Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, September 13, 2020.
Do you believe in miracles? I do. And I’ve seen my fair share of them – some truly extraordinary moments.
In my first parish, a parishioner contracted the mumps from her son, and she became gravely ill. She slipped into a coma. Her husband stayed with her around the clock at the hospital. He camped out each night like a homeless man sleeping on chairs in the visitors lounge. One day, as he held his wife’s hand, he whispered, “Kathy, if you ever come out of this, I will take you on a cruise wherever you want to go in the world.” His wife remained comatose for another week, and when she came out of it, her first words were, “Clay, what about that cruise?” It was a miracle.
Miracles have been present in my life from the outset. My father developed nephritis – an inflammation of the kidneys – when he was 27, and my mother was pregnant with me. I would never have known my father had he died back then. His kidneys completely shut down. The doctors gave him up for dead until a young, female doctor suggested that they extract blood. The black, unclean blood was drawn forth, and somehow in the mystery of mysteries my father’s kidneys starting working again. Another miracle.
I’ve seen miracles occur in people careers, relationships and faith journeys. I have witnessed miracles between parents and children, siblings and friends, and I have witnessed miracles in battles with alcohol and drugs and miracles in marriages.
Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live one’s life – to live as if nothing is a miracle and the other is to live as if everything is a miracle.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” George Bernard Shaw said, “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.”
I find it hard not believe in miracles in a cosmos with 10,000 million galaxies, each home to 100,000 million stars or 1,600 galaxies for every human on earth. We try to compute all of this using three pounds of flesh – our brain – which contains some 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, which is greater than the total number of humans who have ever lived and as plentiful as all the stars in a thousand galaxies. We are surrounded by miracles. Even the French philosopher Voltaire, who was no friend to religion, wrote, “All is a miracle. The stupendous order of nature, the revolution of a hundred million worlds around millions of suns, the activity of light, the life of all animals, all are grand and perpetual miracles.”
I know some people don’t believe in miracles – folks like the astronomer Carl Sagan, who said, “The Cosmos is all there is and all there ever will be.” For folks like this, miracles and talk of God are things for children to believe in, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. They see only a world of atoms and molecules and nothing that cannot be replicated in an experiment is true. But when I think of those who dismiss miracles, I remember that great line from Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, where the redoubtable country preacher, Hazel Motes, informs his landlady that he is a preacher in the “Church Without Christ,” where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” To which the woman innocently replies, “Protestant?”
Yet, throughout history some of the greatest scientists have been profound Christian believers, like Isaac Newton and Galileo, who fought battles with the Catholic Church, but was a committed Christian. Most recently, Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project and now serves as the Director of the National Institute of Health, is a Christian who speaks openly about his faith. In his book The Science of God, he explains how science led him to embrace the Christian faith.
Webster’s dictionary defines a miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” C.S. Lewis notes that the world can be broken up into a natural and supernatural realm, but if you only believe in the natural realm you will never be able to grasp and appreciate the supernatural. It simply won’t compute for you.
Yet, the Bible is full of miracles. Jesus turned water into wine, calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, walked on water and used five loaves of bread to feed roughly a small town. Our Lord helped the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear and cleansed ten lepers. Jesus helped the poor to experience joy, and he raised Lazarus from the dead. Each miracle was living proof that God’s will for us is not chaos or suffering, but wholeness and joy.
In a little less than two years, I have seen miracles right here in Greenwich. I’ve seen our church members reach out to people inside and beyond our parish in countless, miraculous and loving ways. We’ve seen the greatest surge of generosity in decades. As a result Christ Church is able to help far more people who struggling or suffering and in need. We see a miraculous hunger for faith, knowledge of God and a willingness to serve and lead. God is surely at work.
This morning, we heard an epic story about the penultimate miracle of the Old Testament. Moses stretched out his hand, and the waters of the Red Sea parted like a curtain so that the Israelites could safely cross on dry ground. When the Egyptians soldiers tried to follow them, the waters converged, and they were drowned. This was God’s defining miracle for the Jews.
In her book, And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament, widely-regarded preacher, scholar and Christ Church parishioner Fleming Rutledge notes that few Episcopalians know that there is a direct correlation between the Exodus from Egypt and Jesus’ resurrection. St. Paul connected the parting of the Red Sea with the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. He noted that just as God adopted the Jewish people who crossed through the waters of Red Sea during the Exodus, so God adopts those who pass through the waters of baptism. The Exodus made the Jews God’s Chosen People just as baptism makes us Christians.
Exodus is a story about the incredible power of God, who led the Israelites by the most circuitous way possible to a cul-de-sac, a place where there was no escape, no exit and no way out. God did this in order to prove to them that this miracle was God’s doing and not their own. Then God parted the waters of the Red Sea and showed them what heavenly power can do.
Moses told the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.” Then Moses added these vital words, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.” (Exod. 14:13-14) The Israelites didn’t have to do anything. They didn’t have to pray or fast or worship around the clock. God did all the work and produced a miracle.
Sometimes, we foolishly think that the miracle depends on us. If we just pray hard enough, notes preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, like a person at a country fair swinging a sledge hammer with all their might on one of those strength tests with the big thermometer with the bell that rings on top. If you just hit the sledgehammer hard enough, you ring the bell and win the prize. But miracles don’t work like that. There’s no secret formula of two parts prayer, three parts faith, one part good works. Not everyone who prayers for a miracle gets one. But when a miracle occurs, it’s a sure sign from God that we are never alone in this world full of challenges.
Rutledge notes that in the Disney animated version of this story The Prince of Egypt, there’s a song that says, “Miracles can happen if you believe.” But no one believes that a miracle was possible in this story. God doesn’t respond because the Israelites believed. Rather, God chose to save Israel, faith or no faith. Even Moses could not claim the miracle. He was just an instrument in God’s hand. God’s power alone brought about the miracle.
That’s why this story foreshadows the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because Jesus’ death was the ultimate place of despair. Jesus was crucified and left to die alone on the darkest day of human history. There was no way out of the crucifixion. No escape. No exit. Nothing positive. No chance in hell, but God opened a way and delivered Jesus just like God delivered Israel.
So, if you’re in a dark and challenging place, and most of us are due to this global pandemic, where you feel that you have come to a dead end, to a place where there is no exit, no escape, no future, fear not for God can find a way where there is no way. When everything is going wrong in your life, when no one feels like they’re on your side, when all your best efforts have not got you what you most need, trust that the Lord is ready to fight for you, for your health or the well-being of someone you love, for your marriage, family, friend, job, career, home or future. Listen and trust these words, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.” That’s the miracle of it all. Amen.