Sermon, 1/28/24: Miracles are for real!

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4 Epiphany

Psalm 111; Deuteronomy 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 8:1–13; Mark 1:21–28

They were all amazed…He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.  Mk 1.27f

This past week, I had a most interesting discussion around my dinner table with someone, about whom I would least likely have said, he believes in miracles.   But he said that he does.  Although baptized and, in his youth, active in his church (congregational), he does not regularly attend organized religious services.  But when he does, he feels drawn to the Episcopal Church.  I asked for an explanation.

He responded that, coming out of the New England Congregational Church as he did, the Episcopal Church offers him a liturgy that takes him outside his own little world and makes him aware of the greatness of God.  Further, so he elaborated, the Episcopal Church allows him to think; it does not make him check his brain at the door.  All the Episcopal clergy whom he knows grapple with the same or similar issues of faith.  They are always having conversations with God, asking the questions: WHY or HOW.

I learned that he is not a humanist, nor an atheist, but a fellow who refuses dogmas and who needs room to explore those concepts that he had questioned as a child, a teenager, and while in graduate school, and questions still today.  This fellow is not a theologian, just an ordinary part-time worshipper who leaves the heavy-duty religion-stuff, as he called it, to his wife.  But, as I listened to him, the more like most of us he seemed to me.  And the more I listened to him, the more I asked myself the question: How do we Episcopal clergy get our congregations to ask those questions which he wrestles with, so that others might benefit from the encounter with the Divine? 

The miracle which stands at the center of our gospel today was not directly the topic of that discussion which took place at my dining table; yet, it could have been.  One of my dinner guests did not use the word “miracle, but rather the word “phenomenon,” a term familiar to me from my late father-in-law, a professor of philosophy, as a synonym.  My fellow conversationists did challenge how we Christians explain life’s real miracles. 

One fellow, a sociologist by training, suggested that a major hindrance in understanding miracles, as described in the Bible, lies with the vocabulary.  We have inherited a language used by translators that has not been allowed to change, such as “unclean spirits,” “demons” and “exorcisms.”  This well-educated sociologist insisted emphatically that what an older vocabulary, the language of the Bible, was trying to describe does exist.  Evil does exist.  Psychological illnesses exist.  Physiological disorders do exist.  And we need a modern language, an updated vocabulary which addresses the illness and its cure.

Marcus J. Borg, in his book Jesus a New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship [New York: HarperCollins, 1987, p. 64-65] supports what my guests were saying.  Borg writes: “Whatever the modern explanation might be, and however much psychological or social factors might be involved, it must be stressed that Jesus and his contemporaries…thought that people could be possessed or inhabited by a spirit or spirits from another plane.  Their worldview took for granted the actual existence of such spirits.” 

In its simplest summary, Jesus encounters a man with an illness, asks details concerning the illness which, at least in this rendition, no one else had done, thus demonstrating his concern for the man as a creature of God.  Jesus says or does something that heals him.  Mark records this as Jesus drives out the “evil spirit” which allows the vacated space to be filled with a spirit of love, and the man is able to become a contributing member of society. A true discussion of that miracle reaches out to and teaches us on so many levels.  Mark does not offer us a “How To” manual.  And so it is, that many questions go unexplained or unanswered.   Were the people around him drunk with new wine and simply imagined it, as was suggested of the men on the Day of the Pentecost?  What was the form of the evil that Jesus drove out?  Was it, in modern terminology, psychological or physical in nature? 

We can dismiss this miracle as a slight of hand, and if we imagine or describe the existence of evil as a red figure, half-human, half-something other, which has pointed ears, a tail and wields a pitchfork, evil becomes comical, medieval in nature, and we do not have to confront the reality that needs our attention. The change which Jesus brought about in this one life becomes, then, a farce, a fairytale.  My dinner guests, non-regular churchgoers, would not call this miracle of healing an adult fairytale, or farce.  Rather, they would say, I suspect, if asked, that the truly real miracle occurred because someone, and in this case, Jesus of Nazareth, cared about the individual, a stranger before him, enough to become acquainted with his concerns, to inquire what ailed him, and had then sufficient knowledge and empathy to address the ailment.  The illness of neglect was addressed.  That was a miracle.

In posing the question, how we as people of faith understand and execute modern-day miracles, my dinner guests got to the core of the problem of miracles.  As with the language, our expectation or description of a miracle hinders our recognizing 21st century miracles.  For many, if not most individuals, a miracle is something physical. As believers in and followers of God’s Messiah, we are charged to speak evil’s name and to cast it out in whatever form it might exhibit itself.  We are the ones from whom the unclean spirits flee, when we call their names.  We are the ones at odds with evil, with those things and conditions which hinder each child of God from reaching his or her God-given potential.

In this miracle we meet a Jesus who is at peace and centered in the will of God, a Jesus whose demeanor sets for us an example for accomplishing miracles.  And not only in the Gospel according to Mark, but in all the gospels, in order to find his grounding, Jesus retreats “to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  As Son of God, he withdrew, in order to hear a reaffirmation of the correctness, the rightness of his mission of reconciliation.  You and I cannot retreat to a deserted place.  However, we can find our grounding in God through prayer in the privacy of our own chamber.  And so, I give you this week an assignment.

In our branch of Christ’s one, holy, apostolic, catholic church, we have this missal which we call the Book of Common Prayer.  That book provides liturgies for our common worship.  It contains, as well, prayers for other occasions, both private and public.  It is historic, dating back to the founding of the church, reflecting both the orthodox and the western strains of Christianity.  I want you, today, to do something that others may describe as unethical.  I want you to steal a Book of Common Prayer from a pew and take it home with you.  In our Book of Common Prayer, you will find those wonderful Psalms attributed to David.  And beginning on page 815, you will find Prayers and Thanksgiving.  It is there that you will find your aid to assist in your own grounding, aid needed to complete 21st century miracles.

I share this morning with you a prayer which calms me, worrier that I am, as events of the world enter into my mind’s eye.  Let us pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (BCP p. 815, Prayers and Thanksgiving, 3. For the Human Family)