Sunday, March 29, 2009


Do you think it would be possible for us to get from this tough, scientifically-grounded and scientifically-informed congregation a modern definition of the word “miracle”? Or are there those who have determined for themselves that there are simply no such things as miracles, making a consensus-definition for this Sunday morning crowd an impossibility? I will toss in this little tidbit: just because we miss it or refuse to name it a miracle, doesn’t mean it is anything less than a miracle.
Rabbi Stephen Howard, writing on liberal Jewish values and practices, discusses miracles in Hebrew scripture. He first talks about the perspective in more traditional or conservative streams of Judaism, ancient and modern, that insists on the requirement of believing in miracle stories as fact for one to be able to affirm belief in God. That view has existed and still exists in Christianity as well.
Rabbi Howard goes on to talk about other ways of dealing with and/or trying to understand miracles reported in Hebrew scripture. Let me mention three of those very briefly.

*There have been plenty of rabbis through the ages who have insisted that a belief in the historicity of any miracle story is neither a proof nor a lack of proof of one’s belief in or connection to God. These rabbis consider the perfectly natural operation of the planet and of human life to be nothing less than miraculous, and there’s a reference in one of the Jewish prayer books with this stirring prayer: “We thank and praise You for our lives, which are in Your hand; for our souls which are in Your keeping; for the signs of Your presence [lit: miracles] we encounter every day; and for Your wondrous gifts at all times, morning, noon and night.”

*Many of the progressively-inclined rabbis across time have pointed to the amazing triumph of the human spirit in the most damning and difficult of times. We can call those deeds miracles or not. I would call them miracles for sure.

*Rabbi Howard points to liberal Judaism’s pattern across the years to embrace rationalism and to affirm scientific discoveries. When those twin foundation stones are brought to the interpretation of miracles in biblical literature, the result is a realization that many of these dramatic stories were never intended to be taken literally. In fact, reading them literally misses the point entirely of the person or persons who preserved and passed on those stories. The miracle stories were often told to stir and inspire. They were to be read by the imagination and the heart, not the left side of the brain.
Let’s jump to Jesus’ miracles specifically, and I quote a very common, down-home source right out of the gate, Encyclopedia Britanica (online version).

A prophet and teacher of ethics, Jesus was also a healer and miracle worker. In the 1st century, healers and miracle workers were fairly well known, though not precisely common, and were not considered to be superhuman beings. Jesus himself granted that others were capable of performing miracles, such as exorcisms, regardless of whether they followed him. Thus, the significance of this very important aspect of his life is frequently misunderstood. In Jesus’ time, it was accepted that people could heal and perform nature miracles, such as causing rain. The question was, by what power, or spirit, they did so. Some of Jesus’ opponents accused him of casting out demons by the prince of demons. He countered that he did so by the spirit of God. Obviously, many people disagreed, but this was the issue in Jesus’ lifetime—not whether he, like a few others, could perform miracles, but by what power he did so. In his own day, miracles were proof neither of divinity nor of messiahship, and, at most, they might be used to validate an individual’s message or way of life.

When we realize that Jesus expected his followers to do pretty much what he did in the realm of the miraculous it now makes perfect sense. Jesus was a great delegator; he had no intention of doing all the work himself, even all the miraculous work. If you are a follower of Jesus, or however you describe yourself in relationship to Jesus of Nazareth, then you’re supposed to be about exactly what he gave himself to. If you have the gift of healing, then you should utilize it--at whatever level you are able to bring healing.
One of the recurrent habits of Jesus when it came to healing was that he healed only one person at a time. In our “I-can’t-wait” generation, that doesn’t suit many healers; it takes too much time, and it’s too tiring so it’s not uncommon for the more famous among the faith healers to heal en masse. I know I’ve told some of you about the time my sister called me early one Sunday morning, laughing her head off. She had the television on while she and her family were getting ready for church, and a faith healer was holding services at the civic coliseum. To add to the irony of the hour, the faith healer had a lisp; there’s nothing wrong with a lisp, and it’s absolutely not something to make fun of. The thing was, you’d have thought faith healing could have cleared that up. That’s not why my sister was laughing; that was just a sideline.
The reason she was laughing was that the faith healer at one point said, “Now will all the deaf people please stand up,” any many people did--and before they were healed! This tells you something about what often happens when faith healing becomes entertainment.
Back to doing what Jesus did if you’re a follower of Jesus and if you’re gift includes the gift of healing.

*When Annie Duch practices physical therapy, many of her patients get well--maybe not instantaneously, but they often experience complete healing after a regimen of physical therapy.

*Kasia Shaw is an oncology nurse; not all of her patients get well, but some of them do. And it is certainly not beyond the realm of probability that some of those who get well have a part of their healing enhanced by her nursing care.

*Many of you may not know how faithfully TRU-DEE Burrell prays for members of our church family who are sick and struggling. She prays for her pastor every morning. I am absolutely certain that many of us have experienced some kind of healing because of the love energies radiating toward us from Dr. Gertrude Burrell.

*Tom and Donna Ledbetter are pastoral psychotherapists, and they help heal wounds of psyche and wounds of the soul. They also help heal broken relationships.

*Gordon Umberger works with those who struggle with addiction issues, and he sees returning clients more often than he wishes he did. But Gordon sticks with them, and he is a part of the healing for those who kick the addiction, even if it takes more than one try.

*Silverside Church has long had a ministry of healing through its affirmation of all people as children of God. From a modern affirmation that gay as well as straight people are as welcome in our family as they are in God’s family going back to a campaign in Wilmington led by its pastor, the Reverend Raymond Baker, in the 1940’s and the 1950’s for decent housing for all of Wilmington’s citizens and even further back to its endorsement, with its eighth pastor, James Stokes Dikckerson, of President Lincoln’s plan to emancipate the slaves when not all of Delaware was with Lincoln, Silverside Church has long been about healing through acceptance, affirmation, and concern.
None of this sounds strange or religiously fanatic to me. Could you refuse to classify any of what I’ve described as real and legitimate healing? I don’t see how. Someone was ill or hurting, and as a result of being touched in some way by a Silverside person, she or he is no longer ill or hurting.
Affirming this kind of healing, done in Jesus’ name, doesn’t require one to repudiate either science or a confidence in the natural order. And, yet, because it leads and has led to healing, it could legitimately be called “miraculous.”
The Buddha once said, “I am the miracle.” And Henry David Thoreau asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?”

This is how the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel begins:

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the empire of God and to heal. He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere (Luke 9:1-6 NRSV, adapted).

With disciples like these, who needs Jesus? Hey, they could do just about everything Jesus could do.
Of course, I ask that in jest. There was much more to Jesus than his miracles, and that’s a very important point. It was something that had to be taken into account by his contemporaries, and it certainly must be worked into a modern perspective about Jesus though, in all honesty, there are many people who don’t want to be bothered by anything about Jesus other than his miracles, which some people believe he is still working from the great beyond.
Hold it right there! Back to what I said earlier, drawing on the Encyclopedia Britanica article. Jesus was a catalyst for God’s power. If healing occurred, then it was God’s power working through Jesus. Jesus didn’t heal anyone, and Jesus wasn’t the source of power for any non-healing miracle either. The article told us that people in Jesus’ day were accustomed to seeing miracles performed; what they wanted to know, not that someone in a desperate fix would have turned away from a miracle in any case, was from whom the power to work the miracle came. Was it from God? Was it from another deity, which non-monotheists might have asked? Was it from evil spirits? Or was it from the special hallucinogenic tea that the observers drank before watching the healer heal?
You caught that last one in this past week’s news, didn’t you? There’s a religious sect out in Oregon that is related to a larger body in Brazil. It’s called the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, and a district judge in Portland, Oregon, ruled that it is legal for this group in Oregon to import and use an hallucinogenic tea in their worship rituals. Adherents claim to have a closer connection to God when they drink this very thick tea as a part of worship. They are aware of the miraculous to a much greater degree when they partake. USA Today online gets the headline award for writing up this story; the headline read: “Church Offers `High’ Hope for Seeing Jesus.”
So Jesus is sending out all twelve men in his men’s circle; women couldn’t be sent out like that for hosts of reasons so this mission trip is for men only. And he instructs them to heal and to exorcize demons, not that those two were always regarded as mutually exclusive processes. They don’t faint. They don’t whine. They don’t hit him back with excuses. They just go on out to do what they’ve been asked to do by their spiritual leader.
Jesus assumes, and they assume, that when the conditions are right, when the circumstances are right, God will work through them to effect healing. They didn’t expect that Jesus was their source of power--a key part of their inspiration to be sure, but their power? No. That was God. That had to be God.
I always like to stumble back into this passage because it’s infinitely practical. Jesus tells those going out to heal and exorcize that they will run into people who don’t like them and who will be skeptical and unreceptive to their healing efforts. Jesus says that when you run into people who don’t like you and who don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do for the sick and the struggling, just leave those towns and shake the dust off your feet as you leave. I think that’s hilarious! It’s kind of like a rude gesture for the people in the town they are leaving to see.
Several of us from the church went to see the musical, “Spamalot,” starring Richard Chamberlain down at the Dupont Theatre yesterday, and we learned quite a bit about rude gestures from some characters playing French Knights. Suffice it to say, if I preach a Broadway series again, I won’t be able to use that song here in the sanctuary.
The shake the dust off your feet admonition from Jesus reminds me of some of my late Father’s advice to me when I was going through a frustrating patch in one of my early church jobs, and being the sympathetic Dad that he was and also being a good ole Baptist deacon, which would correspond to a member of Council here, he said, “Dave--he and my brother are really the only ones who are supposed to call me Dave--I wish I had the money, son, to establish a mistletoe fund for you.”
I said, “Dad, I don’t know what a mistletoe fund is.”
He said, “It’s a fund you can live off of after you pin a piece of mistletoe to your coattails and walk out on those idiots for good.”
Now, if you think the working of miracles was just for Jesus and his ranking cabinet members, you’d be wrong. I told you a few minutes ago how the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel begins; now I want to tell you how the tenth chapter begins:

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The empire of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the empire of God has come near” (Luke 10:1-11 NRSV, adapted).

Lots to notice in this passage.
First, the group charged with doing what Jesus did has grown from 12 to 70 others; that was 70 in addition to the 12. This group probably included women, at least it might have, because those going out to expand the ministry of Jesus were instructed to go out in pairs; therefore, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that some wives and husbands paired up to pass the peace of God, to preach the reality of God’s rule in the world, and to cure diseases--i.e., do the miraculous thing.
Along with other functions, this group was kind of an advance team for Jesus. They would get a feel for the area and see if it were worth Jesus’ time. Rather than wasting his time and dealing with unnecessary negativity, Jesus obviously wanted to go to those areas where his ministry would be most appreciated, where people were ready to hear him, and where the sick were ready to allow God’s power to work through him to rid them of their diseases and/or their demons.
The warnings for this group of 70 are very similar to what Jesus said to the 12 men when they went out. “Do all you can. Do the best you can, but not everyone will receive you well. Some will refuse to bless what you’re trying to do to bring others into a place where God’s love can be embraced. When you run into those who put you down or who try to make it hard to do what I’m asking you to do,” Jesus said, “clip a piece of mistletoe to your tunic and stomp the dust off your feet as you leave that place for good.”

The passage from John’s Gospel that Kasia has read for us today, John 14:1-14, is a very pivotal text by any reckoning. There’s the highly controversial passage there where Jesus is portrayed by the Johannine community who produced the Gospel as having said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to God if not through me.” Read out of context, our most favored way to read scripture, this verse has Jesus creating a very exclusivist approach to religion, but Professor Marcus Borg tells us that in the historic context in which the Gospel of John was collected and published, there is no awareness of world religions; there is only an awareness of a Judaism that doesn’t want to be reformed the way Jesus, the Jew, envisioned a reformation AND the Judaism Jesus advanced that was the old Judaism tweaked here and there.
Jesus, here, wasn’t rejecting any religion, really. He was speaking to Jews who had embraced his reform movement and were now tempted, pressured to return to an unreformed Judaism. He is saying that he is showing them how to get to God whereas an old rules-based religion did not, could not.
This whole passage in John chapter 14 begins, literarily speaking, Jesus’ departure discourse. He knows the Romans will get him sooner rather than later, and they will probably either kill him off or imprison him for life in a place his followers will never hear from him again. Professor Gayle O’Day in her superb commentary on the Gospel of John points out that departure or farewell discourses were common in Jewish literature, and Jesus’ departure discourse tends to follow form. These are closing words, in a manner of speaking. Jesus will have little opportunity to say more before he is gone from them for good.
In that kind of context, empowering words pour forth from him. He tells his followers that they will keep on doing the kinds of works he did, and that includes the miraculous deeds. Again, I remind you that this didn’t surprise them in the least. They had already been doing these kinds of works for a few years. This much of what Jesus said in his discourse they expected to hear from him given the circumstances.
What they didn’t expect to hear from him was this twist: “You will do greater works than I have done.” What did he say? Could you repeat that, please. How could anyone do greater works that Jesus did?
There are multiple ways interpreters have tried to help us understand this promise. Some say that the word “greater” means more than, and when you add to that fact Jesus’ qualifying statement that his time is about up while they will remain on earth to continue the ministry, this makes a lot of sense. It’s not how I read the passage, but it’s a viable way to read it.
There are two things I think Jesus is suggesting here to his followers. One, that he himself was still growing and developing in what he was able to do for God in helping the sick and the struggling find wholeness. Two, if he had longer he’d be able to do more for people than he’d been able to do up to that point because he’d be more skilled with time and practice. Those left after his death or imprisonment didn’t have that excuse--at least not all of them; others would certainly die as he would die. But those left behind would keep perfecting their ministry skills and end up doing even greater works to heal and exorcise than Jesus himself did or could do. Hold that thought.
The book of Acts is, more or less, volume two of the Gospel of Luke. The content of the book of Acts has to do with what happened to the earliest followers of Jesus after Jesus’ execution. How did they get along, and what did they do after Jesus was no longer with them?
One of the astounding stories from the earliest days of their efforts to do what Jesus had done when Jesus was no longer with them is the story we read together responsively a few minutes ago. Peter and John are going to the Temple to pray; notice from that, that there was still no movement separate from Judaism.
We can easily guess that the Peter involved in the story is Peter who betrayed Jesus, but which John is another matter; and as far as I can tell, there’s no real clue at all as to the identity of this man who had the most common of all male Jewish names in the first century. Those guys were a denarius a dozen. We translate the name “John”; back then it sounded something much more like “Ioannen.”
I guess the chances are that this “Ioannen” was the “Ioannen” who had been, with Peter, in Jesus’ inner male circle of 12, the brother of James, “Iakobos” (the b pronounced as v in modern Greek). In any case, at the Temple they encountered a physically handicapped man who did not, by the way, ask to be healed; he asked them for spare change. He was a beggar.
Peter speaks for both himself and John. Peter was a not-so-rich fisherman, and he was fishing less and less these days trying to keep the Jesus Movement afloat--no pun intended. He says to the man who at first was sorry he’d bothered to ask for alms, “Look at us. Do we look like we have money to spare?” Peter thensaid, and this is memorable and touching, “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I will share with you. In Jesus’ name, stand up and walk.” Peter had allowed himself to be a catalyst.
To clear up a little something, Peter didn’t know how to encourage anyone to open up to God’s power without invoking the name of Jesus, but it was very clear just the same from where the power to perform this miracle had come. When the man took the risk and stood up and jumped up and down, he praised God.
There’s so much more we could say about this story, but we will hold that for another sermon. Right now, I simply want you to see that after Jesus’ death, immediately his devotees kept doing what they had done while Jesus was still living. They tried to do as much of what Jesus had done as they could, and that included healing the sick, casting out demons, and encouraging people to open themselves up to the love of God within themselves.
None of us is going to take Jesus’ place or make his contribution obsolete, but he empowered us to take on a ministry of making people whole without limits. Jesus could not have envisioned what those seeking to honor God as he had honored God would eventually do to try to make others whole.
We progressives got rid of demons and stopped blaming personal or societal ills on them. People who want to be whole have to take responsibility for wrong choices they made.
We progressives called a halt to equating mental illness with demon possession, and we took away the stigmas that mental illness had in almost every culture as if those who suffered from mental or emotional illnesses were weaker or somehow responsible for their plights than those with physical illnesses.
We progressives stopped blaming God for illnesses and made God not the cause of an infirmity as well as the hope for healing it. Instead, we learned that God is as hurt and frustrated as we are when something cripples us figuratively or literally. That perspective alone helped TONS of people find their way to wholeness.
We progressives have said that we will never ever teach a child to fear God for any reason. We will never tell that child a Bible story that will frighten her or him as a child and into adulthood. And if we run into those who carry around such fears, we will do our best to help those people rethink and refocus.
We progressives said that people trying to do what Jesus did and more should never have but certainly cannot keep on promoting racism and trying to make minority races feel that something is inherently wrong with them because the color of their skin isn’t the skin color of the majority population or the color of the skin of the power people in their culture.
On top of these things, hospitals have been built and built and built in Jesus’ name all around the world with a mission, not to indoctrinate but, to heal as many people as possible regardless of their religious perspectives.
There was a polio vaccine. There were antibiotics. There were condoms, too, your Holiness. Please stop pronouncing the death sentence from the Holy See by telling those who listen to you that death is to be preferred over protected sex!!!
Get the picture? Jesus said, “You can do what I did and more so get on with it!” Amen.