From the Inside Out

From the Inside Out  |  Matthew 9:35 – 10:8

Where are the miracle workers when you need them?

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Matthew 10:1, NRSV)

If Christians went around with the ability to cure every disease and every sickness, people would pay attention. More people would become Christian, some because they had seen a miracle and it stirred their faith, others because they had seen a miracle and wanted one.

Instead, miracles are as scarce as they ever were, and fewer people are interested in Christianity.

The decline of Christianity may be due to the lack of miracles, but it is more likely due to the abundance of Christians, the loudest and meanest ones anyway. Every day I hear someone condemning other people—usually people who are different, in upbringing, orientation, geography, politics—in the name of Jesus. Forget the fringe groups who would hate everyone else regardless of their own religion. There’s plenty of hate and fear in the mainstream, and only the television charlatans claim to heal in the name of Jesus.

It’s enough to make me want to call myself anything but Christian. Most days Buddhism is looking pretty good. I can imagine Jesus embracing it.

So what do we do with passages like the one from Matthew’s Gospel, claiming that the followers of Jesus will work miracles? It says that Jesus gave his disciples the power to throw out “unclean spirits”—however we might understand that phrase today—and to heal every disease. Imagine it. Imagine being able to stroll through a children’s hospital and heal every kid in there.

Be healed in the name of Jesus. Regardless of your disease. Regardless of your sexual orientation, or faith background, or country of origin. Of all the people Jesus encounters in the gospel stories, he only questions the nationality of one—the gentile woman whose daughter is ill or possessed. It seems his question is pointed outside the gospel, pointed at us, we who listen to the story today, because he goes ahead and heals her daughter anyway.

So did the disciples have the ability to heal people? The gospels say so. The early Church reports it as so. (For example, see Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 2.32.4, written in the second century.) How do we understand the stories? Is it true, literally true, that they could heal the sick? Could Jesus? Did they perform these miracles? If so, why was there not a Pied Piper effect, a daily triumphant-entry-Palm-Sunday kind of parade?

Some people say our lack of miracles is due to our lack of faith. They may be right. I can’t contradict them, certainly not with the pitiful amount of faith I myself possess.

There are plenty of religious people eager to point to the modern lack of faith, or to some temporary dispensation of power to the early Christians not shared with us, we later poorer children, but we’re left feeling that the explanations don’t hold water or that we’d have to wear blinders to buy into them.

In the meanwhile, there are other ways to think about it.

Could these be symbolic stories, disease and unclean spirits as a metaphor? Fables or allegories? Simply stories with a meaning? Does that work? Could we think of them that way, and remain among the faithful?

Otherwise, we have no good explanations, but even without an explanation, there may be an application.

Albert Camus said this, though he wasn’t speaking to miracles—

We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century.

The prophets put it this way:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Maybe we lack the power to walk into hospitals and heal the sick. That is a God-thing, and maybe it always was.

Maybe our work is the lesser miracles—mending what we have torn, restoring justice where we have failed, giving happiness to a child who has known nothing but war and hunger and fear. A home for the homeless. Food for the hungry. Clothes and education and peace for the poor. And medicines for the sick.

Those are pretty good miracles. We already know how to perform them. What is holding us back? Where are the miracle workers when you need them?

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UNICEF – A Good Place to Start Working Some Miracles

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When the Dead Speak

Ducks

Luke 7:11-17 | Third Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus tells a dead man to get up, and he does. Luke writes it that plainly — the young man was dead, and he sits up and starts talking.

It was an uncommon experience, even in those first century days when miracles were often reported. The crowd, witnessing this resurrection, were astonished. We would be, if we saw a thing like this.

IMG_2703We live in an age of wonders and of amazing invention, astonishing discoveries. We have modern medicine, science, centuries of art. We read about space travel on hand held computers, and we watch entertainments on flat screens of digitally enhanced glass, but we are somehow bereft of miracles. No one is healed with a touch, and those who have died, no matter how much we love them, are not given back to us.

The dead do not speak to us. At least, they do not speak to us the way this young man rose and spoke to his mother. Still, sometimes, we hear them.

Perhaps the trick is not to look for the miracles that are described in these gospels. We do not have them — prophets healing our sick, a messiah raising our dead. We may have miracles, though. Different ones. Miracles we do not notice or that we take for granted, because they do not meet our expectations of the sort of thing a miracle is.

We think miracles are a break with the natural flow of the universe, and perhaps that is so. We think that the laws of nature are immutable, therefore there can be no miracles, and maybe we are right to say so.

No miracles, we say. Not any more. Maybe we have no faith, that we should receive a miracle, some say, or maybe there never were any such things. Are we children, believing in fairy tales? Let us believe in what we have seen with our own eyes, that which our hands have touched.

Still.

It seems to me that there is a natural law that I forget things — where I put something, the day of the week — and so when I remember, is it a miracle? And sometimes, in my memory, when I hear the voice or the laughter of someone I loved but who is no longer alive in the way that you and I are alive, is that a miracle?

At my parents’ home there is a pond, and from time to time a mated pair of ducks, or geese, will come and stay for a season. We first noticed such a pair shortly after both of my father’s parents were gone, and it seemed to us that these birds had come in their place, to remind us of them, in some way to be them, so that my grandparents were still with us. They are birds, of course; they are not my grandparents. Still, in some way that eludes the mind and makes sense to the soul, they are the people we loved, and as they waddle and splash and talk to one another in their bird honks and hoots and chattering, we hear the voices of people who loved us.

And it is a miracle.

No one is raised from the dead, no one is healed of a terrible disease. The water in the pond remains water, not wine, to the relief (or maybe disappointment?) of the fish. If we find comfort in the quacks and honks of waterfowl, it is a small enough miracle, you say.

Still, for us, it is miraculous. It is healing. And perhaps it is all the miracle required, and it does whatever it is that a miracle is sent to do. That is something worth considering. We think that a miracle is when we get something we want, but maybe that is wrong. It could be that a miracle is receiving something God needs for us to have.

Fishing on the Pond

Two Fish

Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost  |  John 6:1-21

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Two Fish

Why is this miracle so popular—the feeding of a crowd of people near the Sea of Galilee? It is the miracle found in all four of the gospels, and it is odd that this one claims such attention. Jesus makes blind people see, heals people with a touch or a word, even brings the dead back to life, and we gloss over the details. Let him feed a crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish, and we keep talking about it.

Only one other miracle holds our attention this way—Jesus walking on the water of the same sea. Oh, we talk about his resurrection, but not in this way, and we tend to put the resurrection story in a category by itself. Ask any child in Christendom to tell about the miracles Jesus performed, and she will tell you about the loaves and the fishes and about walking on water.

We get it, on some level. The tale of feeding the multitudes fills our own hunger for security, addresses our fears that our own needs will not be met. In gathering the people, Jesus is our mother. In giving food, he is our father.

Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard
Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard, 1505-1566. Museum Rockoxhuis, Antwerp.

It is a story of comfort, needfulness, shelter. Something deep within us responds, seeing our simplest, basic needs of rest and food being met by the image of God. This is not a God of the heavens, or of distant thrones or fire and thunder. This is God choosing to be present in the sharing of a simple loaf of bread.

This is God demonstrating the divine in the commonplace. It is epiphany in breadcrumbs.

As to walking on the water, who would not wish to do such a thing? We would revel like children in such a power, to feel our bare feet supported by the waves.

We suspect that our lives are ephemeral, shifting around us like water. If only we could learn to rest in the currents that we fear will drown us, to trust in the continuity of change to support us, then merely walking on water would seem a simple thing.

Perhaps it is no mystery as to why we tell each other the stories of these two miracles, no mystery as to why we treasure them above so many others. A blind man who sees is wonderful, and we sense that in some times and some ways each of us is blind. A sick person is healed, and we realize that any of us may succumb to illness. We accept that death comes to each of us, if a chariot of fire does not Elijah us away, but that is no match for our present awareness of the transience of life, the denial enabling us to imagine we are walking on solid ground.

All of us respond to hunger. All of us need rest. All of us need to feel that we are standing and not sinking.

It is no miracle that we tell these stories. It is only human.

Having these stories to tell? That is a God thing.

Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto
“Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti): The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” (13.75) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/13.75. (March 2014)

The Other Side

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 6:30-56

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

The Other Side

He was tired. He must have been.

He had tried to take some time off, to lead his friends and followers on a retreat, out in the wilderness away from it all, but when they got to the spot they found that everyone had gotten there ahead of them.

It was a little like going to Yellowstone to enjoy nature only to be followed by busloads of tourists everywhere you go. And these people did not come to look at the bears. They came on the buses with the sole purpose of finding you.

It was the same wherever Jesus went, first one crowd and then another. He took a boat, aiming to land at a nice secluded spot, but it is hard to hide a boat on the water and the people came, a great throng of them, to find him.

I would have been irritable, cross, put out. If Jesus was, he covered it well. He seemed to reflect that while he had sailed to this unplanned rendezvous, these thousands of people had walked the long way round to find him. He saw that they needed it so badly, wanted it so much. So instead of leading a retreat for a few friends, he led one for a few thousand folk, talking to them, even managing to feed them.

Jesus tried again. After he had dismissed the people, some of them no doubt lingering while he urged them to head home, he sent his friends back across the water in the boat.

Painting - Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee
“Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” by Rembrandt. 1633. Stolen 1990, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, current whereabouts unknown.

There they were, his friends, out on the Sea of Galilee. The story says that he had gone up on a mountain where he could probably see their progress. He was trying for some alone time. Maybe he got a little rest before the storm rolled in.

He watched the cloud line, felt the wind, watched the waves grow, and he knew that his friends would be afraid. People who know nothing about the water can be afraid of it. People like some of his friends, lifelong boatmen and fisherfolk, know enough to be terrified of what a sudden squall can do to them.

And he saved them, of course. It is a famous story. Jesus walked on the stormy water, in the semidarkness of the early hours, and he calmed the storm and joined them in the boat.

There are some odd details.

For one thing, the story says that he meant to pass them by. We can’t quite tell whether he meant to pass by unseen or to pass by so that they would see him. Never mind how he was managing to walk on the water. For another thing, Mark’s Gospel says that when he got into the boat, the wind ceased, without being clear as to whether it was cause and effect or happenstance, though we are inclined to see another miracle. Of course, this miracle meant that the rest of them had to start rowing.

When they reached the other shore, people recognized Jesus and started bringing crowds and fetching sick relatives, expecting Jesus to heal them. One might imagine a doctor finally opening a clinic in a remote valley of Appalachia. The people brought their sick and put them on mats, in the streets where Jesus would pass, in the marketplaces of their villages. It must have been a sight, and an unsettling one, his path bordered and measured by people who needed him. Some of them wanted more than others. Some only wanted to touch his robe, to make the experience real or let some power move through the touch, and he let them.

Of course, he did.

The people in our path—it’s all so obvious isn’t it?—we help them, though it would be nice if the Gospel were clearer on the whole walking-on-water and calming-storms and healing-people thing. There are no explanations of the mechanism by which it works, if it still works at all. It is a God thing.

Painting by Delacroix - Christ Calming the Tempest
“Christ Calming the Tempest” by Eugène Delacroix

We’re left to do what we do, and we watch for God to do what God might do, and we call the whole experience faith. It is a sometimes unsatisfactory arrangement, depending on one’s expectations.

When God passes us by, for instance, is it to remain unseen or in the hope that we’ll notice? Of course, the atheist would say that nobody is passing by—it is only the wind, or an idea, and no one knows where those come from or where they will go.

Faith is remaining open to the possibilities. It is not being stupid. It is being imaginative, hopeful, open, and humble enough to suppose that we are not the greatest thing in the universe.

The wind doesn’t listen to us, or if it does, it seldom agrees. We’re rubbish at walking on water. That sort of thing is God stuff, and not our job anyway.

Even in matters of faith, we don’t get to do the God things, which is good. We do the follower things. Our hugs do not heal, but they may help. We walk alongside the needy, like a kind non-believer might do, with the difference that we hope God is walking on their other side whether or not anyone notices.

We feed the hungry people, and we talk to the lonely ones, believing that God was already in the business of doing that before we got there. We think that the opportunity to help is also a God thing—not making people needy, but helping us to see them when they are.

Maybe there were no miracles in that story. Maybe there were stepping stones in the sea, and everyone had food stashed away, and Jesus just got them to share. Maybe the storm just ended, as they all do.

Something happened around the shores of Galilee, something different enough that we have four gospels telling the stories. Something happened that makes us look more kindly on one another, something that helps us respond when needier people reach out and touch us.

That’s pretty miraculous. That’s a God thing.