Do You Believe in Magic? Rev Dr Durrell Watkins (5/18/14) Do you believe in magic? In a young girl’s heart, how the music can free her whenever it starts & it’s magic if the music is groovy, it makes you feel happy like an old time movie… We’ll go a-dancin’, baby, then you’ll see, all […]
Do You Believe in Magic?
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins (5/18/14)
Do you believe in magic? In a young girl’s heart, how the music can free her whenever it starts
& it’s magic if the music is groovy, it makes you feel happy like an old time movie…
We’ll go a-dancin’, baby, then you’ll see, all the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me, yeah.
In these human words God’s voice is heard!
When I was a child I learned a lot of so-called magic words.
Abracadabra – a phrase which a 3rd century physician to the Roman Emperor actually prescribed as a cure for malaria!
Science, you’ve come a long way baby!
Alakazam was another popular one…it even made it into a song,
“I was walking along minding my business when out of an orange colored sky, FLASH BAM ALAKAZAM wonderful you walked by…”
The Danish magician Harry Jensen (1883-1955) had a phrase he made famous in his magic act: Sim Sala Bim!
In Disney’s version of Cinderella, the fairy godmother used the enchanting phrase, “Salagadoola, mechicka boola, bibbidi bobbidi boo, put’em together and what have you got? Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo!”
Now, apparently Cinderella was an inquisitive person and needed to know how the magic worked, so the enchantress explained most reasonably, “Salagadoola means mechicak boolaroo but the thingamabob that does the job is bibbibi bobbidi boo!”
Sounds like some of the circular reasoning and religious double talk that in modern times has turned more people from religion than it has attracted. Thank goodness for a different kind of church!
But there was another magical phrase that I was taught as a child and that phrase was universal in my small, bible belt world…and that phrase was “in Jesus’ name.”
And a naïve non-critical understanding of today’s gospel reading was the foundation of that Christian version of Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo. We stopped reading at verse 12 today, but if we read on to v. 14 we would have heard, “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”
Preachers and religious educators of my youth would emphatically declare that whatever one prayed for in Jesus’ name would be granted.
Now we know who we are talking about when we say Jesus, but if anyone had called out Jesus to Jesus, Jesus wouldn’t have thought they were talking to him!
As religion scholar Paul Alan Laughlin writes in his book Remedial Christianity, “Jesus is the English equivalent of the Latin version of the Greek rendering of his original Aramaic name (Yehushua or Yeshua), an exact equivalent of the Old Testament Joshua. No one ever called Jesus ‘Jesus’ in his lifetime.”
But I didn’t know that growing up; instead, what I was taught was that “In Jesus’ name” was the send icon that got the prayerful email to heaven…well, we didn’t have email back then; maybe it was the blanket that got the smoke signal to heaven.
It was the money back guarantee that the prayer would work wonders.
And when the results were disappointing, the petitioner was left wondering why her or his faith wasn’t good enough, what sin could have blocked the success, what hidden doubt had sabotaged the miracle…because, if Jesus had made a promise and it wasn’t fulfilled, surely we did something wrong to screw it up. But we all have prayed at some moment with our whole heart only to find ourselves not possessed of the good we longed to receive.
If you have suffered the pain of unanswered prayer, I have good news for you today.
It isn’t because you aren’t spiritual enough, good enough, or deserving of peace and joy.
Jesus himself prayed for the cup of suffering to pass from him and his prayer, or so the gospel records tell us, was not answered as he hoped it might be.
So, why is the anonymous writer we call John putting these words in Jesus’ mouth? Surely he knew that not every heartfelt wish comes true.
Moses didn’t make it to the promised land,
Jesus didn’t have the cup of suffering removed from him,
Paul prayed repeatedly for a thorn in the flesh to be removed and it never was.
People of faith have hard times too!
We can prove to be equal to the challenges of life, and from the challenges blessings can emerge, and there are ways to make the most of life, but even so, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. There is no “presto chango” that works every time.
So again, why did “John” imagine Jesus saying that praying in his name would fix everything every time?
Actually, he didn’t. Let’s look at what John is saying.
Do not let your hearts be troubled…
Not that there aren’t troubling times and situations, but we can guard our hearts with prayer and optimism.
We don’t have to let the troubles become our self-identity.
In [God’s] house there are many dwelling places.
John is synthesizing Jesus’ message of inclusion. There are many religions, many ethnicities and nationalities, many languages, many opinions, many experiences, many personalities, and in God’s house there are many rooms…room enough for everyone. No matter what you’ve gone through, no matter who you are, you will always have a place in the universe, a place in God’s heart.
And John’s Jesus says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going…I am the way…”
John is imagining Jesus to say, “I know myself to be part of God, in God, and God in me. I know the truth of my sacred value and I know that divine life is the source and substance of my life. When you know that about yourself, you will find indomitable hope and a peace that passes understanding and joy unspeakable.”
“I am the way, the truth and the life” is a phrase has been misused to manipulate people into conversion, but that goes against the inclusive intention of the text. Not only did Jesus probably never say those words (and I won’t bore you with the literary and historical methods by which we know that, for that you’ll need to take one of my Monday night classes), but John’s intention was to comfort and uplift people, not to spiritually beat them into submission!
Do you not believe that I am in [God] and [God] is in me?
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “If Jesus came now into the world he would say YOU, YOU! He said to his age, “I”.
When John’s Jesus say “I am” his intended audience is meant to repeat, “I Am”…we all are.
We are each the child of God and the way to enjoy God is to trust that we are God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
The [Divine dwelling] in me does [the] works. Believe me…because of the works themselves.
Here the writer isn’t referring to supernatural works; he is referring to the work of justice and compassion:
Wishing for all people and not just a privileged few to enjoy good health and prosperity,
Caring for the sick,
Challenging systems of oppression.
That’s the work that Jesus did, and that is the work we are called to do.
And then Jesus says, “[you] will do greater works than these…”
Jesus stood up to the Roman authorities in Jerusalem.
Jesus touched untouchable lepers.
Jesus befriended Samaritans.
Jesus ate with hated tax collectors.
He even spoke words of healing for the male lover of a Roman, pagan centurion…Rome was the enemy, but no individual was Jesus’ enemy. And he praised the Roman pagan’s faith and healed his lover.
These are the works to which John is referring and we are called to do them as well and to do even more.
Jesus never confronted slavery, but today we universally recognize slavery to be among the worst of human evils, and in this country the 13th Amendment did ended the reprehensible practice forever. Greater things we will do.
Today we have wiped out polio, we have vaccines for the flu, we have meds that can control HIV in most people, we can do organ transplants, we have medications that manage depression, we can send words of encouragement instantly all over the world by means of twitter and email and facebook, we can fly all over the world and explore outer space, we have marriage equality in more and more places, and in times of senseless war we are still calling on the powers that be to give peace a chance. We can do what Jesus did and more!
And in that context, when we want to do what he did in the compassionate, liberating spirit that motivated him, “if we ask anything in Jesus’ name” we will find the help we need to do the work John’s Jesus said we could do.
It isn’t a promise that life will magically be easy; it is the hope that if we will work together to make life better, inspired by Jesus’ example (which is what in his name means), then we will find the same spirit that dwelled in him dwelling in us and we will find hope and courage and strength to do what we are called to do, just as he did.
This is an especially meaningful passage this weekend, which marks the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling which desegregated American public schools and the 10th anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts, the first US state to offer marriage equality. Even Jesus didn’t accomplish that in his lifetime…greater things we will do!
I believe in magic, in the miracle of love, in the power of hope, in the infinite possibilities of life.
But that magic doesn’t depend on reducing religion to superstition.
For me magic is the unconquerable power of hope, peace, and joy that lifts us as if we were on a flying carpet, that allows us to experience moments of awe and wonder and gratitude no matter what is happening around or even to us.
Whether we are facing a personal challenge, showing compassion to those who are in need, or speaking out for equal opportunity and justice for all, there are reserves of power within us, magic if you will, to do that divine work faithfully and well. And that is the meaning that an anonymous writer we call John was trying to place on the lips of one we know today as Jesus.
The spirit that empowered Jesus will empower us…that is the meaning of doing better works and finding help in those works when we follow his example, or as John put it, pray and work in his name. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014
I believe in the magic of hope. I believe in the magic of love. I believe in the magic within me. Alleluia! Amen.