August 2, 2020
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity
(Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21)
I wasn’t going to do a “traditional” sermon today, given we are still on shut down due to Covid-19, but I ran across some stories that I liked and felt like I wanted to twist it into a sermon anyway. Besides, in times like these, we need a little boost of faith in miracles.
A couple of years ago there was a headline that read: “Arkansas woman texted father’s number every day after he died; she got a response four years later”?
Although the headline sounded like an outreach from the other side of the grave, the actual story was far less sensational.
For four years, Chastity Patterson, of Newport, Arkansas, had been mourning the death of Jason Ligons, who, while not her biological father, had been so much like a father to her that she called him Dad.
After he died, Chastity continued to text his phone every day to update him about her life. While she didn’t expect a response, the daily texting was a way of dealing with her grief. In her message on October 25, the night before the fourth anniversary of Ligons’ death, she told about how she’d beaten cancer and hadn’t gotten sick since his passing. She also wrote about falling in love and having her heart broken, joking that Ligons “would have killed” the guy.
But then, something happened - she received a response.
It was not Ligons, but a man, identified only as Brad, who had been receiving her daily messages these past four years.
“I am not your father,” Brad texted, “but I have been getting all your messages for the past four years. ... I lost my daughter in a car wreck (in) August 2014 and your messages have kept me alive,” Brad said. “When you text me, I know it’s a message from God.”
Brad went on to say that he had read her messages for all that time but hadn’t texted her back for fear of breaking her heart.
Chastity posted the exchange to Facebook, saying, “Today was my sign that everything is okay and I can let him [Ligons] rest!” Her post was then shared more than 288,000 times and picked up by several media outlets.
How Brad came to receive Chastity’s messages is easily explained: I have read that when an individual surrenders a phone number, whether because of relocation, death or other reason, the company that supplied the phone service eventually reissues it to a new customer, sometimes as soon as 30 days after the number was discontinued.
After Chastity’s story went viral, she posted that she had shared the story to show friends and family “that there is a God and it might take four years, but he shows up right on time!”
While Chastity’s story was splashed out by several media outlets, few of the major national news organizations reported the story at all, which suggests that by some standards, it didn’t rise to the level of “news,” and there was no “miracle” involved. I suppose by some definitions of “miracle,” it may indeed not have been one, but surely God was indeed involved.
And that brings us to the Scripture lesson for today — the well-known account of Jesus feeding more than 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish and ending up with 12 baskets of leftovers. This story appears in all four gospels, a sure sign that the early Christians had no doubt that what Jesus did that day was a miracle.
But now fast forward to the 19th century, when a Protestant Bible scholar named Heinrich Paulus examined the feeding the 5,000 story. Paulus was a rationalist, and as such, was skeptical that miracles occurred. He posited that what really happened was that in the spirit of the day, after Jesus blessed the meager amount of food on hand, the wealthier people in the crowd, who had arrived with packed picnic baskets, shared their food with those who had none.
(I do hope you weren’t drinking something and had a mouthful that you didn’t just now send it spraying across the room!)
People persuaded by Paulus say the real miracle was that the wealthy were inspired to share what they had.
Paulus, by the way, is the same guy who proposed the “swoon theory,” which speculates that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but somehow survived his execution and proclaimed that he had risen from the dead. (I suppose it doesn’t matter that there were non-followers of Jesus who were witnesses and reported the actual death of Jesus, but as Trump say, fake news maybe.)
Of course, many of us have trouble reconciling miracles with reason. And that logic gap is likely what the news writer was counting on when he headlined Chastity’s story to sound spectacular.
But both the sensational headline and our natural skepticism miss the real story: that Chastity’s texts helped Brad deal with his grief following his daughter’s death, and that his reply to Chastity helped her put to rest her grief over Ligons’ death, and that both Chastity and Brad viewed the texts from the other as conveying a message from God.
Miracle stories like the feeding of the 5,000 and non-miracle stories like Chastity’s invite us to think about how God does work in our lives. Certainly God is not limited to interventions that cannot be explained by science or that go beyond the realm of reason. He can work through means we might label as coincidence or accident or serendipity or luck or natural processes or everyday happenings.
In Isaiah, we find God saying, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, ... For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9). We minister folk often quote these words to emphasize how God can work through means that we humans don’t have available to us, and that is certainly a correct message to hear in these verses. But we shouldn't take them as if they are saying that God works only through extraordinary or miraculous means. God’s higher ways may, in some cases, operate through everyday things — through natural functions of life. Some Christians have observed that God uses means (or agents, tools or intermediaries) much more often than he intervenes in the laws of nature — with bright lights and all, such as he did with Paul on the road to Damascus.
This does not muddy the majesty of God's ways. In fact, it might be said that in sending Jesus as a human being, God was putting his majesty in an ordinary “container.”
Consider this true story from a book called Small Miracles: Carol Anderson was young widow whose husband died at 35. Bob Edwards was a young widower whose wife had been killed in a car accident at 29. Both had happy marriages, but after several lonely years the two surviving spouses met and got married. They got along well except for one thing — their differing opinions about how to handle their history. Bob wanted to explore it, to share it with Carol. He wanted to know about Carol’s first husband and tell her about his first wife. Carol, however, didn’t want to talk at all about their previous marriages; the pain from her loss was still too strong. “Why raise ghosts?” she said. But Bob felt that good memories should be preserved, not obliterated.
This issue hung between them for a long time, with Carol’s view prevailing, to Bob’s disappointment. But finally, after a few years, Carol felt secure enough to talk about the past and decided to show Bob some snapshots from her first marriage. Among the photos were pictures that Carol and her first husband had taken in France on their honeymoon. “Here we are at Lourdes,” Carol said, pointing to a photo taken at the famous healing shrine.
“You went to Lourdes?” Bob said, mildly interested. “So did we.”
“Well, I guess half the world goes to Lourdes,” Carol said. It was no big deal.
But then Bob asked to see the photo again. “Who’s that couple in the background?”
“I have no idea,” Carol said. “Just a couple who walked by and were caught by the shutter. I can see why you asked, though ... It does look as though they’re standing behind us, almost as if they’re posing, but that’s just an illusion.”
“That couple,” Bob said, “is me and my first wife.”
The matter for us to affirm today is raised both by the miracle story in the Scripture reading and by some natural occurrences that take on special meanings for us — in that we see the hand of God behind them. From the perspective of daily life, there’s not much value in arguing over whether miracles occur or whether there are rational explanations for the events that bring us meaning, healing, hope or lift us up. If we experience God as being in them, we are in touch with the miraculous.
Let’s say it like this: We encounter many serendipitous happenings in life for which there is no supernatural intervention overriding the laws of nature. But something occurs that is not ordinary, not usual and not what one would normally expect to happen. Maybe God did not provide an exception to Newton’s (or Einstein’s) laws of motion, but He may well have moved people to interact in ways that provided what was needed by someone in a particular situation.
In the case of Chastity and Brad, the miracle may have been that God moved both of them toward the mutual support and benefit that occurred.
And we can say this as well: Both Chastity and Brad were quick to see God’s fingerprints in their exchange. Skeptics might disagree, but some things take the eyes of faith to discern.
In this time of continued unease and a seemingly unending pandemic, there may be little acts of God happening. It may be hard to see them, especially in times of despair. But, remember our ways are not God’s ways.
If you look, you may find God’s fingerprints all over the place. I prefer to look and see miracles, or at the very least, God’s involvement during this time. It keeps hope alive!
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
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