I studied philosophy and politics before I turned my mind to religion. Philosophy majors cannot graduate without a pronounced skeptical streak. It generally ruins you for faith. David Hume, the great Scottish intellect, Enlightenment philosopher, speaks for the department.
Hume wrote an essay that begins with him going to church, listening to the Scottish Presbyterian Minister. The minister explained that a recent hurricane was a sign of God’s judgment upon the immorality of the Scottish people. He went to report that the violent storm had been conjured up by several elderly women that were accused of being witches.
Hume then spends 120 pages explaining why the laws of nature cannot be violated from the outside unless we change the very meaning of natural laws. He shreds every single point of the simple Sermon he heard that morning, page after ridiculing page.
Then he ends with ‘thanks’ for the revelation given to us by the Bible and the Clergy because they assure us of things we learn “by faith” that we could never, ever understand by “reason alone.” In the Enlightenment, we got a little overconfident with the wonders of the scientific method, like it would replace religion one day.
On the other hand, (after years of being a Minister) I’ve become skeptical of my intellectual certainty about skeptical doubt too. I’ve been to too many healing sites like Lourdes in France or Epidaurus in Turkey or Pergamon in Turkey or the Greek island of Cos.
These places were all sites where miracles took place, and people needing to be healed of incurable diseases came from all over the world, so they developed into retreat centers. They are huge, accommodated thousands and thousands of people.
In some of them, people have left written records of the miracles that they have experienced. At Pergamon, they were etched in stone. So touching and filled with pathos. Mothers were bringing their children, their spouses, their sister’s hundreds, and hundreds of miles to be cured.
I remember when our youngest daughter was a baby. She had terrible asthma and couldn’t breathe. Back in the day, I had to take her to the ER in the middle of the night. I just remember that I would do anything, anything to save that child. I would take a miracle.
Every physician has seen the profound pathos of the human soul in compassion, praying as fervently as they can for loved ones that are dying and in distress. That is what you do. It is the humane thing you do in love.
Over the years, you see enough situations where people just get better when they are prayed for. I’ve seen it myself. Now when I go to the hospital, I don’t ask a lot of questions, I just pray for people. I know it makes them better.
Not everyone gets cured, but they all get healed. We are just better. Sometimes, I lay my hands, on people’s heads, and I just channel the Spirit, and I can see their anxiety loosen its grip. I can feel peace fill them, and the strength that comes from all of you channeling your focus on healing through our collective prayer focus on them.
We still don’t know much about the mechanics of how prayer works, but Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School has written several books on prayer itself, and it makes a material difference in people’s lives. I think we have more spiritual power than we know.
There isn’t a lot of question that Jesus was a miracle worker. The Roman historians who mention Jesus all describe him as a miracle worker. The crowds came out, and he healed them of various diseases. But a couple of qualifications about miracles that you would not know.
The first is that this is the way that Romans would talk about any charismatic spiritual leader. Romans expected miracles. They wanted miracles. And Romans tended to inflate the stories about their religious leaders with miracle stories. It was a way of showing that they were divinely inspired. It is proof that gave their message authority.
The second thing is that we don’t really have many miracles in the Old Testament. It is not something Jews were known for. Yes, Moses parted the Red Sea, but that is a highly stylized story, full of symbolism, and people didn’t really read it literally. It is about an enslaved people becoming free, which is something of a miracle in itself.
We have a very few miracle type stories in the Old Testament, but miracles are not central to Jewish piety. No one was looking for a miraculous healer. It is a Roman thing. Jewish Rabbis, Jewish Scholars were not looking for miracles to validate anything.
And the third thing is that miracles were not unique to Jesus. They were not unique to Christians. We have other religions in the Roman Empire that had more miracles. We have examples of other miraculous healers, like Aescylpius, someone you have never heard of, that was far more popular than Jesus, and had more reports of more people being healed.
So when you read the bible, this should give you some context. Miracles are the way that Romans said, ‘This guy Jesus was the real deal. Listen to what he has to say.’ And the gospels, like the Gospel of Luke, were written primarily for Romans, not for Jews.
So you get these passages like Luke 6:17-19 that say, “Jesus looked out over this multitude of people that came from all over the place to be healed, and he healed them. The troubled he touched and unclean spirits came out of them. So everyone sought to touch him if they could to feel the power come out of him.” That is a description Romans would write about lots and lots of spiritual people.
So Jesus was thought of as a healer. That is uncontested. But it is less clear that the stories recorded in the bible happened as reported. They are relatively stylized and told the way that they are told to make a point. They are not a simple collection of ‘we saw this’ or ‘we saw that.’
And most importantly, for our reflections on Jesus today, Jesus didn’t seem to be particularly interested in being known as a ‘healer’ per se. In the Gospel of Luke, it is not the physical miracles that Jesus is interested in; it is the spiritual miracles that he points to.
In Luke 6, right after we are told that Jesus looked out over this multitude and healed them, how everyone came around to get close enough to touch him. Right after the physical miracle, what happens next? Jesus gives us the Sermon on the Mount. It is the core teaching of the Gospel.
“Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you shall be satisfied…
For I say to you, love even your enemies…”
Which is the bigger miracle? Being able to restore a hand withered by leprosy or being able to restore a heart withered by a lifetime of meanspirited, spiteful revenge? Jesus appears to think that healing hands is a whole lot easier.
In Luke 5, Luke 6, and Luke 7, we have a series of healing stories that make this same point, each with a little different nuance.
Our passage this morning is one of them. This story is directed a bit more at the Jews in the early church. How do we know that? It begins with the setup, “Pharisees and teachers of Jewish law had come from every village around Galilee.”
What follows is a touching story. Jesus is healing people, but the crowd is so large that a man’s friends actually dismantle part of the roof to let their friend down so Jesus can touch him. They weren’t just storming the gates in love they were dismantling the house of Orthodoxy to get their friend some healing.
It reminds me of our gay and lesbian families a generation ago. Nothing was more moving in the ’90s than listening to one of our members Robert Fleming talk about how his brother had been shunned for his whole life in their rural town in Tennessee and had to move to San Francisco to find a modicum of acceptance and self-respect. I remember him saying, ‘Why can’t you love my brother like I love my brother? Sometimes you have to dismantle the house of Orthodoxy to get some love and respect for your friends.
And Jesus tells the man, “Your sins are forgiven you.” After which the Orthodox in the crowd gets indignant. Who are you, God, that you are forgiving people their sins?
As we know, Jesus will later be brought on charges of treason to Rome and blasphemy to Orthodox Judaism. His authority was different than either. So he asks a question in the face of their question. “Which is easier to say, “your sins are forgiven you” or “rise up and walk.” Which is easier, the spiritual miracle of reconciliation, or the physical miracle of health?
For all of the sermons on reconciliation over the past 2,000 years, we still aren’t that great at actually engaging in it. For every moment of genuine spiritual justice and forgiveness like the “Truth and Reconciliation” tribunals in South Africa over the crimes of apartheid, we have another 50 examples of new civil wars- in Syria, in Yemen, in Lebanon, in Libya, in Bosnia, in Ukraine, in Kashmir, … the list is long.
No, you want to see a Divine miracle? Look for a changed heart. Look for changed people, the walking miracles in our midst. I went to see Father Ed at St. Benedict’s Prep school in Newark.
Probably 80% of the boys at St. Benedicts come from the underclass in Newark. Broken families, poverty, surrounded by crime. Stressed to the point that they can’t concentrate as children. By the time they are in middle school, most of the boys that are black just stop speaking altogether. They are withdrawn, sullen, angry, full of self-loathing. It is a toxic mix, and it is killing our children in our most marginal neighborhoods, as we know.
St. Benedicts is all about education and reason. But that isn’t enough. It is about character transformation too. All the boys in the middle school and the High School begin each day with a convocation, and they get a sermon, like the one I heard last year, “You are somebody.” You count. You matter, and that is why everyone on your team is responsible for each other.
Father Ed gets the boys to repeat the honor code regularly. With the first, being “whatever hurts my brother, hurts me.” 550 boys were chanting in unison. “Whatever helps my brother helps me.”
And the second, “We respect and care for each other and the community we share.”
And the third, “We are truthful with ourselves and our brother.”
And the last, the team, “We take pride in each other’s talents and our ability to learn from one another.”
The whole school is broken into teams of 8 boys with a captain, and all the captains have a captain for their grade. Everybody on the team is responsible for everyone else getting to school each day, getting to class each day, and passing their course work. They take responsibility for each other.
It is a healing community of care, and they will literally go to each other’s homes and get them to class if need be, get them homework help. It is a spiritual family.
Father Ed loves to introduce the Captains, the leaders. Usually, he leans over and whispers something like, “This kid was mute when he came here in the 7th grade. He’d become what society thought of him. Who wants to hear what a young black or brown boy has to say about anything?”
And this Junior in High School walks into the room, after 4 years of healing at St. Benedicts, introduces himself, looks you in the eye. You ask about his college plans, he has a list of things he is thinking about studying, a list of schools that he is applying to, a set of priorities that he has been working on with his mentors. He is crisp looking, organized.
You stand there thinking ‘this kid is going to make it.’ And you are looking at potential blooming before your very eyes.
The first time I went to St. Benedicts, Father Ed walked me out to my car. I asked him, “how do you know when you’ve succeeded?” “That’s easy,” he responded. It is about a decade after they graduate or so. Something happens, and they circle back to campus to reconnect. They stop by the office, and they introduce me to their families.”
People can change. Love can release compassion. Compassion can develop self-respect. Respect can bloom potential. And the next thing you know, you are looking at a living miracle.
Which is more real as a miracle? The outward physical transformation or the inward spiritual transformation? Asks Jesus.
Our story ends with this, “Amazement seized all of the people gathered that day, and they were filled with awe. Some said, ‘we have seen strange things today'”. Those words, we will hear again in the Gospel of Luke. After the resurrection, the people were filled with ‘amazement and awe,’ and they wondered just what they had experienced.
And I hope for you a miracle in your life as well. For that situation in your life that seems like it just can’t change. For relationship difficulty, that has become way more complicated over time than either of you intended. For the way you need to grow to become what you will need to be in the next chapter of your life.
May the resurrection hope transform your life in surprising, transforming ways. And may you live to be filled with amazement and awe. Amen.