Do You Believe In Miracles?


Inspired by John 11:28-44 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W

Do you believe in miracles? A line from one of my favorite songs goes, “I don't believe in miracles, and they happen every day. I don't believe in Jesus, but I'm praying anyway.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of expressing this disconnect between faith and reality, between what we want to believe and what we can see. If you ask me if I believe in miracles, well, probably like the writer of that song, my answer would depend on the day, or my well-being, or some other factor. But what is a miracle anyway? How do we even define a miracle? Is it always something supernatural? Is it always something unexpected? Is it always something positive? Is it always of divine origin? Are miracles objectively true, or are miracles in the eyes of the beholders? As you can see, it isn’t easy to define what a miracle is. 

What intrigues me about the story that we read from the Gospel of John, is that the actual miracle, the raising of Lazarus, ends up being a very small part of the story. The reality turns out to be, that what we witness in the raising of Lazarus, is what has already happened throughout the story to all the other characters. It really is masterful storytelling on the part of our author. So, let’s dive a little deeper to see what I’m talking about here. We started this story last week, and in the first half of this story, the focus is on Martha. Martha enters this story upset, and not just over her dead brother. She enters this story in a state of disillusionment over what she sees as either a failure of Jesus’, or of God, as she had known God. “If YOU had been here my brother would have never died!” 

I imagine her pointing an accusatory finger in Jesus’ face, yelling through tear-filled sobs. Jesus simply says, “Your brother will rise.” “I know, [she probably said annoyedly], I know that he’ll [eventually] rise in the resurrection on the last day.” As if to say, my brother just died, Jesus, I’m not in the mood for a Sunday school lesson. Or I guess it would be a Sabbath school lesson back then? Anyway, without missing a beat, Jesus looks her in the eye and says, “I am the resurrection!” As if to say, “Now, here, right before your eyes, Martha! It’s happening inside you, in this very conversation!” Because she responded with, “I believe you are the messiah, the Son of God.” You see, in that conversation with Jesus, surrounding the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, not only are Martha’s spirits raised, but her perspective of Jesus is raised. 

The “miracle” hasn’t even happened yet, and yet I can safely say that from that conversation forward, Martha never looked at Jesus the same way again. I assure you, after that conversation, he was no longer just “Rabbi” to her. She had been raised. But that was last week, in today’s story the focus moves to her sister Mary, who was not there to hear this conversation. Martha goes back home and tells Mary that Jesus is waiting for her nearby. Mary goes to meet him, and she too is upset with Jesus. She says the same thing that Martha did, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The first time was bad enough but twice? Now Jesus was walking around with two daggers sticking out of his heart! Which might be why, he weeps with her. 

I have to pause the story here and bask in how profound a moment this is, and not just in Jesus crying, but in Mary and Martha’s accusatory comments. Here they are, on a first-name basis with the savior of the cosmos, and they’re angry with him, to his face! And I can’t help but stop here and reflect on our own relationship with Christ. Because we too are on a first-name basis with the Chosen One, and I don’t know about you but I’m angry with him all the time! I mean, we always hash it out and end up being ok, or at least civil with each other, but that was a learned behavior over a longer-than-it-should-have-been part of my life. Because that is not the way that I grew up thinking about God. I grew up equating God to my parents, whom you did not talk back to, whom you did not express your displeasure with their performance as a parent. 

And yet, that is exactly what Martha, and now Mary, do with Jesus. And sure, he cried a bit about it, but I can’t help but believe that this exchange between them strengthened their relationship. This exchange of erupting emotions, this exchange of piercing words, this exchange of tears between two people, one of whom just happens to be the Messiah, raised both their hearts and minds, allowing them to see each other in a way they had not before. So now Mary is raised, and the “miracle” has still yet to happen. So now Jesus is raised, into this deeper relationship with his friends Martha and Mary. Do you remember that first time you argued and/or cried with a friend of yours? You’re never the same after that, are you? And often in a good way. Neither were they. They had been raised. And then we have the famous miracle of the raising of Lazarus. 

It gets a whopping one verse at the end of this story, which begs the question, is this thee miracle of this story? Because it almost reads as the backdrop, to a more profound lesson that our author is trying to highlight for us, that miracles happen all around, us all the time, if we define them appropriately. Likewise, resurrections happen all around us, all the time, if we define them appropriately. To use a recent example from my own life, my youngest daughter Jesha was in the hospital all last week. She was fighting a mysterious bacterial infection that caused a painful abscess to form on the side of her throat. She had to have emergency surgery at one point to drain the abscess but she came out fine and is all better. Now, I think most people, especially those praying for her healing, would consider that the miracle here. 

But another part of that week tells a different story. You see, my wife Sara was in LA on business, and I don’t think either of us expected her to rush home for this. Maybe we were in denial as to how serious this was, which is pretty common with people and their families in the hospital, but we assured her that we would be fine. So, there we were, Jesha and I, together for 10-12 hours a day, in the hospital, caring for each other, in what turned out to be quite a horrifying experience. But the emphasis I would put on all of that is, together. In our little half of that cramped hospital room, we talked, as much as she could, we laughed, as much as she could, we cried, we slept, we watched our beloved Oakland A’s get their butts kicked every day, and then we left, but most importantly, we did not leave the same father and daughter that we walked in as a week prior. 

My friends, every time a relationship is deepened, no matter how painful the experience might be, you both risen.  

Every time a relationship is strengthened, we risen.

Every time comfort is given, you all are risen!

Every time understanding is achieved, y’all are risen!

Every time forgiveness is given, y’all are risen!

Every time you are vulnerable with another, y’all are risen! 

Every time you see more clearly, feel more deeply, love more unconditionally, y’all are risen!

Every time you experience selflessness, y’all are risen!

Every time you are valued and appreciated, y’all are risen!

So, I guess I believe in miracles after all. 

I hope you do too. 



Saint John the Baptist: The Patron Saint of Agnostics

 Inspired by Luke 7:18–23 as found in The Women's Lectionary For The Whole Church, Year W

One thing that drives me up the wall is indecisiveness. I don’t have much patience for it, and the older I get the worse it gets. I bet we all have someone in our group of friends or family though that is indecisive. You know, the one who can never decide on where to go to eat, or what movie to watch, or which TV show to binge next. Raise your hand if you have someone in your group of friends or family that is like that. Those of you who are not raising your hand, that probably means that you are that indecisive one in the group. I mean look, you couldn’t even decide to raise your hand or not! I’m just teasing. To be fair, my aversion to indecisiveness probably comes from my upbringing. One of my mom’s favorite sayings was one that I cannot repeat here, but it’s a phrase that included a certain four-letter word and the word pot.  

It’s a humorous, albeit crass phrase that gets at the heart of making a decision. If you don’t know it, ask someone later, but not right now. To be fair, if we’re honest, we all have indecisive moments in our lives. I sometimes don’t like to decide because I want to make sure my decision is acceptable to everyone. The joke there of course is that no decision is acceptable to everyone. So, just make a decision already, I tell myself. Other times there are just too many choices to choose from! And other times we genuinely don’t care which choice is made so we just step back and let others decide, which is fine unless everyone else in the group also feels that way. Decision-making is an important part of our lives, in our work lives, our personal lives, and even in our spiritual lives. But maybe not as much as we’ve been taught. 

A nasty habit developed in the Christian church, particularly in America, that began all the way back in colonial America. And that was this idea that one had to make a decision to follow Christ or not, to believe in Christ or not, to have faith or not. It’s a very black or white kind of theology, right or wrong, left or right, yes or no. You’d think I’d like it. But I’m Lutheran, so I don’t. Nothing in life is that simple, including our spiritual lives. And our Gospel reading is a perfect example of this, and it’s also why I think that John the Baptist should be the patron saint of agnostics. Just so we’re on the same page, an atheist is someone who has decided that God doesn’t exist, which I can respect, for the mere decision alone. They have made a choice and have moved on.  

Side note, some of the most profound and respectful religious conversations I’ve had have been with atheists. As long as they know you’re not going to try and change their mind, they are some of the deepest thinkers out there. They are the ones that have not decided. The simplest definition of an agnostic is someone who believes that if there is a divine being, it is unknown and unknowable to humans, so for that group, God remains a big question mark. Another way to describe agnosticism is to say that since humans can’t prove the existence of God, then one cannot believe or disbelieve in a God. Well, if we use that definition then we’re all quite close to being agnostics! They taught me a lot of things in seminary but proving that God exists was not one of them! 

"St. John the Baptist in Prison, Visited by Salomé"
Guercino, 1591–1666
So, let’s turn our attention to our Gospel reading. Here we get this little scene between John and two of his disciples. Now, already, your Spidey senses should have gone off, because yes, it says two of John’s disciples. Not disciples of Jesus, disciples of John. John still had disciples. Now, why would that be? Well, many scholars have concluded that it was because he was still on the fence about Jesus. I mean, think about it, if he completely, 100% bought into what Jesus was selling, why would he need or even have disciples of his own still? Followers don’t have followers. Think of it this way, you would never hear a pastor say that they have followers. Can you imagine if someone asked me how big our church was and my answer was, “Oh I have about a hundred followers.” 

If you ever hear a pastor say that, run! Cuz that ain’t no church, that’s a cult! To be clear, I’m not accusing John of being a cult leader. His following started before Jesus began his ministry, before there was someone for John to follow. But what about after? Why didn’t he and his followers all go and start following Jesus after his baptism? Well, because they’re human. It’s not very realistic to think that 100% of everyone that encountered Jesus, even John’s very own followers, just dropped everything, including everything they believed prior, and started following and believing Jesus wholeheartedly! That’s just not how we humans work. And not just as a group, but also as individuals. I’d be lying to you if I stood up here and told you that God expects 100% of your heart and mind, 100% of the time!  

No human can do that, and God knows that. Which is why you don’t hear any judgment when John the Baptist, sends a few questions to Jesus, from his lonely prison cell. And they were not easy questions, to say the least. John asks his cousin Jesus, “Are you really the one we’ve been waiting for? Or should we keep looking?” Yikes. I don’t know if that was harder to ask or harder to hear. But in typical Jesus fashion, he doesn’t give him a direct answer. Like, how hard would it have been for Jesus just to say, “Yes. Yes, John, I am the one.” Would that have been so hard? Instead he said, “those who were blind receive sight, those who were lame walk, those who were diseased-in-skin are cleansed, those who were deaf hear, those who were dead are raised, those who are poor have good news proclaimed to them.” 

Which was just Jesus’ way of saying, “Consider the evidence.” Consider the source, sure, but first, consider the evidence. Another way to ask this would be, are people being healed or hurt? Likewise, are the vulnerable given hope or judgment? Those are good questions to ask if you’re ever wondering if something or someone is of divine origin or not. Not that following Jesus means perfection, far from! We’ve all hurt people but on the whole, when taking a look at the big picture of our lives, have we hurt or healed? Have we given hope or judged the vulnerable? We have this tremendous opportunity right now in our world, yes, even in little ol’ Auburn, to bring hope and healing. And one of those many groups, I would like add to Jesus’ little list.  

Jesus mentions the blind, lame, diseased, deaf, I would add the questioning, the doubting, the unknowing, the skeptics, the proof-seekers, the fence-sitters. We have this amazing opportunity, the same one that Jesus gave his cousin John when he was in the throws of questioning from his dark, lonely prison cell, to comfort the questioners, to ease the minds of doubters, to sit on the fence with fence-sitters; because, as we know all too well, comfort doesn’t always come with answers, but sometimes it comes with sitting alongside others, and maybe even admitting that we too have got a lot of questions. Because faith isn’t about having all the answers, or being 100% committed, or making this big one-time all-encompassing decision for Christ! Sometimes it’s just taking a step. Sometimes it’s just taking a seat. Sometimes it’s just asking a question. Whatever it is for you, I pray that it is met with comfort, openness, and love. And it it’s not, you just send them to ol’ Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of agnostics, of the questioning, of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.