Miracles - 13th Sunday after Pentecost


A few years ago I attended a retreat focused on Russian Orthodox practices of praying with icons and praying the Jesus Prayer. The presenter, Fr. Simeon, is the abbot of a Russian Orthodox monastery 70 miles outside Madison, WI. It was a wonderful weekend, and the opportunity to pray with icons was particularly moving. It was also a challenging weekend as well. Fr. Simeon spoke of traditions and understandings very different from the ones his listeners – mostly Lutherans – had grown up with. Orthodox liturgy is steeped in images, sound, scent – all lifting up the mystery of God. The Orthodox tradition values the mystery and wonder of living relationships with God, which can be experienced by using icons as “windows to heaven,” and by praying the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Fr. Simeon – and many others – have practiced praying the Jesus Prayer so much that they pray it constantly with some part of their mind, even while they are doing something else – working, eating, even talking or reading. (This practice is outlined in the book The Way of a Pilgrim, written by an anonymous 19th-century Russian.) What’s more, Fr. Simeon spoke freely of miracles – miracles he had heard of and clearly believed, and miracles he had witnessed himself. He told us of famous icons which flow myrrh –  that is, myrrh scented oil with healing properties flows spontaneously from the wood of the icon. He told us of his spiritual mentor and other holy people becoming illumined by visible light while they pray. In a vivid story, he told of a saint (I can’t remember which one, now) whose body produced so much myrrh the cover was lifted off the sarcophagus, and it flowed down the mountainside from the church where he was buried. My western mind wanted to scoff at these miracle stories – but a part of me also longed for such faith that I, too, could suspend disbelief and see God so alive in the world today. After all, Fr. Simeon didn’t grow up in some tiny, superstitious village in the Old Country, but in the city of  Chicago. A part of me – and I suspect this is true for some of you as well – longs for such mystery and wonder in my faith as Fr. Simeon has found. Webster’s dictionary defines mystery as a religious truth revealed by God that humans cannot know by reason alone, and that, once revealed, cannot be completely understood. Experienced, yes – revealed and recognized, certainly – but not ultimately reduced to a neat statement of belief. When we experience God’s mystery we are reminded that God cannot be contained in our creeds and doctrines, or comprehended by our limited understanding. In our gospel story this morning, Jesus does a miracle. Of course, we expect Jesus to do miracles – and it seems the onlookers in the temple that day did, too. They don’t remark on the miraculous healing of the woman who has been bent over, crippled, for 18 years. They hardly seem to notice. Instead, they are astonished that Jesus has done such a healing on the Sabbath. Healing is work, the religious leaders say, and all work is forbidden on the Sabbath. Their need for religious structure and the security of the law blinds them to the compassion Jesus shows the suffering woman. In fact, their expectations prevent them from seeing a miracle at all – for a miracle is a work of God, pure gift, and all they can see is the “work” of the man Jesus, breaking Sabbath law. South Dakotan poet Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, tells this story: Once a little boy come up to me and said, “I saw the ladder that goes up to God.” I closed the book I was reading, which happed to be The Ladder of Divine Ascent, by a fierce sixth-century monk, John Climacus, and I listened. The boy told me that the ladder was by his treehouse and that God had come halfway down. God’s clothes were covered with pockets – like a kangaroo, he said, and we both laughed. Even God’s running shoes had pockets, he told me, full of wonder, and we laughed again. He told me that God carried food in the pockets to feed all the dead birds and the dead people. This boy had recently experienced that most fierce of childhood experiences, the death of a beloved dog. It had been bitten by a rabid raccoon on his family’s ranch, and his father had had to shoot both animals. As the boy told me of his dream, I thought about Jacob, who during a crisis in his life had also seen a ladder going up to heaven. Jacob’s response has always appealed to me; when he wakes, he says, “God is in this place, and I did not know it.” Revelation, Norris continues, is not an explanation, and it is not acquired through reading John Climacus, or anyone else. It is the revealing of the presence of God who cares for all creatures, even a little boy who lives on a ranch in a part of America that has often been called “Godforsaken.” A boy whose dog has died, and who needs, and receives, divine consolation. This is the sort of everyday miracle Norris is good at recognizing, and passing on to us in her poetry and essays. In such everyday miracles God comes to us, meets us just where we are at, and gives us just what we need – be it comfort or direction or challenge. Jesus could have waited to heal the bent over woman the following day -  after 18 years, would one more day have mattered? Perhaps the miracle was done that way not only because of Jesus’ great compassion, but also as a lesson to the religious authorities, They needed to be challenged, to have their certainties questioned and their priorities rearranged before they could see God’s kingdom in their midst. God’s miracles occur when and where God chooses, whether or not we expect them, whether or not we accept them as miracles, or even notice them at all. How often in our lives could we say, “God was in this place, and I did not know,” if only our eyes were open to seeing God at work in the world. Are there really icons – or relics of saints – that flow healing myrrh? I don’t know. I’m certainly not going to deny the possibility. I do know that when I was praying with an icon of Jesus at that monastic retreat – in the typical severe, flat style of eastern icons – it seemed to smile at me. Jesus smiled at me, with infinite tenderness and care, and invited me to follow. A miracle – or just the longing of my heart? I don’t know. But God was there, and I was blessed to know it. Thanks be to God for the miracles – those we see, and those we don’t – with which he heals, comforts, and guides us.  Amen. Lutheran Church of the Servant, Santa Fe

“Holy Napkin” Icon painted by Fr. Theodore of St. Isaac of Syria Skete monastery in Boscabo, WI. It is the icon I prayed with at the retreat.

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