Sunday, June 05, 2016

God Doesn't Owe Us Anything, But Gives Us Miracles of New Life All the Time

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 5, 2016

Year C: The Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:8-24
Psalm 146
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

God Doesn’t Owe Us Anything, But Gives Us Miracles of New Life All the Time
            In today’s gospel lesson we pick up right where we left off last week.
            If you were here, you’ll remember that we heard the story of the centurion’s highly valued slave who had become gravely ill.
            The centurion sends a group of Jewish elders to ask Jesus to heal the slave, which he does – from a far – Jesus never comes into physical contact with the slave or the centurion.
            It’s a miracle.
            And then in today’s passage, we hear the story of a widow who has lost her only son. They’re carrying him out of the village, taking him to his burial place, when Jesus arrives.
            It’s a sad scene and we’re told that Jesus, like any of us would, has compassion for the widow, understanding of course the pain of losing a child but also the fact that the widow has most likely lost her main economic support.
            Without her only son, maybe some other relatives would take care of her – or maybe not.
            Compassionate Jesus says, “Young man I say to you, rise!”
            And the dead man rose and began to speak.
            Don’t you wonder what he had to say?
            It’s a miracle.
            To be honest, I find miracles to be a very difficult subject because they raise the tough question of why some people receive a miracle and others don’t.
            After all, back in the time of Jesus there must have been lots of widows who lost their only sons.
            There must have been lots of masters who lost their highly valued slaves.
            Just like today there must have been lots of good, honest, hard-working, and loving people who faced all kinds of misfortune – yet Jesus didn’t raise every dead person, didn’t heal every sick person, didn’t fix every problem, right?
            I find miracles difficult because in my job I’m often with people who are in extreme situations – the doctor has just given a grim diagnosis, a relationship is crumbling, there’s been an accident, the pile of bills is overwhelming – people in extreme situations who often pray really hard for a miracle, who sometimes even expect a miracle - if they only pray hard enough.
            And, as you’d guess, they often ask me to pray for a miracle, which I understand but try to resist, preferring to pray for strength, grace, patience, courage, and faith.
            And, then, if the miracle doesn’t come, people are sometimes bitterly disappointed and sometimes even angry at God who, it seems, has let them down so terribly.
            All perfectly understandable, right?
            As I’ve thought about this, though, I keep coming back to a fact that we often forget: God doesn’t owe us anything.
            God doesn’t owe us anything.
            Everything that has been, is, or will be, is all thanks to God.
            We didn’t do, can’t do, anything to deserve life.
            So, God doesn’t owe us anything.
            But, God still gives us miracles of new life – all the time.
            It seems to me that miracles aren’t really about physical healing, as wonderful as that is.
            After all, the centurion’s slave eventually died, as did the widow’s son, as did Lazarus.
            The people who ate all of that bread and fish that Jesus had multiplied got hungry again – got hungry the very next day.
             Miracles aren’t so much about physical healing but they are maybe the most extreme, most dramatic, signs of who God is and what God does all the time.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.
            During one of the beautiful afternoons this past week, Sue and I were sitting outside with a friend, enjoying the feel of the sun on our skin. This good feeling got our friend to think cosmic thoughts and he mentioned that it takes eight minutes for the light and the warmth of the sun to make it’s way through the cold death of space to earth, giving just the right amount of light and warmth for the flowers outside church to bloom and for all of life, all of us, to exist.
            It’s a miracle.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.
            For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been praying for our sister Jeanette who, as you know, had major surgery a couple of weeks ago.
            Although she’s doing very well now, her recovery hasn’t been a straight line and there were some tough days. Throughout that experience, I was struck by the genuine care that the Medical Center staff showed her. For these professionals who deal with sick and suffering people everyday, Jeanette wasn’t just a body – she wasn’t just a problem to be solved - but a person of great value.
            As it happens, I was visiting her in the ICU when the doctors and nurses came to perform a procedure that would determine how much longer she spent in the hospital.
            Jeanette’s son was there, too, and we were asked to step outside. As they closed the curtain I could see on their faces the hope and determination that they could use their skill and their technology to help her.
            A few minutes went by – a few tense minutes of waiting in the hallway when I could feel tears forming in my eyes – and then one of the nurses (who looked like she was about 11 years old, by the way) pulled back the curtain just a little and with a big smile gave us a thumbs up.
            It’s a miracle.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.
            On Monday I got a call from a funeral home asking if I was able to conduct a funeral here for a long ago parishioner named Linda Davis, who had died very suddenly. One minute she was the picture of health and the next she was gone.
            Very difficult.
            Of course I never say no to a funeral and over the next day and a half with the help of Linda’s daughter, Diane, we put together the service that was here on Wednesday afternoon.
            Now, I was expecting maybe a handful of people to attend – after all there had been very little notice. Being optimistic, we printed 50 bulletins.
            There were over 100 people here in church.
            And, I was so moved by the outpouring of love for Linda - Linda who obviously had meant so much to so many – meant so much that they dropped whatever they were doing and came to church, even though, as I discovered, there weren’t too many regular church-goers in the congregation.
            During the service and after, people told great stories, were even able to laugh, and tears of joy got mixed in with tears of sadness.
            Linda is with God now and will be very much missed, but healing has begun – and Linda’s love lives on.
            It’s a miracle.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.
            I’ve mentioned before how some of the clergy here in Jersey City gather for prayer at the sites of homicides, one week after they’ve occurred.
            One disturbing thing I’ve noticed lately is that the makeshift shrines with candles and bottles and t-shirts aren’t lasting for even a week. It’s like these murders never happened.
            Anyway, on Thursday morning I was the first to arrive at Audubon Park, where Tyrell Franklin had been shot and killed the week before.
            As I was sitting on a park bench wondering if anybody else would show up, a woman stopped, looked at me, and said with a lot of surprise:
            “Are you a priest?!?”
            “Yes, I am.”
            She said, “I’ve never seen a priest sit in this park before!”
            And then she told me her name and gave me her story, or part of her story, a sad and familiar story of addiction, addiction for more than twenty-five years, failed attempts at getting clean while people around her either kicked their addiction or ended up in an early grave.
            She asked me to pray over her and then some of her “friends” called to her and she was gone.
            Not five minutes later, there she was again, saying, “I’m back!”
            I’ll admit that I thought that, OK, now she was going to hit me up for money, but no, she just wanted to tell me more of her story and to ask why she couldn’t get clean despite trying so many times.
            Where was her miracle?
            I didn’t have an easy answer to that, but told her that I’d add her to our prayer list and lots of people would be praying for her.
            She liked that - and I think and hope that for a few minutes anyway she could see the possibility of new life and know that she’s not alone in her struggle.
            And, I’ve decided I need to spend more time sitting on park benches in my priest outfit and see what happens!
            It’s a miracle.
            Miracles aren’t so much about physical healing but they are signs, signs of who God is and what God does all the time.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.