What do you make of miracles?

What do you make of miracles? Miracles may be a dangerous topic to cover from an Episcopal pulpit. We are the denomination with the highest number of advanced degrees per capita. Academics tend to avoid talk of the miraculous. Still, I do need to ask, what do you make of miracles?

Today’s story finds a disciple named Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, about seven miles journey from Jerusalem. Jesus came near them, but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” They stop in their tracks when he asks “why are you sad?” and the recount to him the story of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and the reports of the women (notice, the guys are lost and the women are ahead of them). The women say Jesus has been risen. Then this stranger opens the scriptures for them. They encourage him to stay with them that evening, and over dinner he takes the bread, says the blessing, breaks it, and gives it to them. Then they recognize Jesus.

Admittedly this story concerns the most mundane of miracles. These lesser disciples aren’t saved from a storm. Sadly, no water becomes wine. These disciples are not blind in the physical sense, yet somehow Jesus opens their eyes. We’ll come back to the Emmaus road in a moment, for now, let’s talk about miracles.

In a short television series on the BBC Richard Dawkins, the famous Oxford biologist and author of “The God Delusion” interviewed then Archbishop of Canterbury, another sometime Oxford professor, Dr. Rowan Williams. If you’ve ever heard an interview with Dawkins, you know he doesn’t let folks get many words in edgewise. In the midst of the interview the atheist interrupts and accuses the archbishop, saying if you believe God got creation right in the first place, and does not need to regularly intervene and bend the laws of physics, ”how do you reconcile that with [miracles which] look to some of us like cheap conjuring tricks?”

Archbishop Williams responds graciously. If you view God as something outside messing around with the works, you are in danger of the “conjuring tricks model,” he admits. But you can also think of a miracle as a sort of “opening moment” where the “underlying action of God breaks through in a fresh way.” He talks of a miracle not as a “suspension of the laws of nature” but as “nature itself opening up to its own depths.” Miracles are not where God is moving in from the outside tinkering, but rather, where the surface tension breaks, and God’s action, always present, bursts through.

Dawkins is unconvinced. Maybe you are raising your eyebrows as well. Theologians like Rowan Williams traffic in nuance and poetry. We don’t make a lot of time for nuance and poetry these days as a society. Miracles don’t square neatly. Sometimes it is easier to just move on, keep moving down that road. Get to Emmaus. Sometimes though, we are caught off guard.

I believe I once saw a miracle. Now, before you get too excited, before those of you from Chicago email my former professor, know this wasn’t some cosmic level miracle. This wasn’t a massive show like the Incarnation or the Resurrection. No laws of physics were suspended. The miracle I witnessed was mundane. If you stood next to me, you might not have agreed that a miracle occurred. But I believe it was a miracle.

In 2007 I led my first pilgrimage to El Salvador from the University of California, San Diego. I’ve been thinking about that trip because next month I’m taking our first group from Holy Communion to the country. The group I brought back in 2007 was tiny, just 4 students. Three of them were girls, so I decided it would be a good idea to have a female co-leader. I asked my friend Lyra to come along. She and I had spent the previous year as volunteers with The Episcopal Church in Honduras, another Central American country just next-door to El Salvador. Lyra spoke Spanish, and could navigate which foods were safe, and what bathrooms to steer the girls toward.

The week went largely as you might expect. We visited the tombs of the Salvadoran martyrs. We worshiped in local churches. We talked with leaders working for justice. On our second to last day, we were touring a little village of concrete houses in a place called El Maizal. These homes had been recently built by Episcopal Relief and Development for folks displaced by natural disaster. Most were still unoccupied, but we walked up to meet a woman whose family had just moved into a completed building. As our host introduced the residents, my friend Lyra’s face burst into a wide smile. Her expression was mirrored by the new homeowner. Lyra rushed up to give her a hug, and they both cried as they spoke. Lyra stayed there, talking with the woman, holding her little daughter. She hung back with the family for several minutes as our group kept walking through the little town square.

One of the students asked me: “How did Lyra know that woman?” I said, I didn’t know. I remember being surprised seeing them interact, it was like the scenes at the end of that movie “Love Actually” in the airport, when the families are reunited after a long journey, and they greet each other outside airport security with such joy. I assumed Lyra must have known her back in Honduras, or there was some connection.

Months later, I remembered the moment. I happened to be visiting Lyra up in San Francisco, and I asked, “how did you know that woman in El Maizal?” Lyra said, “Mike, it was the strangest thing. I didn’t know her at all. But when I saw her face, I was overcome. I felt like we were long lost sisters.” Lyra, like me, is also the child of an Episcopal priest. She’s had a bit of an on again off again relationship with church and faith, but she said that moment, she knew something deep, something true was happening. She recognized something divine in a stranger, a woman, a refugee. Something broke through.

As I said, this was a pretty mundane miracle. But even as I remember it now, I get goosebumps. I can’t say that if you stood there with some sort of scanner, you’d pick of electronic waves that prove the existence of God. No, Nothing like that. I can say that for a moment, in a dusty settlement built by Episcopalians, a little town called El Maizal, it felt like my friend’s eyes were opened, and those of us nearby caught a glimpse.

On some level, shouldn’t every meeting of strangers be like what I just described? If we are all, each of us, created in the image and likeness of God, shouldn’t we greet strangers as long lost relatives? Jesus tells us, if you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, stand with the oppressed, you clothe, feed, and stand with me. Shouldn’t every encounter with a stranger help us to glimpse God and God’s Kingdom? I say I believe I saw a miracle in this nuanced sense. I think somehow my friend Lyra was ready to see God’s presence in a stranger. I think somehow that stranger was ready as well. They encountered one another on a deeper level than most of us access each day.

As miracles go, mine is a small one. I’ve prayed for bigger. I’ve wished that a parishioner would be healed from cancer. If I had the power, I would have raised several folks who died. It turns out we priests don’t have magic powers. I can’t conjure a miracle at will, much as I would like to do.

But I have seen families come together and reconcile deep hurts around a hospital bed. I’ve witnessed nurses and doctors helping a patient to die well, with little pain, surrounded by care. I wonder whether we might count those moments as a kind of miracle.

I once heard the Buddhist teacher Thich That Hanh talk about Jesus, and the Kingdom of God. Jesus spent much of his ministry teaching about the Kingdom of God, this blessed reign of justice, of peace, of love. The Buddhist monk said, Christians often get frustrated wondering “Where is God’s Kingdom?” He said, we misunderstand Jesus’ teaching. “It is not that the Kingdom of God is not available to us, but that we are not available to the Kingdom.” What is the groundwork? What is the preparation? How can we be ready to have our eyes opened?

Scholars who study this story about the Road to Emmaus notice an interesting pattern to the text. It reads like our Sunday morning Service. First Jesus and the Disciples read Scripture together. Then they share the sacred meal. The scholars say there is a Eucharistic pattern to this story. This road to Emmaus shows that the early community was already worshiping, much like we do here at Holy Communion each and every week. First we break open scripture, then we break the bread.

The disciples knew the Lord Jesus when they saw him doing what he had done in his life. He offered them a blessing. He offered them food. He offered himself to them. He taught them. There in the mundanity, there they glimpsed Jesus. Each week I tell you something scandalous, something nigh impossible to believe: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” Each week the worship of this church asks you to suspend your disbelief, and to receive Jesus. Here in the Scripture. Here, at the table. Here, in this motley crew of a congregation we ask you to meet Jesus.

We believe that this work is formative. Worship prepares us to receive God, to be ready for miracles, even mundane miracles. That’s why we don’t make the kids leave the service for some more entertaining Sunday School. That’s why, if and when we start a children’s chapel, it will look like a more interactive version of what the adults are doing. We believe that worship forms us, readies us, as it readied Cleopas and his companion, to see Jesus.

Shakespeare’s clown Lafeu in “All’s Well that End’s Well” famously muses: “They say miracles are past.” Do you agree? What do you make of miracles? Is there room for poetry? Is there room for nuance? Is there room for God still in this world? I hope so. I’m still looking. Whether you’re on the road to Emmaus, or El Maizal, or you are just headed down Delmar Boulevard later. May you be prepared to encounter the miraculous, even in the most mundane moments.

Good Friday

(This is a meditation I was asked to write for the Episcopal Church’s Young Adults’ email listserv for today.)

Psalm 22:1a My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Today is Good Friday, and today the tomb is full. Jesus has died a miserable and tortured death. The death of Jesus was not unlike the suffering of so many in our world today. The Salvadoran theologian Ignacio Ellacuria referred to the poor and oppressed as “the crucified people.” The question of the crucified Jesus, “my God why have you forsaken me?,” is a question that echoes across history from the lips of humans who suffer.

Last year I again made pilgrimage to the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador. It was here where in 1989 Ellacuria and five other Jesuit theologians (along with their housekeeper and her daughter) were executed because they dared to write that God was on the side of the poor. Now their clothes, books, and eyeglasses are displayed in glass cases like the relics of more ancient saints. They remind us that the Christian journey is risky.  Following Jesus means challenging the structures that lead to suffering.

Jesus’ cry comes from Psalm 22, which we read this morning. The Psalm moves from lament to praise, reminding us that Jesus’ tomb is also a womb.  Christ, through suffering with humanity, becomes the firstborn of the resurrection, of the Kingdom of God where:

Psalm 22:26 The poor* shall eat and be satisfied;

those who seek him shall praise the Lord.

May your hearts live for ever!

Prayer: Jesus, after hearing your cry of dereliction, after hearing of your suffering and death, now we wait. We wait with all those who are anxious about when they will next be able to feed their children. We wait with those who wonder whether the new day will mean safety from war. Today we wait.

Martyrs' relics at the UCA

Prophet Bishops and Pilgrimage

Yesterday someone took shots at a friend and pastor.  The Rt. Rev. Martín Barahona, Anglican Bishop of El Salvador was the victim of the violence which plagues his country.  Thankfully the would-be-killer’s bullets missed the Bishop.  Sadly his driver Francisco is in the hospital.
Shots fired at a Bishop resound specifically this week.  On Saturday I will make my fifth pilgrimage to the country of El Salvador, and on Wednesday March 24 the Church will mark the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero.  Romero dared to demand that the repression of the poor cease.  From the pulpit, and in ministry with the people, he declared that Jesus and the Church stood with the oppressed.  On March 24, 1980, Romero was celebrating Eucharist at the little hospital chapel near his house when he was gunned down.  30 years later violence has threatened another pastor.
Bishop Barahona at San Diego's Diocesan Convention
Bishop Barahona at San Diego's Diocesan Convention
A few years ago, I happened to be in the country for the 15th anniversary of Bishop Barahona’s installation as Bishop.  The affair was simple: a mass in the small church that serves as a cathedral.  The extra wine was not in an expensive silver flagon, but a reused plastic coke bottle.  The highlight was a slideshow showing the Bishop standing with people from every imaginable walk of life.  The poor, gang bosses, politicians, diplomats, youth.  The heads of El Salvador’s Catholic and Lutheran Churches were in the congregation, along with the local rabbi and Imam.  Bishop Barahona is not one for grand declarations, but his pastoring is prophetic.  The community touched by his ministry defies every imaginable boundary.
Today’s violence seems to be random.  I spent a good deal of the afternoon on the phone speaking with people in El Salvador.  No plot has been uncovered.  There were no threatening letters, and no pattern of violence.  The reality is that violence is part of the social fabric of El Salvador.  As my friend Amy said today, “This is a country with a lot of wounds.”  The civil war ended 18 years ago, but El Salvador still suffers from the effects, a country working out its PTSD.  Luckily the violence almost never affects visitors from North America, and the Church in El Salvador takes every possible precaution to care for us.
Romero once said:
“I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective
end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root
of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion
of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All
this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest
flows naturally.” -Archbishop Oscar Romero
So we will go to El Salvador.  We will remember Romero and stand with our brother Martín.  We do so because Jesus stood, and calls his followers to stand together, against the systemic violence of our world.