From the beauty of a sunrise, to the birth of babies of all species, we can label many natural events “miraculous.” It can be more challenging when something tragic happens in our lives. Rev. John Weems explores how we process the idea of miracles in our faith.
Selections from John 11
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” This quote attributed to Albert Einstein has been circulating for many years. I can find inspiration in these words. I like the idea of experiencing the smell of a flower or each and every breath we take as a gift from God. One of the problems with this quote, however, is that it doesn’t seem that Einstein ever said it! This prompted another quote, also attributed to good-old Albert: “I wish people would stop using my face whenever they feel like they need a smart person to endorse their ridiculous ideas.”
Do you believe in miracles?
Today’s sermon title comes from Al Michael’s iconic call of the 1980 Olympic hockey game between the United States and the heavily favored defending gold medalist Soviet Union team. For those here today who weren’t born in 1980 or old enough to care yet, you might want to consider watching Miracle, the movie made about it, or looking up Michael’s iconic call on YouTube. While it was really big deal for the U.S. to win this match in which some odds-makers said the Americans were a 1,000 to 1 long-shot, I struggle to call it a miracle. A group of well-coached and highly motivated amateur players prevailed over a team of likely overconfident and complacent professionals. Somehow I doubt that people would still get chills if Al Michael’s had asked, “Do you believe in improbable victories!?”
We want the miracle. Yet just as deeply meaningful words like love and awesome are thrown around to describe tacos, chocolate and shoes, the word miracle can be overused to the point that its meaning is diluted.
Today we’ll consider the meaning of miracles, our understanding of God’s role in them, and how we face a world in which we don’t always get what we want.
Examining the Hebrew definition of miracle, one Rabbi defines it as, “an action from God that is supernatural.” Christian and Islamic sources tend to subscribe to similar definitions.
In one of the miracles involving Mother Teresa prior to her canonization as a Saint, a woman in India had a stomach tumor so severe that doctors abandoned hope of saving her. The woman was in such agony that she could not sleep. The situation was as bleak as anyone could imagine. On the one-year anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death, Sisters at the Missionaries of Charity hospital placed a medal that Mother Teresa had once touched on the patient’s stomach. The woman relaxed and fell asleep. When she awoke, her pain was gone. Doctors reexamined her to find that the tumor had completely disappeared! A group involving medical staff studied the event and concluded that it was “medically inexplicable.”
Why are some people healed by a medal that touched the skin of another human? Why do others with entire communities praying for them find no relief?
As part of my training to become a pastor, I served as a hospital chaplain. When we took turns being on call for nights and weekends, it was understood that getting paged rarely signified good news. I can still vividly remember walking into the intensive care unit early one Saturday morning and seeing a woman standing and weeping over her 27-year-old daughter. A nurse came over to explain: “We did everything we could, but the patient died more than an hour ago and now the mother won’t leave the room,” they said. “Can you see if you can calm her down?”
I had met the family earlier in the week and knew that they were overwhelmed because they had no idea what was really going on with A.J., the daughter. She had contracted meningitis. While very serious, Cherice never imagined that A.J. would lose her life. I entered the room in silence and observed that not only would the mother not leave the room—she would not give up. Cherice continued to pump a manual bag valve mask on A.J., trying to make her breathe. Between spurts of attempting to resuscitate her young daughter, the mom would say, “Now rise up!”
After a few minutes, I moved closer and silently prayed at A.J.’s bedside. With tears running down her face, Cherice persisted. Pumping. Commanding her daughter to wake up. Pleading with God for this nightmare to end.
“Are you thinking of Lazarus?” I asked. Cherice nodded yes, continuing her ritual.
Cherice continued for more than an hour, until she reached a point of exhaustion. We then placed our hands on A.J.’s hands and prayed together. We parted ways with Cherice feeling like Mary and Martha before Jesus showed up.
Lord, where are you?
If you had been here, my daughter would not have died! Where are you?
Martha and Mary were stunned. Their friend, Jesus, had let their brother die. He allowed them to go through agony. Part of the reason they were so upset that Lazarus had been dead four days was the common belief—especially at the time—that the soul hovered near the body for three days. After that there was no hope of resuscitation. They couldn’t comprehend that by waiting four days and increasing the dramatic tension, the impact of this miracle would exponentially elevate awareness of Jesus, both by people who wanted to follow him, and those who would seek to harm him. Mary and Martha just knew that as they buried their brother, their friend who had the power to heal him had let them down.
The Lazarus story is the seventh in a series of signs in the Gospel of John, with people seeing and believing as Jesus performs miracles, from changing water to wine, feeding the 5,000, healing people, and ultimately raising Lazarus from the dead. God typically doesn’t take action in the way we prescribe.
What about you? What times in your life—and some of you are going through one right now—were you desperately waiting for God in some time of darkness and not getting the response that you wanted? Why doesn’t Jesus seem to show up at the tombs we encounter in life?
If there is a God, why do so many bad things happen?
I have yet to hear a truly satisfactory answer to that question.
From ancient ancestors in the faith working in fields suffering through a drought, to first responders after a disaster, to each of us at some point sitting in a hospital as a loved one suffers, we wrestle with it. I can tell you that God gives humankind freewill, and that within the freedom of creation terrible things can happen. Cells can mutate to become cancer and weather systems and earthquakes can destroy property and lives. People have the freedom to choose whether to love God and respond, but sometimes choose to hurt others. I can tell you many theories about why bad things happen to good people, but what is going to matter most is what you experience and where you see hope.
In Tom Long’s book, What Shall We Say: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, he lifts up the Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando, which means “it is solved by walking.” One of the things that attracted me to the Presbyterian Church as a young-adult, was the willingness to think about faith. I appreciated a tendency to keep a safe distance between our heads and our hearts. As I have experienced in encountering tragedies in my own family and in the world, many of our academic theories about suffering and God’s role go out the window when we’re in life’s tombs. If we can balance our intellectual understanding with openness to what we encounter on the journey, powerful things can happen. Sometimes we have to figure out what suffering means on our own.
Longtime UCSF professor and author Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of a 24-year-old man who had bone cancer and had to have his leg removed at the hip to save him. He was overcome with anger and hatred for having to endure this so early in his life, and was referred to a psychotherapist. The therapist used art therapy and other methods as the man remained in his tomb of bitterness. After approximately two years, she observed a shift when the man started to visit other people who had endured catastrophic physical losses.
One day he went to see a woman around his same age who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. She was so depressed about her situation that she refused to look up at him. The nurses were playing music in her room to try to cheer her up, but nothing seemed to brighten her spirits. Desperately struggling to connect, the man looked down at his leg. Since it was a warm day and he was wearing running shorts, he had an idea. As the music continued to play, he unstrapped his leg and started to dance around the room on one leg, snapping his fingers as he danced. Finally, the woman looked up and couldn’t stop laughing. “If you can dance, I can sing!” she exclaimed.
A while later, the man revisited his therapist. He discussed what was significant to him, including the visits to others who had endured loss. The doctor showed him one of his earliest drawings, including one image of a vase with a deep black crack running through it. Angrily grinding his teeth, he had used a black crayon and repeatedly drawn the crack running through it. He said the vase was his body and the crack reminded him that it could never function as it was intended to ever again.
Looking at the picture years later, he said, “This one isn’t finished.” The therapist suggested that he complete the drawing. Picking up a yellow crayon, he began to draw several yellow lines as he pointed at the crack in the vase: “You see here—where it is broken—this is where the light shines through.”
This man had found his miracle by entering into other people’s tombs.
“Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, take away the stone.”
Do you believe in miracles?
 Rabbi Yehudah Prero, http://torah.org/learning/yomtov-chanukah-vol6no10/
 Matthew Bunson, “The Miracles That Made Mother Teresa a Saint,” National Catholic Register. Aug. 29, 2016.