Did miracles really happen? Do miracles still happen today? Reading through Mark’s gospel, as we have been doing and will continue doing, it’s hard to avoid that question. I admit I am somewhat tempted to simply say yes and sit back down again, because to say much more is to venture into some very deep water. So, let’s start there. The most important thing I know about deep water theology, I learned from my high school swim teacher.
Ms. Massey’s swim class was not my favorite part of the day. As some of you know, I attended an all-girls Catholic high school. Every freshman was required to take swim class. It was as bad as you are already imagining -- all of us lined up on the edge of the pool in matching, navy-blue polyester swim suits. Our last names were spelled out in block letters across light blue swim caps, and every time the whistle blew, we were to dive in and swim two laps of the competition-length pool.
I’ll just put it this way: some of us were very graceful in the water. Some of us were not.
Ms. Massey put it a little differently. On one of the last days of the semester, as we were about to make our way to the locker room, she called for our attention. “Girls,” she said, “Girls, some of you swim like you’re going to make it to the Olympics. Some of you still swim like you’re just glad to make it to the other side of the pool.” She had a way with words, didn’t she?
“But that’s all right,” she said. “That’s all right, because girls, remember this: in truly deep water, everyone is just swimming to survive. Girls, if the water is deep enough, it doesn’t matter if you are a butterflier or a dog-paddler. All that matters is that you keep your head above water.”
I think there are two main times we talk about miracles. One is when the water is just fine. When we ask questions or engage ideas for the sake of curiosity. For the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, or a lively conversation around the dinner table. It’s when a blog post or a newspaper article or a bible study sparks questions or dusts up confusion. That’s conversation that stretches us and sharpens us, and it’s important.
The other way, the other time, is when we are swimming to survive. When the questions are up close and deeply personal. When the world around us is shifting and we’re trying to find the light. It’s when everything is at stake. When the doctor comes back and says the word “cancer.” When you realize the mental illness is always going to be a struggle. When the fighting escalates, or the car crashes, or the insurance denies the surgery, or the latest policy change brings tears to your eyes. That’s when the conversation about miracles isn’t interested in stretching our minds; it’s trying to stop the hemorrhaging of our hearts.
The disciples know what that conversation sounds like, what it feels like. They’re caught in a storm that just keeps getting worse, and their fearless leader is asleep on the job. “Wake up,” they say, “wake up, because we are in trouble out here. Do you not care that we are perishing? Do you not care?”
A few summers ago, I was working with some high school students at Montreat, a conference center in North Carolina. These students were to help lead worship by acting out a modern interpretation of this passage, of Jesus calming the storm. Rehearsal was not going well. It was late in the week and early in the morning. Their hearts were not in it. It was an easy script -- each of them had been assigned one line to repeat over and over again, one worry to voice aloud, one imagined reason a teenager might feel alone and afraid. One of them interrupted and asked if they could re-write their own lines.
That skit became their finest moment. In front of 1200 of their peers, six teenagers secretly told the truth. “Do you not care that my parents hate each other? Do you not care that I’m being bullied? Do you not care that my teacher is dying?” By the time they were done, most of them had tears in their eyes.
The gospel of Mark is written for moments like that, for moments of deep water and hard truths. We don’t know too much about Mark’s community, but we know they were vulnerable. They were either being persecuted or could see it wasn’t far off.
“Do you not care that we are perishing?” That’s really the question behind the miracle question, isn’t it? God of Grace and God of Glory, do you not care? Aren’t you going to do something? Will you please give us some indication that we are not alone in all this?
If miracles are what we want, Mark’s gospel is a good place to be, because it’s chock full of them. Of Mark’s 678 verses, nearly a third of those verses are about Jesus working miracles. If you look at just the first ten chapters, over half of those verses are about miracles. Our second Gospel reading today is a miracle interrupted by a miracle. It’s an embarrassment of riches. It seems that whatever else Mark wants us to know about Jesus -- that he was the Son of God, that he was a teacher, that he was a preacher, that he was a leader -- Mark really wants us to believe, without a doubt, that Jesus makes miracles happen.
I agree. I believe that miracles happen. And I am glad we have these stories. I used to be nervous about saying that. I used to be nervous because on more than one occasion, I’ve had someone ask me that question and then weep at my answer. I can’t believe in miracles, they say, because my best friend didn’t get one. Because my dad didn’t get one.
I felt ill-equipped to handle that response, both because it’s gut-wrenchingly true and because the gospels don’t exactly give me much to go on. They provide exactly zero examples of miracles denied. It took me awhile to come around on this one, but I’ve started to realize that’s exactly the point.
When I lived in Richmond, a classmate of mine, Jerusha, had a four-year-old daughter, Meesha. Meesha started having trouble seeing one day. Fast forward past months of hospitalizations and tests and complicated vocabulary, and we get to the bad day: the day Meesha was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive brain tumor in its fourth stage. As her doctors prepared her daughter for surgery and chemo and radiation, Jerusha prayed. Friends and family back in India prayed around the clock. The seminary community remembered her in prayer every time we gathered in worship. Her preschool friends cut out crosses, and their teachers printed scripture across them. Every day, Jerusha took a picture of her little girl, posted a brief update online, and closed with these words, “Surely your prayers are working! Praise God.” On good days and bad days, the same words. Nine months later: “Surely your prayers are working. According to her doctors today, Meesha has no cancer in her body.” A year after that: “Surely your prayers are working. Today, Meesha is one-year cancer free.”
The updates keep coming. She will have checkups the rest of her life, but all these years later, the cancer has not returned. Jerusha is absolutely convinced: her daughter is alive today because of a miracle.
It doesn’t always work out that way.
My senior year of college, my friend Emily disappeared. Her car disappeared, too, so at first no one was too worried. But when the weekend came and went, and Emily didn’t return, everyone worried. Before long, the FBI was coordinating the investigation. Prayer services on campus were scheduled around the clock. Students and staff who had never darkened the door of the chapel before, joined in. We prayed expectantly, and we prayed desperately. We prayed loudly, and we prayed silently. We prayed for good news, but when the news finally came, it was the worst kind. Our friend had been found; she was a victim of kidnapping and gun violence.
Emily had hoped to be an Episcopal priest. She had volunteered with a prison ministry. So when their daughter’s killer was taken to trial, her parents addressed him in court. They forgave him, they said, not because they wanted to, but because Emily would have wanted them to. And when he was sentenced to die by lethal injection, they were the first to publicly protest, because their daughter had adamantly opposed the death penalty. For the last 17 years, they have been petitioning on his behalf so that he might live.
The gospels don’t offer us any accounts of non-miracles, of near misses, because they do not exist. In the gospels, the miracle always comes. I wish I could give you a mathematical equation or a fancier explanation, but all I know is this: the child is healed. The storm is calmed. The paralytic walks. The 5,000 all eat. The lepers are cleaned. Lazarus is raised. The demon is cast out. The miracle always comes. God, working in the person of Jesus Christ, always shows up.
That’s not the same thing as saying, “We all get exactly the miracle we want, and everyone lives happily ever after.” I wish that were true, but it’s not, and not one of you needs me to tell you that.
Their stories are night-and-day different. Jerusha will tell you her daughter got a miracle. I don’t know what Emily’s parents would say. In this case, for me, the miracle comes in two sets of parents
who have stared death in the eyes and did not let it win. Against all odds, they have held on to the light.
In my high school swim class, I learned this much: when the water gets deep, it’s easier to get disoriented. To forget what you’ve learned. And so, if you are in deep water today and you need something to hold on to, hang on to this promise: the miracle is coming. Even if you can’t see it or imagine it or even believe it right now. Even if you no longer know which way is up, remember this: resurrection does some of its best work in the dark.
The miracle always comes because that is simply God’s way in the world. In the midst of deep water, “a miracle is not an incredible circumstance. A miracle is [being rescued by] the love of God in Christ that is stronger than any circumstance.” And if Mark’s miracle-ridden Gospel is any indication, they might not be as rare as we are tempted to believe.