Miracles: Seeing More in our Midst
As many of you know, my father lives in a small town in Maine about
an hour west of Portland. It is a hill town of about fifteen hundred,
surrounded by forests and fields and populated by a rich mixture of
long time locals and newer professionals. Since he has lived there only
three decades, he is a newcomer.
Even newcomers take on some of the characteristics of the locals,
and one of these in rural Maine is a distinct suspicion of folks from
anywhere else. They are called "from away," which is second
only to being a "highlander," the definition of which is rich
and inappropriate for church pulpits.
I am not sure where this suspicion of things from away began but it
is not always bad, as long as you can live without meeting anyone new
or learning anything new. And it is often the way it is there, which is
not to say it may not change.
In fact, just about three years ago, a new woman went to town, a nun
who lives in a constant state of meditation and prayer, and she stayed
in a local home, and she visited a local woman who had been blind in
one eye since childhood, and she cured her, and now this woman can see.
I know this because this formerly blind woman is the sister of my
father's barber, and now I've learned that this nun has a history of
healing folks wherever she goes.
Now in Dad's small town there is a Baptist church, a Congregational
church, and a Roman Catholic church, and the story of this healing
raced through them, and faithful folks started making up lists of their
medical and physical needs and asking if this nun could come to their
parish not only for themselves but for family and friends and so on. In
the beginning, the Catholics wouldn't let her come because she wasn't
from a local order, and the Congregationalists had a meeting and
couldn't agree on what to do about her, and she just kept sitting and
praying and healing people, ready to move on whenever that was right.
Many people in town believed that what happened to the blind woman
was a miracle. When I heard the story I was suspicious. I wondered if
this barber's sister really was blind and if this visitor really was a
nun. And I wondered why the local churches were so suspicious, although
it's not like I haven't seen that before. Maybe you're having the same
reaction. You may even be suspicious of why I would tell this story and
aware of the many ways that it may be misleading or flawed. Aren't you wary when you hear something like this?
Wariness, you might say, is healthy and normal.
But I'm mindful of something else, too: miracles are messy. Many of
the years that I have taught confirmation I have shown the movie Agnes
of God, where a cloistered nun has a baby. And we've discussed its
central question: what does the modern world do when it encounters a
miracle? In that movie the answer is simple: we silence it. Which is a
common reaction, because belief in miracles is so complex. To believe
in them and have them be true is costly to our way of life. To believe
in them and have them be false is psychologically devastating. So to
disbelieve is much more tolerable. And I do preach tolerance, don't I?
But where does that leave our faith in God? How do we apprehend the
story of Jesus' birth or of the Epiphany? Where are we left with
Advent's miracles of hope, peace, joy, and love? Well, in a place of
need and choice, which is a start.
Long ago in our family history, there were folks who not only
accepted miracles, they expected them. Among others, these were
the Magi of today's Gospel. We don't know that there were exactly three
of them or that they were all men or all rulers. We just hear about
three gifts from folks who studied the scriptures, the stars, and the
political world. They looked to God, nature, and local conditions, and
they found in them a reflection of the presence of divinity. And you
know parts of their story by heart, although the bits that aren't in We
Three Kings can get overlooked. Like the fact that Herod's call to
them was in secret, that he was as transparent and outdated as an
encyclopedia salesman, and that other highlights of the story are too
often forgotten. Such as, when the Magi find the star, it says they
were "overwhelmed with joy." And the writer's message that
existing political and religious institutions never liked Jesus from
the start. And, as James Taylor says, once the astrologers meet Jesus
they go home in a new way because you just can't follow the same path
once you've encountered Jesus. There is a great deal more to this story
than three kings and a star.
There are those who say that this whole episode is made up of bits
and pieces from the Hebrew Bible: that references from Isaiah, Numbers,
and Psalms (Num 24:17, Ps 72:10) are compiled to create a story. There
are those who say it never happened or has a perfectly reasonable explanation. They could be right.
After all, what does Isaiah say? Well, after three chapters of
talking about conditional salvation for God's people, today's bit
speaks for three chapters about unconditional salvation. A light will
come and Zion, the temple, the people of God, will be a light to the
world, to all the world and even folks from away will be loved, no
matter what type of "away" they embody. And Isaiah says more.
He says, as an accepted people, get a move on, and take the actions of
faith. Darkness is powerful in this world. Share your light. Have a
mission. But he says more, too. In a place where the people know lots
about war, for Israel was always being overrun by armies, peace will
come. In a place where young men and young women were taken from their
homes as a cost of war, children will be returned: it literally says
that. And when that all happens, when you show your light against the
darkness of the world, when you pursue the gifts of peace and an end to
war, then Isaiah says, wealth will flow to you, the whole world will
learn from you, and it is God who will do this for you. If it's not a
miracle story, it's a pretty amazing political treatise of mission,
inclusiveness, and peace, and who was expecting that in church this
By the middle of the 1800's much of modern theology, which had
gotten very bright about science, said that miracles were covers for
human ignorance. If we understood how everything was determined by laws
of nature, this idea goes, we'd see nothing exactly miraculous. Of
course by the end of the twentieth century science has re-examined
positivism and strict determinism and noted the contingency of
space-time and matter, and many scientists do not dismiss the existence
of God. So once it was polite and even intelligent to be suspicious of
miracles. I wonder now if we can believe again? You see, I do believe.
David ben Gurion, one of the founders of the modern state of Israel,
said fifty years ago "Those who do not believe in miracles are not
realists." But I'm still cautious. We have learned to ignore
pregnant chads. It is quite a leap to accept pregnant virgins, moving
stars, and voices from heaven, much less nuns with healing power. It is
more reasonable to wait and see, not rush to the manger or the peace
table and certainly not rush to the cross where we may be identified
with this Nazarene and his mission and his God.
Except for this: God makes miracles. We need miracles. Our world, our Church, needs some
voices from heaven. Why?
Listen to an idea from William Willimon. He thinks lots of this
stuff is hard to believe. But he says, with his tongue close inside his
cheek, that if we open ourselves to the idea of a virgin birth, if we
open ourselves to the idea of astrologers and stars and exiles from all
around the world seeking some grace from Jesus, then maybe we will open
ourselves to some other incredible ideas too. Like the idea that our
economic system can and should support the poorest and most in need
even as it supports the privileged. Like the idea that possessions can
be dangerous and burdensome and even deadly. Or that our international
relationships can hold peace and multilateral decisions as values even
if we are the most powerful nation state in history. That in the same
way that Jesus embraced women and outcasts, we are not only allowed but
expected to cross every boundary to welcome every identity at his
table. That in a world where the death penalty is a logical reaction to
a heinous crime, it is not a reasonable decision for people who strive
to follow the example of Jesus. Once we start believing in one group of
things, there is no telling just where it may lead us.
I'll never prove to you scientifically or satisfactorily that any of
these events happened as reported or that God really exists or that
your life or our world can change. All I can do is tell you what I see,
what I study and experience and believe. That is all that I can do for
myself: open my eyes and my heart to the possibilities in my midst and
watch God, nature, and local conditions to see if I sense the presence
of the divine. Isaiah and Matthew do claim that God is present to us
and that we have a task of sharing that presence. And in my need I
suspend my wariness and choose to believe.
This is not a call for Christians to check their brain when they
come to worship. It is a call for us not to leave our faith behind when
we leave the sanctuary.
For I do know that there is no time in our history, no place in our
world, in our faith or in our church family where we don't need the
power of miracles, the presence of God. I do know that we need real
hope for change in our postmodern world today. I do know that darkness
is still powerful, and light is still right at hand. So in the end
perhaps what we can learn from the Magi and the small town residents in
Maine is to expect a little more from God, expect something miraculous
in our midst, and follow it right away.
You know there is a star that shines at night on the top of our
church tower. It is crooked and antiquated and obviously the work of
human hands. But if it points to tolerance and love and peace and
stewardship, it is pointing to things that are bigger than any
group of us. How do you explain that? Amen.
Copyright © 2004 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by