On Thanksgiving night, when I was eleven years old, my grandparents called with terrible news. They had been dog-sitting our Australian shepherd, Macrame, because we were heading out of town the next day. My grandpa was walking her over the bridge by their house when she slipped off the edge into the creek, slipped out of her collar, then took off into the forest of rural Ohio. He went into the house and got a flashlight, then he and my grandma searched and searched. No dog.
Over the next few days, the search intensified. My grandparents circulated a flyer especially to their neighbors who were hunters. My mom and grandpa went out and looked in the ditches along the roads.They did find the bodies of several dogs, and they did not find Macrame. My friend at school tried to console me. She told me her cat disappeared for weeks and then turned up one day. But that’s cats for you.
During these long days, I prayed so hard. I remember being afraid for Macrame. I remember how my grandpa’s face was stricken with guilt. My grandma never really liked Macrame, but she was so desperate. She held her collar in her hands hoping that it would speak to her and help us find her. There were layers and layers of guilt. I felt guilty for what this was doing to my grandparents. I felt guilty for making our dog think we had abandoned her.
And you’re hearing this account at the beginning of a sermon, so there’s a good chance we know where this is headed. This should be the story of how losing our dog brought my family closer together, how grieving for her invited the grace that answered our guilt. You and I know. Our faith gives us the words to tell the story of unanswered prayers that lead to a deeper trust in God, to tell the story of sorrow that turns into healing.
Only thing is… This is not that story. Something like eight days after she disappeared, Macrame turned up in a shelter. We got her back! And I can’t tell you why.
It wasn’t because we deserved to get her back. It wasn’t God doing what God was supposed to do. I have no words to explain it, all I can say is Wow. Just— Wow. And I hope that you have your own story or two (or six or sixty) when you find yourself standing in front of a miracle and all you can say is— Wow.
Today Jimmy read a pair of stories that showcase the power of Jesus, shining him in a light that makes him look like Elijah. I’d like to try something. Imagine if the person interpreting these stories was, say, a well-meaning, clear-thinking Sunday School teacher. But maybe she got called in to teach at the last minute, so maybe she hasn’t so much read the whole story. Let’s give this a whirl…
All right everybody. Jesus was heading into Capernaum when a centurion from the Roman Army summoned Jesus to come and help. He had a slave, or as some versions have it, a boy whom he loved, and the boy was sick and dying. Now Jesus is Jewish! This man is a leader in the Roman Army! But the Jewish leaders in Capernaum persuaded Jesus to go, so he sets out.
Before he arrives, the centurion sent word again. He said: No, you don’t have to come into my house after all. That is dangerous for you; it would make you unclean. Instead, just say the word, and I know that the boy will be healed. When Jesus heard this, he was shocked! Never in all his days had he encountered faith like this, and this man wasn’t even Jewish!
So you see, it’s really a shame about the boy who died, but we’ve got to notice: God, himself, was inspired by faith! And you can believe God’s own heart breaks when this boy dies. And what’s that, Mackenize? Wait a minute, what happened? Oh… My mistake! It says the boy comes back to life, well that changes the ending… Wow.
Um I guess, let’s look at the next one… This time Jesus and the disciples were going to Nain when they happen upon a funeral procession. The man who died was the only son of a widow, and she is overcome with weeping. By losing her only son, this woman is rendered financially destitute. On top of that is the horror of having her child die! She has lost everything.
Once Jesus sees her, the Bible says he was moved in his guts. The word for what happened to him is the same word that names what happens to the Samaritan when he stops and helps, it’s the same word used when the father sees the prodigal son come back home! It’s the event of having your whole heart moved by compassion like you can’t even help it. This is what happened to Jesus!
So you see, surely Jesus rushes to comfort this widow, to wipe away the tears from her face, to answer her poverty with justice. He will come alongside her through the grief, and why are you raising your hand Mackenzie? Keep reading? Oh… Well that’s another way to solve the problem… Wow.
Oh my friends, my heart goes out to this teacher! We all understand what she’s trying to do. It is not the case that if you just pray hard enough, or believe hard enough, if you somehow do something to deserve it, then you can ask for a miracle, and God will zap one down. Believing in God does not mean hoping really hard for a flashy gimmick.
We want to give our students a faith that will be there for them when the dog runs away and does not get found, when the person you love really does die, when the day comes when you lose everything. We work to tell each other the stories of God walking beside us through the grief, then turning our unanswered prayers into deeper trust, then turning our sorrow into healing. This is the work of God; we know how to explain it.
Only thing is… God is not beholden to well-meaning Sunday School teachers and responsible pastors, and the Spirit will do what the Spirit will do, and watch out! Sometimes God really does a miracle.
American writer Annie Dillard reports on the wild happenings of nature with the agenda of showcasing the wildness of God. There’s something in Dillard’s faith that is legitimately afraid of God, and I don’t entirely share her fear, but I do need to learn what she’s teaching. Pastors love to include this quote from her in sermons. It goes like this:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians… sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?… It is madness to wear ladies’ hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god make wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”1 Dillard, Annie. Teaching A Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. Harper Perennial: New York, 1982. page 53.
Oh we human people. We think we know and we do not know! The more we know of God, the more it becomes clear how much we really don’t know, but here’s the thing… we want to.
As Christians, we have made it our work to find the words to tell you the story of our faith when God has let you down and you are living through the worst night. We know how to talk about the empty place where the miracle should be. We know how to speak the words of assurance that God will turn the worst horror into something beautiful, just hang on.
It’s just, sometimes God really does swoop in and change the story, and we should all be wearing crash helmets, and the miracle is more than we ever dreamed, and there are no words for explaining, there are only words of praise. The only prayer that’s true is the prayer that goes: Wow. Just— Wow.
It means something that this happened to Jesus. When he heard the centurion’s faith, he was shocked. God dropped what she was holding in her hands. There is something in our Lord and Savior that can get knocked down by wonder he never saw coming. There’s something in God where their own heart can be moved by compassion, where God themselves is brought to tears. There’s something in the Spirit of the Spirit that is dazzled by beauty!
All I’m saying is if this could happen to Jesus, it could happen to you. Because I think it’s this. You and I are living through an impossibly difficult season. I know it is responsible of me to tell you that our faith will see us through (it will), that we just need to hold on and weather the storm (we do) that we need the darkness in order to behold the stars. All of that’s true, and all of that’s fine, and we will get through this. It’s just…
What if God is getting up to some miracles right now? What if we all have a Mackenzie who’s raising her hand trying to tell us, You’ve got to come and see! The people who are grieving are getting up from the dead!
You might drop what you’re holding. Your own heart could be moved by compassion, your soul could be stirred awake by a beauty you’ve never seen before, and who knew this could happen!
Your own faith might give way to praise. You might find yourself coming back to life. And oh my friends, when this happens to you, you know we will come and pray with you the only prayer we can say: Wow. Just— Wow.
|Dillard, Annie. Teaching A Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. Harper Perennial: New York, 1982. page 53.