Posts Tagged ‘miracle’

Living faithful

August 6, 2017

I want you to imagine that day.  Just another day, or so it seemed.  Nothing to set it apart, until the news begins to make the rounds.  Dead.  John the baptizer was dead – horribly dead at the hands of that murderous maniac Herod.  John in prison was one thing – a sign that the authorities were worried, maybe, but the news of John’s death is serious and confusing and horrifying, and fills people with questions…and grief.  With John dead, they turn to Jesus for advice.  Jesus, who had inherited John’s disciples and John’s mission; but Jesus was gone too.  Heading for the hills (they said).  Off in a boat to pray, or hide, or weep – who knew – but the people wanted to know…needed to know what to do next.

Sudden, tragic events bring thoughts of upheaval and revolution to people living in captivity – even to people whose hope is found in the promises of people like John and Jesus.  So what was next?  Was this the sign that Jesus would finally have to take up the role that they imagined was his?  Is the kingdom finally coming?  Was he off plotting the rebellion; ready to lead the nation to victory?

Jesus went, and they followed.  Out to the middle of nowhere and turn left, that’s where they find him.  His friends were there too – they never left his side – and the crowds…the crowds kept coming.  Some hopeful and cheering – some crying – others complaining and all of them imposing on Jesus privacy; pushing and shoving and making a general nuisance.   And God bless him, Jesus cried and listened and made time for them.  In moments like this Jesus shows us what he is made of – he hears the hope in their questions, shares their grief, honours their presence and offers them compassion – that’s what the text calls it.  A word; a touch; a prayer – and each one found peace and help and healing.

And naturally, it wasn’t long until the discussions turned from fright to freedom to food; especially as the day turned to dusk.  It had been a long difficult day, and there is now a vast multitude; families, former pupils, curious faithful and devious doubters – a small city with no infrastructure.  Surely they’ll be made to fend for themselves.  Surely Jesus has done enough.

His disciples have had enough.  There’s an earnest huddle on the hill; plenty of hand-waving, shoulder-shrugging and pointing (vaguely) toward town.  Then a the sudden, uncomfortable silence that follows Jesus’ words “you give them something…”

Think of it; you’re somewhere in the midst of the crowd and you see movement.  Hands raised to heaven – bread offered and taken and offered again.  A slow, determined wave of activity, with Jesus at its centre, making its way through the crowd, and from hand to hand – from one to another – a word, a prayer, a bit of bread and fish.  “And all ate and were filled…”, says the gospel record – an image of unparalleled satisfaction.  Not such a common thing in the wasteland of first century Palestine – out ‘back of beyond’ as they were.  What would it mean to know that feeling – to experience that miracle?

We have inherited this miracle story, and we always make it about the food – Five loaves, two fish, 5000+ people and still twelve baskets to spare.  We can claim God’s limitless providence, or we can imagine folks shamed into sharing what they had once tried to keep safe for themselves; either way, it’s a miracle.  But when we limit the story to the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (just as we casually gloss over the people who weren’t officially counted because they were women and children), I think we miss the point.

Whatever we think of miracles – then or now – the main component of any miracle story is compassion.  Nothing on that day was possible without Jesus compassion, and any miracles in our lives will have the same ingredients:

Jesus ability to see the needs of others even in the midst of his own questions and confusion – his willingness to see to the needs of others, and his insistence that his disciples do likewise – these are the ingredients of a miracle.  And it occurs to me that this miracle story may be a parable too.

The organization of Matthew’s gospel is important to my argument.  A chapter full of parables (and the explanation of parables), followed by a living parable.  The kingdom of God is like a crowd in a field.  The crowd is hurting and hungry and needy in all the ways that humanity is hurting and hungry.  The teacher in their midst has been generous with his time, and at the climax of the story, he suggests to his students that they might be equally generous.  In spite of the overwhelming odds against success,  they should follow his example; they should feed the crowd.  And all ate and were satisfied.  Simple and complicated, just like a parable.

What we want to see in this miracle is an easy way out.  The need is not overwhelming, no matter how large the crowd.  The impossible becomes ordinary, against our expectations.  God is for us, against all odds – that’s what we want to hear in this story.  When our expectations overwhelm us, Jesus steps in, gives thanks, and all is made miraculously well.  Because life is rather like a crowd in a deserted field, and we imagine ourselves at the centre of the story.  We expect to be asked to solve the whole problem – at once, and by ourselves.  We expect to be held responsible in case of failure.

We expect any help to be a long way off.  But this is not a parable of life – it is yet another glimpse into the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of heaven is not about our abilities or our expectations.

There is a miracle at the centre of every kingdom story.  Miracle is the word we use when the result cannot be explained by our experience.  And Jesus invites us to facilitate the miracle: “you give them something…”, he says, without bothering to tell us how it might be possible.   Instead, he shows us how; producing food from scarcity – hope from despair – life from death.  Jesus stands as a living parable, urging us toward something more – something of God.

It’s simple enough: Take what you have – your time; your food; your friendship; your life – and share it in faith.  By such acts of compassion, miracles are made.  By our imitation of Christ the kingdom is brought slowly and surely into view.

The least of these…

June 19, 2016

He had demons, this guy – naked, homeless (living in the tombs, in fact, which is worse than homeless), and introduced to the narrative as a raving thing – shouting at the top of his voice “What have you to do with me, Jesus – son of the most high God?  I beg you, do not torment me…”

Let’s consider this strange scene for a moment.

Jesus has come some distance – to a strange place (one where he is not known, one supposes). Jesus suggested this trip – during which the boat meets a storm and the disciples are terrified etc – (none of this has much affect on Jesus)  – and oddly, the minute he steps ashore, some lunatic identifies him – recognizes his holy mission and purpose – and then begs not to be tormented

I smell a trap, and it’s a trap set by the author of the gospel.

Luke’s account brings Jesus across the lake into gentile territory, where he soon meets someone who makes everyone uncomfortable.

Information about the cultural prejudices of Jesus day can be found in a multitude of ancient sources – but most of our information comes from Scripture, which does it’s best to remind us that Jesus is doing everything he can to undo, ignore, or otherwise subvert those prejudices.  Jesus does this by seeking out those people that have been isolated, ignored or evicted from the public eye.  So a trip to the tombs is on the agenda – to maximize the possibility that he and his entourage will encounter someone or something that his contemporaries hold in great disdain.  The poor – the disturbed – the deranged.  Never mind that they are also in the presence of hog farmers, a reminder that this province is full of outsiders (ie. those who are not Jewish).  Information about the usual treatment of the outcast of the time is found in the plea of the demon-posessed man; “…I beg you, do not torment me…”

Was it so common for the righteous to take a ‘slum tour’ – to mock the unfortunate inhabitants of the region, so that they might feel better about themselves?  I wonder.

Many of the assumptions we make about the life and times of the folks who lived in Roman controlled Palestine have the uncomfortable sound of truth – even those that we cannot confirm.  The Jewish population had reached an uneasy equilibrium with their Roman conquerors.  They were allowed their religious institutions, for the most part – so long as their devotion didn’t get in the way of their subservience to Rome.  Occasionally, someone would try to incite the citizens with wild ideas of God’s deliverance.  These kinds of rebellions were swiftly dealt with – no one messes, militarily, with Rome.  But in Jesus we are shown a different kind of uprising.  It’s not military, and it doesn’t seem overtly political – Jesus claims no power for himself, and even pays lip-service to the reality of civil authority – give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, and all that.  No, what Jesus is promoting is a rebellion of personhood.  He visits the outer precincts, honours the outsider, the cripple, the lunatic fringe.  There is no power here (or so it would seem) to counter the power of Empire.

In truth, Jesus seems a joke in the political sense, because no one takes these people seriously…except Jesus.

“I beg you, do not mock me.”  And Jesus honours that request.  He asks the man his name.  He treats him as no one else has done for a very long time; Jesus honours his individuality.  Not ignoring his affliction, but refusing to let the man’s condition define him.  The result is a man transformed; clothed and “in his right mind” – and the ordinary citizens are terrified.

Why are they afraid?  He is no longer a threat – he is quiet, he is eager to honour  Jesus by becoming his disciple.  well, they are afraid of Jesus.

He has presented them with a way of relating, one to another, which is life changing – a radical shift in their well-established way of seeing the world, and it terrifies them.

So what does it mean for us?

In the church, we make it a habit to say that we are about love, justice and the way of peace.  We gather to honour God who is all these things and more.  But when our boundaries are challenged, and crisis threatens the comfort of our long-held ideas about ourselves as the collective voice of reason, moral authority and the way things ought to be, we are quick to revert to much older habits.  The church, which began in a community led by Jesus, a welcoming community that shared what it had, welcomed all comers, and challenged the right of the powerful to define justice, has always struggled with the all-too human tendency toward limit and control.

Some of the early moves to define the faith and ensure that all in the community were committed to the same cause came from a very real fear of violence and death.  The stories of martyrs for the faith confirm that, although some were willing to die for the cause of Christ, most preferred the opportunity to spread the gospel by their living witness.  While there are still places where the proclamation of the gospel brings the threat of persecution and death, the real fear is still among those who hear (and see) that the power of God is the power to change lives – to change relationships – to change (ultimately) the way we see and engage the world.

If this miracle – this story of a mad man freed of his madness – doesn’t terrify you, then I’m not sure what to say.  It is easy to be thrilled by stories of Jesus making people well – we are given hope that the power of God might serve us in our time of need, and that is part of the beauty of Holy Scripture.  But when I notice that the people whom Jesus makes well – the poor, the wild; the wicked and the rest – I am reminded that these are the inhabitants of the kingdom of God, and I have done my best to set myself apart from them – and that is a problem.

This is the legacy of a church that wants its own way – a church that sets rules and has standards – a church afraid of losing its way, and so keeps the expectational bar – for membership, for attendance – for involvement – set precariously high.  It becomes, without meaning to, an place that people don’t feel ‘good enough’ to belong.  and that should frighten us too.

He had demons.  A frightful, raving, naked menace – until Jesus dared to treat him like a child of God.  It may seem too much to ask of a people scared for the future – scared of failure – scared of somehow disappointing God – but such interest and compassion toward those whom society has abandoned – those who have been denied justice – the least of these – is the only thing that Jesus asks of us.

The miracle of hospitality (Mark 6: 30-44)

July 26, 2015

The crowd should not have been there.  They had been out among the people – it had bee a busy and exciting time.  The disciples had returned from their mission and they were eager to tell Jesus “all they had done and taught.”  Mark’s gospel introduces King Herod  to us, by way of that horrifying story of the execution of John the Baptist, as an intermission between the sending out of the disciples (as described in Mark 6: 6-13) and their return – but this mornings reading sees them safely back and ready to talk about what it all means.

Jesus has not been idle.  People continue to seek him – there is much coming and going – this happy reunion of the teacher and his pupils in chaotic; they can’t even find time to eat.  So Jesus suggests a brief retreat.  They go away to a deserted place, for Jesus knows the value of time apart, and surely they will need to process what has been happening since the day that Jesus sent them out with “authority over unclean spirits…”.  They went out with nothing but the shoes on their feet, and a staff in their hands and the power of God in their lives.  There are going to be stories to share.

But this deserted place is too easy to find.  The crowd sees them go and follows and the gospel  tells us that Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus sees a need in this persistent crowd, and does what he does best; teaches them many things.

Interesting, isn’t it; that while the quiet get-away was Jesus’ idea, he is the first to break the silence – he is the one who suggests that the disciples engage the crowd.  Jesus knows the difference between work and rest.  He knows the value of  ‘a time apart’ for the restoration of body and soul.  He hasn’t played a trick on his disciples, but he does have a lesson for them…for us.

Much of what we treasure about this particular incident from the life of Jesus  is the ‘miraculous’ multiplication of food.  Clearly this is the work of the power of God – clearly this is evidence of Jesus divine nature; so go the arguments.  But this is also a lesson in compassion.  Often, when we consider this miracle story, we forget the terms of engagement – Jesus recognized the people’s need – for guidance; for comfort; for sustenance.  He had compassion for them, and compassion is the catalyst for the miraculous.

“It’s getting late, Jesus.”  “We’re a long way from town, and there’s not much food here.”  “We’d really like some time to ourselves, teacher; can’t you send them away?”  Without answering any of their objections, Jesus sets a challenge before his students: “You give them something to eat.”  He knows they have food enough for themselves.  The crowd is to large to consider calling the local take-out place.  Jesus had previously sent the disciples out dependent on the hospitality of strangers “take no food, no bag, no money…”  Now, he asks them to show hospitality to strangers.  They are baffled.

So Jesus shows them how.  ‘Sit them down…’ ‘Give thanks…’  ‘Share what you have…’ and not only is there enough, there is much more than enough.  5000 men (and who knows how many women and children…)  twelve baskets full of left-overs!  It’s an astonishing thing…but the real lesson is not easily understood.

Later in the gospel (while caught in a storm on the lake) we are told that the disciples don’t get it.  They are “astounded” folks who “did not understand about the loaves [because] their hearts were hardened.”  You might wonder; “what’s not to understand?  Hungry people were fed with a trifling amount of food!”   But who among us really understands something so wonderful?  Even if we try to imagine clever solutions to “explain” the mystery of the excessive generosity of God, we miss the point.  The miracle isn’t in the food; and the parallel isn’t found at every church supper or funeral lunch where there always seems to be ‘just enough’.  The primary need for these ‘sheep without a shepherd’ was not food – it was fellowship.

Yes, we meet for meals because we need to eat.  Even in this place of abundance we recognize that food is essential to life.  But when we meet for meals – whether a wedding feast or a funeral reception, it is more than the egg salad sandwiches that satisfy.  Significant events in our lives are marked by meals – some simple, others more elaborate – where we offer and receive hospitality; where we share sorrow and joy; where we encounter the same miraculous power that “fed” five thousand men that day.

The disciples are baffled – not because everyone is fed (though that is a puzzler…) – but because so many were welcomed.  When we make room at the table for one another, we are meeting in sacred space.  When we share even a n ordinary meal, we are likely to learn something about one another.  We build community, we learn patience, we share experiences, we offer support and encouragement – these are miracles too.

So it is important that so many miracles of Jesus seem to revolve around food.  And it is not a accident that such small provision as two fish and five loaves is somehow more than enough.  God’s hospitality is like that.  The Kingdom of God is like that.  The act of breaking bread together – in small groups – in multitudes – is a miraculous, sacred act.  We honour that in the celebration of communion, and at picnics.  We make the same miracle at funeral lunches and wedding suppers.  In our gathering at table, it is the gathering that feeds us – we need the companionship, the support, and the conversation; the food, often enough, goes cold on the plate.

“Where two or three are gathered” Jesus promised to be present.  That is the miracle, every time.  Praise God for that joyful, sustaining presence, that meets us here, that welcomes us to the Lord’s table, that shows us what hospitality is.  Amen.

“…it’s a miracle…! Really!”

July 22, 2012

Jesus greets his friends who have just returned from their first mission trip.

He declares that they need to get away from the curious crowds

for some rest (and reflection, no doubt).

So it’s everybody into the boat and off across the lake…

where they are met by a curious crowd.

Jesus, in his compassion, begins to teach them and then…

the folks who put the reading together take a page out of Film editing 101:

smash cut to another boat ride; another part of the waterfront;

another crowd eager to experience Jesus’ charisma, Jesus’ power…

Never a hint of the drama that comes between these two very different crowd scenes.

Nothing to suggest the generous grace that fed 5000 men

(and who knows how many women and children).

No hint of the disciples’ horror as they struggled against the wind on a storm-tossed sea

(not to mention the sight of their teacher and friend coming across the water’s surface like a ghost…)

These are the kinds of things that allow us to imagine the terrific and terrible glory of God,

but in this mornings reading, we are detoured from these things

things we would likely consider to be the heart of the story.

We are, instead, swept along with the crowds –

caught up in the excitement of “this newest prophet and miracle worker”.

This is the ancient middle eastern version of Beatle-mania / Truedeau-mania / (dare I say Beiber-mania?)

and the lectionary treatment of the gospel asks us to consider what it means.

Treating the gospel in this manner is unfair.

Understanding these stories of Jesus is hard enough without leaving parts out –

and today we have left out the miraculous!

What is left, if you ignore the miracles?

What happens to Jesus  (more importantly, what happens to us)

when there is nothing left but expectant crowds and a weary (but compassionate) teacher and his friends…?

What does it mean to us, to hear only the buzz of the crowd after the fact?

We make our own sense of the missing pieces –

tell ourselves that Jesus himself was (and is) simply irresistible – he could not help but draw a crowd –

but the truth is lurking in the missing miracles.

God at work (in through and all around) – that’s what draws a crowd.

The sense that, at any moment, something amazing will happen.

That is what draws us still.

Even those who dismiss the idea of a miracle still yearn to be amazed,

and our faith assures us that God is still capable of taking our breath away.

 

the reality of this is illustrated by a story that Richard Lischer tells in his book “Open Secrets”:

A young lady in his first congregation (Amy) with a debilitating disease comes to her minister –

she wants to visit a traveling faith healer -she’s looking for a miracle.

Lischer tries to prepare her for what he considers will be the inevitable disappointment.

She is not deterred.

Amy returns from the crusade,  still wheelchair bound – no healing.

But Lischer soon discovers that no healing doesn’t mean no miracle.

His young friend has been changed –

she encourages a committee to build a wheelchair ramp into the church.

She makes plans to become a physiotherapist –she begins to live life in spite of her illness –

Amy found her life’s purpose while looking for a cure –

and Lischer rediscovered the miraculous.

Our lives are lived in denial of the miraculous.

We have explained away the miracles of Jesus as being “for that time and place”

and we rob them of their power.

We have become content with “ordinary miracles” like life and the beauty of nature

(neither of which are ordinary at all…) – and have stopped expecting extraordinary things.

But what made Jesus special (among many things)

was his absolute certainty that God was, not only capable of the extraordinary, but constantly revealing it –

offering humanity the chance to experience and participate in the miraculous.

Jesus instills in us a fresh sense of wonder at what is possible if we submit to God’s sovereignty –

Jesus invites us, not just to believe in miracles, but to expect them.

It is that expectation that changes us –

that anticipation of something amazing at the hand of God is what fuels Faith –

and enables us, like Lischer’s wheelchair-bound friend – to find purpose in our lives.

We have lived so long in denial, it will be hard to regain that sense of wonder that Jesus offers.

Hard, but not impossible.

The day to day work of sustaining our faith – supporting the work of the church – spreading the good news

these things seem an exercise in futility in the current climate.

But that is because we presume the work is entirely on our shoulders.

We forget that God is working alongside – ready to show us something amazing –

if only we believed in miracles…