The Rev'd Elaine Farmer
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2018
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Miracles. They’re troublesome things. Difficult to understand in our questioning world let alone accept. I don’t think understanding miracles is what faith is about but that doesn’t stop people getting uncomfortable with things that can’t be understood and explained. Modern minds, educated to observe and question and analyse, want to pick miracles apart. To sort out their component bits, work out cause and effect, pin down their glory in ways that make sense within our way of seeing things.
Our language gives us away. We call things ‘miraculous’ when they’re probably nothing of the sort. We say ‘miraculous’ when we should probably say ‘extraordinary’, or ‘coincidental’, or ‘wildly unexpected’, or just plain ‘impossible to believe’. A gravely ill person suddenly recovers and relieved families speak of miracles. An unexpected turn of events rescues someone’s life from disaster and they speak of miracles. Of course, all these things might be miracles. But we play too freely with ‘seeming knowledge’, wanting to make ‘familiar’ that which ought simply make us silent and deeply respectful.
At the same time, while miracles may be troublesome things, they are highly attractive. It’s impossible to ignore the pull of Jesus’ healing the blind and the crippled, stilling winds and storms, walking on water. Actions giving glimpses of how things were meant to be. The light of God’s will for the world, of how things are in the kingdom of God, flashes into our ordinary world, and just for that moment, the storms of chaos are stilled and nothing is impossible. But the moment passes and the ordinary rules once more: the blind do not see, the crippled limp on, and storms batter our lives as before.
But having glimpsed the possibility of God’s power, why wouldn’t we want miracles for ourselves? I’m sure we’ve all prayed for one at some stage but it just isn’t that easy. As often as not, prayers don’t seem to be answered and miracles seem in short supply. What’s worse—particularly for Episcopalians and Anglicans who like things to be tidy and orderly—is that there isn’t anything orderly or predictable about miracles. Nor is there any way of analysing and guaranteeing access to this extraordinary power of God. There’s no formula we can apply to make our virtue so obvious, or our particular causes so urgent, before God, that God will disturb the mysterious order of things to right the wrong in our lives or ease the enormity of our suffering in one flashing miracle.
In today’s gospel we hear of miracles in the ordinary course of human lives. A woman with debilitating medical problems who had bled for twelve long and painful years is made well. A little girl who is dead is brought to life again. Both were considered outcasts or unclean. Taboo. Yet Jesus didn’t spurn them. He ignored religious law that demanded he purify himself after the bleeding woman touched him. Instead, he went—carrying that ritual contamination—straight to a death bed, making himself, a holy man, doubly unclean. In the process, he gave healing where there was need, created outrage among the religiously virtuous, and provided the gossips some of the juiciest titbits they’d had to chatter about in years.
A bleeding woman and a dead girl. Why a miracle for them? We cannot claim to know the mind of God, so there are no definitive answers, only more questions. Why did the healing power of God cut right across the brokenness of their lives? Was it because of virtue, or innocence, or faith?
We get into dangerous territory here. One of the oldest truisms in Christianity is that if we pray hard enough all our prayers will be answered. It’s an attitude that, despite good intentions on the part of plenty of good Christians, has confused the issue and caused hurt and chaos in people’s lives. When answers to prayers are not apparent, or forthcoming, in the desired way, the corollary is trotted out: ‘Your faith isn’t strong enough, so God isn’t answering your prayers.’ Shame and guilt are thus heaped on suffering, and faith turned into a weapon to batter at the heart of God.
This is a long way from any kind of useful truth or understanding about miracles. Exhortations like—‘You must obey the will of God! Sacrifice yourself as Jesus sacrificed himself! Pray harder!’—these kinds of exhortations are less about faith in God than they are about coercing God. About who’s in charge of our lives, who’s in control—us or God? All of which is not faith but idolatry, the age-old business of worshiping gods of our making. Martin Luther called it justification by works. Which is simply thinking we can earn the favour of God through deeds, through how we pray, how we worship, the amount of money we give to charities or the church—how busy we are doing what we think is God’s business.
Which is all hopelessly misguided because miracles are just that: God’s business, not ours. When we forget that every moment of our lives is a gift from God we forget that it is not in our power to determine whence comes the breath of life and how the Spirit of God will work in our lives. When we forget that, we forget that it is God who works miracles, not us and not our faith. As one theologian puts it: ‘To concentrate on the strength of our own belief is to practise magic. To concentrate on the strength of God is to practise faith … This is the difference between believing our lives are in our own hands and believing they are in God’s. God, not faith, works miracles.’
Did the bleeding woman and the dead girl—or her father whom Mark called Jairus—have faith? Only with the woman is faith mentioned at all. ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well,’ Jesus said to her. If she had faith it was silent, not paraded. She was cowed by years of suffering and rejection, but nevertheless approached Jesus, content to be unnoticed, concentrating only on the strength of God’s power in Jesus to heal her. It was that strength of belief for which Jesus commended her, and when he spoke she was healed.
As for the dead girl, and her father—there’s not a word about faith from Mark, nor from Matthew and Luke who both tell these stories. The girl was dead; we know nothing about her faith. The father, a synagogue leader, believed, we can imagine, on the basis of what he saw in Jesus, that he was encountering the power of God. This man, whose very position in society demanded he obey every religious law, nevertheless knelt publicly at the feet of this radical rabbi who was challenging everything he, Jairus, stood for. That action alone declared that an outsider could restore life to his daughter. It wasn’t faith that made him act, but belief in the strength of God’s power that he encountered in Jesus.
The key player in these stories is God. The power of God was there to be encountered in Jesus and the miracles here are the explosions of belief in these people. The woman could have huddled on the edge of the road, unable to risk more rejection, and watch Jesus pass by, condemning herself to permanent isolation. The synagogue leader could have valued his social and religious position more than his daughter and buried her surrounded by flute players and wailing mourners. But in these two stories, ordinary events moved ordinary people to belief in the strength of the power of God. They saw Jesus, God acted, and everything in their lives was changed. Permanently.
I imagine all of us will go on praying for miracles. And so we should. After all, we have an excellent precedent. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for a miracle. ‘If it is possible, let this cup pass from me,’ he prayed. If that was the miracle he wanted, he didn’t get it. The miracle was that he drank from the cup because he believed more in God’s power than in his own to decide God’s purposes for the world.
So let us go on praying for miracles. Remembering that all God asks from us is what the ancient scriptures called Hesed—steadfast love, righteousness, loyalty. Let us be steadfast in our love and trust the working of miracles in our lives to God’s power. After all, it’s our business to pray; it’s God’s business to work miracles. If in prayer we put out our hands to touch the fringe of Christ’s cloak, who knows what will happen? Miracles do happen and we might just catch a glimpse of the glory of God’s kingdom.
© (The Rev’d) Elaine Farmer, 1 July 2018
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Mass., 1997, p.139
 Matthew 9:22
 Matthew 26:39