June 21st 2015
Psalm 9:9-14, 17-18 Mark 4:35-41
When you look all about you, what do you see; I realize that is a vague and imprecise question but how do you see the world around you?
It is a rare individual who can look at the events occurring all around them, from the most spectacular stars in the heavens, to the everyday sprouting of a dandelion seed through a crack in the sidewalk; from the most mundane and even somewhat disgusting, microscopic decomposition of once-living plants and animals, to the heartache of disease and death, and perceive it all, not simply as the amazing cycle of life and creation, but as one miracle upon another. I don’t pretend to possess that very special vision; for me they are exactly that, the cycle of God’s awesome creative power. When we use the word ‘miracle’ I tend to think in terms of the “dramatic” and inexplicable. Maybe that is why I appreciate the words of Reuben Land, the narrator and central character of Leif Enger’s 2001 novel “Peace Like a River,” who feels the word miracle is one which has “for too long… been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal …as if (we’ve) been educated from greeting cards.” He judges that real miracles, “real miracles bother people” because “they rebut every rule we take comfort in.” And Reuben was one person who should know.
When Reuben was born his lungs would not fill with air; the doctor worked to revive him for more than twelve minutes before giving up hope. When Reuben’s father entered the delivery room he found Dr. Nokes attempting to console his mother’s grief by explaining there was nothing that could be done, and in these cases “we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best.” After dispatching the doctor with a right hand, his father turned to the colorless, lifeless body of his infant son and commanded him (he says in a normal voice): “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.” And he did. It was not until he was much older that he thought of his own birth as a miracle.
If you have never spent much time around large lakes, it is very hard to imagine just how quickly and dramatically things can change when a storm blows in. I recall a sweltering summer afternoon, looking off to the west as ominous black clouds gathered, and then watched as a literal wall of rain and lightning advanced across Lake Wallenpaupack, PA, coming directly toward us, a lake that cannot begin to compare in size to the Galilee, where Mark vividly describes a storm beating waves over the sides of the boat the twelve disciples were in, threatening to sink it.
Many who hear the story of Jesus, quieting with just a few words, the gale-force wind and waves that threatened to sink the boat in which had slept, will dismiss it as a nonsensical myth; others will rationalize it as coincidence and a natural atmospheric event; and still more will swear to its authenticity without ever imagining it might hold any greater meaning than a demonstration of Jesus’ divine power to perform the inexplicable. I suppose you had to be there, but it is interesting that in those Bibles which use section headings, this story is included in the section concerning “Jesus’ Use of Parables” not in the following chapter where he actually does miraculous things, like driving the demons from a possessed man, restoring life to Jairus’ daughter and healing the woman whose menstrual bleeding had continued for twelve years.
When describing what a “real” miracle is, Reuben Land quotes his little sister Swede, whom he regards as having a special sort of insight into those sorts of things, that “people fear miracles because they fear being changed—though ignoring them will change you also.”
The words Mark attributes to the disciples imply they were near panic – while Jesus slept, his head on a cushion. If Swede’s observation is correct, that and most people fear miracles, what do you suppose the disciples feared? And were they more afraid before they woke Jesus, while the water sloshed about their feet, or after he spoke – and the sea was eerily flat.
Possibly it was more complicated than just the weather; after all several of these disciples had, until very recently made their living fishing these same Galilean waters, where sudden and violent storms are still common today. Surely they had experienced storms before; you would expect them to have been prepared, at least mentally. Maybe it was not that their boat was in imminent danger of sinking, but that their boat was in danger of sinking despite they had the one they called “Messiah” on board. If you can’t feel safe when you’ve got God’s anointed Son on board – can you ever?
There are, in the wake of Wednesday evening’s shootings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, an awful lot of Christians experiencing that same feeling, that they are caught in a storm with no escape. At a prayer circle outside the church, one mourner told an MSNBC reporter, “If we’re not safe in the church, God, you tell us where we are safe.” Sadly, this was not an expression of lament to God in a time of peril. Read it again, “If we’re not safe in the church, God, you tell us where we are safe;” God is not the ‘you’ to whom this question was directed; more accurately it was not even directed to the reporter to whom the worshiper is speaking. It was simply an expression of despair and helplessness. It is that feeling of helplessness that has a lot of people feeling like they are never going to witness a “real” miracle.
Presently it is the good people of Emanuel AME church who are being tossed by this storm… but we know this storm is bigger than Emanuel AME, it is bigger than Charleston, bigger than South Carolina; it’s a super-storm, with the capacity to batter the entire country. If you are as old as I, we’ve experienced it before; you’d think, by now we would have been prepared, to foresee – and prevent the kind of hatred which took the form of one angry and misguided young man on Wednesday evening. Instead, for decades we have done all we could to convince ourselves we’ve weathered that extreme hatred and have successfully come out into the calm seas of a bright new day… but that kind of thinking is like a horse wearing blinders. To be sure, we have come a long way from the way we lived when I was young, but the reality is this storm has never gone away. It has continued to swirl just beyond our daily horizon, its hidden currents shape how we live, how we speak, how we think and the values we teach, through example, to our young people. It erodes the economic equality we pretend exists in our nation, washes away the very ground we plant our lives in, uprooting one class of citizen to benefit the privilege of another.
We refuse to fully acknowledge and recognize our responsibility in the pain and humiliation an entire race of people hold as their only heritage, while denying the underlying societal threat that continues to exist. With self-praise we pat ourselves on the back for the grudging advances made, and turn a blind eye to the abject poverty that continues to exist in nearly every community throughout our country. We speak about what we (the white majority community) have done to improve conditions for the minority, as if it were charity, given from the generosity of our hearts, instead of coming to an honest understanding that what we’ve given was never ours to give, but always a right withheld from another. Until we are able to see the vast ocean still left to traverse, as a country, as a society, we will continue to be tossed and turned on a sea that will continually return us to dark threatening horizons.
Mark tells us a story about a miracle in the midst of a storm; if that story is not simply an exhibition of the divine power of Jesus, then there must be within it, a lesson for the storm that we are embroiled in.
Maybe the miracle, for those who see miracles in everyday things, is the lesson that we can conquer our doubts and fears through our faith that Jesus accompanies us through all our storms, and yet recognize He does not always rush to rescue us like some divine superhero, because he has faith in us, who are after all, made in the image of God. Maybe the miracle is coming fully to the realization that God’s power isn’t in the control of creation or of people, but in being in covenant and relationship with them. It isn’t in imposing the divine will or insisting on its own way but in journeying with us as we fumble around and make our way in the world. God’s power is not in miraculous interventions, pre-emptive strikes in the cosmic war against suffering and evil, but in inviting us to build a kingdom out of love, peace and justice with God. God’s power is not in the obliterating of what is bad in the world, but in empowering us to build something good in this world.[i]
And for those who see miracles as Reuben Land describes them, as rebutting every rule we take comfort in, the lesson is in the miracle of God’s own people. Historically the people of Emanuel AME are strong in their faith; and the report that many of the family members of the nine victims are already speaking words of forgiveness to the admitted shooter Dylann Roof, reveals the miracle of that kind of strong faith. Maybe in seeing that kind of strong faith we might be brought into a similar relationship with God.
Whether they occur in the ‘everyday’ events of our lives or only in the “dramatic” inexplicable moments, Reuben’s sister Swede was right, miracles will change us, change us forever – whether we recognize them or chose to ignore them. Maybe the storm we have struggled through for such a long, long time will only be quieted, when we finally look all around and see the miracle, that every human being born into this world sucking air into its lungs and crying out loudly is valued equally by God, formed in God’s own image.
— Amen —
[i] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/06/1804/ When God Sleeps through Storms David R. Henson