The Yes That is Stronger Than Any No

“As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For in him every one of God’s promises is a Yes.”

2 Corinthians 1:18-20

It must have been a bit hectic.

The reputation of the rabbi Jesus as a teacher and healer has been spreading across the landscape, and he has attracted a crowd that has filled this house in Capernaum to overflowing.

As latecomers jockey for position around the doorway, there’s some kind of ruckus overhead—and suddenly sunlight pours through a gaping hole in the roof—and a paralyzed fellow on a stretcher is lowered down right into the midst of the jostling throng.

It must have taken some doing for these four men to haul their friend on to the roof of this dwelling— and it certainly took a lot of chutzpah for them to tear a hole in that roof of reeds and clay so they could lower the paralytic into the jam-packed room below.

But it seems they were desperately determined that Jesus would take notice of their ailing friend—and they weren’t going to let social convention stand in their way.

Sometimes it takes a village to restore someone to health—sometimes, to quote the Beatles, it takes “a little help from your friends.”

Probably there were more jeers than cheers from the crowd as this body descended from above along with dirt and debris from the damaged roof.

Now Jesus could have been indignant about the paralytic literally “dropping in” and causing a commotion.

He could have given the paralyzed man and his companions a good dressing down for disrupting the proceedings.

Jesus could have told them that he only did healings by appointment or when there were scheduled services.

He could have told them he only recognized people who came in the front door.

But apparently Jesus was not at all put out by this sudden intrusion.

The text indicates that Jesus was actually impressed and delighted with the ingenuity of the paralytic’s friends and their gritty, gutsy engineering feat.

One wonders if Jesus was amused and maybe even burst out laughing when the ceiling gave way and this man came down on his stretcher like he was being delivered on a dumb waiter.

Well, maybe the reason Jesus wasn’t thrown off balance by this group crashing the scene was because he was used to improvising, turning on a dime, taking his cue from whatever turned up.

For the most part, his ministry seems to have been unplanned and unrehearsed.

Jesus seems to have been a virtuoso at seizing the moment—and evidently he did just that when the paralytic, so to speak, fell out of the sky and landed at his feet.

Now, of course, we don’t know what caused this man’s paralysis.

But we know somebody can be so demoralized, so dispirited, so weighed down with shame or guilt or worthlessness, that he can’t get up when he’s down—like the woman I once knew who went to bed and never got up for a year.

We know that someone can feel so bad, so drained, so diminished, so beaten down, so humiliated, that she loses all her oomph and wherewithal and can hardly lift a finger—we know that shame or abuse can brutalize someone into a state of virtual paralysis.

Now this story of Jesus healing the paralytic follows an interesting sequence.

Jesus first tells him, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” which befuddles and scandalizes the scribes, the local clergy, who think it is blasphemous for Jesus to claim the authority to forgive.

Whereupon Jesus says to the scribes, “Well, which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘take up your stretcher and walk’? But so you know the Son of man has authority to forgive”—Jesus then says to the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”

And to the amazement of all, the man who was paralyzed immediately gets up and, carrying his stretcher, walks out of the house.

In this episode, Jesus seems to be insisting that forgiveness is the motive power of healing—forgiveness, he seems to be saying, is what enables healing.

Now to us, the words, “You are forgiven,” may seem pretty bland and innocuous—they don’t tend to pack much of a wallop.

And so we might ask how these commonplace words could carry the force of healing.

Well, for one thing, Jesus’ words of forgiveness to the paralytic are not Yes and No; that is, he does not say to the sick man, I will give some consideration to helping you if you can convince me that, if healed, you will clean yourself up and fly right.

Jesus’ healing agenda does not specify any qualifications, preconditions, or exclusionary clauses —Jesus takes the paralytic just as he is, to paraphrase the old hymn.

And we are led to believe that Jesus’ words of forgiveness are more than words—that they carry the force of a ringing, electrifying Yes—a seismic, earthshaking, unqualified Yes that so powerfully validates this man that it shakes him loose from whatever demons of fearfulness or guilt or self-loathing have tormented him.

Maybe the paralytic is someone who has sustained an onslaught of traumatic Nos in his life which have overwhelmed the Yeses and reduced him to a vegetative state—and Jesus’ electrifying Yes drastically changes the chemistry of this man’s condition.

Let’s suppose that Jesus’ stupendous Yes of forgiveness has more voltage than electro-shock therapy—that Jesus’ electrifying Yes of forgiveness is so full of mercy and life that it shocks the paralytic into health, raises him off the mat, and puts fresh wind in his sails.

Now Jesus never claimed that the power of forgiveness and healing originated with him—he spoke of himself as only the agent of God’s momentous, electrifying Yes.

And so it seems that the writer of the Gospel of Mark is telling us that the Yes of forgivenss that Jesus bestows on the paralyzed man and that raises him off his sick bed is nothing less than God’s Yes of forgiveness—and in the same breath the writer seems to be telling us that this electrifying Yes of mercy and healing is also spoken to each of us.

And so it is—this message of God’s unqualified, unswerving Yes is intended for our consumption—it is addressed to us.

If you were looking for an example of something that is just about the direct opposite of this electrifying Yes of the gospel, the television program “American Idol” would qualify.

“American Idol” specializes in ridiculing the vulnerable and reveling in the embarrassment of the defenseless.

But the electrifying Yes of the gospel validates and endorses us exactly when we are most vulnerable, most embarrassed, most unimpressive.

And whenever we hear the good news of this Yes and welcome it and take it in, this Yes releases us from the intolerable weight of the past and revitalizes our morale, motivation, immune system, all of us—and it always takes a human face and voice to make this real and actual to us, someone who incarnates this Yes.

Now wouldn’t it be fair to say that ordinarily our attitude toward ourselves, our neighbor, and life itself is both Yes and No?

An experiment was conducted with ten subjects; they were instructed to read the following two statements: “(A) You are extraordinarily generous, ecstatically loving of the right person, supremely knowledgeable about what is wrong with this country, capable of moments of insight unsurpassed by any scientist or artist or writer in the country. You possess an infinite potentiality. (B) You are of all people in the world probably the most selfish, hateful, envious, the most devious, the most frightened, and above all the phoniest.”

The subjects were then asked, “Which of these statements most nearly describes you?”

Sixty per cent of the subjects checked both A and B, in others words, Yes and No.

We cherish ourselves and yet berate ourselves unmercifully—it seems that more often that we would care to admit our plight is similar to that of the woman in the cartoon whose husband says to her, “I like you—you don’t like you.”

Our judgment of others is a varying mixture of approval and disapproval, Yes and No—some people rate high on our approval scale but there are many, in this parish and beyond, who we have a hard time getting on with, who rankle us, who grate on us, whose views and beliefs make us fume, who we can’t find common ground with because they like football and we like opera, who seem aloof and unfriendly, who, worst offense of all, disapprove of us.

And with regard to our attitude toward life, I don’t think it would be far-fetched to say we both love life and fear and mistrust it—Yes and No.

Well, the cornerstone of the church, of this community, is God’s electrifying Yes that is spoken to each of us—it’s what we are all about.

This Yes is an overarching Yes that spans all our conflicts, tensions, and differences.

In a sense, this parish is a laboratory where we are all reminded of the electrifying Yes that has been spoken to each of us and where we then practice saying this Yes to one another, especially to those who offend us or from whom we are most alienated—this readies us to carry this Yes into the world at large.

Whenever we let the power of this gospel Yes validate us anew, whenever we say yes to this Yes, we find we can be ever so kind to ourselves and those we meet—not that we cease to disagree or struggle with others—but we can be profoundly kind in a way we can hardly believe.

Whenever we permit this Yes to take hold of us and work its effects on us, we discover that we have a renewed trust in life’s generosity and goodness and that this Yes has opened up a new future for us.

And whenever we allow this electrifying Yes to permeate and revitalize us, we find we have a passion to express this Yes to just about everybody who comes our way, especially those who don’t have an inkling that this Yes is for them— and we primarily express this Yes to others through the language of kindness— kindness is the language that everyone understands.

Sister Elaine Roulet has long had a passion for carrying this Yes to the inmates of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women—the murderers, drug addicts and courier “mules,” prostitutes and thieves, she has grown close to in her 47 years of serving as chaplain there.

Not long ago she found out that a woman nicknamed Sexy, a terminally ill, two-time loser, was distraught because her beautiful head of hair had been the casualty of chemotherapy.

“What really upset her,” Sister Elaine recalled, “was not that she lost her hair but that she lost her teeth, and she would die that way on the inside.”

“Well, Sexy’s last rites turned out special. Sister Elaine remembered how ‘the very kind prison dentist said, “Look, we can’t make her false teeth—she’ll be dead soon.” But then, the chaplain said, ‘…he made a plaster mold on his own, and we ran around to dentists, begging them, and one directed me to this guy, some kind of dental mechanic, who finally laughed and made a set for nothing.’”

Sister Elaine said, “Sexy loved her new teeth, smiling as much a possible with them before her death,” and then the chaplain proceeded to list the half-dozen people who had helped Sexy obtain this final touch of elegance.”

And then Sister Elaine added, “And the point of this story is you don’t do anything alone, in prison or outside: look at all the people who got Sexy her teeth.”

Well, we’ve gone from Jesus healing the paralytic to rubbing shoulders with others in the parish to Sister Elaine and a prisoner named Sexy—but it all has to do with God’s electrifying Yes of mercy and healing that is stronger than any No.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
7 Epiphany
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
February 18, 2006

Incandescent Imagination

“Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’”

2 Kings 2:8-10

Here’s the situation—the prophet Elijah is on the verge of being whisked up to heaven in a whirlwind.

His disciple Elisha has been chosen to succeed him as the one who will proclaim Yaweh’s saving truth to the people of Israel.

We might assume that Elisha is suffering a crisis of confidence if not a full blown panic attack as he contemplates trying to fill Elijah’s gigantic shoes.

Because Elisha has been shadowing the prophet for some time and has observed first hand the wonder-working authority of Elijah’s ministry—for example, he has witnessed Elijah bringing down two corrupt kings through the sheer force of his words and he has seen him resuscitate a widow’s deceased son.

As Elijah prepares to depart, he says to Elisha: “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”

And Elisha, knowing that his own meager talents are overmatched by his new job description, says, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

He wants Elijah to give him the power and vision of the prophetic spirit—but Elijah tells him this gift is not his to give, that only Yaweh can make a prophet, that only the wind of Yaweh can breathe into Elisha the prophetic spirit, the prophetic imagination.

Now we may tend to think of the imagination as a lesser function of the mind, a kind of second class citizen, subordinate and inferior to the processes of reason such as analyzing and organizing, managing and problem-solving.

But for Jesus and the prophets, the imagination is an incandescent force that is the primary medium for proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

The philosopher Paul Ricouer defines imagination as the power to redescribe reality.

Which is what Jesus and the prophets do—they redescribe our usual, humdrum, flat, one dimensional sense of reality by imagining a new realm of depth and vastness in which, as the Magnificat declares, a strange, mysterious power is tirelessly working behind the scenes to “scatter the proud in their conceit” and “lift up the lowly.”

Jesus and the prophets introduce us to a version of reality that is as different from our customary take on how things are as the Wonderland into which Alice tumbles after falling down the rabbit hole.

Jesus and the prophets imagine a new kingdom in which “the blind receive their sight”, the lame leap for joy, the deaf hear, “and the poor have good news preached to them.”

What the prophetic imagination presents to us is not some escapist fantasy, some unreal, in the sweet bye and bye fabrication, but an astonishing new vision of reality that is infinitely more real, more truthful, and more hopeful than the shallow, sensationalist picture of reality served up to us by so called “reality shows.”

The rite of Holy Baptism contains this prayer for the newly baptized: “O Lord, give this thy servant an inquiring and discerning heart….”

In this prayer we acknowledge that an inquiring and discerning heart is a divinely inspired gift—in other words, we’re recognizing that curiosity and imagination are gifts of the Spirit.

Each of us is endowed from the beginning with the spiritual gifts of curiosity and imagination.

One of the privileges of living with a five year old is to witness the daily spectacle of an unfettered imagination at work—within the space of a few hours, our small, dull apartment living room can be magically transformed into one adventure zone after another—an exercise gym, a pre-K classroom with stuffed animals filling in for students, a concert stage, a swimming pool featuring high dives off the coffee table into a large stuffed footstool.

But what happens to this rambunctious imagination, this unbridled curiosity, that are so evident in young children but seem to be such a rare commodity in adults?

How does a world-weary adult keep the flame of the imagination alive?

When you have gone up and down the aisles of Kroger’s or WalMart, have you noticed how many adult faces appear dull, blank, listless, glazed over?

The tough slog of making one’s way in this rough and tumble, jagged world can snuff out the flame of imagination or at least reduce it to the barest flicker.

But we have all known certain conspicuous exceptions— certain tough minded realists who have somehow managed to keep the flame of curiosity and imagination well lit.

Charles Kettering once paid this tribute to the Wright Brothers: “They flew right through the smokescreen of impossibility.”

Imagination is the capacity to envision a possibility beyond what is presently available, beyond the current state of affairs.

Azar Nafisi is Iranian by birth and before and after the Islamic Revolution she taught English literature at several universities in Tehran—after prolonged harassment by the Islamic hard-liners for exposing her students to heretical books and ideas, she gave up teaching and eventually immigrated to this country where she is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

I heard her give a talk at the University of Dayton, and I found myself hanging on every word.

Dr. Nafisi has something important to say—she delivers her message with passion, urgency, and humor, and the fact that she’s quite lovely doesn’t hurt.

The subject of her talk was “The Republic of the Imagination.”

She described how, after she had given up formal teaching and was still residing in Tehran, she invited seven young women who had been her students to meet her at her house every Thursday morning.

They read and discussed works of Western literature which the government had placed on the forbidden list—they read Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Carroll—Dr. Nafisi has a special fondness for the Alice books.

Politics was not on the agenda—the focus of their discussion was always on a particular work of fiction.

But this was surely one of the most subversive gatherings in all of Iran.

Because the books these young women were reading unleashed their imaginations, and, in the midst of totalitarian restrictions, inspired them to dream and imagine how things could be otherwise than what they were—to create among themselves in this living room a more bountiful, spacious, humane commonwealth, a “republic of the imagination.”

This gathering of women celebrated the imagination while the government was trying to extinguish the imagination.

These women reveled in the playful, serendipitous romp of the imagination which flew in the face of the government’s never deviating, deadly serious mood.

Dr. Nafisi recounts how one day she and her seven students suddenly realized that they owed a debt of gratitude to the Islamic Republic for making them appreciate afresh simple pleasures and delights which they had long taken for granted but which were now punishable offenses that could only be indulged in secretly if at all—pleasures like eating a ham and cheese sandwich, laughing in public, holding hands, wearing lipstick, eating ice cream in public, reading a forbidden book, watching a Marx Brothers movie.

The kingdom Jesus proclaimed might also be called “a republic of the imagination.”

Jesus imagines this fantastic kingdom in which every “Ugly Betty” is the toast of the town, a kingdom in which we shock our enemies by forgiving them, a kingdom in which we jaded adults are reborn into a kind of second innocence and rediscover, without relinquishing our critical judgment, the curiosity, wonderment, and mirth which we once had in abundance but which along the way have taken a battering.

The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov once said, “Curiosity is the purest form of insubordination.”

Curiosity, set free to roam, is a dangerous thing, because curiosity does not hesitate to question conventional wisdom , received opinion, and every kind of authority.

Well, you and I are baptized into Jesus’ dangerous curiosity.

You and I are baptized into Jesus’ prophetic imagination.

So we come here of a Sunday to immerse ourselves anew in the texts and narratives of the prophetic imagination of Jesus and the prophets.

For in letting the images of the prophetic imagination wash over us, we are reminded of who we are—we are reminded of our baptismal identity which we are so prone to forget.

We are reminded when we come here that we are not a Social Security number, we are not what we buy or wear, we are not the sum of our net worth, we are not a cell phone user whose status depends on the number of text messages received—did you know, according to a recent study, that the practice of faking a cell phone conversation to impress by standers has become an increasingly common practice?

We are reminded when we come here of our true baptismal identity—that each of us is a child of God whose mystery and complexity is beyond any category or definition that society assigns to us.

After Alice has fallen down the rabbit hole and has shrunk to a mere ten inches, she meets up with a three inch caterpillar.

They look each other over for a while, and then the caterpillar says: “Who are you?”

And Alice, unaccustomed to being interrogated by a caterpillar, stammers: “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present….”

And the caterpillar tartly says: “Explain yourself!”

And Alice answers, “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir….”

And perhaps we as readers realize that we can’t explain ourselves either—that we are as befuddled as Alice when we try to answer the caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?”

Because, beneath our obvious biographical data, we are this inexplicable, indescribable mystery, a mystery both to ourselves and others which is what it means to be a child of God.

When our imagination is charged and rejuvenated by the prophetic imagination of Jesus and the prophets, we are able to imagine the suffering of others, even those whose circumstances are very different from our own.

In the novel, “Deaf Sentence,” by David Lodge, a retired linguistics professor named Desmond Bates is becoming increasingly deaf—he’s also becoming increasingly testy, resentful of those who intrude on his privacy, and discontented with his marriage.

He accepts an invitation to give a lecture at a university in Poland and, in spite of much trepidation, decides to make a side trip to Auschwitz.

And strangely enough, given his impediment, it is the silence of Auschwitz that most conveys the horror of the place and that most overwhelms him.

Among the objects that have been preserved, Desmond comes across a letter dug out of a mound of human ashes; it is a letter written by a prisoner to his wife in which he asks her “forgiveness for not sufficiently appreciating their life together.”

One sentence in particular leaps out at him; the prisoner writes: “If there have been, at various times, trifling misunderstandings in our life, now I see how one was unable to value the passing time.”

Jolted by this sentence, Desmond returns home with a renewed generosity toward his wife and others with whom he’s been less than patient as he vows “to value the passing time.”

By imagining the anguish and fate of this prisoner, Desmond receives a posthumous gift that is life-altering.

We might think of worship as an exercise in imagination—as we absorb the texts, narratives, and songs of the prophetic imagination, we are invited to imagine and reclaim our baptismal identity and imagine our neighbor who hungers, aspires, hurts, and hopes just as we do.

And speaking of hope, the prophetic imagination is immensely hopeful because it imagines help that has not yet arrived, it imagines help that has not yet appeared—so when we are in exile, when we are stuck in the wilderness, when we are wedged between the impossible and the intolerable, Jesus and the prophets urge us to imagine help that is not yet evident and available, to imagine help that has not yet arrived, to imagine possibilities of grace that are not yet even faintly visible.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Last Sunday After Epiphany
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio

Ode to Troublemakers

“Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”

1 Samuel 3:8b-9

It is some time around 1000 B.C. and Israel consists of a loose federation of tribal groups.

The priestly house of Eli has been entrusted with the Ark of the Covenant, but, according to the text, “Eli’s sons were scoundrels and had no regard for the Lord.”

Samuel is called by the Lord to pronounce judgment on the corrupt house of Eli—he is called to be the bearer of some very bad tidings.

In other words, Samuel is called to be a troublemaker.

Today, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I want to salute some troublemakers whose efforts helped pave the way for what just a few years ago seemed unthinkable—the election of an African American president.

Let me say here that I am peace-loving to a fault—I have gone to great pains to avoid being a troublemaker, and my wife can confirm that there have been times when this has been a most unhelpful tendency—and I cheerfully acknowledge that this is one of my character flaws—I have definitely come to believe that likeability and just getting along are not the measure of all things.

But I have ridden the coattails of troublemakers—I have followed in the wake of their labors and have reaped the benefits of their sacrifices.

So this sermon is an ode to troublemakers.

Of course, troublemaking for its own sake is simply malicious and destructive—and troublemaking for the purposes of notoriety and hogging the limelight is deplorable.

The troublemakers I am touting today are those whose passion for justice has exceeded the size of their egos—whose passion for justice has surpassed their egocentricity and self-regard.

When I was a newly minted Second Lieutenant and stationed at Ft. Holabird, Baltimore, I spent a lot of time with another freshly commissioned Second Lieutenant named Joe Stewart who hailed from a small town in Mississippi.

He was good company, full of stories, and quite a comedian—on occasion the conversation would turn to the question of race relations in his home state—as I plied him with questions, the discussion would typically end with his saying, “Why do people keep trying to stir things up?”

But this is precisely what Jesus and the prophets did—stir things up with a vengeance—would it be an exaggeration to say that Jesus was a tremendous troublemaker?

And in this tradition we even count God as a stirrer-upper and troublemaker, witness the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us….”

So here are a few selections from my honor roll of troublemakers.

I first met the Rev. Ralph Moore when he was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and I was visiting a mutual friend who introduced us—Ralph was eventually ordained as a United Church of Christ minister and served a congregation in Portland, Oregon.

I had been assigned to a parish in Eugene, Oregon and we saw each other with some regularity—in the summer of 1963 he told me he was going to Mississippi as part of an effort to extend voting rights to Black citizens, but I didn’t give it much thought.

Several months later our parish invited him to come and describe his trip—when he spoke of the hostile mobs that repeatedly surrounded and rocked his bus and how night after night he and his companions feared they might be assaulted or, worse, kidnapped by KKK sympathizers never to be heard from again, I realized what a venture of daring this was and it wasn’t something I was about to sign up for.

Ralph Moore demonstrated to me in a way I’ve never forgotten that for the person of faith there is no dividing line between personal and public religion—religious faith is both private and political—it is seamless.

On September 30, 1962, the Rev. Duncan Gray, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford was holding on to the side of the Confederate monument at the entrance to the University of Mississippi campus and was trying to keep his balance while attempting unsuccessfully to quiet a rampaging group of enraged citizens, some of whom were shouting, “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!”

Duncan Gray’s sermons, especially the one earlier that day, had caused the town to go berserk—James Meredith, the first African American to be admitted to the University, had just been escorted to the campus by federal officials and U.S. Marshals—and this white Mississippi preacher had the unmitigated gall to publicly declare his support for the integration of the races.

When I picture the Rev. Duncan Gray hanging on to that monument, surrounded by this crazed, furious, menacing crowd, and his trying to reason with his accusers and yet not for a moment backing away from his convictions, I am dumbfounded that he would willingly take up this position in the heart of hostile territory in the hope he could, against all odds, begin the process of reconciliation—what an audacious troublemaker!

In the spring and summer of 1961, several hundred Americans—blacks and whites, men and women— arrived in Jackson, Mississippi to purposefully confront state segregation laws—they came to be known as the Freedom Riders and they were dedicated to the mission of opening up civil rights for African American citizens—they knew they would be exposing their defenseless bodies to a cauldron of retaliation and abuse, but they went anyway—over three hundred of the Freedom Riders were charged with “breach of peace” and transferred 120 miles away to Parchman, a prison with notoriously primitive conditions, where they were put in maximum security.

Rip Patton, a student from Tennessee State University, remembered the 4th of July they spent in Parchman—“They turned off the air conditioner and the water because we wouldn’t stop singing. So it was hot and smelly because we couldn’t flush the toilets…But we kept singing. That singing, they just couldn’t handle it.”

Many of the Freedom Riders were young Jewish college students—Alexander Weiss was a student at San Francisco State—he was born in Vienna and escaped with his parents in 1940, and with his family eventually settled in San Francisco.

Mr. Weiss recalls, “I grew up in the Fillmore District, which was like the Harlem of San Francisco—it was primarily black, but lots of refugees—once this stuff started happening down South, I just couldn’t believe it. One of the motivations for…. volunteering to go on the Freedom Rides was I did not want to be one of those ‘good Germans who just looked the other way.’ I talked to my father. I said, ‘I want to go.’ He was totally against it. ‘You’re gonna get killed. It’s not us (they’re after this time)’ I said, ‘Hey, you know this is what happened to you (in Austria). I’m not gonna stand by.’”

Some of these Freedom Riders were brash, ill-informed kids who were pursuing adventure and didn’t know what they were getting into—but at the end of the day, almost all of them mustered the necessary courage and put their bodies on the line.

It has become customary on Martin Luther King Day to emphasize and applaud King’s strategy of non-violent resistance.

But we need to remember, especially those of us who are white, that in those early days of the Civil Rights Movement, those pioneers of the Movement, those non-violent resisters, absorbed a ghastly amount of violence—they were beaten, mauled, and knocked senseless—lives were lost and much blood was spilled—and yet, with very few exceptions, they stayed the course, non-violent to the end.

The historian Simon Schama has said that those brilliant, gifted authors of the Constitution composed a breathtakingly eloquent declaration of liberty and justice, but that this document was tainted by the fact that the rights described did not extend to a significant part of the population, and that some of the founders continued to be slave-holders.

Mr. Schama goes on to say that this inauguration cancels out that element of “bad faith” which has haunted this republic for over 200 years—that the world is marveling that we as a society have undone that fault.

As someone who observed the melees in Birmingham, Selma, and elsewhere from the comfort of his living room, on the eve of this inauguration I want to publicly express my gratitude for all those troublemakers for justice whose redemptive sacrifices helped make this day possible.

Those of us gathered here should definitely be able to appreciate this—for we regularly celebrate the power and meaning of redemptive sacrifice.

So for those who have waited a long time for this day, let the euphoria commence—but let us remember how dear was the cost.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Epiphany 2
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio

Hidden in Plain View

“And there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Matthew 2:9b-12

Have you ever wondered why, out of all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire and beyond, only the three wise men came to celebrate Jesus’ birth?

Have you ever wondered why, according to Matthew’s version of the nativity, out of all the people in the known world, only the three wise men were able to read the signs of the heavens and perceive that the rising of a certain star meant that a momentous birth had occurred?

After all, the same astronomical signs that moved the wise men to undertake their long, arduous journey were presumably visible to millions— the same evidence was available to one and all.

So why were the wise men the only ones who saw and understood, the only ones who saw the light?

And remember—the wise men were Gentiles, foreigners, who would not have been steeped in the Jewish tradition of expecting a messiah—how ironic that they would be the ones who, as the Bible puts it, had “eyes to see”!

But, of course, this reminds us of how it was often those who were outside the fold, who were not observant Jews, who were most drawn to Jesus of Nazareth, who saw the light of God reflected in him, who had “eyes to see.”

Artists talk about “training the eye” in order to see certain things in a painting that one would otherwise miss.

The wise men must have had “a trained eye” in order to see what everyone else was blind to.

Perhaps we are being told in this nativity story that we also need “a trained eye” to discern the Divine light, to perceive the coming of the Son of Man.

Several weeks ago the Gospel reading contained these words attributed to Jesus: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming….Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

But if his coming, like his birth, is always hidden in plain view, we undoubtedly need a trained eye to recognize him.

Matthew’s nativity story is a kind of seminar for training our eye to notice the right thing.

Matthew’s nativity story is a prototype of how the Son of Man is born among us again and again—this story is a primer on how to recognize his coming which is hidden in plain view.

So what clues can we glean from this story that can help us attune our vision to his appearing anew in our midst?

Well, for one thing, according to Matthew, no one is ready for this birth—the arrival of the Son of Man, the Messiah, is shockingly unexpected.

And, of course, the other glaringly obvious feature of this story is that the Son of Man comes among us in a condition of utter vulnerability—what this story of Jesus’ birth proclaims is not the power of God but the weakness of God, the vulnerability of God.

And it is this startling vulnerability of the newly born Messiah, the vulnerability of a defenseless infant, that both judges and blesses us.

And Matthew’s portrayal of the Messiah child whose birth no one is ready for and who, like all infants, is vulnerable, fragile, and helpless may offer just the clues we need to train our eye for the coming of the Son of Man.

For the Son of Man keeps showing up in our midst—but, as in the birth story, he seems to come when we least expect it and he comes in a condition of startling vulnerability that both judges and blesses us.

The other day I met the Son of Man in the parking lot behind the Chipotle restaurant as I was getting into my car with a carry out dinner—and I was far from ready.

In fact, I was so unready and unprepared for the Son of Man to abruptly make his appearance, I was so taken aback and undone, so flummoxed and disconcerted, that the first thing that occurred to me as he approached the car was to hightail it out of there—

Indeed, I was so eager to evade him and exit PDQ that I hurriedly hit the accelerator and drove the car over a cement parking barrier—and passers-by, startled by the grinding crunch of the vehicle getting hung up, looked at me puzzled as if to say, “What’s with this guy?”

When I backed up and once again scraped the undercarriage on the cement, more heads swung in my direction—all this commotion and embarrassment because I wasn’t in the mood for whatever requests this fellow moseying toward me might have in mind.

Now admittedly this gentleman, in appearance and demeanor, did not display obvious messianic characteristics—he didn’t look the part—he was definitely incognito—

He looked, for all the world, like an unkempt, shuffling, partially under the influence panhandler—

But then nobody recognized Jesus as the Son of Man either until he was gone—and I didn’t realize I had just met up with the Son of Man in that parking lot until I was pulling away and saw his silhouette fading in the rearview mirror.

What made me think that this shabby, bereft figure was the Son of Man?

Because suddenly I found that that face of helplessness, dereliction, and naked vulnerability was interrogating me, asking me the most searching questions—Who are you? Where are you going? What have you to do with me? What is the measure of your days? What do you have that you were not given?

Suddenly that panhandler’s ravaged, weather-beaten face became the face of the Son of Man addressing me: Wake up! Come alive! Behold your neighbor! For we are members one of another, and be assured there is just the slightest membrane of difference between your situation and mine as I forage for a handout—a slight shift in circumstances and I might be there and you might be here! So be merciful! If not now, when?

Matthew’s nativity story suggests to us that the Son of Man does not come among us in a display of power and might—he does not overwhelm us—he does not coerce or strong arm us—

Rather the Son of Man coaxes, lures, and appeals to us in gentleness and weakness—in a host of different guises and forms, he comes among us in a condition of startling vulnerability that shakes our foundations and refocuses our vision.

The Son of Man comes to us through a child’s upturned, wide-eyed, wonder-struck face.

He comes to us through the bewildered look of a wounded raccoon who is going to have to be put down.

And certainly he comes to us through the stories of those for whom embodying the vulnerability of God has become their consuming passion and calling, a passion pursued even at great, incalculable cost.

In his book about Martin Luther King, Jr., Marshall Frady writes of the time in l964 when King had led a series of demonstrations in St. Augustine, Florida—

These consisted of “night marches that proceeded with a hymning of freedom songs from the black quarter of town to the town square, once a slave market, where (the marchers) would be met with an engulfing violence from the whites who had been steadily sifting in from the surrounding palmetto flatlands…But then came one particular (night) of mayhem on the square—a storm of swinging baseball bats and trace chains and shrieked rebel yells, through which the black marchers made their way with a mute, unbelieving terror and stumbling frantic urgency, in a long leaning line battered back and forth like a canebrake in a wild wind, and at last breaking apart altogether, marchers scattering back for the refuge of the black section. Following them there, through several passing scuffles of my own, I happened to glimpse, in the shadows of a front porch, all by himself and apparently unnoticed by anyone else, King standing in his shirt-sleeves, his hands on his hips, absolutely motionless as he watched the marchers straggling past him in the dark, bleeding, clothes torn, sobs and wails now welling up everywhere around him—and on his face a look of stricken astonishment.

Later that night I found him sitting behind drawn blinds in the low-lit front parlor of another house, holding a glass of ice water with a paper napkin wrapped around the bottom. He said in a thick murmur, ‘You question—yes, when things happen like this tonight, you question sometimes—What are we doing to these people?…’”

Yes, Dr. King and his fellow pilgrims were definitely vulnerable, oh, so vulnerable—

And yet—and I think we still fail to grasp how astounding this was— this vulnerability turned out to be stronger and more durable than the dogs and water canons unleashed against them, stronger than the baseball bats and truncheons that thudded against their skulls and bodies, stronger than the vitriolic abuse and degradation relentlessly hurled at them.

And it wasn’t that they just survived—true to the words of the song that accompanied them in all their meetings and marches, they overcame—

Their vulnerability turned out to be indomitable.

What fueled Dr. King’s prophetic, redemptive vulnerability was his conviction that, as he put it, “there is something in the very structure of the cosmos that will ultimately bring about fulfillment and the triumph of what is right,” that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—and, he said, “This is the only thing that can keep one going in difficult periods.”

Even at forty years’ remove, it is staggering to contemplate what kind of courage it took for King to stand up in the most hard core, entrenched citadels of segregation and, at much risk to life and limb, publicly proclaim, ”We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we will not obey your evil laws. We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer.’”

For the vulnerability of the Son of Man is both tender-hearted and phenomenally tough-minded, with a capacity for enduring, staying the course, and changing hearts and minds that defies all odds.

The vulnerability of the Son of Man is like the pitiful-looking weed that somehow generates enough force to break through a cement sidewalk—and this vulnerability, by appealing to us rather than commanding us, can change us in a way that no amount of threat or force ever could.

And let it be said emphatically that the vulnerability of the Son of Man is not grim, gloomy, or humorless.

This vulnerability is full of gladness, mercy, and laughter—it is full of life!

There is something of the jester and harlequin in this Divine vulnerability—something comical and playfully exuberant.

Witness this anecdote concerning Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—Rabbi Heschel had just finished walking in the Selma-to-Montgomery march with Dr. King and was at the Montgomery airport in quest of some nourishment—

The woman working the snack-bar counter was sullen and disagreeable and glared at Heschel who, with his yarmulke and white beard, resembled a Hebrew prophet—

This woman said sarcastically, “Well, I’ll be damned. My mother always told me there was a Santa Claus, and I didn’t believe her until now”— she let him know she would not be serving him any food.

Heschel smiled, and then gently asked, “Is it possible that in the kitchen there might be some water?”—grudgingly the woman admitted that yes, there was.

“Is it possible,” Heschel asked, “that in the refrigerator you might find a couple of eggs?”—well, maybe, the woman said.

“Well, then,” said Rabbi Heschel, “ if you take the eggs and boil them in the water, that would be fine.”

“Why should I?” the woman shot back.

“Why should you?” Heschel said, “ Because, after all, I did you a favor.”

“What favor did you ever do me?” she asked.

Heschel answered, “I proved to you there was a Santa Claus.”

The woman burst out laughing, and food was quickly delivered.

So if we use Matthew’s nativity story as our lens, we might surmise that the Son of Man is born into our midst when we least expect him in the guise of a startling vulnerability—it might be the vulnerability of a panhandler, a child, a wounded animal, an African American civil rights leader, a Jewish rabbi, and on and on—

In whatever form of vulnerability the Son of Man comes to us, he judges our hardness of heart and invites us, urges us, beseeches us, to wake up and be merciful— merciful to our neighbor, merciful to our enemies, and, yes, merciful to ourselves.

And so it might be that one effect of our being surprised by the Son of Man crossing our path is that we may find rising up within us some variation of that old Eastern Orthodox prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us—have mercy upon us all.”

As Tom Schaefer reminded us during each day of the Waffle Shop, Jesus might be coming through the door at any time—which is to say we could have a surprise visit from the Son of Man at any time.

So the question of the hour is not the question that Hank Williams, Jr. shouts out before the kickoff of the Sunday Night Game of the Week, “Are you ready for some football?,” but rather, are you ready for the Son of Man?

Maybe you’ll be more ready than I was. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
January 6, 2008