Monday, June 6, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - the Problem of Miracles.


1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke 7:11-17

Today we are shown two miracles of God saving children for the sake of their grieving mothers.  They are wonderful stories about God’s caring for the poor, for the widowed, for those grieving and suffering great loss. 
            But these miracles also raise questions.  What questions do you have when you hear about miracles, then or now?  What concerns do they raise for you?
           
I have a friend whose oldest son of seven kids contracted Spinal Meningitis.  The child had an especially bad and quick attack of the disease and the doctors told my friend that he should not expect his son to live.  But at the last moment the child recovered.  A couple years later, however, another friend of mine lost her only daughter to the same disease in a matter of hours.  My friend whose son survived the disease swears that God intervened to save his child.  But then I have to ask, why did God save his boy and not my other friend’s daughter?  That is the question and that is the problem with miracles.  While we rejoice in the miracle, the question always remains why some people are given miracles and others aren’t. 

About twenty years ago now, one of the big storms that so often hits the East coast blew through the Eastern Seaboard.  A prominent televangelist took a group of about 12 people down to the coast and they formed a tight prayer circle as the storm approached.  They prayed that the storm would not hit the coast where they were.  Sure enough, the storm went around them.  Instead, it hit the coast a few miles north of where they stood and killed over a thousand people.  This particular televangelist went on TV spouting his proof that prayer worked, and it surely seemed to for those 12 people.  But what about for those who were surely also praying further north?  And underneath this question is an even more profound question – why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do some suffer while others seem not to?  Why do the good seem to be hit hard at times when people who do evil things seem to thrive?  How do you answer these questions for yourselves?
A fellow pastor friend of mine shared with me that while he was a college student he and a couple friends went to visit a small Pentecostal church one Sunday.  Both my friend and his buddies were very committed Christians but they had not experienced this kind of church before.  They found themselves standing amidst people praying in tongues with their hands in the air, some having seizures of the Holy Spirit and all behaving in very un-Presbyterian fashion.  Finally at one point, the pastor, Brother Rutherford, brought forth a bucket of water.  He said that this bucket had been put on the back porch empty the night before and this morning he had found water in it, so he knew this water was holy water.  He then invited a child forward who had a clubbed foot.  The preacher declared that while there were medical cures for such a malady, the faithful parents of the child would not use these cures because they knew that God could heal the malady directly.  Brother Rutherford then put bandages into the “holy water” that had appeared in the bucket over night, wrapped those bandages around the child’s foot and prayed for healing.  He did this a couple times, each time praying with more conviction that his prayers would be answered, but each time with the same result that when they removed the bandages, the clubbed foot was found to be the same.  Finally, brother Rutherford climbed into the pulpit, pointed at the young college students at the back of the church and said – “you know why the Lord won’t give us a healing this morning.  It’s because we’ve permitted three devils into our midst!”  As the crowd in the church turned on these young adults angrily, you can imagine that the three college students hied it out of there very quickly, never to return to that church.  This church blamed the strangers, the visitors, for the failure of the miracle.
At revivals, if a person is not healed by the faith touch that they experience, they are blamed for their lack of faith. 
Other people have other ways of making things “fair”.   One way to do this is to blame karma – if you didn’t do something wrong in this life, it must have been in a past life.  The reason why some people suffer and others don’t, why some experience miracles and others don’t has to do with the amount of good each person has done or has failed to do throughout the history of the universe.

Sometimes we blame ourselves even when we have done nothing really wrong.  Or we try to figure out ways we could have done things differently so that such and such wouldn’t have happened.  But these also don’t really help us to ultimately know why miracles happen for some and seem to fail to happen for others. 
Our theologians also have many different ideas.  Frederick Buechner says this – “God is all-powerful.  God is all-good.  Terrible things happen.  You can reconcile any two of these propositions with each other, but you can’t reconcile all three.  The problem of evil is perhaps the greatest single problem for religious faith.  There have been numerous theological and philosophical attempts to solve it, but when it comes down to the reality of evil itself they are none of them worth much.  When a child is raped and murdered, the parents are not apt to take much comfort from the explanation (better than most) that since God wants people to love God, people must be free to love or not to love and thus free to rape and murder a child if he takes a notion to.  Christian science solves the problem of evil by saying that it does not exist except as an illusion of mortal mind.  Buddhism solves it in terms of reincarnation and an inexorable law of cause and effect whereby the raped child is merely reaping the consequences of evil deeds it committed in another life.  Christianity, on the other hand, ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all.  It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good.”

An anonymous person of faith wrote this:
“Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it.” 
“Well, why don’t you ask Him?”
“Because I’m afraid He would ask me the same question.” 
C.S. Lewis says that the miracles we seek are rare and come only when God intervenes in the natural order of life--Earthquakes are the natural order and sweep away millions.  Death is the natural order and eventually carry us all away.  Mudslides in Ecuador are a natural response to heavy rains and sweep cars off the road and down into deep Andean gullies.  C.S. Lewis then wrote that miracles are for God's youngest "children", and as we mature our trust in the Lord grows so that we need to increase our faith in God's presence without an outward, visible sign of His constant and true presence for Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us.  Hmm.  I have to admit that as time goes by I think less and less of this particular idea.  It seems that it is like the people who look at the success of people who do really bad things and say “yes, but those people aren’t really happy”.  It seems a justification – “well, I didn’t get my miracle because I’m more mature in my faith.”  I see people of all faith levels and all faith beliefs who receive miracles.  And I’ve seen people who were every bit as faithful who seemingly did not.
The reality is that some people get the miracles they pray for and some don’t.  Or what is more accurate – sometimes we are granted miracles in the way we would expect and want to see them, and other times we don’t see them because they come in unexpected ways or ways that are harder to notice.  In my own personal life, I see times when I have been blessed by multiple miracles, often things I didn’t ask for, usually involving people reaching out, offering care, offering their wisdom and faith at exactly the moment I needed it.  I have shared some of those with you – times when I’ve received a beautiful and much needed email at the exact right time.  Times when people have come into my life exactly as I needed them to.  Times when a person (often a child) has said exactly the thing I needed to hear at exactly the right time.  And there have been other times when I have prayed most fervently for miracles that appear to fail to come – or again, fail to come in the way that I wanted or could easily recognize.
And in the end, for me, it comes down to the quote I’ve shared with you before - Einstein said - “There are two ways to live life.  You can live it as if nothing is a miracle.  Or you can live it like everything is.” 

We may not get the miracles that we pray for.  But we are surrounded by miracles in every moment of every day.  It is a miracle that each of us is sitting here together in this wonderful community of faith.  It is a miracle that we breathe in God’s spirit with each breath we take and that we are given the rain to bring us water and food in abundance.  It is a miracle that we - all of us here today - walked into this room on our own two feet.  It is a miracle when a stranger gives us a smile for no reason whatsoever.  The birth of each child is an absolute miracle.  The love of our pets is a miracle.  The love we share with anyone or anything is a miracle.  Relationships that last 50 years – those are miracles.  Finding the wonderful friends we have – miracles.  Music – an absolute miracle.  And the list goes on.
Today we read two miracles about children being saved.  And these are amazing and wondrous.  But it is just as wondrous to me every day that all three of my children wake up, healthy, happy, and growing.  It is just as wondrous to me to see you nodding your heads and looking inward in thought as we all strive to listen to God in this place.  It is just as wondrous that God’s presence can be felt, and experienced, and shared in so very many ways.  It is just as wondrous that we have such a Lord and such a God who loves us beyond our imaginings.  We can live our lives as if everything is a miracle, because everything is.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.