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Once again – the sermon title has changed on me (and all of you) between the printing of the bulletin and Sunday morning delivery. It is now called, “Do You Believe in Miracles?” And yes, you have to say it like that, evoking a memory for at least some of us of sportcaster Al Michaels’ now legendary phrase at the of the unlikely victory of the US men’s olympic hockey team over the heavily favored Soviet team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. But this morning’s reading from Luke begs the question, in perhaps a softer tone…do you believe in miracles?
We in the so-called “progressive” church tend to frown on miracle stories. Congregationalists are historically a scientific, rational people. Human beings do not walk on water, rise from the dead or turn a loaf of bread and a couple of fish into a meal for 5,000. It’s not rational. Yet the deeper science digs into the supposedly rational world, the more that disciplines like quantum physics teach us that the natural world does not always subscribe even to the laws we think of as immutable. Particles don’t always behave like they’re supposed to, evolutionary biology sometimes skips a few of the steps it was expected to follow and that theory from Einstein…the immutable law E=MC2…which stated, in part, that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? Well, not exactly true. I’m reminded of the single pane cartoon with two scientists at a large chalkboard with an elaborate equation drawn all over the left 2/3rds and then a conclusion drawn with a large circle around it…and just to the left of the equals sign, in between all of the calculation and the answer is the phrase, “then a miracle occurs”. And the scientists without the chalk in his hand is pointing right at the phrase saying, “I think you need to be a little more specific here.” See…even science can’t decide whether or not it believes in miracles.
It can be our tendency to read these kinds of healing miracles in the Bible and find ways to explain them away, for they cannot be “true”, can they? Meanwhile, other strands of Christianity cling to the miracles as if their truth contains the single support column for our identity. So, where do we land, given the choice of absolute, blind acceptance and uber-rational dismissal? Perhaps our answer lies somewhere in our notion of “truth”. Jesus’ people were oral learners and communicators. The “truth” they experienced came in many forms. Even the words that the spoke had multiple meanings depending on things like inflection, context, and body language. These days, we think of truth as singular…we arrive at it, we discover it, we hold it, we possess it, even own it. But then they thought of truth as eternal…but mutable, something we try to discover, for “truth” changes…well, maybe truth stays the same, and what changes is our ability to discern it, to see it, to describe it.
When you come from a world of journalism, like we do, then you seek in a story facts and details, an account of what happened as if you were there when it happened. But in Jesus’ time people told stories to talk about something…it’s significance, it’s power, it’s meaning. We still want to make it literal…even those of us who claim to not read the Bible literally.
I spent Thursday in Hobart, Oklahoma leading a celebration of the life of Nellie Perry. Nellie was my brother-in-law’s grandmother…and our adopted “Gran”. Once a fixture in Hobart, where she taught school, wrote novels and poems, practiced law, ran campaigns for Gov. Nigh and reported for the local paper, the Democrat-Chief, Nellie had moved away may years ago…first to Stillwater, then to Prairie Village, Kansas. She didn’t move by choice, but rather because Parkinson’s disease had made her body a prison for such an incredible mind.
In 2001, when a plane crash killed my brother-in-law, Will, and nine other members of the OSU basketball family, the bonds between my wife’s side of the family and the Perry and Hancock clans of Hobart and beyond grew from slender threads to tight, unbreakable bonds. We are all family now. And if you had asked any one of us how we were going to make it in the very dark days after that plane crash, I guarantee you that none of us would have been able to say. We were all dead.
Thursday we gathered again to say goodbye to Gran, who was glue during that time, and when her grandkids and great-grandkids opened the service with the perfect harmonies of “Seasons of Love” and the words of her children echoed through the wooden beamed ceiling of the church, it was to me a miracle. For we all know what hold death has over us…and what hold it doesn’t have. And in those moments of song, and the words and our presence together, she was alive again…alive in a way that she wasn’t during the last few years of Parkinson’s robbing her…alive in a way that, I think, surprised and amazed us all.
Having spent innumerable hours with people diagnosed with cancer, suffering from PTSD or mental illness, or wrestling with grief I can tell you that the miracle doesn’t occur with some bizarre, inexplicable cure or reversal. Of course that happens on rare occasions, for who knows what reason. And those are the examples usually held up as miracles. But the action of God that I have come to call miraculous is the ability of people to come together in the pain and struggle, to find hope in hopelessness and to help one another bear the unbearable.
Einstein is credited with having once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” When Jesus heals in this story, I don’t need it to be literal. When he tells the young man to rise and the story says he began to speak…that Jesus gave him back to his mother, I don’t need that to be an eyewitness account, a factual rendering of what “actually” happened. Instead I hear it as people describing decades later the miraculous work of Jesus in these gospels, recounting his teachings and what they have come to understand as true…the very thing I say during every funeral I do…that God’s life-giving energy is with us in all things and that death, no matter how difficult to take, is not the final answer.
For the miracle is not found in defending some orthodoxy any more than truth is found in articulating the laws of physics. It is found in our capacity to be amazed, our willingness to embrace something new and our trust that God is working for good in our lives, if we will have the tenacity, patience and courage to see it.
I choose to trust in that. I trust that because I have experienced it, but I also choose it in the times that challenge my trust because I have seen it lived out by other people. It’s not so much a decision I make, but something that I expect to happen…like gravity. I don’t have faith in it, I just expect it when I’m up on a ladder…but apparently not when I’m stepping down steps.
So, this is my word that I leave with you as I head to surgery on Tuesday and will be out of the pulpit for a couple of weeks. Trust. God is with us. Miracles do happen. Hope is trustworthy.