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Posts Tagged ‘Miracle’

From Luke 1: 39-45, Preached on Advent 4

Finally. We’re in the fourth week of advent, and finally there is someone who is excited. Advent started out with scary lectionary readings about signs in the heavens, and parables about fig trees. Then Zechariah was struck mute because he wasn’t quite sure about the angels words to him. Last week, John was all up in our faces, and called us a “Brood of Vipers”. Talk about “Merry Christmas” and a dose of nice holiday cheer.

But this week, we find somebody who’s merry and not bothering us with their “Bah Humbugs”. Two somebodies, in fact. Two pregnant, impossible women. One too old, one, truthfully, too young– at least according to our standards. One married to a high priest, one not married at all. Impossible, no doubt.

And these are the two chosen to herald the news that the world is about to be shaken up. Peek with me into their world, on this day.

(From Mary’s Thoughts)
Who can I tell? Who can I trust? They’ll throw me out of the family. When Joseph finds out, he’ll call me all sorts of names. Or worse, he won’t call me anything. He’ll just turn and leave.

The angel made this sound like a blessing, but he didn’t tell me what to do in the meantime. There’s nowhere I can go, no one who will believe my story. I’m bearing the Son of God, and I can’t show my face anywhere.

I don’t know that she’ll understand about me, but the angel said Elizabeth was having strange things happening to her, too. Besides, she’s my family– distant though she is. Maybe she’s a haven for me. Or maybe, once she hears my story, maybe she’ll throw me out, and shake my dust from her doorstep. After all, no one would want one such as me ruining their family’s reputation.

(From Elizabeth’s Thoughts)
Pregnant, at my age? What will people say? Nobody would bother to say anything if Zechariah fathered a child by a younger woman. But for me to be pregnant at my age?

It’s not that I’m not overjoyed. I’ve prayed for this for years, until I didn’t dare pray it anymore. We’ve moved on. We’ve long since quit praying that God would give us a child.

And now here I am, at my age. And I’m going to have a baby. But who can I tell? Who would understand? I’ve talked to Zechariah, but he can’t talk back. He didn’t understand the angel’s news…so all he can do is listen until this baby is born. It’s great to have a listening ear, but what I want is someone who can share my joy without letting all their questions get in the way. If only…

*****

Can you imagine this meeting? I imagine the shocked look on Elizabeth’s face when she opens the door and finds a relative from long ago. I imagine Mary, with her head bent, not quite daring to look in Elizabeth’s eyes. But after a long moment, after Mary finally dares to look at Elizabeth, and they have a second to take each other in, and then joy takes over.

I imagine Elizabeth catching Mary in a big bear hug, the smile on her face uncontrollable.

Suddenly they are dancing around, and laughing like little school girls– the joy between them tremendous.

In the instant that Elizabeth takes Mary into her arms, suddenly Mary knows that all well be well. But Elizabeth takes it a step farther, and says with a sparkle in her eyes, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

And all this because of a well-timed kick from a baby.

I don’t know much about babies or pregnant women, having never been around many, but I would think the fact that a baby kicks is not an event to write home about. I mean sure, when the glowing mother-to-be is standing in a group of people, she’ll say “Ooooh…he’s kicking.” And everyone will put their hands on her belly, as if it somehow belong to all of them.

But unless I’m mistaken, this isn’t a once in a lifetime occurrence. My understanding of these things is that baby kicks happen often.

Yet, as Luke is telling us this story, he wants to make sure we realize that something is different about Elizabeth’s unborn baby’s movement. Luke has Elizabeth attribute it to joy– as if to say that the joy between these two women is so strong, that even the baby feels it.

We don’t know much about Elizabeth, other than she was married to now mute Zechariah and that she’s expecting a baby, well after that should be a possibility. But, I think, after having already received a miracle herself, Elizabeth is open to seeing miracles in other places. She expects that her world, and indeed the whole world, is about to be dumped on it’s head. I wonder if she feels like she’s in an M.C. Escher painting, where nothing is as it should be.

Yet oddly enough, Elizabeth character doesn’t seem to be terribly fearful. Instead, she is about to be a sanctuary for Mary, who is cut off from her community, which in turn allows Mary be a sanctuary for her.

Make no mistake. These women, by virtue of their pregnancies that don’t follow anyone’s rules, are outcasts. They can’t go anywhere and be part of any “in” crowd.
“Marginalized” is a popular word these days– and it refers to all those who aren’t in the center of things. That ugly word refers, oddly enough, to two women whom we would consider to be abundantly blessed.

In this beginning to a Topsy Turvy world that Jesus ushers in, God provides these women with the two things they desperately lack: community and connection.1

Though most of us loudly say how much we love this time of year, secretly, I think we’ve all been battered by the world in some way, and I think we feel that more at this time of year than we do at any other. For some of us, we’ve been battered by too much to do, and not enough time or money to do them. For some, we’re battered battered by the memories of Christmases that aren’t any more, or how Christmas is “supposed” to look.

Whatever it is, it weighs on us more than we’d care to admit, and when things get quiet, we feel it deep within our hearts. I think we’re in need of a sanctuary more than we’d like to believe.

I’ll bet you’ve never thought about it– about what a sanctuary you find when you’re here. So many of us were shocked earlier this year when there was a church shooting, as much as anything, because we just don’t think about that sort of thing. We feel safe from the world here. I hope, though, it’s deeper than that. I hope it’s a place where we not only feel safe from the perils of the world, but it’s a place where we find acceptance, and feel loved and nurtured.

I think that’s what Elizabeth and Mary must’ve found in each other.

That’s nice to think about– about how they were able to smile conspiratorily together– but sanctuary is not something we give much thought to. Perhaps such a thing is a luxury so common in this place that we neither think about what our world would be without it, nor what another person’s world might look like without it.

Our first instinct is never to think about how another person has been battered by the world, or how they are without community that we all crave so much. Our first instinct, instead, is to think how “those” people (whomever they are– they’re different for each of us) aren’t like us.

I think it’s really interesting that Elizabeth and Mary, the two outcasts, sing and dance around together. Elizabeth never lectures Mary, never asks any questions, never bothers to think about her own reputation. Instead, they rejoice at the opportunity to share their blessings together.

When I first started working this this story, I thought that maybe this was Mary’s passage. But as I’ve sat with it, I think Elizabeth plays a much bigger role than I would have guessed at first. Because Elizabeth had already seen a miracle, she was much more open to believing that other miracles might be out there. Because she her eyes and heart had been open, and she dared to hope beyond the possible, Elizabeth was a safe place for Mary. I think by giving Mary a place where she felt loved and cared for, Elizabeth gave Mary the courage to see her situation as a blessing, and gave her the hope that leads to her song.

My first instinct when I began crafting a sermon was to focus on Mary’s song, and what a Topsy Turvey world she saw being ushered in by Jesus. Maybe that instinct was right, just not in the way I saw it playing out. There is something Topsy Turvy afoot, and we see in the ways that these two outcast women are role models. What they offer to us is not only a joyous look at the coming savior, but through their actions, they invite us to offer sanctuary to all whom we meet. They invite us to take the ones who aren’t like us, the ones who might hurt our reputations, the ones who aren’t doing the things we think they ought to be, and bring them into our safe fold. They invite us to rejoice with those in our midst, opening our arms to them. After all, we’ve seen a miracle, and that opens our eyes to the miracles that just might be taking place in the lives of those around us. Who knows? Perhaps by so doing, we’ll help someone find the courage and hope to sing their own song.

Preachers all over talk about what a problem it is to preach the incarnation: that is, when God became human. They talk about how hard and inconvenient it was that God in Jesus was born a baby, of a virgin mother, in inconvenient circumstances. It’s fleshy and earthy and full of things that we just as soon not think about or preach. It would have been a lot easier if an angel did all the proclaiming, if Jesus wasn’t like us at all. It would’ve been easier if Luke had left these singing, dancing, pregnant, outcast women out of it.

But Luke put them in, and hoped we could hear their story anyway. And today, they are the ones heralding the good news, more beautifully than most preachers could. The news they herald is that no matter how far out we are, we are brought into community. They herald that the sanctuary we find in each other, and pray that we might offer other people, makes all the difference in the world. But perhaps the best news they herald is that miracles are all around, and might even be happening in the life of someone who isn’t on the “inside”.

I don’t think fleshy, earthy Jesus would mind these “impossible” women proclaiming that message, because that will be a big part of his ministry: taking the ones we consider “out” and doing something miraculous and life changing with them.

And thanks be to God for that.

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Preached on 10.25.09 using Job 42:1-6, and Mark 10:46-52

This sounds morbid, but I’ve decided something about the sort of send-off I want when I leave this world to meet my maker. I’ve decided I want a big New Orleans style parade during which great jazz musicians will loudly and joyfully sing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

I’ve only seen the New Orleans jazz funeral in movies, but it always looks like it’s a proper celebration of life. And folks just join the parade!

Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved that image. I mean, first of all, who doesn’t love a parade? And not only that, but I’ve always loved the chorus “When the Saints Go Marching In, How I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.” I always imagined my less than saintly self just joining the parade of saints as they march into heaven, and being in that number!

As I was looking at the text this week, that’s the first place my brain started. In a lot of ways, it’s a pretty good analogy of what’s going on. Jesus is more or less parading through town, and he’s got a bunch of groupies, who more or less just want to be “counted in that number” as he goes through town. I’m not entirely sure they even know what’s going on, or even what it would mean to be in Jesus’ parade, but they want to be there, nonetheless.

All of the sudden, a poorly dressed blind beggar stops the parade with his loud cries. I’ve been both a watcher of and a participant in parades, and like everyone else, believe that if a parade is going to stop, it’d better be for a really good reason. Just imagine– what if the Macy’s Parade stopped and they went to a blue screen– or even more irritating, went to commentators who were speculating about why the parade had stopped? Understandably, the crowd is irritated with the blind beggar. After all– this is a celebration! Who is this nobody to stop such a grand occasion?

I can imagine him defending his choice–
“Bartimaeus, this is a parade! What were you thinking?”
“Really guys, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to touch Jesus, and this is my only chance.”

“But Jesus works every day. His regular office hours are from 9-5. There is no need to bother him unless it’s an emergency.”

“It is an emergency! In fact it’s a matter of life and death! But I guess Jesus has no time in his busy schedule for a man as worthless as me.”

Fortunately, before he leaves with his head hung and the weight of the world on his shoulders, Jesus asks one of the rebukers to get Bartimaeus. Commentaries differ here. Some say that the crowd feigns pious hospitality because Jesus is watching. Some say that the crowd is changed by Jesus’ compassion.

I think I’d rather believe the latter. It’s like being at a middle school dance. If you’re a nobody, but the cool kid thinks you’re somebody– then you too become cool by association. Besides that, if you look at the preceeding passages, Jesus has been working to overcome the spiritual blindness of his followers. In the passage right before this one, James and John were absolutely oblivious as to what it meant to be a follower of Christ. They were vying for the positions of greatness in the eternal kingdom. Clearly, as Mark is laying his story out, he wants his readers to be changed in response to Christ.

Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus the same pointed question he asked James and John, “What is it that you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus, knows what he wants: he wants to see again.

That’s funny to me–at least in a divinely ironic sort of way. I get the fact that Bartimaeus is physically blind. Who, in his shoes, wouldn’t want to have his sight restored? But what’s funny is that Bartimaeus seems to be the one most able to “see” out of the whole crowd.

He sees how people treat him. He sees how people decide he’s not worthy of getting close to Jesus. He sees that he’s a nobody in the eyes of the world. He sees who Jesus is, and even what it means to follow Jesus.

And all of this while being blind.

The crowd doesn’t see it, and his disciples are no better. Interestingly, it takes a blind man to help the seeing ones really see.

That’s a great story– a nice reversal. But what catches me off guard is the ways that the ones who count themselves among the followers are the very ones that keep people away from Jesus.

If they were Jesus’ PR people– they’d fail miserably. I sure wouldn’t want them on my church’s evangelism committee!

What haunts me even more is that I’m not entirely sure that churches don’t still do this. Granted, if you asked anyone here, we would say that our mission is helping people get to Jesus, and I think we really believe it. But, we never realize that what we do affects the ways that people come to Jesus.

We’d never intentionally push people out of the parade.

But what about the ways we, along with Christians all over the world, unintentionally push them away? Do we push them away from Jesus when we squabble about petty things? Do we keep them from drawing close to Jesus when we don’t treat each other with the love of Christ? Don’t misunderstand– we’re amazing when it comes to visitors. Anyone that comes through our door will be warmly welcomed. If they choose to not to come back, it’s not because they didn’t get enough attention. We pat ourselves on the back, and are truly confused when our visitors don’t come back–which happens in just about every small church.

“But we have a brand new nursery for them to play in.” “But every person here went up and greeted them.” “But we have this new young preacher.” And still, it feels like everything we do hits a brick wall. We scratch our heads, and think “We’re a great church! Why can’t we grow?”

Have you ever watched a group of runners or swimmers? When the starting gun goes off, they are all over each other. Before I did the triathlon several years ago, someone warned me that unless I wanted to take a chance on getting my teeth knocked out (again) that I should stay back, and wait until all the really competitive swimmers got out of the way. I knew I wasn’t well trained enough to win, so that knowledge kept me out of the starting pack. And the advice giver was right– arms and legs were flailing everywhere, and some got knocked or kicked. It was ugly to watch!

I wonder if visiting a church is like that? (I’m basing this on visiting several churches over the years.) The first few times you visit, you could swear that you finally found a church home. But as you start getting involved, you realize more and more exactly what’s going on. And if you stand there long enough, all you can see is elbows jabbing. You see the petty fights. You see the power struggles. You see who is gossipping about whom. You see who cares more about what you’re wearing than they do about who you are.

It’s ug-ly!

We think people don’t see those sorts of things, that we’ve hidden them well. But even if people can’t put a finger on it, I think they do sense when a church is divided. And as far as I can tell, it has the same end result as the crowd with Bartimaeus: People are pushed farther away from Jesus.

Thanks be to God– the story doesn’t end there. As Jesus often does, Jesus steps in, and doesn’t leave either Bartimaeus or the crowd the way he found them.

Commentaries place this story in the category of “Miracle” story along with stories like the raising of Lazarus, and the feeding of the 5,000. Miracle stories are those where Jesus breaks usual human circumstances and changes the expected outcome.

Even though this is kind of a funny looking miracle story that doesn’t follow the usual parameters, I think it is really a miracle. Even though the miracle itself only gets a small shoutout in one verse of the story, what happened that day was absolutely miraculous in that it took one from darkness to light, from blindness to sight.

Theologian Rudolf Bultmann says, “Miracle means ‘work of God.’” And what a good way to describe this story, because at it’s heart, this story is about the power of Christ to restore and redeem.

As I think about the ways that this story might speak to even this particular church, I think it might be a miracle story for us too. Just like Jesus doesn’t leave either the crowd or the one seeking him alone, Jesus likewise refuses to leave us as we are, and seeks to restore us, jabbing elbows and all. Just as Jesus has the power to restore Bartimaeus to health, so he has the power and desire to restore us to health.

Well, that’s lovely. I could totally pull a cheesy preacher move, and stop there. But then you might not get to see the surprise that caught me off guard.

I was happy to trust the commentaries, who after all seem to know much more than I do, until I read the story while paying attention to the last line: “Go on your way, your faith has made you well. Immediately, he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

What I realized is that just as much as this is a miracle story, it’s also a call story.

When we’re talking about call stories, we’re talking about stories like Abraham and Moses and Saul/Paul. Call stories are those stories in which a person is just going on about their life, when all of the sudden God gets ahold of them, and makes it known to them that they are wanted as followers.

This story doesn’t exactly follow these rules either– because Jesus sends the man on “his” way. Yet, the man realizes his ultimate life’s goal is to follow on Jesus’ way, and he becomes a follower.

I know, I know… I’m getting dangerously close to what could be considered theological minutia. But if this is both a miracle story and a call story for Bartimaeus, then it must also be both a miracle story and a call story for us.

The miracle is that Christ isn’t done with us, and seeks to restore this church, both individually and corporately. The call is that we’re to get up, take our new health, and follow Christ.

We know that Mark doesn’t just write to write– he’s direct and to the point. And that makes the fact that he chose to include the part about Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak a very interesting choice. It wouldn’t have made sense to those watching– he was a beggar, and he needed that cloak. After all, he didn’t have a nice warm place to sleep, and cold times were coming. It’s not like he could go buy another one either.

The fact that Mark includes this detail makes me pay attention. It’s got to be a symbolic move. Bartimaeus is throwing off his cloak, even before he is healed–because he is confident that he will be healed. And he is confident that once he is healed, his life will be so utterly different that he won’t even need that old cloak. I’m not sure, but I’d guess that as much as that cloak meets physical needs, it’s also somewhat of a security blanket. It’s probably been with him everywhere, and if he has to, he can draw himself into it and blend in with his surroundings.

But he throws it aside, carelessly. What a gesture of freedom!

Today is Reformation Sunday– the day when protestants celebrate the fact that Martin Luther got stinkin tired of the wrongdoings of the church, and took some action.

But if you change the pronunciation a little, you’re left with something that bears even more significance. Today is also re-formation Sunday. It’s a chance for us that are still stinkin tired of the wrongdoings of the church to allow ourselves to be re-formed and re-shaped. It’s a chance to toss away our security blankets, and to take steps of faith. It’s a chance to trust that Christ will make us well. It’s a chance to peak out from under our cloaks of blindness to see how other people need Jesus just as much as we do. It’s a chance to look at ourselves, and be chagrined at the way we accidentally push people away from Jesus. And it’s a chance to answer Christ’s question of “What do you want me to do for you?” with “Lord, Jesus, help us to see.”

Celebrating Reformation Sunday means that we truly believe that God isn’t done with the world, or with us. And that is both miracle and calling.

Amen.

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