Updated: Aug 13, 2021
On Friday night, as I was lying in bed, not sleeping and worrying about whether we should grant an easement to our property, how I could help someone in need who doesn’t want to be helped, and when in the world I was going to write this sermon, I realized that I was not only wearing myself out completely but entirely missing the point– because today’s texts are clearly about trusting in God – and I was not doing it.
I had spent the entire week talking to other people about putting their faith in God – about not being afraid – about, as they say, letting go and letting God, - and there I was, completely ignoring my own advice. I had read today’s scriptures at least five times, trying to figure out what to preach about and there it was, staring me in the face: “It is I,” says Jesus, “do not be afraid.”
One of the hottest topics of debate among and between Christians and others is miracles. Many people argue that there is no such thing as miracles – that events that we think of as miracles – the sudden return of sight or life to those thought to be incurable; mystical visions; pregnancies among those thought to be infertile – can be explained by science. “Same thing,” they say, “with Jesus’s miracles. He didn’t cast out demons; he was dealing with individuals with mental illness. He didn’t bring anyone back from the dead; he was just there when they came out of a coma. And he didn’t walk on water – he walked ‘by’ the water (the Greek word is the same).” Such skepticism is so common, even among Christians, that arguing for belief in Jesus Christ based on his supernatural powers is an uphill struggle at best.
As it should be, because faith should not be based on “signs.” For one thing, it’s too easy to miss them when they come. It is like the old joke about the drowning man who asked God to save him and was so convinced that God would send a miracle that he turned down a life raft, a boat ride, and a helicopter rescue – and then drowned. Upon encountering God in the afterlife, the man confronted him for failing to save him. “What do you mean,” said God, “I sent a life raft, a boat, and a helicopter.” We are like this man. We ask for miracles and fail to see them all around us.
We also miss the point of them when we do recognize them. Miracles are not about impossibility; they are about inspiration. Just because we can explain something, doesn’t mean it’s not a miracle. “What is truly awe-inspiring [for example] is not that someone could walk on the surface of the water without sinking, but that his presence among ordinary, insecure, and timid persons could calm their anxieties and cause them to walk where they feared to walk before.” Miracles demonstrate to us that with God, anything is possible – whether it’s walking on water, feeding five thousand people, or turning a small ministry on a Georgia farm called Habitat for Humanity into an international organization that has provided housing for 13 million people worldwide.
Don’t forget: the feeding of the five thousand began as a very practical matter with the kind of situation we have at Grace all the time. How many times have we planned a meeting or dinner expecting 50 people and had 100 show up? That’s exactly what happens to Jesus and his disciples when they cross the Galilee and see a large crowd following them. “Oh no,” says Jesus turning to Philip, “How are we going to feed them all”? Poor Philip doesn’t know; it’s not his job. He’s just there to learn from Jesus. And don’t we often feel the same way? We’re just here to be in community, learn about Jesus, and try to help other people. We “serve out of a sense of duty or because [we] enjoy the work, or to contribute to a cause larger than [ourselves. We] identify a few reasonable goals, set some workable plans in motion, and carry out [our] endeavors with the resources at hand. [Our] work together is not [generally] viewed as a venue for God’s glory and mercy to [suddenly and breathtakingly] break forth in the world.” We rely on ourselves to get the job done. We do not expect miracles to happen.
But miracles happen all the time, if only we are willing to see them – not by rational “knowing,” but through spiritual understanding. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” the psalmist says, “The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise.” In our minds, this passage is about intellectual knowledge- about facts that can be proved, evidence that can be seen. But for the ancient peoples who first heard these psalms, knowledge did not reside in the head, but in the heart. “As Immanuel Kant has taught us, if there are limits to what reason can know, then whatever is beyond those limits cannot be known by reason. Reason is not, however, the only human faculty that ‘knows.’ The heart has its reasons and its own knowledge as well.” God is beyond reason and knowing God requires a willingness to let go of what we think is rational.
It also requires courage. It requires letting go of societal definitions of what is “true” and what is not. That is what Paul prayed for his followers at Ephesus to be able to do. “Please God,” Paul begged, “help them to let you in.” True belief requires us to open ourselves up to Christ – and to the changes he may bring with him. “The issue is letting Christ in to change us.” The issue is giving up control.
This sounds exciting – and it is, but it is also terrifying. I know very few human beings that easily and joyfully give up control of their lives. That’s because most of us think that we are the captains of our own ships and have the right to steer our own destinies. King David made this mistake – believing that the power that God had given him actually belonged to him and he could do with it as he wished. Even those who live under extremely difficult circumstances will remain in intolerable situations rather than give up what little power they have. Individuals who abuse substances will continue to drink and drug even after having lost jobs, families, and finances, rather than leap into the unknown of sobriety. People suffering from mental illnesses will continue to wrestle with petrifying demons rather than take medications that make them feel helpless. And for the many of us who do not deal with such extreme concerns, it is that much harder is it to give up our comfortable routines and assertions in order to risk witnessing a miracle.
I couldn’t do it this past week. I kept hanging onto control of the various issues floating around me, instead of giving them to God. Tired and frustrated, like Philip I didn’t want to deal with new and scary people and problems. Like him, I only saw a crowd of hungry people closing in. Like the disciples in the boat with Jesus, I saw only waves and wind and deep water. I did not see the potential to feed thousands of people. I did not see the inspiration of watching Jesus demonstrate his power and glory. I did not recognize that by asking me to let go of my control of things, God was providing me with the opportunity to witness a miracle.
Mercifully, God is persistent and God is consistent. God continues to show her presence in our lives over and over again and God persists in inviting us to see his hand in all that is around us. When we let him, God helps us to understand that every deficit, every pain, every hunger, every “dance with the devil,” is a miracle waiting to happen. I’ve got it now. Do not be afraid. Believe. God is with us. AMEN.
Douglas John Hall, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 288.
Karen Marie Yust, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 284.
George W. Stroup, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 282.
Karen Chakoian, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 280.