Mr Will Dickinson
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 11, 2018
It seems to me many days that the God who worked the miracles of Elijah has gone missing. It seems hard to believe in a God who comes down to light a bonfire out of nowhere, bring rain to a Kingdom at a word, let alone a God who personally sends down a flaming chariot to escort a prophet straight to heaven. No wonder God doesn’t do that anymore, as if He’d be able to find parking in downtown New Haven!
No, no. It seems that God has become more subtle of late. But I confess I miss that God we see in Elijah, the one who sends down rain in droughts, who lights massive bonfires in the blink of an eye, who parts even the rivers of the Jordan. I start to wonder…is that God gone forever? Will I ever get to see a miracle like that? I wonder if you grapple with these questions too, if you stare into the dark corners of your bedroom at night and ask in a quiet voice, “Lord, is my suffering insufficient? Am I not worthy of a miracle? Need I be like the widow in the Gospel, giving everything I have to be worthy? And what if I have nothing left to give? Where is that worker of wonders, maker of miracles? When will I too be saved?” Where do we go with these questions? To whom do we run?
This summer, as many seminarians do, I worked as a hospital chaplain. I happened to be serving the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, and the population of the hospital mainly pulled from the surrounding very rural, very Christian counties. There are a lot of one-line mainstays in a hospital, and one of them I always struggled to hear, was “we’re praying for a miracle.” It meant that there was nothing left to do, it meant a kind of resignation to the inevitable, and yet for some it seemed to mean something deeper. I met many patients and families for whom faith healing was a central part of their belief in God. For those of you unfamiliar, this is the Christian practice that if one is sick, then one can be healed through prayer by the faith of those praying. There is a direct line between the fervency of belief and the power of Jesus to heal. Put simply, if you truly believe, your faith will make you well.
It’s tempting to dismiss this belief as superstition or shallow: “surely God doesn’t work this way – how could it be that simple?” And the complexities of evil in our world would seem to throw a wrench in any one-to-one equation between faith and miracles. Yet our God is a God of healing, Jesus made his deity known through healings, and I am certainly not in the business of telling people not to pray. There was something so beautiful and compelling about watching and participating in prayer vigils for dying patients. It reminded me of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which is almost entirely words of praise to God.
Of course, this theology of prayer has its problems. If God’s healing is based on the faith of those praying, then the failure of God to heal becomes their fault. This is surely not the will of God. But at its best…at its best, this kind of prayer displays an utter conviction in the Goodness and Faithfulness of God, even if the miracle given doesn’t look like resurrection or healing or like Elijah’s miracle today. And how could you not pray for a miracle? How do you tell someone suffering that the miracle has already happened, that the Promise of God has already been fulfilled?
I think this is something like the Christian life – living in the knowledge of salvation and the suffering of Earth, tasting the bread of heaven and then walking back into a world of fallen justice and brokenness. The Body of Christ does not always sate the hunger in our bellies, nor the Blood of Christ our thirst for love and acceptance. We pray for miracles even and especially because we know they are in no way guaranteed, even to those of the most ardent faith.
We must grapple with the fact that our God is not a God who saves all from death, that our God did not send Elijah to the door of every starving widow, that our God did not meet each Nicodemus in a fateful midnight lesson. I must grapple with the fact that my oil only rarely self-replenishes, my bread acquires mold more quickly than it does more mass. And yet we give this God praise, we name Him Savior of the world, we name Her Messiah, we praise the glory of God’s Name.
Though God has not seen fit to save us from the brokenness of our bodies, God has endowed me with Her memory, with the sacrality of Her presence. Though God did not see fit to stop the momentum of bullets a fortnight ago, God was known to those inside that synagogue, through a miracle. Though God has not yet revived those who died, God still appears in our Torah, on our altars, our streets, our very thoughts. This is a miracle. That we are here is a miracle. That this church still stands is a miracle. That she does her work is a miracle. That is enough. That must be enough.
Emily Dickinson writes that
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
I wonder if this miracle is such a Slant of light. The widow eats, and we catch a terrifying, unruly glimpse of the power of God, of God’s hope for we brief and distractible humans. But this light oppresses as well – in its gift we are given the curse of knowing God’s power – and we despair at God’s seeming unwillingness to prove Himself in miracles, to save all from suffering. Yet should we dismiss these miracles, should we say begone with you, you are more trouble than you’re worth, what would be left but the look of Death? What would we be left with at all?
These miracles point us to something, point us to the bending of the world toward our Lord. These miracles are not told that we might expect to experience them, nor that we might believe in God on their dramatic merits, nor that God might be characterized by them. They are told to remind us that Slants of light appear to us still, in traveling men and women, flitting into and out of our lives just as quickly as the Winter sun.
Many of you know that I’m a native Virginian, so you might imagine that New England winters are a bit of a trial for me. But if I’ve learned anything about how to survive them, it’s that one must remember the Spring. Even on those dark days, there are signs of Spring: when I spot the beginnings of the daffodils’ long march upwards, or an unexpected warm day, or a mug of cocoa waiting for me at a friend’s house, those are slants of light, and they point to a day when the Sun will shine bright and hot and I won’t have to walk like a penguin over icy patches! Yet even in the bitter cold, even when it chills to the bone, the warmth ahead is promised. Even in the death of Winter, there is the promise of resurrection. Even in the desolation of Good Friday, we never quite lose sight of our God’s return.
So it is with these miracles. They are not promises, exact foretellings of God will do for us if we but have the faith. They are reminders of what has already been done for us, glimpses of the Savior we adore, and the same as the invitation that this blessed Church extends us week after week, all these long years at the corner of Broadway and Elm. That this church still stands as a beacon of welcome is by God’s grace and this community’s faith. Here is a miracle. That we are here is a miracle.
Like how in the dead of Winter we must remember the Spring, when we see our oil and grain depleted, when we see prayers seemingly unanswered, we return here. We must look up the slants of light into the blinding white Sun that is our God and remember who we are. We are not of this world. This life is not our end. The widow was given a few cakes of meal and we are given salvation, eternal life, the entirety of Creation. God sent down flames to light Elijah’s bonfire, and for us God came down to Earth to enlighten our hearts to Him. God sent down rain to end the drought and in Christ God submerged the works of the devil and refreshed us into eternal life. We must remember our destinies, beloved. We must remember that this world shall end, that hunger and poverty and famine are not forever but the love of God is. And until such a time comes, we too must be slants of light, showing up, feeding others, proclaiming that Good News, as this Church has always done.
For we are heirs to that everlasting kingdom where there is neither weeping nor sighing nor hunger nor injustice but instead praise and praise and praise and praise. This is the true miracle to which all others point. This is the truth of the Sun in the dead of Winter: that this world is not the end, brothers and sisters, this world is not the end. Come up those stairs to that altar and see the real thing. Walk past the slants of these windows, the clouds of incense, the memories of miracles long ago, and taste that for which you were created. Commune with Your God and remember who you were born to be.
There is a burden to these stories, to these rememberings of miracles. There is a burden to knowing what God could do and does not. But beloved, I pray you know it is a gift. It is a gift to know our God has overcome the world, that God has redeemed us all, that this world shall burn and be reborn, just as have we. And for now we watch with sharp eyes for Elijah in our streets and our dreams, we witness what we have seen, and we plead with the world to remember itself. O worker of wonders, O maker of miracles, O Slant of light, You have been with us always. Remain with us forever.