Proper 5, C
1 Kings 17:17-24
Since we are talking about funerals and miracles this week, I wanted to share a story I read this story this week.
“Back yonder before the first World War your great Uncle Arrington was preaching a funeral over to the Primitive Baptist Meetinghouse in Dry Pond. The lady what died, she was like your grandma here, she had the arthritis so bad she was all scrunched up. Well, when this here lady died, they didn’t have no undertaker around to do things right, so they just stretched her out as straight as they could and then they tied her down with some good, thick twine that we used to use tie up to tobacco for curing.
Well, the day of the funeral come and the lady was laid out nice in the coffin and the lid was open of course – we didn’t used to shut it until we was ready to take the body out to the cemetery. Your Uncle Arrington got real hot in his sermon, talking about the resurrection day, and how we all need to be ready, and how we need to be ready anytime and anyplace, and about that bright morning when the trumpet will sound and all the dead in Christ will come right up outer the grave; and people were nodding and smiling and shouting “Amen, that’s right!” when, all of a sudden, that woman’s strings broke and her muscles contracted and she sat straight up in that coffin and Lord – people went wild. [They was crawling out windows, and piling up around the door, trampling on each other and pulling each other back whilst they was trying to get out.] And your [poor] Uncle Arrington, why he just crawled up under the pulpit and sat there and kept mumbling, ‘Not now, Lord. I didn’t mean now. I don’t want to go now.’” Adapted from Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton
Today we have the Tale of Two Miracles – marvelous, uplifting stories of life in death – life for two sons and life for their mothers who would otherwise have lived in desperate poverty in addition to profound sorrow. Christianity, like many religions, places a great deal of emphasis on miracles. The stories provide inspiration, maybe; perhaps hope; maybe even a sort of internal tautological “proof” that we have placed our faith in the right quarter – See there, look what MY God can do.
In spite of that miracle emphasis, however, like Uncle Arrington and all the faithful congregants of the primitive Baptist Meetinghouse in Dry Pond, for the most part, we aren’t actually all that fond of the notion of miracles in real time. When it comes right down to it we simply aren’t, in our proper, predictable Episcopal way; in our modern, verifiable, seeing-is-believing way – we simply aren’t all that comfortable with the notion.
I see two main reasons that we have voluntarily, even thankfully, relegated miracles into the category of “Events That Happen to Other People From Other Times, Most Certainly Not Here, Not Now”
The first is fear – fear that the miracles won’t happen to us – that God won’t save us from disaster, won’t cure the cancer, won’t stop the terrorists, won’t Make America Great again, won’t save our job or insurance or child or health or home or sanity. And what does that mean? What does it mean if our God won’t do for us what the stories say God can do? Does that say something about us? About God?
If the first reason for our ambivalence about miracles is fear that they may not happen, then the second, perhaps more powerful and pervasive fear – is that they will. Like Uncle Arrington, like the faithful, good people of the Primitive Baptist Meetinghouse in Dry Pond, like the large crowd of funeral goers in Nain, we prefer our miracles in the scripture, in the past, in the abstract. Up close and personal we find the idea a bit upsetting.
Author Leif Enger, in his novel, Peace Like a River says,
Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave – now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of earth.
My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed….
And that indeed may be, as Mr. Enger says, “the nub”.
Because there are rules, you see. The way things are. And while we may not be entirely satisfied with any particular one part or another of our world as it is, still we know it. It is stable, and understandable, and we know how to react.
But if you see someone raised from the dead; if you see a baby born; if you witness true healing in a life seemingly wrecked by poverty or addiction or abuse; if you see compassion in the midst of indifference, if you see blossoming islands of peace in the tumultuous seas of violence and hatred – these are things you cannot un-see. These are things that change us, change the world. Once our eyes are opened to the activity of God – the rules disappear and we are transformed. Because the miracles never were about the act, the event itself – they were and they are about the interaction of God and God’s creation, about compassion, about the in-breaking of the Kingdom.
Enger goes on:
My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed – though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will (p.3). (Thanks to David Lose for the quote and part of the concept)
That witness? That is you. And that is me. If we can live the compassion, and not the fear; if we can live into the disturbing activity of God, then we are the witnesses to the in-breaking of the Kingdom. We become part and parcel of the miracle. Make of it what you will. Amen.