Columnist Connie Shultz said, “Maybe you, too have been stopped dead in your tracs by a sign that assures us there’s something bigger at work than our own stubborn will (p 6). … Someone describes an experience that defies our idea of reality, or we’re suddenly reeling from our own mystical moment, and we are forced to think about what we do and do not believe in. … Often there’s a frankness to these stories that makes them hard to dismiss.” She goes on to tell this story: “Soon after my mother died, I was driving and listening to NPR like I always do when, inexplicably, I reached down and switched the radio station. “I know you’re watching over me from heaven,” the singer crooned. Still raw with grief, I sighed and said out loud, “I miss you, Ma.” Then I looked at the license plate on the car straight ahead: MISS U2.”
I have my own stories of some might call “signs”, others might call “miracles” and still others say are just coincidences or unexplainable events. I have my stories, and many of you have shared with me your own. But what intrigues me the most is when those of you who don’t believe God intervenes in ways that are more tangible, or outside of human influence or thought, when even you have shared with me stories about things that you have seen or experienced that were inexplicable, beyond what we normally feel is scientific or within the realm of “normal” laws of science. Those stories of the mysterious, unexplainable, Divine, fascinate me, and call me to reflect deeper on what we sometimes call “miracles.”
The truth for me is that if I’m keeping my eyes open, gifts, or miracles, come to me on an almost daily basis. The miracles of my own experience tend to fall within human influence, but that doesn’t make them less profound for me. I see God working through those who listen to God, who are open to God’s movement. I see God’s hand touching and guiding and bringing light and life through others, and sometimes through my own psyche. I’ll have a dream that is a deep gift, for example. Last week I had this wonderful dream that I was being driven by someone else and trying to get to school on time. They drove a way I didn’t know and then asked me for directions. I had to tell them that I honestly did not know how to get to the school from where we were, but that I would see if I could find out. I was looking at the map app on my phone without any luck, when the driver suddenly pulled over. I assumed the driver pulled over so that we could take the time to figure out where we were, but when I looked up I saw that we were actually parked right in front of the school. Despite my being lost, the driver got me to where I needed to be. Despite my inability to find my way using the resources that I had at hand, the driver still led me to where I needed to be in that moment. That dream was a gift, or I might say, a miracle. But other things happen too. This last week Ben and Lynn dropped off a little gift for me. It was a book. They could have no way of knowing that that day had been especially challenging for me, they had no way of knowing what I was struggling with or what I had experienced that week; but the words of the book were needed at that very moment that I received them. It was a book full of little wisdoms, but all of them, ALL of them spoke to me in one way or another. I wept as I read through the book. And then I wept again, with my daughter, as I read it to her. I wept again as I read it to David. And each time I read it, other gifts came from it. Phrases such as, “being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses” and “One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things” as well as “imagine how we would be if we were less afraid” and “Don’t measure how valuable you are by the way you are treated” – each of them was a miracle of words: a gift of God’s grace given right when it was needed. Perhaps these do not feel like miracles to you. Or perhaps you define “miracle” differently. But for me, I would always describe these things as God’s presence touching, moving, interfering, acting, beyond what was “normal” or expected.
Still, we also know there are problems with the ideas of miracles. Those problems start with the question, how come some seem to have these experiences and others don’t? I have a very close friend who is an atheist. She was raised Presbyterian, but she left the faith because, she says, she was too science minded for faith. Well, I see myself as science-minded too and so we have interesting conversations about faith, and about belief. She said to me one time, “Do you actually have experiences of God? Because I don’t understand it otherwise. You are a rational, intelligent person. Surely you don’t believe in a man sitting in the clouds waving a magic wand around that gives some people things and curses others.” Well, no, I don’t. That image of God is not mine. But do I have experiences of God? All the time. But as we discussed them, as I shared them, I saw the growing pain and frustration that she felt. “Why don’t I have those experiences?” She asked. A question I have yet to be able to answer for either of us.
More problematically, as we discussed in Bible study a couple weeks ago, why is it that some people have their prayers answered with a “yes” and others don’t? Why is it that one of my friend’s many children contracted spinal meningitis and miraculously survived it, while my other friend’s only son also contracted it and died? Why is it that WWII happened, that so many people were tortured and killed, that today children have been torn away from their parents and put in cages, why is there human trafficking, slavery, kidnapping and child abuse, and why are some people completely unable to see people who are different than themselves as the brothers and sisters that they are? Why are they judged, condemned and made “other”? Why is racism such a continual, terrible problem in our country? Why do people in some countries suffer such prosecution, violence or poverty that they feel they have to flee, even at the risk of their lives? Why is it that I’ve had a safety net of resources and family so that when my world came crashing down, there was support, there were help so that I was able to pick up the pieces, whereas we know that many of our unhouses people just didn’t have the safety net to catch them when something major went wrong? Do we really think that God blesses some and doesn’t bless others? And if so, do we lie to ourselves, against all scripture, by saying that somehow those who have deserve it, while those who “have not” don’t? Surely we can’t look at Jesus, who lost his life so young to a horrible crucifixion and say that those who suffer do so because they deserved to suffer. God is not Santa Claus. And we hear from Jesus himself, “The rain falls on the just and unjust alike.”
As we’ve talked about many times there are three statements that just can’t be reconciled, “God is all powerful”, “God is all good” and “Bad things happen”. We’ve also talked about how many Christians have come to believe that God has given up power in order to have genuine relationship with us, giving us free-will, which means that bad things happen.
But then we have scriptures like the two we read today. Miracles are happening. Jesus is bringing life to those he encounters. Even raising the dead boy in the second reading. And still the question must be asked, why does he raise that boy, but not those we love who have died? As I grieve my dear friend who died last week, suddenly, when her heart just gave out, I wonder. She was a pastor, an historian, an amazingly generous, loving, giving person. Why did she die? When her life was so needed? So valuable? When so many others live whose lives seem destructive, unkind, ungracious?
Another question that constantly comes up in the face of miracles is why is it that these big miracles only seem to happen in the stories of the past? In the stories of our scriptures, in the stories of Jesus but not now? Does God not care anymore? Who can explain this?
So what do we do with these? What do we do with the questions of miracles? With the concerns about miracles? What do we do when we have specific wants, specific “needs” and we feel that God is not meeting them? Do we give up our faith? Do we walk away? Do we decide it is a personal judgment on ourselves that our lives are difficult and hard and that God is somehow punishing us with challenges? And maybe even more troubling, what do we do when we see miracles still? How do we accept the “yes” in them when so many others hear “no”?
I find myself listening to many of the wise voices of others.
Einstein is quoted as having said ““There are two ways to live life. You can live it as if nothing is a miracle. Or you can live it like everything is.” He also said, “Coincidence is just another name for God.”
Henry David Thoreau said, “Could a greater miracle take place than to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Sr. Joan Chittister related, “Once, the ancients say, a seeker asked a group of disciples: “Does your God work miracles?” And they replied, “It depends on what you call a miracle. Some people say that a miracle is when God does the will of people. We say that a miracle is when people do the will of God.”
Frederick Buechner said, “A cancer inexplicably cured. A voice in a dream. A statue that weeps. A miracle is an event that strengthens faith. It is possible to look at most miracles and find rational explanation in terms of natural cause and effect. It is possible to look at Rembrandt’s “Supper at Emmaus” and find a rational explanation in terms of paint and canvas. Faith in God is less apt to proceed from miracles than miracles from faith in God.” (Wishful Thinking p 63)
Most of the time, the stories we read in scripture are meant to convey a deeper meaning. Often we are called and invited to search more deeply, underneath the stories, to hear what they are actually saying to us, what God is communicating to us. But, a pastor in my lectionary group this week had a different take on these stories. He said that maybe the “deeper meaning” of the stories is the healing itself. Maybe the miracles themselves are the deep message: God says to you through these stories: “you are free, you are alive, you are not captive to demons. Jesus message is “I come to bring life,” or as the book I received this week said, “Always remember you matter, you’re important and you are loved, and you bring to this world things no one else can.” Maybe we are looking for the wrong thing, in the wrong place, and failing to see the lifethat we are being given in this very moment, this very day, as the very point of all of this.
In the first story of the healing of the Centurion’s servant, Jesus never even sees the man whom he heals. He never touches him, never sees him. He talks to the Centurion, but never the servant in need of healing. I think that message is important for us during this COVID time. With COVID we are praying for folk who are not with us, not touching us. We are sending our prayers and our desire for healing to those we don’t come near. And the message we hear from Jesus is the same: the gift of life, of freedom is offered to them as well. Even when we are apart, even when we aren’t worshiping in the same place, even when we aren’t seeing what we hope and want to see, God is offering us life in this very moment. God is also offering that to everyone.
And that part of it may be a challenge for us. Who do we see as beyond our reach? Who do we see as beyond the reach of healing, of God? Who is beyond redemption for us? God is offering them life, too. And maybe, just maybe, God is offering it to them through YOU.
So finally, I want to end today with a poem I’ve shared with you once before:
The man whispered, “God, speak to me” and a meadowlark sang.
But, the man did not hear.
So the man yelled, “God, speak to me” and the thunder rolled across the sky.
But, the man did not listen.
The man looked around and said, “God let me see you.” And a star shined brightly.
But the man did not see.
And, the man shouted, “God show me a miracle.” And, a life was born.
But, the man did not notice.
So, the man cried out in despair, “Touch me God, and let me know you are here.”
Whereupon, God reached down and touched the man. But, the man brushed the butterfly away .
and walked on.
I found this to be a great reminder that God is always around us in the little and simple things that we take for granted … even in our electronic age..
And as always, I add one more:
The man cried, “God, I need your help!” And an e-mail arrived reaching out with good news and encouragement.
But, the man deleted it and continued to cry .
So my challenge to all of us is this: Don’t miss out on a blessing because it isn’t packaged the way that you expect. Don’t miss out on miracles because they don’t come the way you want or expect. Keep your eyes open and see the ways in which God brings miracles to your life. More, see the ways in which God calls you to be the miracle for someone else. Amen.