A sermon preached at St. George’s Anglican Church Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King, Sunday October 28, 2018.
Proper 30 – Year B
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Blind Bartimaeus asked Jesus for mercy; Jesus restored to him his sight and said, “your faith has made you well.” And he got up, and followed Jesus joyfully on the road.
But what about those who pray to Jesus for mercy, and their affliction continues?
Christians get sick at the same rate as every one else does. We lose our jobs. We lose our homes to hurricanes and civil wars. We get cancer and infection and arthritis. And at some time in most of our lives, we cry out to God, asking for help; and we cry out to God on behalf of one another.
And we remember stories like Blind Bartimaeus, and Jesus saying, “your faith has made you well”, and perhaps we wonder, “will my faith be enough to make me well, or to make God listen to my cry?”
And some people say that if God doesn’t respond to your prayer, it’s because your faith wasn’t strong enough.
Friends, I say to you, that is a profoundly un-Christian idea.
Right here, in the pages of Scripture, there is a story of someone whose faith no one could doubt, who cried out to God for something specific, and God didn’t answer the way he so dearly hoped. His name is Paul.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about a “thorn in his flesh”. We have no idea what this “thorn” was – there are many theories – but what we know is this: Paul prayed repeatedly for God to take away this affliction. God declined; and to the end of his life, as far as we know, Paul continued to suffer.
Paul’s faith in God cannot be doubted. If, as some people say, God stood by, ready to grant any prayer so long as we ask with enough faith, then his faith would have made him well, exactly as he most desired.
Clearly, it is not just a matter of having enough faith.
Every year, millions of people take a pilgrimage to the grotto in Lourdes, in France, where the Virgin Mary famously appeared in apparitions in 1858. It is the biggest site of pilgrimage in all of Christianity – bigger than Rome; bigger than Jerusalem. And people go there in the hopes of being healed of their physical afflictions. Lining the walls are canes and crutches, supposedly cast away by cripples who have been miraculously healed.
But since 1905, there has been an international medical committee, to extensively research every claim of miraculous healing at Lourdes, when there is complete, spontaneous and immediate healing from a documented medical condition beyond what can be explained by science at this time.
In February this year, the 70th healing was announced: a French nun who in one day walked away from her wheelchair, leg braces and all her pain medications. 10 years later, she suffers no sign of the spinal condition that afflicted her all her life previously.
And yet Sister Bernadette Moriau says she was not asking for a miracle when she went to Lourdes. Hundreds of millions of others have gone there asking for just that. Their experience does not change what happened to Sister Bernadette. But it tells us that while healings can occur, it is not a question of how much a person believes, or how hard they pray.
For a vast majority of Christians, we will not experience miraculous healings in our lives. Faith is unlikely to make us well miraculously. And yet, by faith, most of us may experience miracles of a different kind.
Most of us experience miracles that are more like the shifting of the tectonic plates. Michael and I were up in the mountains this weekend – and to think, the mountains are still growing, continuing to grow in the exact same way that got them to this point: growing slowly and steadily by millimeters every year.
We look at the mountains now, and it seems a beautiful miracle; but for how long has that miracle been going on, without it seeming beautiful at all – it just seemed pretty darn ordinary. It's the outcomes that are extraordinary.
What if the miracles most of us experience in our lives are miracles like that. Miracles that you don’t see happening in real time, healing and changing you in a single day, but God is quietly unfolding the miracle, day by day, millimeters at a time, over many years?
Researchers have noticed a strange phenomenon among lottery winners: for many of them, winning the lottery ruins their lives. For others, it has comparatively little impact in lives that are otherwise healthy and stable. Researchers have noticed a profound thing about when a big event – positive or negative – strikes a person’s life. How we handle a big event, positive or negative, is based on foundational stuff that’s been happening in our lives all along.
So what if God is in all that foundational stuff? Like how we tend to our relationships, and how we learn from mistakes, and how we say sorry and repent, and how we help others, and how we let others help us? What if that’s the level God works on, in most of our lives? Not big miracles, but the growing-by-inches that eventually makes mountains.
And its those tiny things, built up millimeters every year that allows some people to experience even catastrophic events in ways that deepen their faith, connect them more powerfully to others, and drive a meaningful life – like it did for Paul.
Paul boasted of his “thorn” to the Corinthians. This thing that he had prayed to God so fervently to remove, became in Paul’s ministry a sign of God at work in his life, perfecting his power in weakness.
Every one of us faces in our lives times of deep struggle. And in those times we cry out to God asking for help, and in the midst of our despair, there’s a risk that we forget what God is good for, if God does not do this thing for us the way we need it so badly to be done.
And in the depths of our distress, we can overlook the many things God might be quite quietly doing instead, things for which God may have been laying the foundation for many years.
And so we must continue to pray – whether things are going well or badly. Always, we have to pray for eyes to see the small blessings and small miracles going on in our lives; and remember to value them, and remember to ascribe them to God: the gift of friends and companions in faith; the gift to get creative in noticing how we can help others; the gift to learn from our mistakes, and make amends, and make changes in the future; the gift of resilience through unpleasant experiences; and patience.
All those small things add up, millimeter by millimeter, over the years and profoundly change how we experience the suffering in our lives.
It all might seem rather small and powerless in the face of suffering; useless, like a grain of yeast, or a small seed. Useless like a young carpenter from a backwater like Nazareth, up against the power of Rome.
But we know all about those small things: overtime, it becomes clear that they were never so unimportant after all.