Do you believe in miracles?
- How do you feel God’s presence is at work in your life? In the lives of others?
- How would you describe the last time you experienced God’s presence in your life?
- Do you believe that God is actively at work in your life—and in the broader world?
- How do you understand God working and moving in your life? What images would you use to describe the way you experience the living presence of the Spirit within you and around you?
These are questions I honestly love to discuss, although I find myself in interesting conversations where people so often shy away from describing the reality of God’s presence. Many times, I shy away as well. Maybe we don’t want to be seen as pushy. Or maybe we’ve had encounters with folks from other schools of thought within Christianity who we felt were, how would one say, a bit over-exuberant in describing their relationship with God. We live in a culture that is saturated, perhaps, with a predominant understanding of how God works in the world, and maybe we don’t know how to articulate our own particular interpretation—what we would call our own hermeneutical lens—so we just prefer not to really engage in conversations such as these.
And over time, as we shy away from engaging in such spiritual conversations, we become “rusty.” And, worse, maybe we begin to think that proper Christians—Christians of a particular level of sophistication and intelligence—simply don’t talk like that in polite society. Engaging in conversations of a spiritual nature becomes equated with an exaggerated emotionalism, and we don’t want to be too emotional, do we! After all, we are Episcopalians!
I remember making cookies as a child in our kitchen back in Arkansas. One of my mother’s friends was there with us, helping stir the dough and plop out the cookies on the sheet. Something came up in the conversation, some struggle that she had experienced, and my mother’s friend suddenly yelled out, “I bind it in the name of Jesus!”, paused for a second, and then simply went back to spooning out cookie dough. My sister and I just looked at each other. What was that about? I wondered. There’s always a part of me that thought either she was far too emotional—or perhaps that I didn’t want to experience a God that is that real and immediate—too close.
It is not easy to give a sermon on miracle stories, at least not in our particular culture. When we encounter stories like today’s Gospel text, where the story portrays Jesus acting so powerfully in this widow’s life, raising her son from the dead, it is pretty easy and tempting to come at it from a less threatening angle. Maybe we can just talk about how Jesus acted in this particular widow’s life—this woman who was so vulnerable because her husband and only son had died, leaving her adrift and endangered in the society without a support structure. So, maybe we can talk about how Jesus supports and upholds the vulnerable—and how that shows us that we are called to do that as well. So, we can reflect on how this text frames a certain moral theology that informs our own Christian discipleship.
And, that’s true.
Or, maybe we can approach this text and notice how Jesus has begun gathering a crowd around himself. We can explore how Jesus’ actions in the area were creating ripples throughout the countryside, catching peoples’ attention as they began to reflect on how this great “prophet” had arisen among them. We see in Luke’s account the way that this story is building a narrative, an argument that this Jesus was not only a mighty prophet but also something more, an embodiment—the Incarnation—that heralded the arrival of the messiah and God’s salvific presence on earth.
And that’s true as well. And there are other ways to “preach this text” to be sure.
But did he really raise this man from the dead? Did he really do it? How do we understand this miracle? Resist it? Reach for it? Find refuge in it? Does it seem foreign to us? Archaic? Quant folk religion?
This is why these miracle stories of Jesus challenge me: something in me wants to rationalize them or turn them into moral lessons rather than sit with them and truly contemplate how God is at work in my life and in the world.
What is it in me that resists? Why do I shy away?
I went to a lot of revivals as a child. A lot. Guest preachers who were called evangelists—a special breed of preacher who was designed to elicit a response from the congregation—would come in all the time. And, everyone would come to church to listen to this man talk about this dynamic God who was at work in the world. Unfortunately, much of the message I heard had its roots in fear—this vengeful God who demanded something in order that our salvation be assured—and that was unfortunate for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for a revival—at least not one that can easily slip into an emotionally-manipulative space. Not a revival like that.
But what if we explored a re-imagining? A revivification, if you will? What would revival look like for us? How would it challenge us?
I keep seeing Jesus telling the young man to get up as his widowed mother stands there terrified from not knowing if she herself will survive without a male support system in a culture that far too easily disposed of people. I keep seeing the young man sit up and look around him… I keep seeing the look of wonder on his mother’s face.
“Young man, I say to you rise,” Jesus said. “And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
As you know, I’m leaving tomorrow for my study break at Sewanee, my last June session as I look toward completing my doctorate. And, my thesis project focuses on how the church can explore a Christian practice of mindfulness to re-imagine the ways we share ministry together and understand leadership in our community. Ways we can recognize the struggles we face and delve deeply into the rich potential of our Christian practice to experience such a revivification—dare I say a revival of our spiritual life in community.
Because we live in a culture that seems less and less concerned with institutional religion. The “golden days” of Christianity—if there ever were such a thing—are behind us (some would say thanks be to God because now we can get on with truly practicing our faith rather than hiding behind the social structures that only held up some sense of cultural power and prestige that we enjoyed). But we struggle, and we’re often anxious. And, we often blame others, people “out there” somewhere: the media, other faiths, our shopping culture, even soccer. It must be someone else’s fault that Christianity is “under attack.” Some would say that the devil is at work.
But, listen to what Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, how he describes what we’re experiencing:
It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message is meaningless.
This is why the miracle stories of Jesus are important to me: because they invite me to use my spiritual imagination—a tool we have terribly underutilized in our world. These stories invite us to step into a space where God is not just some theory to fit in with my framework of understanding reality. God is also not just some escape hatch when I get into trouble—or fire insurance to make me feel that I don’t have to worry any more about the struggles of life around me because “I am saved.”
Our spiritual imagination enables us to participate in the dynamic reality of the living God, the Creator of life, the Redeemer of us all, and the Sustainer of all that is creative, life-giving, compassionate, and invigorating in this world. This is the space into which we are called. This is the opportunity we have as members of the Body of Christ.
Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” “And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 5, Year C
June 5, 2016
 Terri A. Veling, from the forward to Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014, xvi. The quotation is by Abraham Heschel fromo God in Search of Man but is not referenced.