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Ordinary Miracles

Text: Mark 2:1-12


I have met with quite a few undertakers over the years. I can’t say that I generally hold them in high regard. For what I have witnessed on far too many occasions is slick businessmen – and most often, they have been men – who have picked the pockets of grieving families in absolutely legal ways. Often drawing on family guilt, they have managed to shame the bereaved into paying for more costly funerals than the deceased would have wanted or good sense would dictate.

As is the case with most generalizations, though, this one has not always held true. Some of the most compassionate people I have ever dealt with have been undertakers. They have not only provided fair business dealings with those in deep grief, but they have also helped me to be a better pastor.

It was not, though, until I met Thomas Lynch that I encountered an undertaker who is not only wise and compassionate, but who is also a poet with a keen eye to reading Holy Scripture. On our first meeting, I was immediately charmed by his Irish wit and his gift for weaving an enchanting tale. Now a resident of Michigan, his roots and his heart are pure Irish and Roman Catholic. It is no small irony that an Irish Roman Catholic undertaker has opened my Protestant eyes not only to one of my favorite biblical stories, but has given me a fresh new way to think about miracles.  

After reading about the healing of the paralytic in Mark’s Gospel, a question few people ever ask is: “Where do you find the miracle in this story?” They don’t ask that question because the answer seems abundantly clear. The miracle is that a paralyzed man is healed by Jesus and then picks up his bed mat and walks. Maybe the miracle in this story is just that obvious, but if that is true, the religious leaders are not overly impressed by it and neither is the crowd.  

It may be helpful to pay attention to how the story begins. Early in his ministry, Jesus finds himself in Capernaum. The word spreads all over town to come hear this local boy with a golden tongue. The scene Mark paints is of a huge crowd gathered inside and outside a local house with everyone pushing and shoving to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Four friends hoist the unnamed paralytic up to the roof, remove the roof tiles and lower him into the presence of Jesus. At this point, the story says, “When Jesus saw their faith.” We hear nothing of the paralytic’s faith. Instead, Jesus notices the faith of his friends, a faith that prompts him both to forgive and to heal the paralytic.

The late Seamus Heaney was an Irish Nobel Laureate poet and friend of Thomas Lynch. Heaney shared his own love of this story from Mark’s Gospel in his poignant poem called, “Miracle.”  


Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all along

And carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked

In their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable

and raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

                                    (Human Chain, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010)

 

Heaney cites the “miracle” in this story happens before Jesus even meets the paralytic. For Jesus to forgive and to heal a paralyzed person is no miracle at all for Heaney. That is simply who Jesus is and what Jesus does. The miracle in this story, says Heaney, is the faith in Jesus displayed by the friends of the paralytic, by “those ones who had known him all along.” These friends know that their extraordinary effort on behalf of their friend is no fool’s errand, it is what friends do who trust in the generative power of God.

Thomas Lynch tells us that it was those types of friends who tended to Heaney after he suffered a sudden stroke in 2006. About those friends, and along with the friends who tended to the paralytic in Capernaum, Lynch writes, “Possibly these are the miracles we fail to see as we are on the lookout for signs and wonders: for seas that part for us to pass through, skies that open to a glimpse of heaven, the paralytic who stands and walks, the blind who begin to see . . .  Maybe what we are missing are the ordinary miracles, the ones who have known us all along – the family and friends, the fellow pilgrims who show up, pitch in, and do their parts to get us where we need to go, within earshot and arms’ reach of our healing, the earthbound, everyday miracle of forbearance and forgiveness, the help in dark times to light the way, the ones who turn up when there is trouble to save us from our hobbled, heart-wrecked selves” (Lent 2015, Journal for Preachers, p. 30)

Did you notice that Mark never mentions the name of the paralytic or the name of his friends, “the ones who had known him all along”? What he does mention about these friends is their faith. That is the “miracle” here, or at the very least, the first miracle in this story. I must have read this story a thousand times, but I still stand in awe of those nameless ones who refused to stop short of getting their friend an audience with Jesus. They did what was necessary in the cause of what they believed was possible. They did it for a friend for they were “the ones who had known him all along.”

Too many years have now passed for me to recall his name, but I have never forgotten his faith and faithfulness. At the time as a young pastor, he seemed like an old man to me but I suspect he was younger than I am now. His wife had forgotten his name long before I met him. He tended to her daily as if it were the greatest honor ever bestowed on anyone. I kept offering to stay with her for an afternoon or evening so he could go somewhere, do something, enjoy some time away. He would thank me politely and then make it clear that my offer had more to do with my need to help than his need for my help.

In our visits, he would ask me to sing with him some of his wife’s favorite hymns, and occasionally she would sing a few words herself. I never did fully appreciate the “ordinary miracle” of his loving care for his wife that required almost his total confinement for years. Only now at a much older age am I beginning to understand this “ordinary miracle” beyond my own “lightheadedness and incredulity.”        I have been privileged to witness that kind of “miracle” more than a few times in my life, “the ordinary miracle” carried out by the ones who have known us all along. In fact, on a few memorable occasions, I have been more than a spectator to such acts of faith. Like the paralytic, I have been strapped down, “made tiltable,” held with care, and lowered into the presence of God by those who have known me all along, as well as by those who have not known me for long at all.  

I share a small piece of my own story, because I wonder who is just waiting for us to carry them to Jesus because they do not have the capacity to go to him by themselves. I wonder who is waiting for us to tilt them toward God’s grace because they have long since lost the capacity to kneel in that direction. I wonder who is waiting for us to hold them until our hands are “slippery with sweat,” convinced that there is no sin that God cannot forgive and there is no brokenness that Jesus cannot heal.

I find myself wondering if God is not waiting for us to be a “miracle” for others in and out of our sight, to be the trusted ones who carry others to Jesus. I wonder if God is just waiting for you, waiting for me, to be a part of God’s next “ordinary miracle.”

O my, what a privilege that would be.

         AMEN

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