A Thief in the Night

This morning’s homily is given Dr. Richard G. Wiley

Thessalonians 5:5

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the lord will come like a thief in the night.

I think this is a way of saying we don’t know when the day of the Lord will come or what to expect. I extend that to most things in life—its unpredictable. Sometimes when the unexpected happens, we term it a miracle. I’d like to tell you some things I’ve learned about miracles in my 77 years on this earth. I’m reminded of a line from one of the songs in “Church Basement Ladies” (It’s a show based loosely on the book Growing up Lutheran, set in rural Minnesota.) The ladies run the kitchen in the church basement and sing something like “the Catholics have their miracles; we have Miracle Whip.” The New Testament includes some 37 miracles performed by Jesus. What is a miracle anyway? How do we know if something is a miracle?

This discussion is from a web site, “Reasons to Believe” which included the writings of Dr. Matthew McClure. He received a PhD in zoology from Texas A&M University in 1994, and is professor of biology at Lamar State College. He considers two types of miracles: Supernatural and Hypernatural. Supernatural would include things like the virgin birth or the ascension of Christ into heaven. I’m pretty sure that while God is able to do anything, God is also trustworthy and does not suspend the laws of physics on a whim. We can count on gravity! I’ll set aside the supernatural type of miracle for now—as an engineer I have a strong belief in the laws of nature and readily admit I have no explanation for supernatural events which are outside of these laws. Believing in supernatural events requires faith. Hypernaturalism is God’s use of natural mechanisms in unusual ways and involves the power of God to “manipulate nature by overcoming ridiculously small probabilities within natural law.” Possible biblical examples of hypernatural miracles include the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21–28) and Elijah’s calling down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:3).

Theologians as well as biochemists applied hypernaturalism to the origin of life, integrating the concepts of intelligent design with naturalism. As they suggest, the origin of life could have occurred through strictly natural means and yet would still qualify as a miracle.

The concept of hypernaturalism has powerful implications throughout Christian apologetics and may be much more prevalent than most people realize. Let’s look at an example close to home—the origin of you.
Hypernaturalism and You.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on the genetics of a unique human individual’s origin. Genetics functions by producing cells (ova and sperm) for the purposes of reproduction. These cells have only n chromosomes instead of 2n. Fertilization restores the paired condition to produce the genetic foundation of a unique new individual.
There are three primary sources for maintaining genetic diversity.

1. Independent chromosome pairs. Every human inherits one set of chromosome pairs from each parent. These pairs must be lined up and separated during the first division of cells. Independence pertains to the fact that each pair of chromosomes lines up independently of all other pairs—just as the result of one coin toss is independent of other coin tosses. This means that the number of possible outcomes of chromosomes is 2 raised to the nth power. Where n is the number of pairs of chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes; therefore each ova or sperm produced by an individual person represents one in 2^23 (or one in 8,388,608) possible outcomes.

2. Random fertilization. Fertilization is also generally considered a random event. If each ova or sperm represents 2^n possible outcomes, then fertilization produces one in 2n x 2n possible outcomes. For humans, that number exceeds 70 trillion. For example, if one couple produced 70 trillion children, at least two of the children might be genetically identical (aside from identical twins, which come from a single fertilized egg). Consider this question: Who made you—God or your parents? According to biblical Scriptures, God created everything that has ever been made (John 1:3 says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being;” Revelation 4:11 says, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”) That includes each and every one of us as unique human individuals (Jeremiah 1:5 says “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations;” Matthew 10:30 says “And even the hairs of your head are all counted;” Ephesians 1:4 says, “….he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”). At the same time, science can describe how genetics and environmental factors produce human individuals. In other words, God made you, yet you came into this world via natural mechanisms. I think the concept of hypernaturalism applies here—especially when we consider the incredibly slim odds that natural mechanisms alone will produce you, instead of someone else? However, the odds of you being you don’t stop there.

3. Crossing over between chromosomes. Early in the reproductive process pairs of chromosomes make contact and swap pieces with one another, resulting in recombinant chromosomes that differ in genetic makeup from the chromosomes of the parent. The numbers stated above assume no crossover events. These events mean that the number of unique individuals is even larger.

The odds of your parents producing you—as opposed to someone else—genetically speaking, are hundreds-of-trillions-to-one. If you think these odds seem unfathomable, consider the fact that these odds also exist for both of your parents, for each of your four grandparents, for each of your eight great-grandparents, and so on, for as far back as human history goes. The genetic basis behind your unique physical makeup certainly qualifies as overcoming ridiculously small probabilities within natural law. The odds of you being you are so incalculable that it may make the fine-tuning of the universe seem trivial by comparison. Perhaps the best example you will see of a divinely inspired and fine-tuned physical object is to look at yourself in the mirror, for each and every one of us are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made.” In the words of Psalm 139:13-14:

For you created my inmost being;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

Some genetic combinations are not favorable to life and health. This makes us wonder about God’s intentions and why bad things happen to good people. This question has also occupied the thoughts of many theologians.

What follows is an old story from our family history, but it may be new to many of you and perhaps forgotten by others. St. Luke’s is part of the story. Like a thief in the night, we didn’t see it coming….
Jane and I came to St. Luke’s in 1964 after I served in the Army. We had three small kids then and added three more by 1970. St. Luke’s was full of kids then, and having 3 or 4 or even 5 was common. Six was not common! Facilities were small and limited to the main church and the basement. We used a barn located at the back edge of the parking lot on Sundays for the older kids’ Sunday school. For a time we had three services and two sessions of Sunday school, one at 9:30 and one at 11:00. In spite of limited facilities, we felt the presence of God in the confusion here!

A little more history: When we were married in 1960, things were difficult for “mixed marriages” like ours. Jane was from a Roman Catholic family and I was raised as a Presbyterian. The restrictions imposed by the Roman church and the family divisions involved caused us to “elope. “ After I took a job in Syracuse, we moved from Western PA to Upstate NY, were married by a Justice of the Peace in Dewitt and began attending St. Alban’s. It was a bit confusing and the 1928 prayer book was not familiar to either of us. But we stayed and began to both appreciate the middle way of Anglicans. Jane’s family thought she was on her way to eternal damnation, mine thought it was a big mistake and hoped for an early divorce. But by the birth of our sixth and youngest child, Jim, in 1970, we had accumulated about ten years of Anglican experience.

Jim celebrated his second birthday in May of 1972. Shortly after that he began to wake up at night crying. With 6 kids, we didn’t want to lose a lot of sleep. Jim’s problem seemed to be a result of constipation. We gave him a child’s laxative and when it worked he went back to sleep. Because this continued off and on, on June 26 we took him to our family doctor. Detecting a problem, he sent Jane and Jim to a surgeon who admitted him to St. Joseph’s hospital for X-rays and tests. Jim was unable to eat or drink. June 28 he was diagnosed with a non-functioning right kidney and referred to a urologist. My parents came to see him on July 1. A biopsy was done with no results until after the July 4th holiday. By July 8, the pathology results were still not clear about what kind of tumor it was, but it was malignant. The biopsy was sent to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC for analysis. After what seemed an interminable delay, we got the results back on July 18—it was a rare type of cancer. There was no standard treatment available for it. The urologist’s advice was to take him home and love him.

All of this was taking place against the background of the other five kids, ages 4 to 11, when school was already out for the summer. We had babysitting supplied by family and friends, and by some of the teenage girls from St. Luke’s. The anesthesiologist for the biopsy was Dr. Ketch Morrell, a member of St. Luke’s and Jim’s godfather. But basically, we had no time for church! Plus then, as now, many people were away for the summer and did not know about our family’s problems.

Very discouraged, we asked our family doctor what else we could do. He was reluctant to recommend drastic surgery which might lead to colostomy bags for a two year-old, and perhaps considerable disfigurement. After all his kidneys were involved, his bowels were involved and perhaps other major organs. But we and our doctor decided to go to Roswell Park in Buffalo to try to save Jim. The logistics got even tougher. We decided to have Jane stay with Jim in Buffalo Monday to Friday. I worked and we had babysitters during the day here. Jane came back on Friday, we had Friday evening together and I went to Buffalo on Saturday and came back Sunday. Jane went back to Buffalo on Mondays.

During this time, we once attended a church in Buffalo. It was all we could do to “go through the motions.” After thinking about it, I realized that sometimes all we can do is superficial, but with liturgical worship, there are motions that one can go through—a familiarity of words and phrases that is helpful even when the mind is focused elsewhere by life changing events.
In early August, the Surgeons at Roswell wanted to operate immediately. But by the day of surgery, the tumor had grown too much and so they decided to do chemotherapy first to try to shrink it. This worked and the surgery was done on August 23. It was VERY successful. The tumor was not attached to any major organs and was encased like a sausage. Kidney shut down and urinary and bowel obstruction was caused by pressure from the tumor but it was not invasive. After surgery, he was treated using chemo therapy for two years and the tumor did not recur. Often Jane and Norine Belfie from St. Luke’s travelled to Buffalo for the treatments. Norine deserves a medal for making so many trips with Jane! Unfortunately, in many cases, other children we saw at Roswell Park died when their cancer returned. Jim missed the growth that would have normally occurred between ages two and four. He looked like a starving child from the third world in 1974 but is fine now at age 44.

We know there will be times when God will be beside us, suffering when we suffer, loving us even when find it nearly impossible to love back. As I look back over 40 years to one of those times, I see that it may not be possible for the Church to be at the center of the crisis. But I also see that the times we spend together in church, seeking God among fellow Christians are important. These times allow us to come closer to God, to build up a relationship with the divine, to accumulate a reserve of understanding and grace to get through what happens to us.

As you may know, I’m an electrical engineer. I spent my working years dealing with math, physics, electric and magnetic field theory, etc. My “saints” tend to have names like Volta and Ampere and Newton and Maxwell! I also have an interest in cosmology—the big bang theory. Nevertheless, I often wonder if Jim’s healing was miracle. While I believe God can do anything, I also believe God is trustworthy and will not suspend the laws of nature willy-nilly. As I said, we can count on gravity! Our decision was to take Jim to Roswell Park instead of taking the advice we had gotten to “take him home and love him.” What are the chances? The doctors chose the right treatments even though they were experimental. What are the chances? The favorable tumor characteristics were certainly unexpected and a critical aspect of his recovery. What were the chances? At the time of Jim’s illness, it happened that the small company I worked for was going downhill. I recall both saying prayers and working on a critical proposal while Jim was in surgery. Amazingly, we also got that job. What are the chances? It was also a very stressful time for our marriage, but it actually strengthened our relationship as we worked together on the biggest problem we had ever had. What are the chances? I give God thanks for all that happened, including the roles played by this community of faith we call St. Luke’s!

This is the season for making pledges to fund next year’s operation here at St. Luke’s. These are generally difficult times for churches, especially the “main line” reformation denominations (Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ) as many are forced to close their doors. Jane and I have tried to support St. Luke’s over these many years because we think it is important to provide others with a spiritual home like we have here. We have found it to be a place for both miracles and Miracle Whip!

Was Jim’s healing a miracle of the Hypernatural type? I leave it to you to decide.


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