Fr. Ray Kasch August 10, 2014
Lessons Jonah 2:1-9; Psalm 29; Romans 9:1-5; St. Matthew 14:22-33
We have a number of parishioners who are either directly or indirectly related to law enforcement. They have never told me this but I want to make an educated guess about something that really chaps them. Here they are doing a job most folks don’t want to do and for which all of us wish there was no need. The pay is not what it should be but then again how much do you pay someone who puts their life on the line for us every day? The hours that they work, with the accompanying stress, would be intolerable to many. Most of the time the work that they do goes unnoticed, but as soon as our cars break down or we feel unsafe while withdrawing money from an ATM then what is the first question to come out of our collective mouths? “Why is there never a cop around when you really need one?” I can just imagine that after the 100th time they have heard this line, which was probably their 3rd day on the job, it takes every bit of self control that they can muster not to mace that person.
From a spiritual perspective, isn’t it true that we are tempted to do a very similar thing with God? He provides seed for sowing and bread for eating, He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, He cares for the widow and orphan, He holds all things together and yet His mercies largely go unnoticed. Even for those who have never darkened the door of the Church, as soon as we feel unsafe or we have an emergency or we fall into a pit of our own making, the question enters our collective minds, “Why is God never around when you really need Him?” I wonder if God tires of hearing that as much as the police do?
In today’s lessons, particularly focusing on Jonah and Peter, we see two characters who if they did not ask that question out loud it surely must have crossed their minds. Both men found themselves in a real jam. Jonah found himself in the belly of a great fish and Peter found himself sinking into the sea. Where was God? The truth of both stories was that He was right there all the time and as a result Jonah was delivered from the belly of the great fish and Jesus reached out his hand to Peter and calmed the storm
O.K. that is all well and good for these Bible stories but can we look for that kind of miraculous deliverance in our own lives in this day and time?
First let’s briefly tackle the issue whether miracles exist at all. If you watch shows about the Bible on the History Channel it is typical to hear attempts to give scientific explanations for the miracles. You may conclude from these efforts that is not necessary to believe in miracles to be a person of faith. Others argue that these stories are not to be read as historical events as much as morality plays. They are meant to encourage us that God will be with us in the difficult times of our lives.
While it may be possible to explain some miracles in the Bible in natural terms, that approach does not work for all of the miracles and besides that it misses the point. As author Frederick Beuchner said, it is also possible to look at a Rembrandt painting and find a rational explanation in terms of paint and canvas. Whether by scientific method or supernatural intervention, it is still the work of God.
Thus while it is not necessary to see everything as a result of direct divine intervention, we must be very, very careful about dismissing the miraculous. In fact I would argue that if you are a Christian you must believe in at least two miracles because we recite them in the Creed every week. Science cannot explain the Virgin birth nor the Resurrection of our Lord. In fact as St. Paul indicates, if the miracle of the resurrection were not true there would be no Christianity. So yes we believe in miracles and therefore lets consider our lessons to see what we can learn about miracles in our own lives.
The first thing that I want to point out is that our lessons involve miracles that are kind of messy. Allow me to explain.
Jonah’s miraculous deliverance from the belly of the great fish, if you read the entire story, includes the truth that it was God who created the fish to swallow Jonah in the first place. Later in the story Jonah takes rest under the shade of a plant but God created a worm to kill the plant and this drove Jonah to the edge. Then the whole story ends up going in a different direction than Jonah had hoped.
Or take Peter’s situation. He is miraculously able to step out of the boat and begin to walk on water and it seems that everything is going great. But then he sees the storm and he becomes frightened and he starts to sink. Here Peter had stepped out on faith fully trusting that God would be able to be his Rock and his Salvation and suddenly he finds himself drowning.
Here is my point. We have a tendency to call things miracles only if they go smoothly and everything turns out right, like how neatly everything wraps up at the end of a one-hour TV show. But the Bible does not support that perspective. What the Bible shows is miracles in the midst of messiness.
Let me give you a modern example. I read a book by an orthopedic surgeon who experienced death in a kayak accident. If I remember correctly she was under the water some 25 minutes before they found her and pulled her out. She vividly recalls being greeted by loving spirits and making her way to see God but she was told that she had to go back because her family would need her. She came back to life with no brain damage in spite of how long she had been dead. A few years later her teenage son was killed in an accident and she knew that was why she had been returned to this life. Miracles in the midst of messiness.
Why is it important that we realize this? It is important because it keeps us in contact with Jesus when things get messy. It has us looking to Him but not with the expectation that He will wave a magic wand and that everything will be perfect. Looking for miracles in the midst of the messiness will have us be like Peter and reach out for Jesus’ hand when we are sinking rather than believing that God has abandoned us and we find ourselves drowning in our own bitterness. The Psalmist does not say that God miraculously removes us from the valley of the shadow of death. He says that while we are there in the messiness “thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
A friend of mine posted this quote from a famous TV preacher. “Because of Christ, I am blessed. I am prosperous. I am strong. I am healthy. I am talented. I am creative. I am confident. I am secure. I am disciplined. I am focused. I am free from the past. I am free from fear. I am free from condemnation. I am free from addictions. I am free from lack. The right people are in my future. The right opportunities are headed my way. I will accomplish my dreams. I will overcome every obstacle. This is my year! Things have shifted in my favor…..” I think the only thing that he left out here is “I am woman hear me roar.”
I think that I understand what he is trying to do here, that he is trying to be a model of living in biblical optimism. Nevertheless such quotes make me shudder because much of what he is claiming, if it is indeed true for himself, is certainly not true for the rest of us and won’t be until the kingdom comes in its fullness. I fear that people will take these words and do one of two things with them. Either they will claim them for themselves and then lose their faith when they don’t happen or they turn away in hopelessness at the outset, saying to themselves, “I can never be that.” Instead of telling folks that nothing bad is every going to happen to them, he needs to be telling folks that nothing can separate them from the love of Jesus and there is a world of difference between the two.
Most of the time miracles don’t happen to make life less messy, miracles happen so that we can get through this messy life.
Jesus taught us how to live in this perspective by using one word. “Nevertheless”…He prayed, “Father if there be any other way, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” That word allowed Jesus to trust the Father even if the Father chose not to let the cup pass from Him. He looked past the events into the character of His Father and He trusted Him.
The other point I wish to make from our lesson is the result of the miracle in the Gospel account. When Jesus took Peter by the hand and calmed that storm, the text says, “And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.” Miracles should lead us to worship. They are not given to fill us with curiosity or to entertain us.
Not to long after moving here I was in a local restaurant and a gentleman, noticing my clerical collar, started to discuss religion with me. I thought that it would be a “fishing” opportunity but actually he did not want to discuss faith. He wanted to convince me how wrong I was for not being in his particular part of the Church. As we ended our discussion he said, “Well you need to come to my Church, because when our preacher lays hands on you and prays for you, you will fall down.”
Some of you have told me of experiencing such a thing, so that may be of God, but herein lay the danger. The danger is of the miracle eclipsing the message. Note that my brother did not say, “Come to my church because you will meet Jesus through Word and Sacrament” or “Come to my church because you will experience the love and presence of Jesus.” He said “Come to my church so you can you fall down.” At least in his case, the experience with God was not leading to worship and that is cause to wonder about the validity of his experience. Miracles are not given to titillate or entertain, they lead to worship.
The Diocese of Texas has included in their mission statement that Christians should be a people of miraculous expectations. I love that and I think it is right because that is the kind of God we serve. But we also need to keep our miraculous expectations in perspective. Even greater than temporal deliverances, as experienced by Jonah and Peter, is the inner miracle of the forgiveness of sins and God putting a new heart within us. It is this miracle that lasts for eternity and this miracle most certainly leads to worship.
Hang on to these stories of Jonah and Peter. All of us sooner or later find ourselves in the belly of a giant fish or sinking in the sea and when we do these stories of deliverance will comfort us. They are assurances that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
These stories need to inspire our prayers of deliverance for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East who are suffering unspeakably at the hands of Muslim terrorists. We need to pray that as they are tempted to ask, “Where is God when I really need him?” that they will know that He is already there because He has never ever left them.
We need to use these stories to inspire our witness to people all around us who are in desperate need of deliverance. We need to be like Jonah and boldly declare to them “Salvation is of the Lord.”Amen.