What do you make of miracles?

What do you make of miracles? Miracles may be a dangerous topic to cover from an Episcopal pulpit. We are the denomination with the highest number of advanced degrees per capita. Academics tend to avoid talk of the miraculous. Still, I do need to ask, what do you make of miracles?

Today’s story finds a disciple named Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, about seven miles journey from Jerusalem. Jesus came near them, but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” They stop in their tracks when he asks “why are you sad?” and the recount to him the story of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and the reports of the women (notice, the guys are lost and the women are ahead of them). The women say Jesus has been risen. Then this stranger opens the scriptures for them. They encourage him to stay with them that evening, and over dinner he takes the bread, says the blessing, breaks it, and gives it to them. Then they recognize Jesus.

Admittedly this story concerns the most mundane of miracles. These lesser disciples aren’t saved from a storm. Sadly, no water becomes wine. These disciples are not blind in the physical sense, yet somehow Jesus opens their eyes. We’ll come back to the Emmaus road in a moment, for now, let’s talk about miracles.

In a short television series on the BBC Richard Dawkins, the famous Oxford biologist and author of “The God Delusion” interviewed then Archbishop of Canterbury, another sometime Oxford professor, Dr. Rowan Williams. If you’ve ever heard an interview with Dawkins, you know he doesn’t let folks get many words in edgewise. In the midst of the interview the atheist interrupts and accuses the archbishop, saying if you believe God got creation right in the first place, and does not need to regularly intervene and bend the laws of physics, ”how do you reconcile that with [miracles which] look to some of us like cheap conjuring tricks?”

Archbishop Williams responds graciously. If you view God as something outside messing around with the works, you are in danger of the “conjuring tricks model,” he admits. But you can also think of a miracle as a sort of “opening moment” where the “underlying action of God breaks through in a fresh way.” He talks of a miracle not as a “suspension of the laws of nature” but as “nature itself opening up to its own depths.” Miracles are not where God is moving in from the outside tinkering, but rather, where the surface tension breaks, and God’s action, always present, bursts through.

Dawkins is unconvinced. Maybe you are raising your eyebrows as well. Theologians like Rowan Williams traffic in nuance and poetry. We don’t make a lot of time for nuance and poetry these days as a society. Miracles don’t square neatly. Sometimes it is easier to just move on, keep moving down that road. Get to Emmaus. Sometimes though, we are caught off guard.

I believe I once saw a miracle. Now, before you get too excited, before those of you from Chicago email my former professor, know this wasn’t some cosmic level miracle. This wasn’t a massive show like the Incarnation or the Resurrection. No laws of physics were suspended. The miracle I witnessed was mundane. If you stood next to me, you might not have agreed that a miracle occurred. But I believe it was a miracle.

In 2007 I led my first pilgrimage to El Salvador from the University of California, San Diego. I’ve been thinking about that trip because next month I’m taking our first group from Holy Communion to the country. The group I brought back in 2007 was tiny, just 4 students. Three of them were girls, so I decided it would be a good idea to have a female co-leader. I asked my friend Lyra to come along. She and I had spent the previous year as volunteers with The Episcopal Church in Honduras, another Central American country just next-door to El Salvador. Lyra spoke Spanish, and could navigate which foods were safe, and what bathrooms to steer the girls toward.

The week went largely as you might expect. We visited the tombs of the Salvadoran martyrs. We worshiped in local churches. We talked with leaders working for justice. On our second to last day, we were touring a little village of concrete houses in a place called El Maizal. These homes had been recently built by Episcopal Relief and Development for folks displaced by natural disaster. Most were still unoccupied, but we walked up to meet a woman whose family had just moved into a completed building. As our host introduced the residents, my friend Lyra’s face burst into a wide smile. Her expression was mirrored by the new homeowner. Lyra rushed up to give her a hug, and they both cried as they spoke. Lyra stayed there, talking with the woman, holding her little daughter. She hung back with the family for several minutes as our group kept walking through the little town square.

One of the students asked me: “How did Lyra know that woman?” I said, I didn’t know. I remember being surprised seeing them interact, it was like the scenes at the end of that movie “Love Actually” in the airport, when the families are reunited after a long journey, and they greet each other outside airport security with such joy. I assumed Lyra must have known her back in Honduras, or there was some connection.

Months later, I remembered the moment. I happened to be visiting Lyra up in San Francisco, and I asked, “how did you know that woman in El Maizal?” Lyra said, “Mike, it was the strangest thing. I didn’t know her at all. But when I saw her face, I was overcome. I felt like we were long lost sisters.” Lyra, like me, is also the child of an Episcopal priest. She’s had a bit of an on again off again relationship with church and faith, but she said that moment, she knew something deep, something true was happening. She recognized something divine in a stranger, a woman, a refugee. Something broke through.

As I said, this was a pretty mundane miracle. But even as I remember it now, I get goosebumps. I can’t say that if you stood there with some sort of scanner, you’d pick of electronic waves that prove the existence of God. No, Nothing like that. I can say that for a moment, in a dusty settlement built by Episcopalians, a little town called El Maizal, it felt like my friend’s eyes were opened, and those of us nearby caught a glimpse.

On some level, shouldn’t every meeting of strangers be like what I just described? If we are all, each of us, created in the image and likeness of God, shouldn’t we greet strangers as long lost relatives? Jesus tells us, if you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, stand with the oppressed, you clothe, feed, and stand with me. Shouldn’t every encounter with a stranger help us to glimpse God and God’s Kingdom? I say I believe I saw a miracle in this nuanced sense. I think somehow my friend Lyra was ready to see God’s presence in a stranger. I think somehow that stranger was ready as well. They encountered one another on a deeper level than most of us access each day.

As miracles go, mine is a small one. I’ve prayed for bigger. I’ve wished that a parishioner would be healed from cancer. If I had the power, I would have raised several folks who died. It turns out we priests don’t have magic powers. I can’t conjure a miracle at will, much as I would like to do.

But I have seen families come together and reconcile deep hurts around a hospital bed. I’ve witnessed nurses and doctors helping a patient to die well, with little pain, surrounded by care. I wonder whether we might count those moments as a kind of miracle.

I once heard the Buddhist teacher Thich That Hanh talk about Jesus, and the Kingdom of God. Jesus spent much of his ministry teaching about the Kingdom of God, this blessed reign of justice, of peace, of love. The Buddhist monk said, Christians often get frustrated wondering “Where is God’s Kingdom?” He said, we misunderstand Jesus’ teaching. “It is not that the Kingdom of God is not available to us, but that we are not available to the Kingdom.” What is the groundwork? What is the preparation? How can we be ready to have our eyes opened?

Scholars who study this story about the Road to Emmaus notice an interesting pattern to the text. It reads like our Sunday morning Service. First Jesus and the Disciples read Scripture together. Then they share the sacred meal. The scholars say there is a Eucharistic pattern to this story. This road to Emmaus shows that the early community was already worshiping, much like we do here at Holy Communion each and every week. First we break open scripture, then we break the bread.

The disciples knew the Lord Jesus when they saw him doing what he had done in his life. He offered them a blessing. He offered them food. He offered himself to them. He taught them. There in the mundanity, there they glimpsed Jesus. Each week I tell you something scandalous, something nigh impossible to believe: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” Each week the worship of this church asks you to suspend your disbelief, and to receive Jesus. Here in the Scripture. Here, at the table. Here, in this motley crew of a congregation we ask you to meet Jesus.

We believe that this work is formative. Worship prepares us to receive God, to be ready for miracles, even mundane miracles. That’s why we don’t make the kids leave the service for some more entertaining Sunday School. That’s why, if and when we start a children’s chapel, it will look like a more interactive version of what the adults are doing. We believe that worship forms us, readies us, as it readied Cleopas and his companion, to see Jesus.

Shakespeare’s clown Lafeu in “All’s Well that End’s Well” famously muses: “They say miracles are past.” Do you agree? What do you make of miracles? Is there room for poetry? Is there room for nuance? Is there room for God still in this world? I hope so. I’m still looking. Whether you’re on the road to Emmaus, or El Maizal, or you are just headed down Delmar Boulevard later. May you be prepared to encounter the miraculous, even in the most mundane moments.

Easter: Evidence for Resurrection

Did you catch the setting of this morning’s Gospel? “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” While it was still dark, that’s when Mary came to the tomb. Darkness is a theme in John’s Gospel. This morning, that phrase which starts us off sets the whole tone: while it was still dark.”

The whole Gospel story is filled with fear, confusion, and a sense of dread. “Where have you laid him?” Mary asks again and again. The tone matters. The setting matters. You have to remember, this is a community in shock. Mary, Peter, James, John, and the other disciples have given up lives and livelihoods to follow Jesus. Their hope died on the cross. They’ve watched their leader be silenced by the might of Rome. We don’t need news of Resurrection when all seems right in the world.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” The work Mary goes to do isn’t glamorous. According the Luke’s Gospel she’s headed there with spices. Jesus had been hastily buried ahead of the Passover. Under the cover of darkness, hoping not to draw attention, Mary wants to try to bring some dignity to the degradation. Instead she finds an empty tomb. She panics. She weeps.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” The question has to come twice that dark morning. Lost in her grief, still under the dim light of morning, she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Then he says her name. The world changes. Resurrection happens while we’re feeling lost and scared. “Early on the first day of the week, when it was still dark…” Darkness, sadness, fear, these set the stage for resurrection.

Modern folks have a hard time with spiritual truths like resurrection. We hunger for facts. When I was in high school, at the urging of an Evangelical friend I read a bestselling book called “The Case for Christ.” The crime journalist Lee Strobel tried to make a case AGAINST his wife’s conversion to Christianity. He looked at the Bible, the history, talked to experts and instead he convinced himself in the truth of the Gospel. Let me be clear. I’m not recommending the book, or the movie that has apparently just come out. Each of Strobel’s chapters talks about a kind of “evidence” especially for the resurrection. “Eyewitness evidence,” “Corroborating Evidence,” “Scientific Evidence,” “The Evidence of the Missing Body…” You get the picture.

I have to tell you, I find books like this interesting, but not compelling. Every so often archeologists discover a new papyrus or tablet and the media reports the “evidence” that Jesus was not resurrected. History is important, science is critical in our day, but if you need facts to prove your thesis, you’re not talking about faith. You’re not talking about resurrection. When we try to prove faith with science, we end up in some strange places. Even if you could build a case, based on 2000 year old evidence that Jesus’ body walked out of the tomb, I couldn’t tell you that was evidence for Resurrection.

Evidence for resurrection is something else entirely because Resurrection is a spiritual truth. Resurrection means that new life springs even after tragedy. Resurrection means that even when we mess up royally, God can take the wreckage and make something new. God can bring life out of death. Love can conquer hate. Goodness can win against evil. Resurrection as a spiritual truth I do find compelling. I can live my life looking for hope in the darkest places. I can live my life watching for life to spring out of death. 

You see, I do want to talk about evidence for Resurrection this morning, but not the kind of evidence in the Case for Christ.

The New Yorker this week features a short biography of Pauli Murray, a saint of our church, but not one you’ve likely heard much about. Pauli Murray was the first black woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Though she came to the priesthood late in life, like Mary Magdalene before her, Pauli Murray was an early riser.

In 1940, on her way from New York to North Carolina to spend Easter with her family Murray was arrested for refusing to go to the back of a segregated bus. Pauli missed Easter that year and did her time in jail, unable to pay the fine for her disorderly conduct charge. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t quite ready to organize the bus boycotts that would begin in Montgomery when Rosa Parks followed Pauli’s lead fifteen years later.

Pauli was refused admission to the University of North Carolina because of her skin color. She was frustrated, but she used her anger to fuel her path. Instead she took other steps toward integration. Murray was the first woman to attend Howard Law School, at the time thought of as the “Black Harvard.” While she was there, she wrote a senior thesis where to defend and argument she’d had with a professor. Murray argued lawyers should stop trying to prove that the black schools were unequal. The wins were too small: one school at a time. Instead she said, make a legal challenge to the “separate” part of the “separate but equal” framework of Jim Crow. Her professor called her crazy. That same professor later used Pauli’s thesis as part of the winning argument in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case which ended legal segregation.

The New Yorker article, and the recent biography on which the it is based, both profile Murray’s struggles around sexuality and gender. Pauli was born Anna, but hated the name. She shortened her middle name “Pauline,” and used it instead. Though she always used feminine pronouns, she never felt fully comfortable with her gender. She married a man, but the marriage only lasted a weekend. Pauli had deeper romances with women. While she left these stories out of her autobiography, she left behind journals and letters that described inner work to reconcile a queer identity before the language, psychology, and society caught up with her.

Pauli was ahead of her time in many regards. I’m grateful to be part of a church that eventually found the guts to ordain her, and 25 years later to declare her a saint. If you want evidence of resurrection, I submit the life of Pauli Murray. I submit the thousands who continued to stand with faith before the world was ready. I submit the witnesses, the saints, even those who are not widely remembered. On Easter morning we proclaim the resurrection with trumpets and triumph, but new life often comes before it can be fully understood. New life comes about early, while it is still dark. (That’s why we started the service in darkness this morning). Resurrection happens when the world is not yet ready. We are always playing catchup to God’s work.

I don’t know where you are on the journey of faith this morning. We say around here, wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome. Faith is a journey, and sometimes the road gets dark. Sometimes the world around can seem off-kilter. If these last months have been difficult for you, if you find yourself struggling with fear and shock, if you find yourself turning off the radio and putting down the paper out of frustration, you are well prepared for Resurrection.

God can and does make new life out of the worst of human circumstances. While all the reporting may cover bad news, there is good news today and every day. Life continues to triumph. Love continues to win. Light continues to shine, even in the darkest corners. When you look at the big picture, there is evidence for resurrection all around.

Jesus, Zombies, and Fishsticks

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter.

Sometimes Scripture is inspiring. We believe the Scripture to be inspired, and we believe Scripture can inspire us, blow wind into our sails. Sometimes scripture is inspiring. And sometimes the Gospel is about Jesus eating fish sticks.

These are not simple readings. It’s not always easy to come away inspired. In Acts and in Luke, the hearers are terrified, astonished, confused. I can’t really blame them.

The psalmist complains to God. His people say, “Oh that we might see better times!” For the past two weeks the first letter of John has been going on about sin and lawlessness. If in three years we have an associate rector, she or he will be assigned these readings. I’ll let someone else deal with Jesus eating the post-resurrection fish. But here we are, and this is the Gospel today. Let’s talk about the fish.

In an odd way, this Gospel may speak to a particular fascination in our culture today. For the past several years, my little brother Sam has sent me a text on Easter morning. It’s always the same text. Now, you have to understand, my little brother is way more hip than me. He watches more contemporary movies and tv shows. He plays video games. For the past several years my little brother has texted on Easter morning: Happy Zombie Jesus Day!

Happy Zombie Jesus day. If you’re like me, and you don’t play the latest video games or see all the latest TV shows and movies, you might have missed our cultural obsession with the undead. It’s staggering. The Walking Dead is one of the most popular TV shows. I was reading a New Yorker review of a horror flick that is coming out. (New Yorker reviews are about as close as usually I get to horror movies). The reviewer was SURPRISED it wasn’t about zombies. There are a lot of zombies out there in the cultural imagination.

This Gospel story was written to a similarly fascinated culture. First century Palestine had a fear of the undead. The Gospel says the disciples are afraid that Jesus is a ghost, a spirit. Maybe you’ve heard the other Arabic word: djinn. The desert can be a frightening place by night. The wind howls. The land is so desolate. At the time of Jesus, they were afraid of the spirits and ghosts, much like we have a cultural obsession with zombies and vampires.

In response Luke has Jesus eat a peace of fish. Luke emphasizes that Jesus is flesh and blood. He presents evidence. Ancient tradition taught that Luke the Evangelist was a medical doctor, and this is one of the passages they pointed to when making the case. Luke wants to emphasize Jesus’ physical body, his hunger, his digestion. Jesus is not a ghost. Yes he came back from the dead, but Jesus is not a zombie. Sorry Sam. Jesus is simply flesh and blood.

But, I have a spin on this odd Gospel. There’s a way I think we can move past all this first century ghost-disproving strangeness. The fish may prove Jesus’ flesh-and-blood resurrection, but it doesn’t stop or start with the fish. It seems so usual, and that is the point. In every single account of the resurrection, Jesus eats with his followers. He breaks bread. He shares the fish. He meets the disciples at the table. He is with them in the everyday meal.

The section of Luke’s Gospel just before this reading is one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible. Until the most recent lectionary came out, we read that story every third Sunday of Easter. Now some committee decided we need some variety. Every second year, they decided we needed fish sticks. But Luke Chapter 24 vs 13 begins with a couple of disciples on the road. Cleopas and an unnamed follower are walking to Emmaus after the crucifixion. They’re disappointed. As the sun sets, and the shadows lengthen, and evening is at hand, a stranger joins them on the road. “What are you talking about?” he asks.

The disciples are stunned that this stranger hasn’t heard about Jesus’ death. “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel” they tell him. Then the stranger surprises them. He walks them through the Bible, and explains that the messiah must suffer and die. They’re amazed as he helps them understand. They approach the village, and they ask the stranger to stay with them. He joins them in the house for a meal. When he breaks the bread, they know he is Jesus.

Sometimes the scriptures seem a bit obscure. Sometimes the meaning is hidden. Sometimes our hopes are disappointed. Jesus comes back bodily, and sometimes bodies disappoint us. We all know a bit about how our bodies can be disappointing. Am I right? The human body is only rarely inspiring, rarely. Often the body can seem like a burden. We have aches, and pains, and bodily issues.

But Jesus shared our humanity. Jesus wasn’t some magical creature. Jesus shared our regular old body. Jesus shared our human suffering. Jesus shared our death. And we will share in Christ’s resurrection. I think part of our culture’s intrigue around fantasy, why we have so many zombie stories and vampire movies, is a desire that the world was a little more enchanted. We all want to believe in magic. So we make up stories, and put them on TV.

The desire for magic, for enchantment, is why I take some courage from this story from Luke. This story is too messy to be satisfying for that fantastic side of our humanity. If our fantasy writers were writing about Jesus, I bet it would be more magical. If those disciples on the road to Emmaus could have made up a story about Jesus’ return, they would have imagined him coming back with throngs of angels to topple Caesar and take Jerusalem by heavenly force. That’s what they wanted to see. Instead they got fish sticks.

But there’s hope, even in fish sticks. Zen Buddhists have a saying: “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” Don’t confuse the finger pointing and the moon. Scripture is not God. The Tradition is not God. Reason is not God. Priests are not God. The church is not God. Religion is not God. Thank God, at our best, we point to the moon. At its best, Scripture points us.

Jesus is not some magical being, reserved for fantastic stories of encounter. God is not available only on special mountaintops. Christ is with us in the messy bodily reality of our day to day lives. God is not only with us when life is good. Jesus is not about perfection. Jesus is with us in the fish sticks.

Christianity is a very ordinary religion. We look for God in the ordinary stuff. Our central symbols are water, bread, and wine. Sometimes we even look to fish. We put fish on the back of our cars. We believe that God is known to us in the breaking of bread, that simple everyday action. Christians see the supernatural in and through the natural.

Episcopalians dress it up. I stand here in fancy robes and we sing about the bread, but really, really, we could do this around your dinner table. It would count. We could use grape juice instead of wine. We could baptize a baby in the kitchen sink. We dress up the ordinary to point to the moon. But let’s try not to get stuck staring at the pointing finger.

Christians are ordinary people with an extraordinary assertion. God meets us in the everyday life. God meets us in human bodies. God meets us right where we are, fishsticks and all. So let’s break bread together. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll glimpse the Risen Lord.