Sermon, 1/15/23: The Staying Power or Consequences of Miracles

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2 Epiphany

Psalm 49:1–12; Isaiah 49:1–7; I Corinthians 1:1–9; John 1:29–42

[Andrew] first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ … John 1:41

On Friday, 6 January 2023, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany.  By today’s standards of almost instantaneous 24-hour news cycle, that is old news.  Indeed, although not announced, we have now turned and pivoted our faces toward Ash Wednesday and the Forty Days of Lent.  The story of the Baptism of Jesus, which we observed last Sunday, was to prepare us for the ministry of Jesus which led to Calvary.  However, for just a brief few minutes, I want to go back to the Epiphany.  In fact, I want to return to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, a celebration that we call Christmas.

What makes me desire to take a step back into history is an event this week now gone which did not affect me directly or immediately, but nevertheless one which caused me to think about miracles.  And that sent me to my ever-handy Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, where I read the following definition regarding the word ‘miracle’:

  • An extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs
  • An extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment

What sent me back to my dictionary, was a decision made on Wednesday morning last by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).  The FAA grounded all flights in our country for a period of time.  Apparently, as it was later diagnosed, a corrupted computer file, i.e. a software maintenance mistake, lay at the center of a major FAA computer.  Pilots could not gain access to NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions) systems for information, which they need to fly.  So, to avoid innumerable disaster, the FAA grounded all flights.  Of course, and given the current state of affairs aboard and nationally, a great fear arose that this defect was the result of a cyberattack.  That, it was determined, was not the case.

Many travelers took the delay in stride.  They remained calm.  Others expressed disgust, frustration, anger, that their plans should be interrupted.  I, for one, someone who has not flown since the beginning of our current pandemic, saw in the FAA’s decision the extension of a miracle.  The miracle?  That humans have used their intelligence to devise a means of transportation that defies the natural order, namely that metal can fly through the sky and beyond.  Flight has made it possible to respond to devastating natural event thousands of miles away.  Flight has enabled nations to transport grain, medicines, and other needed materials to countries in need for their survival.  Flight has made it possible to live out in real time and in tangible ways the second of the two great commandments: to love neighbor as self.

It is my totally biased opinion that in our desire to understand miracles, we have limited that word to define or to describe an event that takes place once, sometimes with and sometimes without fanfare.  An ill individual appears to be healed from a disease.  Tradition mandates that a miracle is an action which allows us to raise the person behind the action to sainthood and to be assigned a day for adulation. Individuals should be recognized for their contribution to the welfare of their fellow beings.  But I suggest that a true miracle has neither a distinct beginning, nor a distinct end.

When the shepherds made their way to Bethlehem, it was surely not because they wanted or needed to see how a child was born.  For such instruction, they needed only have remained on the hillside and observe how sheep give birth to lambs.  What caused their Bethlehem trip, was a miracle of a different kind.  Someone special had entered into their world.  The miracle of that birth did not cease in Bethlehem.

As those shepherds went back to their hillside, they told others along the way what they had heard and seen regarding this special child.  They shared that pivotal information with others.  The miracle did not terminate in Bethlehem.  Their sharing prepared the way for the baptism of Jesus by John, during which a dove alighted on the man whose birth had taken place just decades prior, and who now was about to shake the mountains of neglect by those in authority., with the intent of reconciliation among humankind. 

The Epiphany, in its basic form, is the occasion on which Jesus meets the real world and the real world find Jesus, the world outside of Judea.  Three kings, or three Wise Men, had been drawn, each from his own country, toward a phenomenon in the sky and toward each other.  They called it a star, and that star came to rest over Bethlehem.  They called it a miracle.  As they returned to their homes by another way—thus avoiding Herod—they spoke in their native lands about something new that would change the world as they knew it.  It would inject positive serum into human behavior, human interaction.  The effects of the miracle of that birth were yet to be felt.  The miracle in Bethlehem had yet to come into its real form.

You will surely recall a miracle—call it a divine intervention; call it an extraordinary, outstanding accomplishment—in our own day, now several years ago, 2009 to be exact, when Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger landed his heavier than air vehicle, US Airways Flight 1549, on the Hudson River in New York City, after both engines had sustained a bird strike and no longer functioned.  All 155 people aboard survived.  I do not recall reading that any of them complained about delays or not making further connections.  This fits the storybook definition of miracle.  There were consequences directly attributed to this miracle.  The spigot of intellectual curiosity, opened by that miracle, was not turned off.  Rather, others gained knowledge and insight from Captain Sullenberger’s lectures.  The FAA updated its regulations.  The lives of others, since that time, have been saved because of the information gained and shared.

Let me refresh your memory by quoting to you again the line from St. John’s gospel which caused me to think about miracles and their long-term consequences. John had baptized Jesus and in a later encounter, John proclaims the worthiness of Jesus, a miracle of God: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John1:29)  Andrew, initially one of John’s disciples, is so taken by this recognition, that he rushes off to spread/share this great news with his brother Peter.  “[Andrew] first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’… John 1:41

Like the shepherds and the three Wise Men, Andrew cannot contain himself.  Other since him have been afflicted by the same urge to shout out the news of God’s reconciliation with the created order through this one person, Jesus the Christ (Anointed).  The miracle of Christ’s birth, the PR team of shepherds, the high-level administrative acceptance and promotion by the Wise Men from influential nations did not sputter and die away in ashes in Israel.  That message once voiced in biblical Israel found its way to the shores of the United States and into the minds of countless others, among whom is numbered Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observe tomorrow.  It was the FAA decision which turned my thoughts on what Dr. King signifies, namely the system needs constant attention, maintenance, fine-tuning.  As in biblical Israel, and the disgruntled and inconvenienced air passengers, detractors today will make their voices heard.  But equally needed are those who believe still in miracles, big and small. 

This week I witnessed two miracles, not of the Sullenberger nature and magnitude, in which hundreds of lives were changed or saved, but on a smaller scale.  While at the Cambridge Galleria Mall, I observed a young father with his son, of perhaps 7, 8 years.  They made their way to the down escalator; the father began the descent; the boy remained at the top.  Noticing that his son was not at his side, with shock and fright written across his face, and with a speed that would qualify him for the Boston Marathon, the young man raced up the downward moving stairs, grabbed up his son into his arms, hugged him, set him down onto the floor again, and this time holding fast his son’s hand, made their way jointly down the escalator.  I was still on the level above.  What I observed further, but could not hear, was a kneeling father, arm around his son, pointing to the moving stairs, and a boy who came to appreciate his father’s love.

The second miracle occurred later, also at an escalator.  As I descended, I observed an elderly woman slip and fall as she stepped off.  Rushing to her aid was a young teenager who helped her back onto her feet.  She hugged him and apparently offered him some compensation for his assistance, for he was shaking his head vigorously.  She hugged him again, he turned to walk away, but turned back one last time and waved to her.  This was a Martin Luther King, Jr. miracle, for in another time and place, that young man could have been hung for placing his hands on that woman.  The teenager reacted without forethought to a fellow being in distress.  Where or from whom that young man had learned to love and to respect others, and not to allow difference in tribe to determine his existence, I know not.  What I do know is this: The miracle of the birth of the Prince of Peace in Bethlehem had not ceased, but had extended its effect into the modern world.

We like to think of miracles as things that happen to others and for which there is no explanation, perhaps even no preparation.  We call it luck, we call it fortune, we call it divine intervention.  I believe that the divine is present at all times and in all places.  As Cassius says to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.”  The inability to recognize the divine lies with us.  And what we do at Eucharist, through our confession and our participation in the Sacred Sacraments, is to ask for forgiveness of our shortsightedness.

Through the intellect that God has given us, through the birthing process, and the empathy that comes with seeing in each other our very selves, we are constantly striving to return to a oneness with God.  We discover cures for diseases, we develop new modes of communication and transportation, new means of agriculture.  There will be disappointments, mistakes, friction, words harshly exchanged along that journey.  But there are also, far outnumbering the discomforts that we cause each other and ourselves, those times when miracles take place before our very eyes, even in our cynicism.  Times when, unexpectedly, the divine breaks through to remind, to encourage.  We should not be afraid to find the presence of the divine in the most mundane, the most common of actions and occurrences. 

When you do, when we do, we get a glimpse of the world from the outside in, and we can be filled with a haunting wonder, what the Bible means when it speaks of the awe of the Lord, unfortunately translated as the “fear of the Lord.”  It is an awe in the presence of a wonderful mystery.  Our recognition of God may not be as dramatic as that of John the Baptist.  Just as our prophetic voice may not be as strong as Dr. King’s, or our actions as newsworthy as Sullenberger’s miracle.  Now, concerning the miracle of faith, I say this: Andrew and Peter did not yet have verification that Jesus was the Lamb of God.  They had faith, and so do we, and like those two brothers, so do we open yourselves to the little things.  Forsake not to believe in miracles.  Amen