Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)
First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo (CA)
July 29, 2018
A private jet carrying a pilot and a CEO went down over the Pacific. Miraculously, the two washed up on a spit of an island. The pilot sat down on the shore to sunbathe, while the CEO—a take charge kind of guy—went off to explore.
After a brief time, the CEO came back to the pilot on the shore: “I’ve got bad news,” the CEO reported. “There’s no food or water on this island.”
The pilot said, “I make 200,000 dollars a year, and I tithe.”
The CEO said, “Did you hear? There’s no food or water here, and we’re hundreds of miles from any shipping lane. We’re going to die!”
The pilot said to him again, “I make 200,000 dollars a year, and I tithe.”
The CEO shouted, “You think being a good churchgoer is going to bring you a miracle? You don’t understand! We have no food and water, no shelter, and we’re surrounded by an empty and rough ocean! We’re going to die!”
The pilot responded, “NO, you don’t understand! I make 200,000 dollars a year, and I tithe. My pastor will find me.”//
One good miracle deserves another. Our reading from the Gospel of John this morning proposes two miracles accomplished by Jesus: feeding a multitude with a small number of loaves and fishes, and his walking on the water.
Now our receptivity to these stories might depend on whether we read them as miracles. Our culture—shaped by the Enlightenment and secular modernity—suspects claims of “miracle.” It rules out miraculous interventions by the divine that interrupted an orderly flow of nature’s laws. In an age of materialism, miracle has become “a discarded relic.” God's past displays are relegated to be forgotten or explained away from materialist causes. Critical reading of scripture then becomes a way for taking a sign-giving, interventionist God out of our history and substitute psychological or existential lessons. The meaning of the sign of the feeding of the multitude from a small number of loaves and fish might existentially mean that Jesus initiates sharing from his limited resources, but that a more significant feeding can be accomplished by followers in the crowd being motivated to share from their own abundance based on ethical mirroring of the initiatory acts of Jesus.
Fish and loaves can be spread from the community of shared resources based on mirroring Jesus’s signal act of holding a loaf of bread aloft and giving thanks to God. The sign is Eucharistic: in communion we hold the loaf aloft and give thanks to God so that we are internally moved to participate in the virtue of hospitality that shares from our own abundance. This sign demonstrates to us that the virtue of gratitude is contagious—and in collectivizing, a community of gratitude brings about social hospitality. This way of reading the feeding of the multitudes as an explanatory sign rather than a miracle humanizes and normalizes Jesus—perhaps at the expense of his divinity. Jesus initiates the sharing of food, and his followers complete the process.
If we read the walking on water episodes as a literary sign rather than a miracle, we might note the metaphor of stormy water as a sign of chaos in ancient near eastern religious texts, including the Bible. “The cosmic waters symbolize the continued threat the forces of chaos pose against God and creation. The sea pushes against the boundaries God established for it (Job 38:8–11; Job 3:8).”
As Creator, God produces and calms the waves (Is 51:15); in Gen 1.26: God gives humanity the directive to “subdue” the earth. The verb kabash “subdue” “presupposes a stronger party as subject and a weaker party as object.” The movement internal to the Hebrew verb implies one party treading upon another. In this sign of walking on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus is signaling his dominion even over chaos, treading on it, but exercising no violence over it. Jesus is calling us to do the same—to walk into the chaos surrounding us and tread confidently among its eddies, indeterminacies, and unknowns.
Jesus calls Peter in the Gospel of Matthew to walk on water with him. He invites all of us to do the same. In our disciple’s calling to tread upon “life’s wild sea”, strength and comfort are available to us through Jesus’ forgoing example. Jesus is calling us to enter into chaos and subdue it by our presence—our presence that is confident, courageous, and calming. Jesus walks into the demonic storm, like we are to walk into systemic sin, as bringers of truth and grace, hospitality and healing.
I propose these two lessons from our morning’s sign stories that dispense with reading them as miracles—as the suspension of normal scientific law and natural materialism. The feeding of the multitude calls us to practice generosity, gratitude, and hospitality from our abundance. Jesus walking on water is his demonstration of our call as disciples to leave our comfortable berths and tread into the chaos of political and social life with no implement other than our walking shoes and our calming and compassionate presence.
But I want to throw over the helm to now argue that miracles do exist. Miracles are both real and hold profound symbolic resonance. Let’s review what I mean by miracle: it is a divine intervention into the observed normal and natural operation of the world. Miracles display the urgent power and call of God. They are the active work of God.
Christians are both recipients and agents of God’s intervention—of miracle. Consider faith. What is faith, but the belief in and reliance or trust in God to make a better world for humanity? By dream, vision, heartfelt overflowing spirit, inspired teaching or preaching, or by recollecting some coincidence in which you recognized the finger of God in its elegance—by some way, God has intervened actively in your normal operation of daily life to assert God’s presence and brought you to faith. Faith is therefore a miracle—the divine has intervened in our lives to make us aware recipients of God’s presence and God’s character.
If God intervening in our lives implants faith, by virtue of that faith we become miracle workers. Faith is an active principle. When we act on our faith in not only God’s presence, but in God’s character as lover and ensurer of justice, we trust in that character as the guarantor and highest structure of power in the universe. From the miracle of ensouled and embodied faith we then act out the miracle of faithful actions in our daily lives. Through our trusting and faithful actions, we are intervening in history as God’s agents. We bring the divine into our surroundings, interrupting the normal and material with something spiritual: compassionate, gracious and just. By this, we work miracles. We are agents of God in our discipleship and extend the miracle of Christ by our own faithful acts.
When I was a chaplain at Marin General Hospital, I repeatedly visited an African American matriarch who came from a Methodist background. When I visited, her room would be full of extended family of varied backgrounds. A son in law who was Muslim, daughters in law who were white and Asian. Grandchildren who were of mixed race. As this matriarch approached death, I composed a simple interfaith ritual of memory for the extended family. Each member of the family would approach the patient and state a reason she was grateful for or inspired by the matriarch. One of the last to approach, a young granddaughter too self-conscious to speak, laid a single, cut yellow crocus on her breastbone.
Sometime later, the woman died. One of the family pointed to the crocus that had opened up. Now, I suppose there is a scientific explanation involving hydrostatic tension in the cut stem and its release into the petals after a suitable time, but the family witnessed the cut flower’s blooming as a miraculous sign of their matriarch’s acceptance by the divine. And who is to say that their faith is misguided? If their faith seeks out the miraculous for guidance and comfort, then the divine is acting inside of them. The divine hope has intervened inside the usual.
As both recipients and agents of the divine, we mediate the miraculous. God trusts us--keeps faith with us--to carry out miracle work in Jesus’s name. Faith may be especially a miracle for the well-off, upper-middle class, privileged who can obtain many if not most of the material blessings of life without prayer, without gratitude, without a sense of its God-givenness. In miracle, however, we are surprised by the unexpected. Miracles disturb our sense of security. Perhaps that is why the miracle of baptism may be experienced as a kind of psychic death.
Now, not just any act that we faithful accomplish is miraculous, but rather a deliberated, recollected, virtuous, grateful, patient operation of the Spirit. By the fruit of the Spirit we recognize the miracle growing inside us, and the miracle dispensed into our communities by our compassionate, just, and loving presence.
It is said that the universal religious principle is “Do not do unto others what thou hatest.” All organized religions have a principle like this. The Christian innovation is to make this into a positive ethic: Do Unto Others what you would have them do for you. Our miracle working is positive and active. It is recognized in concrete acts, not just in the absence of hostility. This positive claim makes our calling from miraculous faith to empathize with the condition of our neighbor and to anticipate their needs before they even articulate them—even if they can articulate them. Through our training in Christ’s experience in the Gospels and recollecting in faith our own experiences of suffering, we can recognize the gamut of human need. The gospels and our experience then become the calling for effecting miracles of anticipation and charitable service. Mediating the miracle of faith includes our ability to dream, to recognize elegance--and to move to make those dreams and elegances a reality of the Kingdom of God that Jesus throughout his ministry makes signs toward. It is our Jesus-inspired consciousness that spurs us to taking risk for the miraculous.
A young man was invited to a family dinner at an elderly woman’s home. He used the bathroom and noted that the bath did not have a handrail to grasp for exit, and in case of slippage. He took this observation to the elderly woman’s son, and they agreed it would be good for such hand rail bars to be installed. Because the young man anticipated the elderly woman’s need, the placement of those handrails became a miracle. They were a positive demonstration of God’s compassion intervening into a family system previously ignorant. If those handrails prevent later slippage to save the elderly woman’s life, the miracle is compounded. This is “doing miracles for others what you would have them do for you.” These are mundane miracles, but consider the Americans with Disabilities Act. There was a time its accommodations were miracles to the disabled. Now it is the minimum legal requirement. But its spirit can be replicated for hospitality to all who need help.
Miracle is the primary implement of Christians' refusal to accept the world as it is. Miracle engages us “to think against the grain of received opinion: a space to question and challenge, [a time] to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to ‘assume responsibility’.” Miracles do not absolve us from acting responsibly, but rather miracle shows us how to live creatively and imaginatively. Miracles are not a get out of jail free card from God: they are an indicator—a sign from heaven--that spurs us to imagine and practice a more fulfilling, whole and peaceful life for ourselves and others.
I believe it’s an urgent moment for developing a language and witness of miracle and possibility that can awaken our souls. “In an age of social isolation, information overflow, a [materialist] culture of immediacy, consumer glut and spectacularized violence, [engaging the miracle in Biblical] texts coupled with thinking analytically remain necessary” for bringing about human justice through compassionate, informed and engaged witness. Christians, by their receptivity, witness, and agency to the miraculous can struggle against disimagination, brutality, propaganda, and mendacity. Contemplating and interpreting miracle can fuse our human capacities to dream, analyze, and collectivize inside neighborhoods of compassion. It is our calling as Christians to act as public witnesses to and agents for miracle.
This engagement of the miraculous is especially true at a time of “numbing indifference, despair [and] withdrawal [that lead us] into the private orbits of the isolated self[. Christians] need to create… formative [collectives] that [recognize and promote [miracle around us--that] ...humaniz[es difference], fosters the capacity to hear others, sustains complex thoughts and engages social [deprivation and injustice]. [Thinking and acting miraculously] means not only learning how to [engage] the world, but also... refusing to succumb to the unthinkable…As alarming as the [political and environmental portents] may be, we cannot look away and allow the terrors of the unforeseen to be given free rein." Now is not the time to turn away from practicing miracles that create communities of care. “The stakes are perilously high, but ...we cannot allow the power of [our] dreams [inspired by the miracle around us] to turn into nightmares.”
Today’s environmental and political crises must be countered by our embrace of historical memory of miracle. Our miracle working “rejects the normalization of [unjust] principles and opens a space for imagining that alternative worlds can be brought into being. ...The spaces opened by [our faithful working of miracle] create a bulwark against cynicism and fosters a notion of hope that can be translated into forms of collective [political and social] resistance." Jesus-inspired resistance to injustice and degradation of any kind is a miracle.
With the wind of cosmic consciousness at your back, go into the world to make miracles. Wherever God has planted you, upset the regular human order of things like Jesus did with the miracle of faithfulness that loves and heals. Practice sharing bread and fish, create communities that refuse hoarding and instead ground themselves in gratitude and hospitality. Practice recollection that allows us to anticipate the needs of others based on reflecting upon our own. Step with Jesus deep into chaos and calm it through the miracles of presence, engagement, and faithful action. Miracles are not magic, they take nose-to-the-grindstone work and commitment. They take discipline. They insert God’s will into a world that does not know it. Working miracles is our calling and our destiny. May it be so for you and me. Amen.
Ryken, L., Wilhoit, J., Longman, T., Duriez, C., Penney, D., & Reid, D. G. (2000). Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 765.
 Wagner, S. (1995). כָּבַשׁ. G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), D. E. Green (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 7, p. 56). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Henry Giroux, https://truthout.org/articles/reading-against-fascism/
 David Talbott.
 Giroux, op.cit.