world’s religions has come.
The Latin word for miracle, mrculum, means to wonder at — wonderful.
That’s what Susan meant: this is wonderful! Amazing!
“It’s a miracle.”
We humans long for something more. We long too know more, to understand more, even to know what is beyond us. At the heart of what we call the religious impulse, or some prefer to call spirituality, is this longing, this sense of appreciation.
What we need is to be awake, aware, to pay attention to what’s around us and in us. “It’s a miracle!” we can say when we acknowledge the wonder of it all.
“A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,” Whitman says.
This is what the poet John Ciardi captures so beautifully in his poem, White Heron:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky—then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
—John Ciardi, in “I Marry You”, Rutgers University Press, 1958
Have Compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.
Miller Williams, From ‘The Ways We Touch.’
Last week I told the story of going on a train to Boston to a sporting goods store on my 8th birthday with Jimmy Murphy, who was an older next door neighbor. My mother was in the hospital, having just given birth to my brother John that day. So Mrs. Murphy sent Jimmy on a birthday mission and he took me. He had me stay away from the conversation between him and the guy in the store and we came home with a fairly big box in which I was sure there was a nice new baseball glove. I’d never had my own glove. “This was it,” I thought. Then, when we opened it after supper at the little family ‘party,’ I was surprised and disappointed that there was no glove there. I was writing about this on Monday morning, editing the sermon for the web page when Stu Tobin walked into my office and put a box down on my desk and said, “I figured you never did get that glove, did you?” It was a beautiful brand new baseball glove, my first ever. Then I pointed to the sentence I had just been typing, so Stu would see the synchronicity of it all. Or, who knows, maybe it’s more than synchronicity after all!
Wanna play catch?