Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Ordinary Miracles or "Can God Defy the Laws of Physics?

Acts 9:1-12
John 21:1-19

When we invited you to write your questions for our interfaith panel, some of them were questions that were more Christian or even Presbyterian in content.  I put those off to focus on the questions that were more written for our guests of differing faiths.  But over the next few months, I hope to try to answer, from my own perspective, some of the other questions that you asked.  Today I want to start by giving my answer to a question that the other panel members did address but which I did not.  The question was, “Does God have the ability to defy the laws of physics?”
This is a question about the validity of miracles, whether or not they really take place, but it also goes a step further into the question of the nature of those miracles, in what ways they happen or in what ways they CAN happen. Does God set up the rules in such a way that God never breaks them?  Or can God break the very rules God has set up for our world and our universe?
Not to put anyone on the spot, but have any of you seen or experienced a miracle?  How about one that defies the laws of physics?
         Today we hear a couple different stories about miracles.  We hear about Paul’s conversion experience of encountering the risen Christ.  And we hear about Jesus’ third appearance to the disciples after his resurrection.  We know that throughout the Bible there are many stories of miracles.  The parting of the Red Sea, Daniel escaping the lions in the lion’s den, Jesus’ many miracles of healing.  It is common to wonder what these stories have to do with us today.  Did these miracles really happen?  If so, do miracles still happen?  If so, why don’t we hear about them?  If not, why not?  Do the old stories, whether historically accurate or not, still have meaning for us today?  And if God gives miracles, why do they happen for some but not for all?  Why do they seem so random?  And how do they fit in with the world God created with its laws and science?  Why have those physical laws if they are just going to be broken on special occasions?
        Frederick Buechner, in his book “Wishful Thinking” speaks eloquently for us in his essay on miracles when he says, “A cancer unexplicably cured.  A voice in a dream.  A statue that weeps.  A miracle is an event that strengthens faith.  It is possible to look at most miracles and find a rational explanation in terms of natural cause and effect.  It is possible to look at Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus and find a rational explanation in terms of paint and canvas.  Faith in God is less apt to proceed from miracles than miracles from faith in God.”
            Still, even people of deep faith struggle with the idea of miracles.  There is great dispute among biblical scholars about the historicity of Jesus’ healings, for example.  Some believe these stories of Jesus’ miracles were added later to legitimate Jesus as God’s son.  For these scholars, the miracle stories offend, first because they are attempts to “prove” God to a people who are called to trust without proof.  Second because again, they call into question why some receive miracles while others don’t.  Third, miracles seem to have “dried up,” at least the big ones, which calls into question why God would have done big miracles in the past but allowed atrocities like the Witch burnings and the Holocaust to occur without intervention.  I am not telling you this to shock or upset you or even to challenge you to question those miracles.  But I am telling you this because I find their reasoning fascinating.  Scholars like Marcus Borg and faithful scientists like the physicist Polkinghorn are offended by the idea that God needs to step outside the wonderful, beautiful laws of nature which God has created in order to prove God’s existence or presence, to prove God’s will and intervention in our lives.  They ask, what do faithful people really need in order to believe in God’s presence?  What kind of signs do we require in order to believe God loves us?  Would we still believe that Jesus was the Christ without the miracles we read about in scripture?  Isn’t God’s presence and existence more profound, more deep, more intensive and infused throughout all life than a need for “miracles?”  And what kind of faith is it that requires stepping outside the laws of physics in order to believe truly in God’s existence or love for us?
         There is a great deal of reason to be cautious in our understanding, and expectation of miracles.  Rev. Kay Landers has been a hospital chaplain for over thirty years.  A colleague in ministry asked Kay (through e-mail) about her experiences with miracles and in particular the miracle of healing, and I would like to read to you Kay’s response.  She wrote, “I am cautious about using the word ‘healing’ when I pray with and for my patients and their families.  There are many ways we are healed.  But my own life experience has been that actual healing of bodily ills and wounds is very rare and that those who suffer and are not healed are not deprived of God's presence and that those who experience the miracle of healing have been touched in a way quite unique from the majority of God's children.  C.S. Lewis believed that the miracles we seek are rare and come only when God intervenes in the natural order of life….death is the natural order and eventually carries us all away.  C.S. Lewis then wrote that miracles are generally only for God's youngest "children" in faith, and as we mature our trust in God grows so that we need to increase our faith in God's presence without an outward, visible sign of God’s constant and true presence, for Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us.   There are many times in the Intensive Care Unit at Highland Hospital that family will request that the doctor "do everything" for the dying patient as they "know God will heal their loved one."  There are those moments when a patient will slowly experience some form of recovery and, rarely, a recovery of major proportions.  However, most are not healed in the way the family desires and that will sometimes turn the family away from God because "God didn't do what we asked."  This is a puzzlement to me, especially when those who were strongly committed to "doing everything" no longer visit their loved ones who remain in comas or vegetative states in our Fairmont beds.”
              Still, I want to give you a couple examples from my own personal life of what I experience to be miracles.  I believe I shared this with you the night before I Candidated here and I know I’ve shared it with our midweek program as well, but for me it remains a powerful story.  This was about 9 years ago.  I was working at Bethel in a half time, minimum Presbytery salary job.  My husband had the full time position but his job had ended and he had not been able to find a new job.  Additionally, we had moved recently, buying one house and attempting to sell the other, when the people who were buying our old house pulled out.  Our new house sprung a major leak in one of the two bathrooms and needed at least $4000 of repair work before it would be functional.  We were, therefore, in the situation of trying to pay two mortgages, with a torn apart bathroom (including the floor that had been ruined by water) letting bugs and the cold into the house, trying to support ourselves on my Presbytery minimum half time salary in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I was scared.  Add to this that it was right before Christmas, we had to figure out how to make it a good and meaningful Christmas for our three children without spending any money on presents or an elaborate meal, and…well, you get the idea.  I finally hit the wall.  It is rare in my private prayer time that I pray for specifics for myself and my family, but this was a rare situation in which, driving home from work late one night I found myself praying for a miracle.  “God, we just need a miracle.  We need to get through this, we need it to all be okay.  We just need some kind of miracle.”  The next morning I got up as I had for several weeks, grumpy, scared and tired, when suddenly I heard a yell from the front of the house.  I ran to see what was the matter, thinking to myself, “What now, O God?  Can this really get any harder?”  But when I ran to the living room, what I found was a six foot tall Christmas tree sitting on our front porch, addressed to us, with a little note that just said, “Merry Christmas.”  While my children squealed with delight, I myself was simply stunned.  Was this the miracle I had been waiting for?  It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.  But since it did a lot to cheer my children, it set the day in a good way.  We got on with our day and I took Aislynn to her little community center class that morning.  But when I got to class, there was a note pinned to the attendance sheet asking me to come to the office.  I went to the office and the secretary started to tell me there was a problem with my class registration.  I was beginning to get all worked up when suddenly she reached behind her desk and pulled out a huge bag of presents for our family from “Santa Claus.”  At first I thought it must be a mistake, but each present was addressed to a specific member of our family.  For the second time that day, we had been given an unexpected and joyful gift.  This one was more practical, too, for it contained things like a gift card to the local grocery store and pajamas for all the kids.  I was again stunned, and to this day cannot figure out who this gift could possibly have been from.  But still, an answer to my prayer for a miracle?  We came home from class, with my confusion moving into a sense of awe.  I sat on the couch with Aislynn and for the first time ever in her 20 months of age (at that time), she reached up, held my face in both of her little hands, and said, “Mama, I love you.”  And in those words, in that miracle, I beheld the presence of God.  It was with her words that I knew the miracle I had prayed for, had in fact, taken place.  Again, not what I had asked for.  It wasn’t a job.  It wasn’t the sale of our old house.  It wasn’t someone volunteering to fix our bathroom issues.  But instead it was an overflowing sign of love – from God, from God’s people, a love that has, and continues to sustain us through the hard times because the hard times are always there if we focus on them.  And the love is always there to sustain us, if we can just see it when we need it.  Miracles, are all around us, every day, if we choose to see them.
         One day towards the end of my pregnancy with Aislynn, I went to pick up my eldest daughter from school just at the time that her pre-school class was filing in from outside.  I found myself caught by the moving traffic of children and I ended up standing just inside the doorway, holding the door open for the kids as they came inside.  As I stood there with extended belly, most of the kids were talking to each other, or fooling around, all anxious to get inside to be picked up by their parents or eat their lunches.  Yet, one by one, as they passed, each child, without having noticed the other children doing the same, reached out and put their hands on my tummy, quietly, but with intention, with focus, with a moment of silent connection.  Not one of those children looked into my face, acted shy about reaching out or in any other way acknowledged me: it wasn’t about me.  And for each child, it was just a moment, just an automatic reaching out and touching.  But personally, I was awed by the experience, deeply touched, and a little astounded.  I felt I had been blessed, that Aislynn had been blessed, by the hands of all these little children of God.  All these three and four year olds who connected to life at all levels, at deep levels, not knowing why or caring why, but being part of that blessing and connection.
        I could go on and on and on about times God’s presence for me has been strong.  Times I have heard God through other people, through nature, and on a couple occasions what felt very directly.  But none of these events, these miracles that I experience as part of simply living in this world answer the question that was asked, “does God have the ability to defy the laws of physics.”  There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that.  And sometimes I think living in the question is more important than ever finding an answer, because God is there in the journey, in the question, in the exploration.
None the less, I will answer the question from my own perspective and place.  When I look back on biblical stories, I don’t know if all of those things actually happened, and I’ll tell you a secret – I don’t actually care if they did or not.  To me, those stories, whether historically accurate or not, have deeper truths to tell us and I think that if we focus solely on the historicity of those events we miss the point of those stories, the deeper wisdom and truths that they have to tell us.  But regardless of whether each of them happened the way they are described, things do happen that we cannot explain. I think that in many ways we are just at the beginning of our understanding of science.  In another 200 years, if humans are still around, we will look back and be amazed at what we thought we ‘knew’ to be true.  I believe what we perceive to be miracles do happen, even things that would give the appearance of “defying the laws of physics”.  But I believe that, given enough time, we might come to understand how those things could have happened within the scientific universe the way it has been designed.  I believe anything is possible because I’ve seen too many things happen that I cannot explain.  But I also believe God set up the world in such a way that we have what we need to make it work, and this does not require “breaking” or “defying” what God has set up.  We just don’t understand everything yet.
        But what is more important to me than if God can defy the laws of physics (and truly, I think God can do anything God chooses.  That is, after all, the nature of God), I think the deeper question goes back to how we know God is there and how we know God loves us.  Does God still interact with humanity?  Does God still play a part?  Does God still care about each of us all the time?
For me the answer goes back to my favorite Einstein quote: “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”  Perhaps because I choose the later, I see God around me every day.  All the time.  Our lives are filled with grace, with blessings, with miracles.  Because that is the nature of the God who loves us.  God set up the laws of physics, however we will eventually be able to understand them, out of love for us, out of an understanding that we need order to help us make sense of our lives.  But God is still ultimately in charge of it all.  And God’s choice is always for us, for love, for good.  Amen.