Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sacred in the Ordinary

Unitarians have been arguing about miracles for a long time[i]. We like science and reason, and miracles almost by definition defy reason. Our Unitarian tradition has folks like Thomas Jefferson, who often attended a Unitarian Church before he became president and created a book called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” by carefully cut all the miracles and supernatural events out of his new testament with a razor blade. We have spent much of our history cutting out miracles and arguing that when the Gospel of Matthew says “ behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.” the star might actually have been a comet, and so not a miracle at all.[ii]

On the other hand our UU tradition includes those, like the transcendentalists who were such an important influence on the Unitarians for the 19th century, who would argue that we don’t see miracles only because the world is so full of miracles that we’ve become immune to them. Instead of trying to disprove the miracles of the bible we would ask “what is not miraculous about a comment in the night’s sky?” Ralph Waldo Emerson In his “Divinity School Address” at Harvard in 1838 explained that “ [Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines... [miracles are] one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.[iii]

On the one hand Many Unitarians over the past hundred years or so have looked, for example, at the Nativity story and critiqued the virgin birth and the songs of angels as being without evidence and defying reason. I believe, on the other hand with the great UU Religious Educator Sofia Fahs that Jesus birth was a miracle, because every birth is a miracle. Fahs writes:

For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come
Born of the seed of man and woman
No angels herald their beginnings.
No prophets predict their future courses.

No wisemen see a star
to show where to find the babe that will save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night,
Fathers and mothers—
Sitting beside their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
I believe a miracle did happen in Bethlehem many years ago, because I believe life itself is a miracle.

Science has measured and catalogued the progress of life in the womb, and life on our planet, but when you trace everything we know all the way back to the moment when the inanimate becomes animate, when a collection of genetic material turns into a human, that moment is still surrounded by mystery, and scientists are humbled by all we still do not know.

The word miracle comes from Latin miraculum "object of wonder" and from mirari "to wonder at, marvel, be astonished," [iv] The coming of new life into the world is both ordinary and amazing. The predictability of it does not make it any less marvelous; all the data we have collected about it does not make it any less wonderful, unless we let it.

Consider the Christian nativity story. Scholars of history tell us that many great religious leaders have very similar birth stories- suggesting that the miraculous birth story is more archetype than historical account. (We don’t really know even what season Jesus was born- early Christians celebrated variously in November, March, April and May.) Looking at the nativity story as an archetype rather than a journalistic report, we would expect the angels, we would expect the wise men traveling from afar to see a prophecy fulfilled. But what about that manger? Why doles Luke tell us that: “she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4–7)” Why lay the babe in a feeding trough? That piece is not part of the birth stories of other important figures- they are unique to this one.

While very few of us still have livestock in our lives any more, the manger would have been quite ordinary in the time of Jesus’ birth. Many of the people hearing the story would know what the inside of stable looked like. They probably knew what it smelled like too. Some of them probably even had the job of shoveling out a stable, or feeding their animals in a manger. I think it is precisely because the manger would have been so ordinary that it suggests something significant- that miracles can happen in the most ordinary of places.

There is an important theological question at the core of this: do we believe that the ordinary and the holy are very separate things? Or do we believe that God is inseparable from the world. As the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou pondered:
Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity.” (Treatise on atonement P. 81-82)
If the divine, if the spirit of life, is woven into every atom, then every life is a miracle. Your life. My life. And every moment of that life can be a cause for awe if we look at it right.

As the poet Anne Sexton proposes in today’s reading, the eggs you cook each morning can be a chapel. “All this is God” she writes “right here in my pea-green house…and I mean, though often forget, to give thanks, to faint down by the kitchen table in a prayer of rejoicing.” [v] Sexton eloquently describes the spiritual practice of noticing the sacred in the ordinary. You don’t need special gear or training to connect with the Spirit of Life, it is available to all of us in every moment. You don’t even need a minister. We gather in community on Sundays not because this is the only way to access the Spirit of Life, but because we remind one another that even in these dark and difficult times, the sacred is all around us. Because, as Sexton suggests “The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, dies young.”

Like our Baptist, Quakers and Mennonite neighbors, some folks call the way we worship “low church.” We worship in spaces that are relatively plane. We tend to have fewer rituals and traditions thank congregations called “high church.” Our minimalist worship style has roots in the Protestant tradition which theorized that all the icons and idols and robes of the high church tradition sometimes create a barrier between the people and the spirit. Our branch of the Protestant Family tree had kind of a “back to basics” philosophy that would allow us to be spontaneous and give a sense of freedom to our religious life together.[vi]

In seminary we talked a lot about ritual – about what makes worship powerful and how to keep worship from getting stale, how to keep it relevant. We inquired what parts of tradition could be discarded and what grounded us? One of the professors encouraged his students to use very ordinary objects in worship. He scandalized some by proposing a Dorito communion- saying he wanted a ritual that followed us into our daily lives, that if we ate a Dorito on Sunday for communion maybe each time we ate a Dorito we would remember our connection to the divine and one another. For what we do together on Sunday to be truly relevant, we want whatever is good about what we experience together in worship to leak out into our lives all week long.

As today’s readings imply, our feelings of awe don’t require the presence of angels, but a “towel, newly washed” can inspire awe and gratitude. We didn’t miss the last miracle if we weren’t there the night that Jesus was born, because we experience a miracle every time we look into eyes of a baby. Gifts of Gold Frankincense and myrrh are more important than the sorts of gifts Befana brought, help for a new mother with sweeping up, or changing a diaper, calling a friend who is sick, a warm bowl of soup, or a hand written letter, a moment of quiet.

So in this time that the Christians know as advent, I encourage each of us to be on the look out for the sacred in the ordinary. As we consider the star in the east that guided the wisemenn, let it be a reminder to us to gaze at the special way stars twinkle on a crisp winter’s evening, to savor a true moment between you and your family on a Tuesday evening. These moments are as unique as each one of us, so I invite you into a time of guided meditation….

Come to the Ordinary: A Guided Meditation by Janet Corso

Use each your senses and your imagination to picture in your mind's eye the following:

Sound: Hear.. the ordinary
  • the sound of a gentle rain - peepers on a Spring night - the crunchy sound of footfall on snowy February day
  •  a clock ticking in a silent room
  • the wind soughing through white pines
  • a screen door opening and banging shut
  • church bells off in the distance
  • now imagine, and hear, another ordinary sound - one that you particularly love
Touch: Feel the ordinary

  •  the elasticity of bread dough
  • the warm embrace of someone you love
  • pulling on thick, clean socks
  •  standing under a hot shower 
  • the warm body of a pet snuggled against you
  • laying your tired head down on your pillow at night
  •  now imagine, and feel, another ordinary feeling - one that you particularly love
Sight: See the ordinary
  •  a brilliant blue May sky and the bright green of new grass
  • the hand of an elderly person you've loved: veined, with papery thin skin
  • two persons greeting with joy at an airport
  • sun glistening on icy trees
  • candles flickering in a darkened church
  • yellow daffodils dancing in a stiff breeze
  • now imagine, and see, another ordinary sight - one that you particularly love
Taste: Taste the ordinary...

  • · milk chocolate melting in your mouth - cold water on a hot day
  • · salty tears of joy
  • · biting into a drip-to-your elbow peach
  • · tartness of a lemon
  • · the first sip of morning coffee or tea
  • · now imagine, and taste, another ordinary thing - one that you particularly love

Smell: Smell the ordinary...
  • · clean sheets, line dried outside
  • · bacon frying
  • · the piney smell of a real Christmas tree
  • · incense rising at a liturgy or service
  • · an orange as it's being peeled
  • · a newly powdered baby
  • · now imagine, and smell, another ordinary sight - one that you particularly love
Now go to your life ... your ordinary life... see in your mind's eye your daily rounds, your usual activities.

What do hear? Smell.., feel ...taste? What do you see about you that gives you comfort, gives you solace, reminds you?

Allow God to enter into the space of your days hear what God says about your ordinary life, your ordinary days, How are they good?

How does God identify you by your days? How does God rejoice in what you love?

End notes
[i] for a wonderful overview of the whole debate, see
[iv] (in Church Latin, "marvelous event caused by God"), from mirari "to wonder at, marvel, be astonished," figuratively "to regard, esteem," from mirus "wonderful, astonishing, amazing,