My first church was in Boston, Massachusetts, and like Oregon there’s a lottery there. A woman there became convinced that God was going to grant her a miracle and she was going to win the lottery. So each Wednesday night she would pray to God to help her win the Powerball. She prayed the first Wednesday for a miracle and the numbers were drawn and she didn’t win. She prayed the second Wednesday for a miracle and the numbers were drawn and she didn’t win. She prayed the third Wednesday for a miracle, and she didn’t win, and she had it. She yelled at God asking “Why God Why won’t you grant me this miracle?”
And suddenly, the heavens opened and God replied, “Ma’am, you gotta meet me halfway on this…buy a ticket.”
We love stories about miracles. Stories like that one about miraculous intervention are found in all genres of literature. From jokes like that, to “His Mysterious Ways” in Guideposts magazine, to stranger than fiction articles in the newspaper or on Facebook forwards, to the bible story read today, we love stories about miracles and God intervening to change someone’s life, whether we believe them or not.
I think we do this because telling stories about the mystery of miracles is easier than explaining them, or talking about how a Christian should think about them. I’m mostly thankful for the three people out of our church community who were struggling with this topic enough to put it to words and force your clergy to talk about a difficult topic. Donna’s away, I was all set to just show cat videos this week for the sermon, but instead, we’re talking about miracles. And we’re all better for it.
So. To help us understand this miracle story in Scripture today, and how it applies to our lives, I need to tell you about a trip I recently went on.
Framework: Wants v. Needs
Last May I had the opportunity to visit Dreamworks Studios in Glendale, California. The group was mostly pastors and bishops who wanted to learn more about how Dreamworks tells stories. That’s their business, in some ways that’s our business. They have commercial success, but we have been telling stories that matter for a bit longer. But we met with a Methodist laywoman who is their executive over brand management, and we met with Tim Howard, the director of Over the Hedge, Antz, and Home. Fascinating people.
One of the takeaways was that every every good story involves a reversal. A reversal is when a character has a conflict between what they want and what they need. And they choose one over the other, usually while the Rolling Stones play in the background.
- In Over the Hedge, RJ the raccoon wants independence and food security, but he needs family and friends.
- In Frozen, Queen Elsa wants solitude and to be left alone but she really needs love to thaw frozen hearts, and to let it go, and to build a snowman (I’m just being mean to the parents right now, I’m sorry).
- It’s in most of our favorite movies. Rick goes to Casablanca to forget Ilsa, but what does he really need? To remember her forever.
- Michael in the Godfather wants to escape his family, but he needs to lead his family.
- Darth Vader wants to rule the galaxy and live completely in the Dark Side, but he needs to remember his Light (good) side through his son Luke. (spoiler alert)
There’s always a conflict between what a character wants and what they need. And we love these stories, but we also need them. We need them. Seeing how the hero and shero deal with this conflict informs our own life choices.
I want a new computer, but I need to feel effective in my current technology. I want my family to listen to me, but I need to listen to them. I want to overwork to provide for myself or my family but I need balance so I don’t miss out on fun life.
This common conflict between wants and needs gives a helpful framework to better understand what message we are drawing from the Scripture today.
Scripture Application of Framework
The story for today has two reversals that I think hit home for us.
First, the disciples want to cast out this demon that was causing epileptic seizures to the boy, but they can’t. Previously in the Gospel of Mark, they had been empowered to cast out demons and they did. They knew the right things, they were living it out, but they failed. They couldn’t heal this boy…from Peter on down to Judas, none had the power. This is an alarming gap in their knowledge that has to be downright devastating to them. The reversal is the Disciples wanted to heal the boy, but they needed to understand the power of the Holy Spirit was more than healing and miracles.
The second reversal is awful. The worst line in this whole story is the last one. This boy could only be healed through prayer. What? Epilepsy is solved only through prayer? We aren’t a people who believe like this, are we? We are sciency people, many medical folks in the congregation today. This is just superstition, right? We want Jesus to be wrong, we want to believe that science has solved most things. But that’s not the reversal I’m seeing. The reversal is that we want believe this is superstition and pre-scientific thinking, but we need to recognize that we apply the same logic today.
We may smile at this story and the people thought he had a demon and shake our heads at the primitive beliefs of superstitious people. But we are not far removed. It wasn’t too long ago that people thought AIDS was God’s retribution to people who are gay, or believe that children born with cerebral palsy were that way because of the sins of their parents, and people still believe that today. Even little comments about karma and “well, I guess I deserved that because of something I did last week” show we apply this thinking more than we think.
We share a common humanity, common fears, and much in common with the Scripture today.
Our Application of Framework
Indeed, this story hits so close to home for us in ways that we may not be able to speak of, that we’re struggling to maintain our composure in our chairs. Because many of you know the pain and worry of the father for his child. You know his horror at watching his child throw himself into the fire, into the water, perhaps metaphorically at your own child’s self-destructive choices. You know the feeling of helplessness, unable to find a remedy to an illness or a situation. You know what it is like to look for answers late at night, yell while in the isolation of your locked car, debate with the scribes for hours, surf WebMD, and find nothing. You know what it is like to be unable to pray. We know what it’s like.
And so what do we do? What do we do in a world that seems so unfair, where miracles seem to happen at random, and not often for the people that we care about?
There’s only one thing to do but we don’t like it. We know what we want but we also know what we need. In the Bible story, the man wants his child to be healed, but Jesus says he needs faith. The disciples want to cast out the demon, but they need to have faith. The scribes want Jesus to be wrong, they want to maintain their power over powerless disciples, but they need to have faith. It seems like a simple sermon. We just need more faith in God’s healing powers and our worries will be solved. We need to cease our unbelief and our stumbling block is removed. End of sermon.
I suspect it might not work for you. Here’s why it doesn’t work for me.
It bothers me when we think we have to do something to earn God’s love. The powerless disciples were afraid their failure to heal was linked to their unbelief. We today share that fear that the effectiveness of our prayers is linked to our unbelief. Lesser pastors than yours would say that you need to give more in the offering plate to show your belief, or you need to volunteer as a Sunday School teacher, and then your prayers will be answered. There’s a problem when you have to do something to earn the right for a miracle.
No. The biggest reform of the Christian tradition came about when people believed you had to do something to receive the blessing. 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed the 99 Theses of things wrong with the Church when their priests were selling indulgences to forgive sins…for a price. 250 years later, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, preached prevenient grace, God loving us before we were aware, while Jonathan Edwards said we were sinners in the hands of an angry god and deserved hell unless we repented and believed. 250 years later, I wonder what message our world needs today? We need a miracle we can believe in.
I think prayer leads to miracles in two different ways.
First, most of the time we pray for miracles in the form of healing for those of us who are suffering. Our prayer lists on Sundays are typically prayers for someone in need of healing. Why do we do this? What do we believe this matters? God probably knows what is going on with all of these people. It’s not like God hears and says “Oh, I should check up on that person!”
No. We pray because it changes us. It unifies us with each other. It brings more care into a world that often couldn’t care less. I think when Jesus said that only prayer could heal the boy, he meant a community of prayer and care. The earlier and more holistic a community is that cares for mental, physical, and spiritual needs, then miracles can happen.
I believe God offers inspiration and nudgings to those afflicted with disease or cancer up until the point of irrevocability. Then God is an abiding presence for them. That turning point is different for each person, depending on where they live. By supporting health care, by helping people get more exposure to doctors and the health care system, we are working with God to bring more healing into the world, we are delaying the turning points, not just those of us in the medical profession, but all of us caring for one another.
There’s tremendous joy and mission that comes from seeing the miracle stories as invitations to serve. When we regard prayer and miracles as partnership with God–and not a sought manipulation of God–then we find a whole new dimension for our lives. And that’s a miracle indeed.
The second miracle is to change one thing about our prayers changes our relationship with God for the better. Professor Marjorie Suchocki, a United Methodist theologian from Claremont School of Theology, says in her book “In God’s Presence”: “In all prayers, it is best not to dictate to God precisely what the form of well-being can be. We must release prayers to God, and let God fill in the blanks, for only God knows the fullness of the circumstances…in doing so, we release not only the prayers but ourselves to a new future.” We do not know what our prayers do, we do not know often how to pray, but all that matters is that we believe that they matter and trust God to fill in the blanks.
Call to action
In closing, hear the Good News. The most important sentence in that story for today is when the father is questioned about his faith and he says “I believe. Help my unbelief!” I believe. Help my unbelief.
The word “Believe” has no object or reference. It doesn’t refer to God, to Jesus, to the healing power, to anything. It just says “I believe.” All that matters for the miracle is the faith, not the actions you do to prove your faith. A resilient faith will lead to action, yes, but the action is not what drives it. Like Pope Francis, who recently said: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” It’s a good quote because the belief leads to the miracle, not the action.
My favorite science fiction television series is 10 years old called Firefly, and they made a sequel movie to it called Serenity. In it, there’s a constant conflict between the spaceship’s captain who is a staunch atheist, and one of his crew who is a priest. In the last installment of this series, the priest lay dying, held by the captain. As the rest of the crew run for the medic, the captain says that he wants to be bored by more sermons telling him what to believe. In his last breath, the priest says “I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it.” He dies. The captain realizes he wants his ship to be left alone from humanity that turned him into an outlaw, but he needs to use his ship to save that humanity. He believes in his crew and that what they are doing matters and nothing stands in his way.
- A mission worker in Subsaharan Africa believes clean water matters so much that they change the world.
- A Teacher believes education matters so much that they change the world.
- A CEO believes equal treatment matters so much their company models change for the world.
- A musician believes in music so much that they advocate for schools to keep the arts funded over the tests.
What is it you believe? I hope you believe in Christ. I hope you put your trust and your faith in Christ. But if you don’t, then what you believe, what gives your life meaning and purpose, believe it.
Gilbert Fowler White in the Journal of France and Germany, quotes Albert Einstein as saying “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.’” I hope you believe that miracles are possible and they are possible through a community of healing and love.
Glory be to God. Amen.