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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent I: Do you believe in miracles?

“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake." Mark 13:24-37
Advent I – November 30, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Do you believe in miracles?

Well, I suppose one might ask, “What do you mean by a miracle?” And, that would be a most excellent question.

Philosophers like Aristotle and Maimonides dismissed the idea of miracles and rejected the notion that God could or would intervene in the order of the natural world. However, Spinoza claimed that miracles are merely law-like events whose causes we are ignorant of, and Kierkegaard agreed with Hume that a miracle is “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interpretation of some invisible agent.”

Do you believe in that kind of miracle?

There are supernatural miracles and miracles of science or medicine. We take some of these ‘miracles’ for granted today. Our own Ms. Conroy had a diabetic aunt who died just months before the discovery / invention of insulin. Surely, had her life been spared, she would have seen that a miracle.

Are miracles things that are, but are yet to be discovered or invented?

There are religious miracles, those known in Hebrew and Christian scriptural tradition, many of which are well known to members of this congregation. There are, as well, miracles in the ancient texts of those who are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and many of the other major religions of the world.

In preparing for this sermon, I even used a little modern miracle known as ‘Cha Cha’. Do you know about this little miracle? Well, you can only call ‘Cha Cha’ with you cell phone – another little modern miracle without which no one seems to be able to do anything anymore. You simply dial 800 224 2242 and ask ‘Cha Cha’ your question. Then, you hang up and, within a few minutes, she will text message you an answer.

It’s like having your own grandmother around whenever you need her. I say this having just recently discovered that the miracle of becoming a grandmother comes with the miracle of knowing all sorts of stuff that is endlessly fascinating to your grandkids while your own kids roll their eyes. It's great.

Of course, I called ‘Cha Cha’ and this is what she said, “A miracle is an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers.” Then, she gave me a website were I could learn more about miracles. It wasn’t exactly an entire course in miracles, but it did tell me more than I knew before, which, I suppose, is sort of a little miracle all in itself.

Some say that it will take a miracle to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others say it will take nothing short of a miracle to end the financial crisis we are in. Interesting, isn’t it, that when we lack creativity, imagination, or will, we say it will take ‘an extraordinary event that surpasses all known human or natural powers’ to get us out of a crisis?

Well, I suppose, there are miracles and then there are miracles.

Today is the day when we begin our new Liturgical Year. Today, the first Sunday in the Season of Advent, marks the day we enter into the Season of Signs and Wonders as we approach the Great Christian Miracle of the Birth of Jesus.

My Grandmother believed in miracles. She thought her life was – indeed our whole lives are – miracles. “Miracles upon miracles,” she would say, if we but open our eyes and look around, or open our ears and listen. She said that God is trying to tell you something every time you hear a sound in the world around you.

I remember lying on my bed on a cold night in early winter, after one of my Grandmother’s Advent stories, and listening to the wind blow through the hard, barren branches of the tree outside my bedroom window. ‘Clack, clack, clack’ it went, over and over, in an undeniable pattern.

I became convinced that the ‘clack, clack, clack’ of the branches on my windowpane was a message God was trying to send me. Excited at this revelation, I went to the library to get out a book on Morse code. I was certain that if I could learn Morse code, I could understand this important message God was trying to give to me. I studied hard at school, on the walk home from school, and while the other children were playing kick ball or riding their bikes.

After a few weeks, I finally mastered it, and took to my bed with a pad of paper and a pencil, trembling with excitement. After a few minutes, however, I was crying inconsolably.

I just couldn’t get it. I was getting the letters all right, but they weren’t combining to make words that made any sense. I began to get hysterical because I just knew God was trying to get a message to me that was Very Important. I couldn’t understand. I had studied. I knew this stuff cold.

Why couldn’t I get it?

My parents, unable to provide any solace or calm, finally awakened my Grandmother, who came upstairs to our apartment and sat at my bedside. She carefully looked over all of the scraps of paper on which I had written columns of letters which made up words that made no sense to me.

She studied them solemnly and silently as I sobbed huge sobs which wracked my body and shook the bed. So intent was she in studying my scribbles and scrawl that I believe even my parents came to believe that she actually knew what she was doing. I know I did.

Finally, she smiled at the paper. Then, she smiled at me. She looked up and smiled at my parents. We all sucked in our breath, waiting for her to tell us this message from God. “My dear Isabella,” she began, “God has a very important message for you.”

“He does?” I asked, my sobs breaking up those two words into almost undecipherable sounds.

“Yes,” she said, “and you don’t need Horse code to understand. My dear child,” she said softly, tenderly, “God has been trying to tell you that He loves you very, very much.”

“Oh, VaVoa,” I sobbed, “I already know that. That can’t be the message.”

“Oh yes, child,” she said, “it is. The thing is, you just don’t know how much. God loves you so much that even the dry, barren trees come to life in the middle of the cold night just to tell you how much God loves you. So, now, when you hear the clack, clack, clack on your window at night, you mustn’t be afraid or worried. It is the miracle of God sending you a message, so you can feel safe and secure.”

I believed her then. I believe her even now.

To this day, when I hear the ‘clack, clack, clack’ of the trees blowing in the winter wind – whether I’m asleep or awake – I know God is sending me a message of the miracle of God’s love for me. I also hear it in the crackle of dry leaves under my feet, or the way the trees smell when they are beginning to bloom in spring, or the way the moonlight feels on my arm in the fall, or the way the sun feels hot on my face in the middle of summer.

And, despite what some in the world want me to believe, I feel loved – beyond my wildest imaginings. And, that gives me the confidence to do what some have told me is impossible. I know that probably doesn’t make any sense to you. It doesn’t to me, either. But, even ‘Cha Cha’ knows that miracles don’t have to make sense.

There are miracles all around us – things we can’t fully understand, things that appear beyond our natural powers. In the words of Jesus, “Keep watch.”

The signs are all around us. We have seen great things, but things even greater than these will be seen, and things even greater than these are waiting to be done. Our God is a God who works miracles and wonders through ordinary people like a young unmarried woman and an older carpenter from Galilee. And, shepherds and innkeepers from Bethlehem.

But our God is not a God who is frozen in time. God is still working miracles through ordinary people like you and like me – in our day and in our time.

God believes in the miracle that is your life. God’s love is dying to be born in the miracle of our lives today. I believe there is a message of a miracle waiting for you hear or see today.

You don’t have to learn Morse code, or study quantum physics to understand it. And if, like the philosopher, you dismiss it as a transgression of the law of nature, miracles can still happen. And, do.

When you begin to believe in the miracle that is your life, the miracle of God’s love for you, a whole world of miracles will open up for you, and you’ll want to make that miracle of life and love happen for others.

Here’s an idea to begin your Christmas miracle: Instead of worrying about giving Christmas presents, think instead of giving your presence. Like calling a relative and having a Christmas conversation instead of sending a card or a gift certificate.

Like, calling your mother. Call her anyway. She won’t always be here to annoy you and when she’s gone, you’ll be surprised how you miss her annoyance. Same thing with your father. Call him, too. Yeah, I know. Call him, anyway.

Spend less money on people and more time with people. Like making gifts together with your family. Like sharing the gift of laughter with someone has been sad or a hug with someone who has been alone. Like sharing a story about the miracle of God’s love with a frightened child.

Oh, or how about this: How about adding up the money you saved on postage for the cards you didn’t send and the presents you didn’t buy and give it instead to someone who is hungry or thirsty or needs clothing or for someone you don't even know who is in prison whose life you think is worthless but God knows better?

You know, some will cringe when I say this, but I believe that there isn’t a church in the world that needs more money. What churches need are more people with imagination and intelligence and faith to do the things God wants done in the world. And, if we did that, the miracle is that we’d have all the money in the world we’d need to do God’s work.

Here’s what I believe about miracles: A miracle is a tiny seed of love, planted deep in the heart, which, when watered with imagination, intelligence and hope, becomes possibility. There are tiny seeds of miracles which have been planted in human hearts around the world. Great miracles have already come to pass, but I tell you that even greater works are yet to be for those who believe in the miracle of God’s love.

Did you hear me? I said, ‘even greater works are yet to be for those who believe in the miracle of God’s love.’ How do I know that? I heard it last night in the ‘clack, clack, clack’ of the trees. And, I heard it again this morning in the crunch of the icy-snow under my feet.

Do you believe in miracles?

Hear the words of Jesus, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."


Kirkepiscatoid said...

da-da-dit dit-da-dit dit dit-da dah
dit-da-da-dit da-da-da dit-dit-dit dah!

(says the person who has had a ham radio license since age 16.)

Movies with Morse Code make me crazy since I can tell if it's a real message or not...

Lauralew said...

I'm absolutely stunned by the wisdom of your grandmother. What an amazing story! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

The miraculous in your life is a sign of some greater connectivity. A most glorious connectivity. Its fun to ponder and catagorize them, but in the end, digging too deep for explanations feels a lot like looking down the neck of a gift-horse.

Its okay to just say yes and leave it at that.

Jane Priest said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. I am starting to come to your sermons for my spiritual food at the end of long Sundays. I am certainly glad I sat down to read this one. I love the paragraph about churches not needing more money. I keep preaching that we have an abundance if only we would look around and notice. I think I might have to quote you but will give credit.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - you know, I don't remember much about Morse code. I think I left it all there in that bed when I realized it wouldn't help me understand God. Do you still work your ham radio?

My grandmother was an amazing person, Laralew. I want to grow up to be 1/2 the person she was. Luckily, I still have some time.

SEC - I think there is great wisdom in just saying 'yes' and leave it at that.

Joie - thanks for your kind words. It's always a special treat to be read and appreciated by other preachers who know this amazing, sacred and impossible vocation.

Frair John said...

Wow, just wow.

When I went to Church this Morning it was to a very early '28 service. The Priest preached from the Olde Lectionary. I was wishing I had heard a sermon from the RCL texts. Now I've read one.

BTW- My family sends it's gratitude for your prayers this morning. I wrote about the experience over on my own place.

June Butler said...

Elizabeth, you know how to tell a story, my friend. I believe I've said that before. I was filled with suspense as I read quickly to see how your grandmother would find the wisdom to console you. I knew she would in the end, because I believe in the miracle of grandmothers. Lovely. Just lovely.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Friar John - It is always a privilege to be asked to pray for others. Thanks for your kind words.

Mimi - you know, I always fear that I'm telling too many stories about my grandmother, but she was such a formative part of my life - on every level, but especially the spiritual one. I am so grateful for her, my way of repaying that is by telling the stories of the lessons she gave me. Thanks for your kind words, too, my dear.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is amen! What a beautiful story, beautifully told. I am in awe. My day is lighter after reading it. Your gift of story telling is truly lovely.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks,dear feather.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

It was "great post" in Morse! I still have my license but I'm afraid the intertubes have superceded getting back on the air. It is nice to know I still have the skill, though. If I ever have a stroke, people had better keep a close watch on my blinking!

Muthah+ said...

Don't ever stop telling stories about your grandmother. I need to hear how families who believe pass on the stories to help my believers. I don't have an experience of family who were believers so it is difficult to know how to help them. Thanks for sharing your grandmother.