4th Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy; 8:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
What is a miracle? We would all agree with Merriam-Webster that a miracle is, essentially, “a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.” When we look at the miracles that are attributed to Jesus Christ in the Gospels, or to God of Israel in the Old Testament – the sea being parted or walked upon, demons being exorcised, lepers being healed with a word or touch of Christ’s hand, even the daughter of a synagogue official being raised from the dead – most would say that those things don’t happen anymore or they never did.
In fact, the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels are one of many reasons some give for not believing in God at all, rejecting Christianity entirely, or not trusting in the promises of God. If there is a God, and God can do all things, many would say, then why did He not heal my mother when she was dying? Where was God when that child was being abused, that village was being destroyed by a tsunami, that dictator was murdering more than six million Jews, gypsies, gays, people with developmental disabilities like Down’s Syndrome…” There is no such thing as a miracle,” they might cry. I cannot blame them. Even church luminaries like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, etc. have rejected Christ’s bodily resurrection, Christ’s miracles of body or creation, and any miracle because science simply doesn’t support it.
Jesus famously said, in Mark, Chapter 10, that it would easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. His disciples cried, “Who then can be saved,” to which Jesus replied, “With man it is impossible. But nothing will be impossible with God.” For me, that is what I think of miracles. All things are possible with God through Christ and when Christ was with us, he healed out of His God-given power and His great compassion. He still does. Physical miracles are possible and, at the same time, my belief is that God desires for us to get out of the business of expecting that we pray for a miracle – fill in the blank - and God answers our request as if we had placed our money into a vending machine and the required action of God falls out at the bottom as desired. Do we believe that this is the way that God works and intervenes in the world? I am not sure that God ever has thought or acted in that way, except, perhaps, when the asker was Christ himself.
My understanding of the miraculous action of God has much more to do with how we make room for God our in lives. How we create space for the action of God in our lives, communities and in the world marks how we see the miracle of God’s healing and transforming love, and then are given the miraculous strength, courage, and patience to become the healed vessels of God ready to be poured out on the world.
Most of you know that I am currently in a Spiritual Director Certification Class. And, like most classes, there is reading…not too, too much but reading nonetheless. Last week, I read an article on prayer, and what prayer does do and, often, does not do and how, in the midst of this, we see the loving intervention of God triumphing over evil, challenge and despair. The author of the article, the Rev. Jim Neafsey, an Episcopal priest and longtime spiritual director, relays how many years ago he and his wife were joyously expecting their first child. About two weeks before her due date, his wife had to have a Caesarian section. The child was born and they realized something was very wrong. Their little girl, whom they would name Angela, was born with a defective chromosome (no more information than that) and she lived only long enough for her father to Baptize her and for her mother to hold her in her arms; about 90 minutes. Rev Neafsey says, “the shortness of her life did nothing to soften the grief for me and Carmen [his wife]. Angela was our only child and the grief over her loss lingered for both of us for many years (“Praying for Others: A Contemplative Approach,” p. 52).
About 12 years after the death of his daughter, Rev. Neafsey was brought back to the feeling of grief he had been burying and he decided to pray. He entered a six-week intensive period of praying and writing in his journal, writing down dialogue between himself and his little girl and, then, she would answer his questions like, “When I die, will she recognize me? Will she come to greet me? Will I recognize her?” He began to invite Jesus into these conversations. “The turning point came when I felt confident that Angela was “in God” and therefore “in joy,” though what that meant remained a mystery. I came to feel and understand that the best way to recognize her at the moment of my death was to practice seeing and relating to her now in the joy of God…Now I felt invited to move from knowing Angela through her broken body and my own sense of loss to see her identity as an image of God.” (p. 52).
The miraculous working of God in the world is not about us fixing problems or saying prayers for God to provide the outcome we wish to have. God hears our prayers and, in the great mystery of the universe, God acts in ways we cannot begin to know or understand. WE are not consumers who put our prayer into the right slot and God sends down the winning reply/healing/job/prayer. Prayer and God’s design and working in our life has much more to do with God than us and the sooner we understand that, and truly invite God into our lives, the sooner we will begin to see the world, the people in it, and ourselves, as children of God, held and loved by a God who cannot be forced or bargained with, but who does hear us and heals us in ways much deeper than our usual conception of miracle can convey.
I don’t pretend to know why most people’s prayers for physical healing are not answered in the way that they want them to be. I suspect that if God healed every disease, solved every problem, and removed every challenge that we face there would be very little for us to ever do, discover, or accomplish. Where would it ever end?
I certainly understand how we can become discouraged when God doesn’t answer us in the way we want or expect for Her to. Yet I have seen the action of God in the world too, too many times, in people I love, folks I minister to and with – lives transformed by the grace and love of God, to not believe in God’s miraculous power to heal. Like the Reverend Jim Neafsey, seeing God’s healing power comes only when we invite God in and intentionally make room for Him to heal our hearts and minds. The rest, my dear ones, we must also leave up to God. When we see God’s glory and power working in our own lives, then we will not question, at least not in the same way, why evil, cancer, COVID, or natural disaster still persist. WE live in a broken, flawed, and fallen world – and we will until Christ comes again. But we also live in a world of beauty possessed with the light of God’s great grace and presence, if we are willing to invite God in and listen with our hearts wide open. Amen.