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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 7, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Corinthians 2:12-17 and Isaiah 11:1-7
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Most of the time when I’m in San Francisco, my sense of smell is about warnings.  “Watch where you’re stepping,” my nose tells me.  I smelled that message a couple time this week walking between Davies Symphony Hall and the Civic Center BART station.

But on the preceding weekend, the message was very different.  I was at Lake Merritt, participating in the walk around the lake that served as the closing to the Climate Change rally that was held there.  I was in the group that was walking around the lake clockwise, and somehow ended up at the head of the group – long legs, maybe.  Halfway around the lake, we met up with the counterclockwise group that was led by a group that is reclaiming an Aztec spirituality, a spirituality that honors the earth.  When our groups met, the group of neo-Aztecs offered a prayer ritual that invoked the six directions – east, west, south, north, up, and down – with dancing, chanting, drumming, and burning incense.

Though allergies have hit me hard this spring, the incense did not aggravate them (the way sometimes perfumes do).  If fact, the incense cut through the stuffedness of my nose.  And the message my sense of smell sent me was not a warning.  It was an invitation, an invitation to prayer.  I joined with this group in recognizing the sacredness of the earth, our environment that is simultaneously the dwelling place of God and that dwells in God.  And I thanked God for all those around the globe who are working to mitigate the impacts of climate change – for the sake of humanity and for the sake of all living creatures.

If you were to rank the five sense, I suspect most of you would put sight and hearing on the top of the list, probably in that order.  In other words, smell would not be, I would guess, at the top of your list.  I’m not sure if such a ranking is universal or a product of our culture.  I notice that we have developed equipment to help correct deficiencies for sight and hearing:  glasses and surgeries for vision limitations; hearing aids and Cochlear implants for hearing limitations.  We’ve build devised to augment sight and hearing:  microscopes and telescopes to see the minute and the far away; infrared goggles that “translate” light waves we can’t see into wavelengths we can see; stethoscopes to listen to hearts and lungs and bowels; hydrophones to listen to listen underwater.

I can’t think of any devise we’ve created to augment smell – or taste or touch.  One of you might know of something, and you can tell me about it at our Annual Meeting.  My point is that we seem to value sight and hearing more than smell, touch, and taste.

In the Bible, sight and sound are especially important in relation to God.  God appears as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night for the Hebrews who are escaping slavery in Egypt to see and follow.  God speaks to Jesus at his baptism and to some of the disciples at the transfiguration – and they hear God.  Likewise, God hears the cries of the enslaved and see the suffering of people.

The God of the Bible also smells – “in both senses of the term:  God emits a fragrance, but more centrally in biblical texts, God inhales aromas and perceives scent.  Specifically, God perceives the smell of sacrifices – this is mentioned some forty times in the Hebrew Bible.”[1]

It starts with Noah, who after the flood, burns an offering, “‘And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor,’ [we read in Genesis,] God pledged to never again destroy the earth.  In addition to smelling Noah’s ‘burnt offering,’ God also smells incense offerings: over and over in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, we read of incense.…

“Human beings, in an effort to get God’s attention or communicate with God, burned fragrant incense, and God found the incense to be a ‘soothing smell’ and accepted the sacrifice.

“This language has grabbed my attention and will not let go.  Most of the time, the sacrificial system of the Bible feels alien to me; praying with words has, for my entire life, been the main thing I do to interact with God, and it is hard for me to wrap my head around the logic of sacrifices.  But the language of God’s accepting a soothing smell makes a certain sense to me – after all, I have experience with being soothed by scent.”[2]  There is nothing like the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven to make me feel like I’m ‘home’ no matter where I am.  And the smell of garlic assures me that scrumptious food is on the way.

Our reading from Isaiah doesn’t seem to have anything to do with smell, but if we take a closer look at the Hebrew we see that it does.  This is what Isaiah 11:3 looks like in Hebrew.

The verse is translated, “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear,” in the New Revised Standard Version.  Most other English translations say something about delighting or enjoying the fear (as in awe) of the Lord.  But the literal meaning of the first word in the Hebrew (and early English translations kept this literal meaning) has to do with smell.  So, a more literal translation might be, “And by his smelling in awe of the Lord, and not by [what] his eyes see, will [the Messiah] judge, and not by [what] his ears hear, will he decide.”[3]  A more vernacular way of putting it might be, “When the Messiah comes, this descendant of King David will sniff out the truth and not be deceived, so that the people who typically don’t get justice will finally get it.”

Abraham ibn Ezra, one of the most distinguished Jewish commentators and philosophers of the Middle Ages, said of this verse, “The ear is sometimes deceived in hearing sounds, which are only imaginary; the eye, too, sees things in motion, which in reality are at rest; the sense of smell alone is not deceived.”[4]  And the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin said, “We ought to attend, first of all, to the metaphor in the verb smell, which means that Christ will be so shrewd that he will not need to learn from what he hears, or from what he sees; for by smelling alone he will perceive what would otherwise be unknown.”[5]

Perhaps smell is the most honest of our senses.

Paul, interestingly, uses smell as a metaphor for Jesus and for Christian discipleship.  I hadn’t noticed it until I read about it in the book that has inspired this sermon series.  Lauren Winner notes, “In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, ‘We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.’  After the cross, after the resurrection and ascension, Jesus still emits a smell, and we, it seems, are it.  But while Jesus emits a distinct scent, that scent doesn’t smell the same to all people – or, alternately, the same scent doesn’t smell the same to the same person all the time.  Those who are turned toward God will find the smell of Jesus-in-us delightful; those who are turned away will find it noxious.

“On one level, Paul seems to be saying, simply, that the baptized are agents of Jesus – we carry information about God with us everywhere we go.  Paul could have, perhaps, written, ‘We are the light of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,’ or ‘Our voices are the voice of Christ among those who are saved and those who are perishing.’  But smell is an apt metaphor for Paul to use, precisely because smell can convey the presence of something that is far away.  I smell bread baking the minute I walk through the front door, even though the source – the load in the oven – is in the kitchen;  the smell tells me the loaf is there somewhere.  So, too, the Source of whatever goodness the baptized do and are is [at least, not obviously present] – but the goodness insists that the Source is there somewhere.”[6]

This portrait of God as one who smells and emits smells “may appear to be just a bit of quirky anthropomorphism, but it is in fact a ritual shorthand for God’s intimate and close connection with us.

“To describe God as one who smells – as one who enjoyed the smell of all that incense – is to imply something about God’s emotional life.  It turns out that, of all our sensory perceptions, smell is the most directly connected to the seat of our emotions.  As cognitive neuroscientist Rachel Herz explains, ‘The neurological interconnection between the sense of smell (olfaction) and emotion is uniquely intimate.  The areas of the brain that process smell and emotion are as intertwined and codependent as any two regions of the brain could possibly be.’  Both smell and emotion are located within the limbic system.  The amygdala – ‘the brain’s locus of emotion,’ without which we can neither remember nor express emotion – becomes activated when we perceive a scent.  ‘No other sensory system has this kind of privilege and direct access to the part of the brain that controls our emotions.’”[7]

Winner writes, “Scents can help calm people when they are separated.  Psychologists call this ‘olfactory comfort.’  This is why women sometimes sleep in their beloved’s clothing when the beloved is away.  Smelling someone’s scent can infuse you, the smeller, with a sense of security.  (Having observed that a child feeling intense separation anxiety was reassured by a garment with his mother’s smell, a nurse in Minnesota invented a soft shirt that could be easily converted into a blanket.  The idea is that mom would wear the shirt next to her skin for a few hours before heading off to work or out on a date, and baby, now wrapped in her scent, will be less hysterical when she steps out the door.)  Mothers whose children have left for college report going into their old bedrooms, closing the door, and inhaling the smell as a way of feeling close to their absent kids.”[8]

As I read Winner’s words, the closing scene from the movie Brokeback Mountain came to mind.  Actually, two scenes that I had mixed together in my memory into one, came to mind.  They’re the final two scenes of the movie.  The movie came out long enough ago that I should set up the video of the second to last scene, the one that’s important to this sermon.  The movie is about two young men, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.  They meet when they get jobs as back-country sheep herders on Brokeback Mountain.  The strangers become friends and eventually become lovers.  Unable to deal with their feelings for each other, they part ways at the end of the summer.  Years go by, and they each settle down, Ennis in Wyoming with his wife and two girls, and Jack in Texas with his wife and son.  Still longing for each other, they meet back up, for periodic “fishing trips.”

Tragedy strikes when Jack dies – in an accident or a gay bashing, it’s not clear which.  Ennis finds out about the death from Jack’s wife and is directed to go to Jack’s parents to get Jack’s ashes to scatter them on Brokeback Mountain.  Jack’s mother invites Ennis to go up to Jack’s childhood bedroom.

“Absence, it seems, haunts smell.  The profound work smell does on and for us presumes absence.  People separated by time and space – the baby longing for his mother, the mother pining for the children who have left her empty nest – are reconnected through smell.  Smell keeps us close to one another in our absence.”[9]

I can’t help but wonder, when we wander away from God, “is this what our absence feels like to God?  Is our absence, our being far off and ignoring God, our remaining at a distance, our remaining so far away – is this absence not philosophical and abstract, but grievously real and present to God?  Is God undone by grief?  Is that the context in which God receives the scent of our prayers?”[10]

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 67.

[2] Ibid, 68.

[3] Ibid, 66.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 77-79.

[7] Ibid, 69-71.

[8] Ibid, 71-72.

[9] Ibid, 81.

[10] Ibid, 82.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 30, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Galatians 3:23-29 and James 2:14-17
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I really don’t enjoy shopping, and clothes shopping one of my least favorite kinds of shopping.  I have to do some this week.  The Golden Gate Men’s Chorus has been called in to sing with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus later this week, and the dress code is black:  Black pants, black shirt, black tie.  I don’t own any of those.  Well, I do own a black shirt, but it has a little white square under the chin and you can’t wear a tie with it.  I thought about wearing that black shirt with the little white square today, as we explore the metaphor of God as clothing, but after wearing it yesterday at the Climate Rally, it is deservedly in the laundry.

The first mention of clothing in the Bible is as a gift.  When God gets ready to banish them from the Garden, “God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”  (Genesis 3:21)  Maybe it was exposure to National History Museum dioramas of early hominids in animal skis, but I always imaged the skins God gave them to be animal pelts.  Lauren Winner, in the book that has inspired this sermon series,[1] says she thought it was human skin that God used to make the garments.  Prior to being clothed in their own skin, I guess, Adam and Eve were walking around with the guts hanging out and their hearts as their sleeves.[2]  Funny how two people can read the same passage of scripture and understand it in two markedly different ways.  Sort of like how people could look at the same picture of a dress, and one sees it as white and gold, while another sees it as blue and black.

Whether my childhood interpretation or Winner’s childhood interpretation is closer to what the author of Genesis meant, an implication is the same.  Whether the gift of clothing was their own skin, representing the gift of full humanity (something Adam and Eve only achieved by leaving the garden), or the gift of clothing was animal pelts, representing God’s compassion for humanity out in the world, God’s gift of clothing is the first scriptural disclosure of God working with and for humanity – even though God must work within our limitations and sin.

“Sometimes God’s clothing of Adam and Eve is taken as evidence that nakedness is bad, that we should be ashamed of our naked bodies,” Winner says.  “But perhaps God’s dressing Adam and Eve does not speak to anything other than God’s care.”[3]

Winner goes on:  “Ever since God clothed Adam and Eve in their full humanity, clothes have not only protected us from the elements and kept us warm; they have also profoundly shaped our identity and our sense of self.  It is not surprising, then, that clothing is an image that runs all the way through scripture from the first mention in Genesis to Revelation, where the gathered community of worshippers is clothed in robes made white by being laundered in the blood of the Lamb.  To my eye, the image sitting at the center of all the Bible has to say about clothing is Paul’s startling statement in Galatians 3:  ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’  God doesn’t just clothe us with skin (or rabbit fur); God clothes us with God’s own self.

“This seems a pretty radical thing for Paul to say.  Intriguingly, scholars believe that this metaphor is original to the Pauline writings.  In the ancient world, it was not unusual to speak, as do 1 Peter 5 and Colossians 3, of ‘putting on’ virtues – this was a common rhetorical device, used to encourage people to adopt or practice various worthy qualities.  But nowhere in ancient literature does there appear to be a ‘clear parallel,’ writes New Testament scholar Roy R. Jeal, to the Pauline ‘rhetoric of being clothed with a person.’  And not just any person:  God.”[4]

The girl I dated in high school was a knitter.  During her first year of college (my last year of high school), she knit a sweater of heavy wool for me.  It was an intricate pattern with cables and braids and fisherman’s knots, and so it was thick.  It weighted about three-hundred pounds and was warm enough that I could go without a jacket in the middle of a Minnesota winter.  Though I didn’t wear it often, whenever I put it on, I was embraced by Abby even though she was fifteen hundred miles away.  It was as if I ‘put her on.’

My mom was also a knitter (though not as much of a knitter as her sister, my aunt).  One of my early childhood memories is of my mom knitting a pair of socks for my father.  He was working on some NORAD defense contract that took him out into the field in the middle of winter in Rome, New York, among other cold locations.  It would have been much easier, and quite possibly cheaper, for her to buy a pair of wool socks at Filenes, but she knit away in a brick-red wool.  I remember her puzzling how to make the heel and the turn of the socks work.  I don’t know if she told me so or if I just intuitively knew that she was stitching love into the socks and that when my father put them on, she would somehow be present.  I am convinced that when my father donned those socks, he was putting on his wife’s love.

“‘Fashion,’” Winner points out, “is a noun, calling to mind Paris runways,…  But ‘fashion’ is also a verb.  It means ‘to mold or to shape.’  We fashion dough into the shape of a bread loaf; we fashion clay into a pot or a bowl.  Indeed, the word ‘fashion’ had that meaning – the action of making or shaping something – before it became a noun designating clothing, and ‘fashion’ came to designate apparel precisely because clothing shapes us.”[5]

That’s the reason I wear my black shirt with the small white square under the chin when I go to rallies and protests.  I do it for myself as much as for others.  I do it to remind myself of why I’m there.

“If to change clothes can be to change one’s sense of self; if to change clothes is to change one’s way of being in the world; if to clothe yourself in a particular kind of garment is to let that garment shape you into its own shape – then what is it to put on Christ?

“Alexander MacLaren was a nineteenth-century Baptist minister in Manchester, England.  In his commentary on Romans, [he said]:  ‘It takes a lifetime to fathom Jesus; it takes a lifetime to appropriate Jesus, it takes a lifetime to be clothed with Jesus.  And the question comes to each of us, have we “put off the old man with his deeds”?  Are we daily, as sure as we put on our clothes in the morning, putting on Christ the Lord?’”[6]

Clothing can mark or minimize divisions.  One of the reasons some schools have moved to uniforms is to reduce friction between children via peer fashion competitions, and to reduce friction between parents and children about what the kids will wear to school.  Another reason is to help unify the students into a community.  Still, school uniforms tend to be binary – a girl’s uniform or a boy’s uniform.  But clothing can break down gender division as much as establish it.

I don’t know how uniform this was across social classes, but in Paul’s time at least women of a certain social class wore a particular dress when they were married as a mark of their virtue and modesty.  It was a garment that marked these women, in life and in art, as distinctly not male.  How interesting, then, that Paul write to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are one in Christ Jesus.”

As Winner puts it, “To understand Christ as clothing is to understand a certain holy gender-bending.  I don’t think it is coincidence that Paul’s declaration that we, the baptized, have been clothed in Christ comes right before Paul’s equally famous insistence that ‘we are all one in Christ Jesus’:  Christ is the clothing that has the power to say no male and female.  In fact, all three of the distinctions that Paul explicitly names as undone by Jesus – male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free – are distinctions that, at various points in history [not just in Paul’s day], have been created in part through clothing.”[7]

“On Paul’s terms,” Winner says, “Jesus is not the kind of clothing that creates social divisions but the kind of clothing that undoes them.  Jesus is not a Vineyard Vines dress or a Barbour jacket; He is the school uniform that erases boundaries between people.  Or at least that is the kind of clothing Jesus wants to be.  When those of us clothed in Him trespass boundaries in His name, we allow Him to be that school uniform; when we put up walls in the name of Jesus, we are turning the Lord into an expensive designer dress.”[8]

“God clothes.  God is our clothing.  And, finally, God draws us into the act of clothing, by instruction us to clothe others.  Consider the Epistle of James.  The famous ‘faith without works’ passage speaks specifically of our obligation to clothe people.”[9]  Did you catch that when we heard the reading?  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,…”  Jesus makes the same point in Matthew 25, when he says that whenever we clothe the naked, we are clothing him.

Can I admit that those mentions of nakedness have always made me a little uncomfortable?  It’s not a discomfort with nakedness itself.  It’s a discomfort with the notion of running into someone who is naked and not at Woodstock.  Why on earth, how on earth, could I run into someone on the streets of America (North or South) who is literally naked?  Feeding the hungry and visiting the imprisoned makes sense to me, but clothing the naked?  And yet, I know that good foot hygiene can be a real challenge for people who live on the street, and one type of clothing that is often in short supply at thrift stores is socks.

I think back to the gift of clothing that God gave humanity in the beginning.  The gift wasn’t just our own skin and our own animal pelts.  The gift was and is also God.  God is a clothing that we are freely given to put on, to let it shape us.  And if we’re wearing God, won’t we act like God and give the gift of clothing – metaphorically and literally?  Won’t we find ways to invite people to put on Christ?  And won’t we find ways to give clothing to those who are in need?

“Clothing is our most intimate environment,” said Susan M. Watkins.[10]  Imagine God as clothing and so becoming your most intimate environment.  Imagine God nestling up close to you, as close as clothing.  What does that say about your body that God is willing to nestle up so closely?  What does that say about you that God is willing to nestle up so closely?  I hope it helps dissolve any shame you may be holding.  I hope it helps you realize how deeply and intimately you are loved.

Amen.

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, (New York: HarperOne, 2015).

[2] See pages 32-33.

[3] Ibid, 35.

[4] Ibid, 36-37.

[5] Ibid, 38.

[6] Ibid, 40-41.

[7] Ibid, 49.

[8] Ibid, 50.

[9] Ibid, 54

[10] Ibid, 60.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 1:21-28 and John 2:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

"Head of a Woman," by Pablo Picasso, 1960. Downloaded from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/

“Head of a Woman,” by Pablo Picasso, 1960. Downloaded from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/

This painting is “Head of a Woman,” an oil painting from 1960 by Pablo Picasso. It is an example of his early cubist work.[1]

When I was a kid, I didn’t like cubism. My mom studied art, so there were a sufficient number of art books around the house for me to be exposed to several different styles of art at a young age. I didn’t like any form of abstract art as a kid because it didn’t look like what one would actually see. If you’re painting the head of a woman, the painting should look like the woman’s head. I didn’t understand what cubism was doing.

Today, I like this picture. I like it to some extent because of its form and color – how it looks. But what I really like about this painting is what Picasso was doing. At first glance, it looks like he’s painted a goofy looking face from straight on. But if you divide the picture in half, you see two profiles of the woman, one right and one life. What Picasso was doing and what cubism in general does is depict the same scene from multiple points of view at once. In this case, we’re looking at this woman’s head from her left, her right, and from directly in front of her.

head-rightCubism is considered one of several types of Modern Art. And I suppose it is. But I like to think of it (no offense to any art historians in the congregation) as Postmodern Art.

Postmodernism is largely a rejection of the Enlightenment quest for certainty. The Enlightenment “was an intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.”[2] This philosophy helped thirteen of the American colonies to break away from monarchy of King George III and declare their independence. “The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method”[3] and, while there was great doubt about how much the human mind could know, there was a quest for certainty.[4]

This reliance on science and knowledge continued into Modernism with the onset of industrialization, with Modernism affirming “the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation.”[5]

Postmodernism evolves with new questions. Instead of questioning the authority of a monarch, it questions the authority of any certainty. So it ends up being quite open to various claims of truth. Another hallmark of Postmodernism is a refusal to focus on a single metanarrative, a single overarching story. This puts Postmodernism at odd with Christianity because Christianity does focus on a single metanarrative – the Bible. Still there are plenty of Christians who consider themselves to be Postmodernists and plenty of Postmodernists who consider themselves to be Christians. Many find a spiritual home in progressive Christianity because, while progressive Christians focus on a single metanarrative, we don’t reject as invalid other metanarratives simply because they aren’t ours. But that’s not important to the point I’m making today.

It is the openness to various claims of truth, of seeing things from multiple points of view, that connects to what is happening in cubism and why I think cubism is in many ways Postmodern art. Postmodernism says that something can be both completely true from my point of view and false from yours. Both points of view are valid. Cubism’s desire to hold, to express multiple points of view at the same time seems very Postmodern to me.

The difference that I’m trying to highlight between Postmodern thought and Modern thought can be summed up in this cartoon. Which one is right? Is it a 9 or a 6? Modern Philosophy would say that there is one correct answer, that it is either a 9 or a 6. Postmodern thought would say it is both, depending on your point of view.

At this point, my sermon could go one of two directions. I could preach about how Postmodern thought has influenced the advent of “truthiness,” “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” I could talk about the challenge we face both in holding openness to differing personal experiences and holding firmly onto the empirical nature of science and math. I’m not going to preach that sermon today. I may at some other time, but not today.

Today I want to explore how Modern and Postmodern thought impacts our reading and understanding of the miracles stories of Jesus, stories like we heard today. This room is filled with Modern and Postmodern minds. I’m wondering what we make of the miracles of Jesus, like the ones we heard about in today’s scripture lessons.

If you are purely a child of the Enlightenment, you might do what Thomas Jefferson did. He went through the gospels and literally excised the miracles of Jesus with a knife. Anything that went against rational thought and science couldn’t have happened, so we’ll simply remove it from the text. He then took what was left over from all four gospels and rearranged them into his own narrative, creating a gospel according to Jefferson. Today’s readings ended up in his trashcan. That’s one approach to the miracles of Jesus.

John Shelby Spong says that the miracle at the Cana wedding should be understood metaphorically. It is the introduction to the section of John’s gospel that Spong refers to as “the Book of Signs. Each sign in this section of the fourth gospel “is depicted as a mighty act, done quite publicly, that points to something even bigger and more important. At the same time,… the signs accounts are filled with strange references, enigmatic words, unusual actions and dramatically drawn characters, all of which appear to mitigate against these signs ever having been understood as literal events that occurred inside the normal flow of history.”[6]

The first clue for us that this story isn’t really about a wedding in Cana is in the opening words. “On the third day” makes us (or at least it’s supposed to make us) think of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus tells his mother, “My hour has not yet come,” he is again referring to his crucifixion. Spong says that this story is about “calling Israel into a new status,” a new relationship with God, one where the “wine of the spirit has replaced the waters of purification.”[7] Searching out the metaphor in the miracles is another approach.

Marcus Borg wrote that, in addition to several summary passages in the gospels about Jesus healing many people, “The synoptic gospels also contain many individual stories of exorcisms and healings. In addition to possession by evil spirits, the conditions treated include fever, paralysis, withered hand, bent back, hemorrhage, deafness and dumbness, blindness, dropsy, coma, and skin disease.”[8] Borg writes, “Behind this picture of Jesus as a healer and exorcist, I affirm a historical core.… I see the claim that Jesus performed paranormal healings and exorcisms as history remembered. Indeed, more healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in the Jewish tradition. He must have been a remarkable healer.”[9]

While Borg wouldn’t say whether or not the specific healing/exorcism we heard about in our lesson from Mark happened, he would say it is an example of how Jesus was remembered by his followers, that he healed people like this. Understanding the miracles as the early followers of Jesus understanding and experience of him – that’s another approach.

Brian McLaren suggests that we use these stories to stimulate questions about our own lives. He looks at the story of the wedding at Cana and wonders: “In what ways are our lives – and our religions, and our cultures – like a wedding banquet that is running out of wine? What are we running out of? What are the stone containers in our day – huge but empty vessels used for religious purposes? What would it mean for whose empty containers to be filled – with wine? And why so much wine? Can you imagine what 180 gallons of wine would mean to a small Galilean village? What might that superabundance signify? What might it mean for Jesus to repurpose containers used to separate the clean from the unclean? And what might it mean for God to save the best for last?”[10]

He looks at the story of healing we heard from Mark and asks: “What unhealthy, polluting spirits are troubling us as individuals and as a people? What fears, false beliefs, and emotional imbalances reside within us and distort our behavior? What unclean or unhealthy thought patterns, value systems, and ideologies inhabit, oppress, and possess us as a community or culture? What in us feels threatened and intimidated by the presence of a supremely ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ spirit or presence, like the one in Jesus? In what way might this individual symbolize our whole society? In what ways might our society lose its health, its balance, its sanity, its ‘clean spirit,’ to something unclean or unhealthy? “And what would it mean for faith in the power of God to liberate us from these unhealthy, imbalanced, self-destructive disorders? Dare we believe that we could be set free? Dare we trust that we could be restored to health? Dare we have faith that such a miracle could happen to us – today?”[11] Perhaps we can call this a literary approach, where the story stimulates reflection about our own lives and our community life.

Which approach works best for you? Ignoring the miracles? Looking for a metaphor in the miracles? Embracing the experience of the first followers of Jesus as a healer? Inviting miracles stories to stimulate questions about our own lives?

John Newton

In a few minutes, we’re going to sing “Amazing Grace.” I picked this hymn because of the story behind it, a story I know many of you are familiar with. For those of you who don’t know the back-story, the hymn was penned by John Newton in 1773, during the Enlightenment. It is thought that it was at some level a reflection on his own life. After serving a conscription in the British Navy, Newton entered the Atlantic slave trade, eventually captaining a ship. He had a conversion experience during a storm off the coast of Ireland and eventually left the seafaring life to study theology. He became an important abolitionist in Britain. It was while he was serving as a curate in a church in Olney that he wrote “Amazing Grace.”[12]

In the hymn, Newton writes about experiencing a miracle. The miracle he experienced wasn’t one of an abundance of wine nor was it the healing of a physical malady. But it was the miracle of a healing. God’s grace embraced him and he went from being lost to found, from being blind to seeing. This miracle is much easier for our Modern minds to accept because it is a healing of the attitude rather than a healing of something physical. But does that somehow make it more believable than someone’s literal heart healing without medical intervention?

Did Jesus’ first disciples experience him as a healer because they lived in a pre-Modern time so they didn’t have scientific skepticism? Or has scientific skepticism gotten in the way of our awareness of the metaphysical?

The miracles of Jesus – are they sixes or nines? Or are the both? Or might they be something else altogether that we just don’t recognize? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know this: They are significant and they are wonder-filled.

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you felt you experienced a miracle, or when you prayed for a miracle that never came; or
… one of the ideas of how to approach miracles talked about in the sermon and how that approach may apply to other stories in scripture; or
… the image and sounds and smells and tastes of an empty ceremonial stone container being filled with water that is transformed into wine, then sit with the words empty, full, and transformed.

[1] http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/ (accessed 20 January 2017).

[2] “Age of Enlightenment,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment (accessed 20 January 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] krm, “Doubt and Certainty in the Age of Enlightenment,” Johns Hopkins University Press, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/doubt-and-certainty-age-enlightenment (posted 11 October 2011; accessed 20 January 2017).

[5] Blogstuff, https://dturneresq.wordpress.com/2007/10/20/the-history-of-thought-since-the-reformation-from-wikipedia/ (posted 20 October 2007; accessed 20 January 2017).

[6] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 13.

[7] Ibid, 84.

[8] Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 66. (This book was also written by N. T. Wright, with the two of them taking turns writing and responding to each other. This quote is from a section written by Borg.)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 21, page 98. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[11] Ibid, page 99.

[12] “Amazing Grace,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazing_Grace (accessed 21 January 2017).

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