more dangerous than miracles
Homily preached at the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana, on 11 September 2011, by the Rev. Mr. Chip Roush
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
–Annie Dillard, from Teaching a Stone to Talk
How many of you have heard of the “Jefferson Bible”? How many own a copy of that Christian New Testament, from which Thomas Jefferson cut out all the miracles, leaving only the life and ethical teachings of Jesus? How many of you think that Jefferson was making the same mistake as the contemporary fundamentalists, taking 2000-year-old Jewish *stories* as literal?
Whether you have ever used the word “miracle” in a sentence or not, how many have had some kind of experience which changed you in a significant way? Me, too. That is the part of Ms. Dillard’s piece with which I agree the most.
I disagree with several other assumptions she seems to make. That we might wake a sleeping god, or that such a deity might then take offense—both of those concepts concern me. If the word “god” is to have any meaning at all, in my life, it is roughly synonymous with the evolving spirit of Life, awake and present everywhere, always active, and always developing toward more inter-connections, and more interdependence among us co-evolving forms of existence.
Nevertheless, I think I take her meaning. She is writing against the common beliefs that god is primarily a gentle, relentlessly positive, source of comfort. That image is at the center of Longfellow’s words. As the choir just sang, “As torrents in summer, Half dried in their channels, Suddenly rise, though the Sky is still cloudless, For rain has been falling Far off at their fountains[…] So hearts that are fainting Grow full to o’erflowing, And they that behold it Marvel, and know not That God at their fountains Far off has been raining!”
We in the 21st century are quite used to water flowing, without the benefit of rain. We may take modern plumbing for granted, but evidently Longfellow was still aware of aqueducts that brought water from far away.
And while it is true, that even in the midst of grief or anger, some unexpected thing can occur to refill our hearts with joy-—and some will refer to such a thing as God’s handiwork-—well, that kind of soothing comfort is not the only phenomenon that comes to us without our expectation.
Just as the sound of waves can delight us, and the feel of cool water on our face can soothe us, even as water is necessary to sustain life, so can it also be hugely powerful. Hurricanes can bring devastation in minutes, and the steady trickle of water can quietly wear away even the strongest rock.
The Mystery, that some of us refer to as “God,” can be every bit as dangerous as it can be comforting.
But the danger is not that some angry, bearded deity will appear in the sanctuary on some random Sunday morning and smite us—-the real danger is in the ideas that get expressed here, on the *majority* of Sunday mornings and on Tuesday evenings, as the Zen group meets, and at other times…
Hard hats and life preservers will not shield us from ideas that change us, from concepts that consume us, from new understandings that compel us to live our lives differently.
That is the danger: that we will hear something in this beautiful sanctuary which will *not* comfort us nor make it okay to remain complacent, but which will require us to *be* different people.
Researcher Carol Gilligan studied how people change their opinions. She learned that people do not always change their minds, as they age, but if they do, it is virtually *always* toward including more people. We all start out selfish; and many learn to consider the needs or opinions of a few; and *some* of us learn to take into account the needs of all. Gilligan also discovered, that, unless there is some kind of brain damage, once a person has evolved to the next level, then she or he will never go back. They will always take into account the needs of a wider circle of beings.
So, one of the reasons that we all come to church is to seek healing and support; and that is good; that is one of the things we do here. And sometimes we also find challenge, and change-—and often, that change will become permanent. Some idea we encounter here may transform us, to the point that we are never the same again.
Thomas Jefferson cut all the miracle stories out of his bible, but the truly radical idea-—from the teachings of Jesus, and from virtually all other sacred texts—-the radical idea that we should treat every person as if se were holy, is just as compelling, and every bit as likely to “draw us out to where we can never return.”
So may we be!
(original post, with links, at So May We Be)