Homily for Pentecost 15, September 17, 2017
St. John the Apostle
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
An Anglican priest, a Baptist preacher and a Jewish rabbi are fishing in a boat on a lake. The preacher has forgotten the bait, so he walks across the water, grabs the bucket and walks back. Then the rabbi realizes he’s forgotten his lunch, so he walks across the water to the shore, picks up his lunch bag and walks back.
The Anglican then remembers he didn’t lock the car, but when he gets out of the boat he falls into the water. He swims back, gets back into the boat, and says, “God, let me walk across the water.” He tries again and falls into the water, swims back, tries again and falls again.
The Baptist leans over to the rabbi and asks, “Do you think we should tell him where the stepping stones are?”
We want to believe in miracles and at the same time we want to be able to explain them. One criteria for a miracle is that it is not explicable by natural or scientific laws. But as human knowledge extends into new fields, things that were once regarded as supernatural occurrences are found to have a basis in science or history. Thunder, earthquakes, plagues, eclipses, molecular interactions, can be examined and observed to find out how they work. But does this make them any less miraculous?
There is a news report of Saint Peter’s bones purportedly discovered this week in a small church undergoing renovations (It makes one wonder what we will find here!). According to the Vatican, human remains were found in a couple of clay jars in the Santa Maria in Cappella, Rome. They will undergo DNA testing and be compared to other bones kept at St. Peter’s basilica which are also thought to be those of this first century apostle. Will they be any more holy if there is a match?
This week the Christian Church also celebrated the feast of Holy Cross day on Thursday. On September 14 in the year 335, the Emperor Constantine dedicated a large shrine and church on the site of where Jesus was thought to have been crucified in Jerusalem. While the site was under construction, Constantine’s mother Helena happened to be helping out and found some old pieces of wood. Doctors of the faith did the 4th century version of scientific testing. They apparently had a corpse laid on the fragments and when the person came back to life declared that this miracle was due to the healing power of the cross of Christ. The relics were taken back to Rome and venerated, and soon many important churches across Christendom managed to produce a sliver. Each faith community eagerly hoped for a miracle to prove that their splinter was the real deal.
There are a lot of miracles recorded in the Bible. Many are the basis of documentaries, which try and tease out textual details to support scientific discovery. From the story that has been passed down, first as an oral tradition and then as a sacred text, people have attempted to reconstruct the “true” story. Whether this invites faith or skepticism, there is an underlying need to understand how God did “it”.
In the Hebrew Scriptures passage that was read this morning from Exodus 14, we heard the story of the Israelites escaping through the waters of the Red Sea. The miracle of the slaves’ escape from Egypt by God’s mighty hand is a story that is crucial to understanding how they understood themselves to be a chosen people. Did it literally happen step by step as it is described in the pages of Scripture? Countless scholars have spent years huddled over maps of the Near East, trying to match up times and place names to see when and where the event actually occurred. Various scientific explanations of tidal influence, wind patterns, and climate conditions have laid out scenarios by which this group of people might have passed through what was normally a body of water, while Pharoah’s chariot army was unable to follow. The Hebrew slaves crossed the Red, or possibly Reed, Sea and the Egyptian pursuers drowned. Do we need to understand exactly how in order to appreciate that there is a divine hand involved?
For some, this is a matter of faith. Anything that can be explained by natural means proves, de facto, that God didn’t need to be involved: it was a matter of happy circumstance for the Israelites and bad luck for the Egyptians. That is, if this story actually had any basis in fact and wasn’t just made up as a charter myth of the Jewish people. For others, the grounding of details found in the text lends even more power to God’s purpose. Why wouldn’t the Creator use the mechanisms of creation in order to guide the path of human history? And for more, the details don’t actually matter. The footnotes in a Bible, although interesting, neither add or detract from the words of Scripture. The story is true on a deeper level, as a proclamation of what God is about rather than how.
So what is God about here in this story? The crossing of the Red Sea is a miracle of love and forgiveness and trust. For the Hebrew people, it is the death of an old life in oppression and sin, and the beginning of a new life that is a journey towards the God who loves them and redeems them and will sustain them in their wilderness. The details that are recorded may have happened exactly like that to a people long ago. But they also can resonate with a modern hearer that has never been to the Middle East, never fled across a desert pursued by Egyptians. We can put ourselves into the text because of our own experiences that run parallel.
And when we come to baptism, this story becomes even more true. This story of the crossing over is what we each enact when we begin the path of a Christian life. We chose between the captivity of the world and the journey to a Promised Land. We go through the water that marks both death and life. And we trust in a God who loves us enough to rescue us and forgive us and claim us as God’s own forever. Do we need to see the rocks under the water?
The stage is set again this morning for the retelling of this wonderful story. The miracle here is this small child, Alexander Brian McGlashan. Brought into the world by love, brought to this community in love, to be baptized this morning for love. Can anyone look at a baby and not know something of the mystery of God in these tiny hands? And maybe years from now his mother and father and sister will tell him the story of this day. They may laugh and recount the little details. But whether they get it exactly right or not, the main point of the story is still this: You are a miracle, by God’s grace. Amen.