Miracles and wonders
SERMON: 6 Epiphany B 2 11 18
It seems to me we spend a lot of time trying to develop an understanding of God. This has been going on for quite a while, I understand. For millennia people have been trying to clear up the mystery of creation, perhaps pre-creation, and everything else that's happened since. It seems to have taken place in a context of wanting to better respond, perhaps even manipulate, the awareness the Almighty has of us. And maybe to inspire the Almighty to lend us a hand, figuratively.
Different religions have different names for this being we mostly call God. The different faiths also have varying ideas of how agreeable or cranky God is. All this is somewhat interesting, but it never gets completely resolved. I have friends who refer to God as The Almighty; others call it the Creator. Muslims call it Allah, and so forth. I have a friend who once got my attention by referring to God as The Combined Forces of the Universe. Another made reference to the Gift of Desperation. Still one more cited Good Orderly Direction.
Do you feel any closer to the big truth about God than I do? I didn't think so. I think the effort is like an amoeba looking back at the scientist using a microscope and trying to figure out what's going on. Way beyond my pay grade. Not to mention my acumen.
What I do know is that there is another approach to understanding God which derives from human experience. For ever and ever people have been relating stories about the way they have witnessed or experienced God in their lives. It is through this sense of the engagement of spiritual authority that people have come to declare that God is available in our lives, that God can participate in our struggles as well as our delights.
Many have told me of moments where they were convinced that God had something to do with what was going on in their lives. Perhaps something complicated suddenly worked out marvelously. Perhaps a period of stress was borne with peace and grace. I have had both those experiences.
Sometimes prayer is involved. Sometimes a prayer results in new insights, making possible something that seemed impossible, or at least disagreeable. When we pray to live with and live into some fact of life that, frankly, we'd rather not, it is surprising how easily peace comes. Where does that petition go, other than to God? I know, I know, Jesus is on the main line, waiting to hear from us. But where does it go? Where is it that Jesus receives the call? Good question, isn't it?
OK, but does it matter? Not one bit, I believe.
We have enough evidence to believe. Maybe not enough to prove. And I think that is the way it is intended to be. Intentionally. By God made that way. So those who believe can have their belief, have faith. And have to persuade others to believe without empirical evidence.
We have before us today two wonderful stories that support my thesis. In fact they inspired me to put down my thoughts, which you just heard. Because I get goosebumps when I hear today's Hebrew Bible reading and today's Gospel.
These two stories tell of two very different people with the same disease: leprosy. The stories relate very different experiences of faith. They describe different responses. And of course they come from different periods, one responding to the God of Israel, the other to Messiah, Jesus.
In the first story valiant and supremely victorious Naaman the Syrian general suffers from leprosy. He learns that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him, Elisha. He goes to Elisha and the prophet sends a message via a servant, telling him what to do. Naaman throws a fit. (It was probably pretty scary to see General Naaman angry like that.) But one of his own servants persuades him to try it anyway, pleading, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?" So Naaman does and is healed. Though it is not in today's reading, we know he then proclaimed, "Now I know there is no God except in Israel."
Think about this story and ponder what in it is so delightful. There are lots of treats in this tale. Maybe the first is that a powerful, successful general can be a leper. Maybe our limitations don't limit us as much as we thought. My second thought is that like most of us, Naaman was eager to rid himself of his limitation. He wasn't so arrogant as to ignore it; he sought help. Third, he was willing to accept it from a prophet in Israel, over which he had been victorious, taking help from any quarter, almost without pride. I say almost, because his pride almost led him to miss the cure. But he didn't. Fourth he could hear his likely terrified servant suggest he try the cure, even though it came by way of a messenger. Finally, despite his power, despite the probable temptation to declare the cure was no more than he deserved and was entitled to, he acknowledged the existence and the power of the God of Israel. I declare, this is such a wonderful story.
The Gospel today is about another leper, this one anonymous. No army, no wealth we know of. However, he approaches Jesus believing that if Jesus is so inclined he can heal the man.
I haven't done an exhaustive search on this claim, but I believe this is the quickest miracle in the Bible. Here it is: A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, youcan make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
Pretty short and sweet. Especially sweet.
We look at these two stories and we reflect on the two lepers and we wonder, or we should wonder, what healing might I ask for from God? How might I recover from some problem or defect or disability? What do I need?
Now let me inject here that I do not believe we should approach the healing power of God with a sense of entitlement, as Naaman did. I think the Gospel leper has the better idea: let God know that we believe God's healing is possible and we solicit it in faith. We need also inject into the petition that we seek God's will, not our own. I learned long ago to cushion my requests with "If it be your will."
It goes without saying that we need to pray without the expectation of anything more than being heard. I truly believe that God wants to know what's on our minds. Even when it is self serving, even when it is as improbable as a cure, God still wants to know that we are turning toward God for help. In addition to believing that God welcomes our petitions, I believe that the healing begins when we ask. When we do not pretend that we are in charge. When we admit we have run out of ideas on our own and are turning to the Almighty.
There aren't a lot of times that I turn to our namesake, St. Paul, for what I would call a good example. But whatever thorn he bore, which he admitted to his followers and correspondents, he bore with grace and the understanding that God believed he could do just fine even with the inhibition or limitation of the so-called thorn. So can we.
These wonderful tales of healing, so different yet so alike in principle, bring to an end our Epiphany readings about Jesus' ministry before the season of Lent. As we approach Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday it is incumbent on us to reflect on and recognize the role God has played in our lives, from the Creation forward. When we apprehend the presence of God in our lives, when we rejoice to know that God hears us, even when the answer is something other than the unequivocal "YES!" we would like, when we stay in touch in prayer and meditation and keep no conscious secrets from God, we draw closer to that being which is the Author of our Salvation, the source of all comfort.
Let us humbly and prayerfully conclude the Epiphany season this week with Shrove Tuesday, and enter into a sober, penitential Lent, preparing for the joy of Easter and our Risen Lord once more.
God bless you all! Amen
A sermon preached Feb. 11, 2018 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector