Late Bloomers II

“Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them, And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

Mark 6:1-6

Let me start with a personal admission—my first impressions of other people have repeatedly turned out to be not just mistaken but embarrassingly off the mark.

How often, based on the scantiest of evidence, I have leaped to a conclusion about someone and privately pronounced a judgment on his or her character only to discover a week later or a year later that I was about 175 degrees wrong!

And even when we have known someone for some time, our judgments about what that person is capable of or not capable of can be shockingly inaccurate.

Our initial impression of someone may turn out to be either too complimentary or too disparaging—but the misjudgment that is most troubling to me is when my original, often hastily arrived at critical and dismissive opinion of someone proves to be grossly unjust.

Actually, what is most embarrassing is when someone whose significance I”ve tended to ignore or discount does something at a critical moment on my behalf that is exceedingly considerate and helpful or suddenly reveals a degree of generosity toward others that puts me to shame —this has happened more times than I would care to admit.

Remember those fellow students in high school or college who were completely inconspicuous, who didn’t make a splash of any kind, who showed very little promise or talent, who faded into the woodwork—and then who stunned us later on with some sterling accomplishment like winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism or getting national acclaim for teaching innovations in an urban high school and we can only shake our heads and say, “Who would have believed it?!”

We typically refer to these individuals as “late bloomers.”

In today’s gospel, the villagers of Nazareth are dumbfounded by their own local “late bloomer,” Jesus of Nazareth, who, after a number of years, has returned to his home town.

When Jesus holds forth in the synagogue, the townsfolk are both astonished and disturbed.

They are in awe of him for they have never heard someone speak with such force—but they are also offended that someone who grew up among them, who didn’t seem at all remarkable as a youngster, who did carpentry in their midst, who seemed so ordinary, would have the audacity to take on the role of being their teacher.

Their problem is they remember him when—in other words, they resent his trying to get above his raisin’.

They can’t get their minds around how an ordinary kid down the block could have turned into someone with such extraordinary gifts.

How could an ordinary, run of the mill, gawky teen-ager who seemed to have as much trouble getting his act together as the other youngsters have become this extraordinary prophet?

But the gospel is all about the ordinary becoming extraordinary.

The gospel is all about ordinary, simple, everyday things becoming sacramental revealers of the Divine mystery—taking a plunge in the pool, eating a peach, sitting down to lunch with a friend, schmoosing at coffee hour.

The gospel is all about ordinary people suddenly becoming extraordinary in ways that even surprise them, a process of transformation that defies explanation and that we call the operation of grace.

The gospel is all about ordinary people who have been written off, and who perhaps have even written themselves off, becoming luminous examples of the redeeming power of grace.

A fellow I’ll call Ben grew up in a cracker box of a house on the east side of Dayton—he told me his dad drank up most of the money from his railroad job and he and his siblings often went to school hungry—he was ridiculed by the other kids for his shabby clothes, had more fights than he could count, and was regularly sent to the principal’s office for a whacking.

Even though his grades were miserable, he somehow got passed along from one grade to another—one day his 8th grade teacher took him by the arm and pointed to a garbage truck passing by the school—the teacher said, “You see that truck—the best thing you could do is join those guys hanging on the back end ‘cause that’s the only job you’ll ever qualify for.”

Ben eventually became a well-paid GM employee who was in charge of a continuing education program for workers—but the achievement that meant the most to him was being awarded his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Wright State University.

He said, “I still can’t believe I did it—I don’t know how I did it—what really helped was that there was one professor who kept telling me I had the ability—and I always remembered that 8th grade teacher’s comment and I was determined to get that piece of paper come hell or high water.”

Audrey Hepburn once said, “People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.”

We never know when a person we have written off as a hopeless case and lost cause can suddenly bloom into someone extraordinary right before our eyes.

A woman named Mary Ashby Brown recounts this experience.

“At the….post office, there is often a man holding the door open for customers as they come and go, asking politely for change.

On this particular day inside the post office, I noticed an elderly woman who appeared to be having a lot of difficulty walking. After leaving the post office, I crossed Seventh Avenue, glanced back, and saw that the woman I’d seen in the post office had made it only a third of the way across the crosswalk. Oncoming traffic began to zoom down Seventh Avenue, and the woman was trapped in the middle of the street.

She screamed, and the pedestrians on my side of the avenue were frozen—we didn’t know what to do—when the man in front of the post office, without hesitation, raced in front of the woman, his hand out signaling ‘Stop!’ to oncoming traffic, and slowly guided her across the street, fending off and stopping traffic at each step.

I would say a majority of us witnessing this were in tears when the pair reached the other side.

So may we ever be open and ready to be startled by all kinds of late bloomers, by the miraculous transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary.

And here’s a wrap up thought—maybe each of us, regardless of what we’ve been or haven’t been, regardless of what we’ve done or haven’t done, should aspire every day to be a late bloomer who, by the grace of God, is able to do something new, surprising, and life-giving we didn’t know we were capable of. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
5 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
7/5/09

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Hope and Healing

“And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her hemorrhage stopped, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?”’ He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing hat had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”

Mark 5:24b-34

“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”

Thus beginneth our meditation on health care, ancient and modern.

Here we have a woman whose entire existence has been severely disrupted for twelve years by uncontrollable bleeding.

She has gone from one doctor to another and used up all her money in search of a cure, but in spite of undergoing many painful treatments, her bleeding malady has only gotten worse.

Not only has her exhausting quest for a remedy left her virtually penniless—her condition is also a social curse—anyone who comes into contact with her runs the risk of violating the ritual purity code as outlined in Leviticus which declares that when a woman is having a discharge of blood, she is to be considered unclean—and whoever touches anything she lies or sits on is unclean.

Her illness has stigmatized her as an untouchable, a social pariah.

This woman is presented as nameless which underscores her lack of status—she is without funds, power, or influence and her medical prospects are bleak indeed.

But her most serious infirmity is not her hemorrhaging as bad as that is—her most debilitating affliction is hopelessness.

Because to lose all hope is to feel more dead than alive.

This is why Kierkegaard referred to despair, the state of hopelessness, as “the sickness unto death.”

To be in the deathly grip of hopelessness is to be caught in an insidious tangle in which one is unable to supply for oneself the one thing that one desperately needs, namely, hope.

When someone is mired in hopelessness, to tell them to cheer up and look on the bright side of things is worse than useless—such advice almost always intensifies the misery of the sufferer and his sense of being a hopeless case because, like the frog who wanted to be changed back into a prince, he would if he could.

In such a state, a new sense of hope can only come from something or someone beyond oneself.

So this despairing woman in our story who has run out of options has evidently heard rumors circulating in her village about this itinerant rabbi and his reputation as a healer that has awakened in her the first, tentative stirrings of new hope.

And when she joins the throng of people following at the heels of Jesus, and quite a motley group it is, she feels something in the air, some hum of hopefulness in the crowd, that causes her own fragile sense of hope to suddenly blossom and soar—for there’s something about this rabbi, his manner, the way he moves and speaks, the way he looks at people, that arouses hope even in those who feel most hopeless.

And so this woman who had been so smothered by shame and dishonor that she was barely breathing, is suddenly seized by the notion that if she can just touch his clothes, she will be healed.

She’s too shy and nervous to approach Jesus directly, so she sneaks up behind him and touches his garment whereupon, the text says, “Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.”

Later on Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

But Jesus might just as well have said, “Daughter, your hope has made you well.”

Because we can assume this woman’s healing actually begins when the reports she hears about Jesus back in the village make her curious and generate in her the first tender shoots of hopefulness.

And then when she goes out to see and hear this teacher for herself, her hope suddenly grows by leaps and bounds—and Jesus’ comment suggests that it is her newfound hopefulness that accounts for her healing.

For the rebirth of hope can have a tremendous rejuvenating effect on the spirit, mind, and body.

The recovery of hope can revitalize body and soul.

It can dramatically enhance every aspect of our functioning.

It would seem every healing episode in Jesus’ ministry recounted in the gospels involves a life-changing recovery of hope.

I do not believe Jesus was a magician—that he magically replaced missing limbs or instantly cured liver disease or cancer or the effects of strokes.

It’s been suggested that what Jesus healed was not disease, the organic and biological malfunctioning of the body, but illness which is the stigma, demoralization, and hopelessness associated with the disease.

And, of course, to heal the illness of hopelessness and social humiliation can then have a powerful therapeutic effect on the body’s natural capacity for healing—for example, in today’s story one can suppose that there was an intimate connection between this woman’s hopelessness and her hemorrhaging, that the curing of the first might well have been instrumental in curing the physical problem.

Whether we have suffered from the extreme state of complete hopelessness or not, we certainly know what it is to have our sense of hope repeatedly bruised and diminished, to have our sense of hope dwindle and flicker.

Truth be told, we need to have our sense of hope continually replenished and restored.

One of the most unrecognized and unappreciated miracles of our lives, of your life and mine, is how in the course of a week our hope is renewed by a thousand and one sources—the ways in which our hope is constantly renewed by life’s little surprises and pleasures—a two minute conversation, someone’s remarkably generous and thoughtful response, the solace and stimulation of music, the opportunity to be helpful, an hour of undisturbed reading, some unexpected incident that opens our eyes to just how blessed we are, etc., etc.

And need I add that when we are privileged to be the bringer of hope to someone else, our own hopefulness rises exponentially?

From the standpoint of faith, everything that renews and sustains our hope is gift and grace—from the standpoint of faith, everything that restores and bolsters our sense of hope comes from God the source of all life.

A certain woman, reflecting on her grueling treatment for breast cancer, said it seemed as though at least one thing happened every day that made her feel joyful.

Aly Colon had a younger brother who was developmentally disabled and had been placed by his parents in the state hospital at Porterville, California—when he was a graduate student at Stanford, as he tells it,

“I continued the family tradition of visiting Carlos. I thought I was doing him a favor. Actually, I was doing myself one. That became evident on one particular visit. At the time I felt depressed. I enjoyed the University. I studied with first rate professors and stimulating classmates. But I felt empty. My studies were to end in a few months, and my job prospects seemed slim. The gray skies and rain that dogged me on the drive to Porterville didn’t help.

At the hospital, someone brought Carlos to a waiting room that held a few chairs and a box of used toys. Carlos, then 21, still looked like a teenager. When he saw me, Carlos beamed and hugged me. His long arms squeezed me so tightly I could hardly breathe.

When I didn’t respond with my usual enthusiasm, he cradled my head with his hands and drew my face close to his. Then he gently bumped our noses and foreheads together a few times, one of his ways of showing affection. His huge smile seemed ready to swallow my face whole.

I started laughing. So did he. And I remembered a scripture: whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.

I had long thought I was doing that when I came to see Carlos. In fact he had been doing it for me. When I was feeling at my ‘least,’ my brother lifted me up. His love reminds me not that I am my brother’s keeper, but that he is mine.”

The sources of our hope are many and varied but they are always gift and grace.

The woman in our gospel story, the woman who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, the man with the disabled brother, and perhaps at certain times we ourselves might find the words of Psalm 30 a fitting prayer of praise:

O Lord my God, I cried out to you,
and you restored me to health.
You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead;
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave…….
You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
4 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
6/28/09