The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
It was January 19, Martin Luther King’s Day, nine years ago. The kids were off from school. The weather that January did its traditional St. Louis rollercoaster—taunt us with sweater weather, then plunge us into the deep freeze. Then repeat. But the cold was enough that what looked like a thick coat of ice lay on all standing water.
The week before, the high temperatures had never come close to breaking the freezing mark, and the wind every day made it much colder. But by the weekend, temperatures surged back up into the fifties- and Saturday was the craziest day of them all. The low at midnight was 32, but the high at noon was a balmy 63 degrees. Up and down.
And that MLK Monday played out similarly. The night before was cold—but the daytime weather enticed people to get out. And three boys in Lake St. Louis, home for the day, were no exception. They decided to go out on the ice that day, not realizing that the previous four days of relatively balmy highs had turned the thin ice deceptively opaque. They took a photo standing on the ice, grinning. But then, their combined weight caused the ice to break, and they plunged into the icy water. Two boys scrambled to safety. But one boy got trapped.
By the time that help had been summoned and arrived, 14 year old John Smith had been trapped underwater for fifteen minutes.
He had no pulse—yet the EMTs continued to work on him and transported him to the hospital. His body temperature was in the 80s. They could not re-establish a pulse for 43 minutes. Yet the medical team kept trying.
Finally, the emergency room physician—whose daughter was a classmate of the stricken boy—called in the mother to say goodbye. In all of his years of practice, he had never seen anyone survive after being without a pulse for 25 minutes, much less 40. Even if they got his pulse back, everything suggested he would succumb if not in hours, then in a few days.
But once in the room with her son, the mother mother began praying loudly. The medical staff established a pulse. John was stabilized and airlifted to a children’s hospital. The next day, although on a ventilator, he gave his friends a thumbs’ up. By February 4, 9 years ago today, he walked out of the hospital, rather than being buried.
It’s a truth that bears repeating: unless you look for something, you often don’t see it. We live in a time when we are told miracles do not exist. So what do we make of stories like John Smith’s, or of miracles in scripture, like the ones we see in our gospel today? Why do we share and tell and retell these stories if not to apply them to our own lives and be inspired to participate in the wonder of God’s healing mission in the world in our own, small ways?
We live in a time when we are told that miracles do not exist. But is that really so? But what we see is that no need is too big or too small for Jesus. He cures the man in the synagogue on the public stage, and cures Peter’s mother in law in a private home and then cures dozens in the courtyard. Did it ever become routine, or taken for granted—this healing and restoring and embodied compassion that Jesus exemplifies? Do we ourselves get so busy scoffing at the HOW of Jesus’s miracles that we also deny the power of WHY Jesus’s miracles matter?
We live in a time when we are told that miracles do not exist. Was what happened to young John Smith a miracle?
For this family, THIS is a miracle—whether you attribute it to the perseverance of the rescuers and medical staff, or to the prayers of the mother, or both.
Miracles often slip in amongst us on cats’ feet. It is up to us to recognize them. After a night of watching and waiting, the sun comes up in glory. Tires scrabble for purchase on a rain-slicked street, but grab hold at the last moment. A stranger’s arm comes out and pulls a man back from being flattened by a careening bus. A person with dementia sees a loved one enter the room and remembers them. Strangers rush to help and comfort the victims of a car crash in the middle of nowhere. All miracles.
People who cannot afford to pay for laundry get help getting their clothes cleaned once a month—and also get companionship and conversation. Hungry people can walk up to a box and get a few canned goods or gloves without having to justify their need. Homebound people get visited and nourished with communion and connection. Grieving people receive a listening ear and comfort. Others struggling to feed their families get fresh produce from a garden lovingly cared for. All of these are miracles, too.
A miracle doesn’t have to be something as flashy as walking on water or levitation of turning water into wine. But we need to be willing to see and hear and name miracles when they occur, however they occur.
Our reading from Isaiah starts with two questions: Have you not seen? Have you not heard?
The stories we see and hear shape the things we notice. These verses from what is known as Second Isaiah are written for a people whose history and stories have been taken away from them. They are held captive in Babylon. They’ve lost all hope for a miracle to get them home—and since home is the only place they believe they can worship God, they stand at risk of losing their faith not just in spirit but in deed. That’s why chapter 40 in this book of prophetic poems starts with words of comfort—and then begins reminding the exiles of all the ways God has been with them in the past.
We too, just like the audience of Second Isaiah, live in a time of exile—a spiritual exile that leave us feeling fragmented, alone, threatened, bereft. Some of this is economic—wealth disparity between the haves and the have nots, even in so-called “wealthy” countries, has expanded. Some of this is sociological—too many of the powerful in the world have gotten there by playing the ancient game of divide and conquer to keep those with similar needs from unifying and demanding a more equitable system. This was a game the Babylonian and the Roman Empire and all empires throughout time excelled at. But the modern version is to attack the foundations of all sorts of communities—schools, and government of the people, and communities of faith.
One of the first things tyrants and empires attempt to do in order to not just conquer a people but subdue and weaken their resistance is to attack the foundations of their communities, and the foundation of their histories and memories. They try to blind us to the existence of everyday miracles. Empires like those Jesus calls us to resist try to nourish hopelessness and destroy the collective power of God’s people through encouraging a culture of fear, scarcity, and cruelty.
The power of memory—a shared, collective memory—is at the heart of all communities, and absolutely at the heart of all religious and societal identity. As we begin Black History Month at about this time, seeing, hearing, and remembering are hopefully more on the forefront of our minds. We celebrate this month, no matter our race, so that we can remember that these stories are our SHARED stories, stories encourage us to continue to work towards unity and kinship across any and all differences.
“Have you not seen? Have you not heard?” are the two questions that form the entire arc of the readings we hear today, and frankly most weeks. They are also the two questions that guide the liturgy as we have it. The way we worship is meant to help us re-member that we are the Body of Christ. The Christian faith emphasizes the idea that God in Jesus became human, enfleshed, embodied, and so we worship in spirit, yes, but in our bodies—through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
In our liturgical tradition, we aim to engage all the senses: the sight of the altar and the windows, candles and light through the windows, vestments and seeing a community gathered around you; the sound of the voices reading prayers, responding to prayers, the resonant bells and the beautiful music heard all around you and vibrating from your own body as you join in, as well as the holy silences that are as much important to hear as the noises; the feel of the pews, the feel of the bulletin in your hands, the feel of your knees on the kneelers, the handshakes and embraces at the passing of the peace, the placing of the consecrated host in your hand and the cool smoothness of the cup; the taste of sharing communion; the smell of the carpet, the candles, and incense. But they are all meant to draw our souls and hearts toward the experience of the miracle that is this community, drawn around this altar, alongside all other communities drawn around similar altars throughout time and place.
Take a look at the outline of our worship in the bulletin. We re-member by recounting the stories of salvation in our reading and reciting of copious amounts of scripture in the readings, in the words of the prayer book, and in our hymns. We re-member by sharing in saying the creeds and the Lord’s Prayer, uniting us with Christians across the centuries and continents. We literally remember in our Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, which reaches back to creation, to founders of faith, to prophets, to Jesus, and to his followers who continued his teaching after his death and resurrection and ascension—followers not just like but including you and me.
We consciously re-member in our worship the salvation history by which God has ever been revealed to us in creation, in sending us prophets, in giving us the Son of God to show us how to live. And in remembering, we not only experience an everyday miracle here, gathered around this altar. We are also then so brought to life by the miracles in which we participate through our mutual worship in community that we are emboldened to go and try to be the miracle for those we meet outside these doors. In everyday ways. In simple kindnesses. In all that we do.
May we never forget that the most visible testimony anyone who claims the name of Christian gives to the watching world is the way that we spend each day. What are we testifying to each day? How can we make each day a miracle for those who would otherwise be overlooked? This is the heart of the life lived by Jesus’s disciples-- which is to say, by you and me.