We begin today’s homily with a couple of questions. Who last won the Olympic gold medal for downhill skiing? Who, last year, won the Pullitzer prize for literature or for news reporting? Who won the Super Bowl last February? Who won best actor a few months ago? I don’t remember . . . but perhaps you might. We are today forever getting caught up in the moment . . . the great excitement of winning that builds up over the course of time culminating in a conclusion than seems to get forgotten before the next commercial or the next breaking news story. We call the winners of these contests . . . heros, triatheletes, geniuses, and role models and yet one or two years (or occasionally days or hours) later many are forgotten in the stream of time and their titles and prizes are conferred on others who are again forgotten . . . and the cycle continues with or without us until the next award, big game or sporting event.
It would appear that those which the world wants us to emulate are but a fleeting fancy in the winds of time brought to us by sponsors like Microsoft, Nike and Budweiser Beer.
But there are people in your life who you will have no problem in remembering. These are those who made a difference, who helped get you through a significant turning point in your life. They might have been a teacher or a parent or the old man down the street . . . but each provided a clue or an insight into the way the world works and added dramatically to just who it is that you are today.
In my own life, I remember a man I worked with that my father affectionately called ‘the Alligator’. Alligator had five kids and seemed to live on the brink of bankruptcy . . . but he was about the happiest guy I ever knew. He convinced me when I was twenty, that getting married, was the best thing he ever did and the best thing any man could do. This was at a time in my life when I was following a path that was quite different, one that did not include a wife or family. I also, remember a priest, Fr. Benolken, at Church of the Resurrection in Chicago, where I worked for a few years. He had been hired by a mission church in the Diocese of Chicago and found out shortly after that he had terminal pancreatic cancer. It was the day after he had been told this that Barbara and I began attending the church there. For the next two years I heard some of the most informed sermons and teachings I have ever had the privilege of hearing. God used Fr. Benolken to show his congregation how to live . . . even as he was dyeing. And I also remember Dr. Anton Barslaag, a biology teacher, and a Christian, at Kenmore East High School who instilled in us the sanctity of life in every living thing. To this day I have a hard time killing a bug . . . I usually pick it up and toss it out the window.
All of us have similar stories I am sure. These are the stories that animate our own story. In a very real sense it is the way in which God interacts with us through the hands and hearts and minds of those who mean the most to us. We keep these memories locked safely and securely within us because they are a precious gift from a creator who loves us. When you learn something important about life from a person, or a people, or from a culture, you need to accept it as a gift . . . it should be your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it because it is only in this way that we will grow.
From the Psalm this morning we read:
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
whose hope is in the LORD their God;
Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
How do you suppose God does all these things? If God did these things directly, (as in the Gospel Story today) we would most assuredly call them miracles. But because we do not actively search for God in these things, the many miracles that God does perform tend to escape our notice. Miracles happen when two conditions are met . . .
One is . . . that we need to ask
Two is . . . we need to believe
One of the greatest miracles I have witnessed was when my brother John was being prepped for a biopsy of a tumor on his larynx. He needed to be put ‘fully under’ for the procedure, so I came to the hospital with my mother and my wife to anoint him with oil and pray with him. During the course of the prayer I felt God touch him. Before they took him to surgery, they did a final X-Ray for the exact location . . . in those few minutes the tumor had completely disappeared! John made what appeared to be a full remission from cancer and was given seven additional years to live in which time he completely changed his life around. Friends and family to this day still remark how he was re-invented after this incident. John finally died knowing full well that God loved him and that the Purpose of life is . . . a life with a Purpose.
The Bible tells us that we should live a life in joyful expectation . . . expectation in the miraculous and in appreciation and in gratitude for all that God has given us. We often hear in church the call to ‘praise God’ and to ‘give God the glory’. These are really terms for gratitude and appreciation for all that he has done.
When we live in gratitude and appreciation for what we have been given, it lifts us from the feeling of being ‘required’ to do something to a better place of ‘wanting’ to do something. For instance the law states that we are required to keep the Sabbath day, but a person living in God’s grace wants to keep the Sabbath, and desires to keep it out love and appreciation. The Bible states that the tithe is required and yet a person in Christ desires to be generous to all . . . and searches for ways to help others even beyond the limits of the tithe. We no longer need a law to tell us so, because the law is written in our hearts and minds. In this way we have become God’s hands and heart and mind in the world . . . seeking out the hurting and unfortunate to help relieve suffering in the world. This is at the heart of the Gospel . . . once we were outcast, but now are made whole and being one with the Father we are able to do his will wherever we may find ourselves. No one knew this to be true better than Paul when he proclaimed to those who would criticize him . . . responding to them “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ”.
You and I, and all believers, are living miracles of Jesus Christ in the world and can do great things when we believe. Too often though, the world interferes with our mission and our purpose and we tend to be sidetracked by much of the gross commercialism and fear in which we find ourselves. But to those who are truly called to be God’s children there are limitless opportunities to perform miracles in the world . . . . and just perhaps, we already have.
This week, I received emails and photos from two of our friends in East Africa. One was from Fr. Samuel Kahene who wanted to send to you his thanks and blessings for the milling machine that was purchased last week and began producing flour for his community this week. He mentioned that the Mary Joseph widows were utterly ‘speechless’ when he showed them the gift that Saint Nicholas Church provided for their welfare. This new cottage industry will employ two men to run the machine who were among the orphans (now grown) that we are helping in Tanzania.
The other email was from Pastor George Nsamba of the Ugandan Mehodist Church, our mission partner there, who shared photos of the water project that Saint Nicholas Church installed at Maganjo Anglican Church in east Uganda, Africa. The church there has 600 members that support two schools (an elementary and a middle school) with a total of 800 children. The water collected at Maganjo makes it possible for the girls of the village to attend school now, where before they were needed to collect water at home. This one water tank basically changed the future lives of over 300 people.
These two life giving projects show the kinds of miracles that God can perform when we give up ourselves to become His hands and heart and mind in the world.
And finally – a quote from C.S.Lewis:
Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.