God’s Unsung Miracles

Sermon for Sunday, November 11, 2018 || Proper 27B || 1 Kings 17:8-16

Today I’d like to talk to you about a special type of miracle that never gets any press. It’s not going to sound very miraculous when I say it, but perhaps by the end of this sermon, I’ll have convinced you. Here it is. Here’s the special type of miracle that never makes the news: There is always a little more inside us than we realize. That’s it. There is always a little more inside us than we realize. Doesn’t sound miraculous, does it? I promise you, it is.

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The Enduring Miracle

(Sermon for Sunday, November 11, 2012 || Proper 27B || 1 Kings 17:8-16)

The widow of Zarephath has come to the end of her rope. I imagine that over the last several weeks, the amount of flour in her jar has diminished at a much faster rate than she hoped, despite careful rationing. She looks at her son, a boy who should be growing big and strong, but lack of nourishment has stunted him. She can count his ribs, and the hollowness of his cheeks shows too much of the skull underneath. She would cry for him, but there’s a drought on; and with a drought on, there’s no water; and with no water, there’s nothing to drink; and with nothing to drink, there can be no tears.

In the early days of the drought, her son whined and cried because he wasn’t used to the pangs of hunger. He didn’t know that emptiness could hurt so much. But with each passing day, the pangs hardened into a constant ache, and his whines and cries hardened into silence. The widow herself would like to whine and cry too, but they wouldn’t do any good, so she is content to cry without tears and watch the flour in the jar dwindle to nothingness.

With one day’s flour left, she leaves town to search for firewood, so that she can make the last of the cakes that have been sustaining them since the drought began. She laughs humorlessly because, while there’s barely anything left to cook, there’s plenty of firewood to choose from, since the dry heat has baked the scrubby trees to kindling. With an armful of sticks and branches, she turns to head back to town, when a man stops her and asks her to do an impossible thing – to bring him a little water and a scrap of bread.

“I have only enough for my son and me to eat a final meal before we die of hunger,” she says to the man, who is Elijah the prophet.

“Don’t be afraid,” says Elijah. “Just believe me: God has promised me that your jar of flour won’t run out.”

“You’re talking miracles,” she says.

“Perhaps I am,” he says, looking her in the eye.

She looks up to meet his gaze. “Miracles don’t happen to people like me.”

Elijah moves to her, takes the sticks from under her arm, and puts his other arm around her. “Yes, they do,” he whispers. “You just have to know where to look.”

I imagine that each one of us here can think of a time or two in our lives when we felt like the widow of Zarephath, when we were in the middle of a personal drought, when we were at the ends of our ropes. I imagine that during those times we stopped looking for miracles because God didn’t seem to be anywhere around.

Now, there’s a common misconception that miracles are these big, flashy events that disrupt the natural flow of existence in order to change things for the better. Perhaps some are. The ones that get the most press definitely are. But this is only one small subset of the miraculous. The miracle like the one that happens to the widow and the ones that happen to us when we are at the ends of our ropes are different, and it is this second type of miracle that I want us to focus on.

When God did the first of the big, flashy miracles (otherwise known as the making of Creation), God built into the very fabric of life this second type of miracle. These enduring miracles never draw attention to themselves, so I would bet that most of us miss them most of the time because we are looking the other way.

So by this point, you’re probably wondering just what this enduring miracle that God built into the very fabric of life is. I’ve been hesitant to tell you thus far because I fear it’s going to sound fairly anticlimactic, even though in truth it’s one of the best things God ever made. But maybe I should just get it over with. Here goes: The enduring miracle that God built into the very fabric of life is that there is always a little more inside of us than we realize.

God made each one of us to be like the jar of the widow of Zarephath. When she is at the end of her rope, when she and her son are nearing death by starvation, she reaches into her flour jar and finds a little more – enough to live another day. The next day there’s a little more – enough to live another day. And the day after that. And the day after that. Each day, she reaches into the jar and finds just a little more life.

God’s enduring miracle is that you and I are like that jar. When we are in the middle of personal droughts, when we are at the ends of our ropes, God’s enduring miracle triggers, and we find that there’s just a little more inside of us to keep us going. Sure, we would like life never to have personal droughts or ends of ropes, but we live in a fallen world. And so God gave us the enduring miracle.

There’s always a little more inside of us than we realize. Think of the soldier up in the mountains of Afghanistan, cowering behind an old rock wall that is quickly disintegrating as bullets eat away at it. His courage has fled him, and all he can think to do is crouch in fear and hope the enemy runs out of ammunition before one of their rounds finds his flesh. His buddy didn’t make it to the makeshift barricade in time, and now he can hear his friend’s soft, agonizing whimpers in between the reports of the AK-47s. Then, from somewhere deep inside of him, from that hidden place that God secreted away within him, a last gasp of courage floods him. He grits his teeth, flings himself from the safety of the old rock wall, and pulls his buddy to safety. That’s God’s enduring miracle: a little more courage than he realized.

Or think of the daughter who is watching her father drift off on the tides of Alzheimer’s. Last year, she and her brothers made the decision to move him to a nursing home after the third time that he left the gas burner on the stove running for more than a day. Her brothers all live out of state, so they rarely visit. But she goes to the home every day to see her father. At first, he called her by name. Then he called her by her long deceased mother’s name. Then he called her no name at all. Now he doesn’t even notice her coming into the room. But still she comes. Every day, she thinks she won’t be able to walk into the room. And every day, she does. That’s God’s enduring miracle: a little more determination, a little more love than she realized.

Inside each of us is a jar like the widow’s. When we are at the end of our ropes, God works a miracle on that jar, filling it with just a little more courage or determination or love or faith or hope or whatever we need to sustain us for today. So when you are feeling empty of the one thing that you need to keep you going, look within and witness God filling your jar with enough of that something, enough of that enduring miracle that God built into the fabric of life. Miracles do happen to people like the widow and to people like us. We just have to know where to look. There’s always a little more inside of us than we realize.


(Sermon for February 22, 2009 || Last Epiphany, Year B, RCL || Mark 9:2-9)

Imagine you are strolling down a pier on the cold, rocky coast of Massachusetts. You stop, lean your elbows on a metal railing, and look out at the vastness of the ocean before you. You can feel the impatient energy of morning and smell the sun about to rise. First, the door of the sky opens just a crack and lets a sliver of light ripple across the face of the water. Then, all in one breath of reckless animation, the sun spills out of the distant horizon, red and completecoast

Then something strange and altogether unexpected happens. As the sun continues to rise, you notice the line of the horizon crumbling into the ocean. With the horizon gone, the thousands of miles of brooding Atlantic open before you. You see the waves crashing into the northwest coast of Spain. You see skiers flying down the slopes of the Alps. You see oil derricks pounding the banks of the Caspian Sea. Abandoned missile silos in Kazakhstan. Mongolian shepherds driving their flocks. The Great Wall of China. The DMZ. Tokyo skyscrapers. The Pacific Ocean. California a distant speck but growing…

You snap your eyes shut and grip the metal railing. You’re overwhelmed, unsteady on your feet, nauseous. Your brain attempts to catalogue all the far-flung images you just saw. But it shuts down, unable to process this excess of information. After several weak-kneed minutes, your heart rate begins to slow, and you hesitantly reopen your eyes. The horizon has returned to its accepted place at the end of the reach of your vision.

Near as I can tell, this is how Peter, James, and John must feel during the event described in this morning’s Gospel reading. With Jesus leading, they hike up a high mountain, a pastime not unknown to Jesus’ friends, who are always chasing him up hills and through deserts. But this time, at the top, something new happens. These three disciples look at Jesus and, with neither warning nor preparation, they see far past all reasonable limits of normal human vision.

Peter, James, and John look at Jesus with new eyes. And the biological horizon limiting their perception crumbles. Until now, they have been used to seeing only what they expect to see. Until now, they have been lulled to sleep by the monotony of the mundane. Until now, they have looked at Jesus, but have never seen him. Until now.

The horizon of Jesus’ body cannot contain his dazzling glory, and the disciples see him as he really is. The horizon between this life and the next cannot veil their eyes, and they see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, two of the great prophets they had heard stories about their whole lives.

Peter, it seems, cannot handle this raw data, this overabundance of visual stimulation. He’s terrified, and understandably so. Horizons seem to exist to limit our sight, and limits are comforting. When the horizons crumble, Peter doesn’t know what to say. But, being Peter, he says something anyway: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Now, from all those stories Peter had heard, he knew that back when the people of Israel were wandering around the desert for forty years, they lugged about a special portable dwelling, a tent really. Inside this tent, they arranged all their sacred luggage. The people thought the tent holy because they believed God, while eternal, omnipotent and ever-present, also dwelled in the tent.

So, when Peter suggests constructing a trio of tents, he is attempting to circumscribe the event unfolding in dazzling brightness before him. He is trying to erect temporary horizons, trying to control the situation, trying to jam the impossible back into a box consisting of normal, everyday things.

On the other hand, he may just be so dumbfounded that he blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind. Again, knowing Peter, this is a distinct possibility. But, it’s a bit harder to preach about, so let’s stick with the horizons.

When Peter sees Jesus’ biological horizon crumble, revealing the dazzling brightness of Jesus’ connection to God, Peter’s first response is to put Jesus in a holy box in order to contain him. Peter had seen Jesus do some impossible things – feed five thousand with one person’s lunch, calm a storm, heal Peter’s own mother-in-law – but this, this transfiguration is something else entirely. You could explain away those other things if you wanted to: persuasion, charisma, being in the right time at the right place. You could store those other things in a box and refuse to believe the horizon between God and humanity is more permeable than was originally thought.

But this, this transfiguration, this holy event Peter witnesses with his own eyes would never fit in the box, no matter how precisely he might have constructed those three tents. And why not? In this event, Jesus doesn’t change. He is neither better nor more holy than he was before. But Peter, James, and John are granted the gift of seeing Jesus as God sees him – dazzlingly bright and beloved. The Greek word we translate as “Transfiguration” has been transmitted directly into our own language. The English equivalent is metamorphosis, a complete change in form or shape. So, in this transfiguration, what changes, if not Jesus?

Until the mountaintop, the disciples had seen some things, some miracles, and they thought they understood them. But their small understanding was dangerous because it amounted to just enough to create an unwarranted category labeled “impossible.” In this category, in this box, they stored everything that ran counter to what they thought they knew about the world. They were terrified of the walking on water. Their hearts were hardened about the multiplied loaves. “Who then is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” And yet, Jesus did all these things, and he couldn’t care less what they labeled “impossible.”

The change, the metamorphosis, that occurs on the mountaintop happens when Peter fails to begin his construction of the three tents. A cloud overshadows the disciples, and they hear a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” Then, all of sudden, they look around and the horizon is back to normal. But nothing would ever be “normal” again.

When God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus, God implicitly commands them and us to rid ourselves of the box labeled “impossible.” If we listen to Jesus and obey him, then we trust that everything he does is the “real” thing – not a parlor trick or smoke and mirrors, not mere charisma or happenstance. He doesn’t bend the rules of a set universe, but he does bend the ones that our dangerously limited understanding has contrived. Miracles aren’t glitches in the natural order. They are the natural order, the natural order that we dumped into the box long ago. The change, the metamorphosis, that occurs on the mountaintop prepares us for the even greater change that happens when Jesus rises from the dead, when Jesus tips the box over and removes the first two letters from the word “impossible.”

You see, the horizon exists not to limit our senses, but to give us something beyond which our dreams can thrive. The transfiguration we celebrate this morning shines in our lives with dazzling brightness, reminding us of two things. First, there is something wonderful and glorious beyond the horizon. And second, that wonderful and glorious something couldn’t care less about horizons. The dazzling brightness of this morning foreshadows the even greater brightness of the resurrection, the brightness that rises in one breath of reckless animation. We will celebrate this triumph seven weeks from today.

During that time, I invite you to look at the horizon. What do you see beyond it? What sliver of light ripples across the water? I also invite you to look inside yourselves. What have you restored to the box that Jesus once overturned? What change in your life are you resisting? Reflect on these questions. And, at the same time, know that Jesus stands forever before you, beckoning you to see him in all his dazzling brightness, beckoning you to see him with transfigured eyes, with eyes that see beyond the horizon.