Sunday, January 29, 2012

Are You Ready for a Miracle?

Mark 1:21-28
Are You Ready for a Miracle?

        Sometimes when I read a biblical passage, I feel …… awkward.  By that I mean I am wondering exactly what I am supposed to do with the text.  Sometimes the scripture takes me out of my comfort zone.  Sometimes the text seems irrelevant for a sophisticated 21st century audience.  This morning might be one of those times.  Jesus entered the Synagogue and began to preach.  The folks listening were astounded by his words.  Mark wrote, “He spoke as one having authority, not as one of the scribes.”  I have no problem with this part of the text. Ever heard James Forbes preach?  Forbes is an African-American with a smallish voice that seldom seems to rise above a whisper.    When he begins, Forbes appears to barely be 5 ½ feet tall.   But by the time he finishes he could play center for the Los Angeles Lakers.  I remember hearing him preach to a room full of Presbyterian ministers.  Trust me, that is a tough crowd.  He preached for over ninety minutes.  By the end of the sermon Forbes had us waving our arms over our heads, singing “This Little Light of Mine”, begging for more.  I thought the whole room had gone Pentecostal.    That is the power of someone who is filled with the spirit of God.  I have no doubt when Jesus preached, the room fell quiet as folks turned all their attention on this young Rabbi and when he finished, they probably begged for more.  Jesus’ ability to preach is not what causes me to have problems with this text.
        As Jesus was preaching a man stood before him and cried, “Have you come to destroy us?  I know you are the Holy One of God!”   Even this doesn’t bother me.  I have had plenty of folks comment on my sermons.  I was preaching once in an African-American congregation and a lady in the back stood up and hollered, “Help him Jesus, help him.”   And she was right, I needed help.   My belief has always been if one is brave enough to engage in this “holy monologue” then one has to be courageous enough to hear the not so complimentary comments that are offered.  Criticism is part of the job and your comments are welcomed.  But you might want to wait till after the service.
        What frightens me about this text is how Jesus responded to his critic. Jesus said, “Be silent, come out!”  Instantly an unclean spirit left the man’s body.          (stop) 
        I saw “The Exorcist” when I was 23 years old.  I had just completed Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Polk where I was instructed by our nations finest to overcome my fears and face my fiercest enemies. My instructors would have not been very proud of me that evening because that movie nearly scared me to death.  I mean when Linda Blair’s head did a 360, my stomach was performing the same feat.  Yet when I left the theatre, I didn’t jump at shadows or look under the car.  It was just a movie.  It was scary, but still it was just a movie.
        I am not suggesting the supernatural doesn’t exist.  I am not suggesting there is no such thing as the personification of evil.  I am not even suggesting that somewhere in history there might have been exorcisms that worked.  I am just saying that is not part of the world in which I reside.  I know mental illness exists.  I have witnessed some folks who are obviously possessed by things I do not understand.  But I am a rational guy, pretty much convinced that it takes more than a wave of a hand to heal a wounded soul.
        Yet here is Jesus, who with a word quells the dispirited; with a word, makes the lame walk; with a word, raises the dead to life.  And then we who believe in Jesus are told if we have enough faith, we can perform the same miracles. 
        There is something going on here that make me a little nervous.  I do not doubt that God has the power to heal, but I know there are charlatans out there who play on the emotions of folks who are hoping for a miracle.  Folks in my profession are not shy about laying their hands on the afflicted and asking that a limb, or spirit, or heart be healed.  Trust me when I say I believe in the power of prayer.  But I also believe more damage than good is often done by these unholy exercises.
        Ever see the movie, “Leap of Faith?”  It starred Steve Martin who played a faith healer.  He made the rounds in  Texas creating a carnival like atmosphere where he promised healings to a people had little else to hope for but a miracle.  Martin’s line was always “Do you believe God can heal you?”  Now who in their right mind is going to say no?  We trust in the power of God, we have witnessed folks recover from cancer and heart attacks, we believe those miracle stories in the Bible yet this is a dangerous question which preys on the soul of anyone who is desperate.  “Do you believe God can heal you?”   Of course we do, but what happens if a healing does not take place.  Charlatans like the character played by Martin can then say, “Obviously your faith was lacking.”  The failure of a miracle is placed on the already burdened soul of the afflicted, doing more harm than the disease itself.
        In this particular scripture Jesus didn’t say to the possessed man, “Do you have the faith that God can heal you?’  Jesus rather said, “Be silent, and come out.”   The man is healed, not by his faith, but by the power of a word.
        At first glance this puts an incredible burden on those who are agents of healing and reconciliation.  It would seem if our faith was strong enough, if our words are spoken with enough authority, cancer would be eliminated, mental health would be restored, and wars a thing of the past.  This text causes considerable conflict within my soul because I want to believe that there is the possibility that I possess the healing touch of God but my faith is challenged by the reality of what I witness each and every day.  People get sick and people die.  That is simply a fact of life.  And if that is the case, where is the good news?  Where is the gospel?   
        A number of years ago a middle aged stranger entered my office.  He was a bit unkempt and had a rather wild look in his eye.  Jack said, “You don’t know me and I don’t know you but a preacher down the street said we ought to get to know each other.  I have been diagnosed as schizophrenic but I am not.  I have been tossed out of two or three churches. I have no trust in organized religion. I am not about to become a Presbyterian.  But I believe in God and I believe God loves me.  Can we talk?”  
        My initial thought was, “Why did one of my colleagues send this crazy guy my direction?”  But Jack was already in my office so I asked if he would like to sit and talk.  Jack never sat down.  He ranted and raved for an hour, never letting me get a word in.  I finally said, “Jack, I have another appointment in two minutes.  Would you like to come back?”
        He stopped, and to my surprise calmly said, “Yeah, this has been helpful.”  Twice a month, for the next five years, Jack would come to my office for an hour.  Mostly he would talk and I would listen.  Sometimes I would hear the same story over and over again.    At the end of each conversation Jack would say, “I still believe in God and I still believe God loves me.”
        In December, Jack came to my office for the last time.  He knew I was leaving Clinton and told me the trip to Nellysford was a little further than he wanted to travel for our bi-monthly sessions.  As we got ready to part I asked Jack the question I had wanted to ask for years.  “Jack, why did you keep coming? I’m not sure the progress you have made has anything to do with our conversations.”
        He looked at me and said, “Quite the contrary.  Each time I leave, I always say, “I still believe in God and I still believe God loves me.”  And you always respond, “Yes Jack, God does love you.”  Do you how few times I have heard those words?”
        Sometimes we forget the power of a word.  Sometimes we never realize the healing balm of a phrase especially when offered in prayer.  Many of us pray everyday that someone will recover from an illness or a difficult situation in life.  We routinely pray for miracles which may never happen.  But when we pray, we remind the ones with whom we pray that God’s presence, God’s love will be with the one who suffers… that God’s presence, God’s love will be with the family of the one who suffers… that God’s presence, God’s love will be with the community of the one who suffers.  By doing so, we offer hope not just for the moment but for tomorrow.     
        Is that any different than a faith healer?  I think it is.  We acknowledge that God’s time is not necessarily our time, but God remains with our wounded souls even when we feel desperately alone.  We are not faith healers, but we are dispensers of Gods Holy Words of grace and compassion.  We are not miracle workers, but we are believers, who awaken one’s willingness to be made whole again.
        Do not be afraid to speak the Holy Words.  They create spaces of freedom and places of healing and communion.  Do not be afraid to speak the Holy Words.  Transformations and resurrections do happen, even if they don’t meet our particular timetable.
                                        To God be the Glory.  Amen

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