Pandemonium in the Temple

“The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’”

John 2:13-16

Let’s start with a question—what did Jesus have in mind that day when he entered the Temple?—what was his motive for taking on the role of agitator and kicking up a fuss?

Well, Jesus was obviously not trying to engineer a take-over of the Temple—this was not an armed insurrection designed to topple the Temple authorities.

This was a one person protest that did not endanger life, limb, or property—there was no burning of buildings or shattering of windows or taking of hostages.

Yes, according to the gospel of John, Jesus wielded a whip of cords—but there’s no indication he used the whip to inflict pain on anybody and it sounds like the only actual damage might have been a few nicks on the tables and chairs.

Jesus’ protest in the Temple seems to have been much more of an annoyance than a threat, a little flurry of agitation after which the merchants and money-changers probably dusted themselves off, got things straightened around, and quickly returned to business as usual.

For, after all, this rabbi from the sticks attacking the machinery of the Temple was like a mosquito stinging a rhinoceros—a defenseless, powerless Jesus would have been no match for the machinery of the great Temple, the most powerful, revered Jewish institution in all of Palestine.

So I’m wondering if Jesus’ trouble-making in the Temple was a kind of performance art, a sort of over-the-top gesture of protest that expressed his dismay at a hierarchy that had become callous, arrogant, and self-serving, a system that had forgotten its founding vision—an institution that had become very institutionalized.

I’m wondering if Jesus ruffling feathers in the Temple was his way of making a statement, his way of echoing that famous passage in the Book of the Prophet Amos in which the Lord, the God of Hosts, declares,

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Maybe this text is what Jesus had in mind when he strode into the Temple that day—for it would seem that justice and righteousness, with a lot of mercy thrown in, was the song he loved to sing.

I’m wondering if this vulnerable yet daring figure of Jesus taking on the Temple is a little bit like Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” taking on the high and the mighty.

Did you know that Charlie Chaplin once said: “I want to play the role of Jesus. I look the part. I’m a Jew. And I’m a comedian.”?

Of course, Jesus was not, strictly speaking, a comedian—but he seemed to have had a comedian’s sense of timing when it came to upsetting the apple cart of the callous and the arrogant—there was a kind of hilarity about the way this uncredentialed, uncertified rabbi without a power base could turn the tables on those who flaunted their sense of virtue, piety, or superiority.

We might say that Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple combines an acute, almost laughable vulnerability with a certain exuberant daring.

And as we think about Jesus acting up in the Temple, perhaps memories spring to mind of other protests against callousness and arrogance in which the protesters were both absurdly vulnerable and unaccountably bold and daring.

There was the anonymous Chinese man standing in front of a line of seventeen tanks the day after the government crackdown on Tiananmen Square who, for a half hour, stepped into the path of the lead tank every time the driver tried to go around him—and who eventually climbed up on the tank and allegedly said to the driver, “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.”

There was Willie Morris, one-time editor of Harper’s Magazine, who, as a senior at the University of Texas, was editor of the student newspaper and repeatedly issued broadsides against segregation and censorship—on one occasion, Morris wrote an editorial that lashed out at the governor and other legislators for what he claimed was their collusion with the oil and gas interests that ran the state—the university’s Board of Regents prohibited him from publishing the editorial, and so he put out a blank editorial page with these words emblazoned across it—“This editorial was censored!”; as Morris later wrote, “A student editor in Texas could blaspheme the Holy Spirit and the Apostle Paul, but irreverence stopped at the wellhead.”

When I was in the 6th grade, we had a coach and gym teacher who was immensely popular with the students—it is not too much to say we loved Coach Renwick—we would push ourselves to the limit trying to excel at some game or exercise just to receive one word of praise from him which we would treasure for weeks—one day when we reported to gym, another coach, a towering man we feared but neither liked nor respected, called the class to order and told us Coach Renwick was no longer employed at the school and that he would be taking over his duties—we were a dazed, morose group—but as the day progressed, our shock turned into anger, and as we huddled together, one of our nervier comrades hatched a plan which the rest of us quickly endorsed—the next day when the new gym teacher called us to attention with his usual military cadence, instead of snapping to, the whole class, in one coordinated movement, sat down—the teacher was totally flummoxed—he sputtered, waved his arms, and headed for the principal’s office—interestingly enough, no discipline was ever meted out to us—the assistant principal came and sat down with us and patiently explained that Coach Renwick had resigned for personal reasons and the school regretted his leaving—but I think the school recognized that the bond between a teacher and his students should not be so rudely broken and that they had handled the situation badly—and I’m sure that if our more audacious fellow-student hadn’t put forth the idea for the little protest, we more timid types wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it.

I think it would be a gross misreading of Jesus’ protest in the Temple to conclude that he wanted to wreak havoc on the Temple as an institution.

On the contrary, I believe that as a faithful Jew he was trying to honor and preserve the institution by applying a little shock therapy to remind those in charge of the Temple’s original, founding vision.

If we read the story this way, we can say that the spirit of Jesus’ protest is really applicable to every institution.

All of us work and live in institutions—businesses. law firms, health care, government, education, the military, the church—institutions are essential and indispensable—they are the primary carriers of the precious, hard-earned wisdom and know-how of the past.

But all institutions are perpetually susceptible to institution creep—that is, all of us who live and work in institutions are continually in danger of falling prey to institutionalization—becoming dull and robotic or worse, callous and arrogant, but, either way, losing sight of the founding vision.

Every institution has, as part of its charter, either spelled out or implicit, an undeniable ethical imperative—to serve “pro bono publico”—to serve the public good.

Of course, lawyers, doctors, business executives, and stock brokers all have to worry constantly about the economic bottom line—yes, excruciatingly difficult compromises have to be struck, agonizing decisions have to be made about lay offs and health care coverage—we’re not talking any kind of moral perfection here—but the point is that even for a company in the most intensely competitive business arena, Heaven forbid that profitability, although a must, would be the only consideration.

David Packard recalled that after he and Bill Hewlett had gotten their company off the ground 68 years ago, he attended a conference at Stanford University sponsored by the business school—he said, “Somehow, we got into a discussion of the responsibility of management. The professor made the point that management’s responsibility is to the shareholders—that’s the end of it. And I objected. I said, ‘I think you’re absolutely wrong. Management has a responsibility to its employees, it has a responsibility to its customers, it has a responsibility to the community at large.’ And they almost laughed me out of the room.”

Jesus’ protest in the temple is a burr under the saddle of every institution that drifts into a malaise of being only concerned with feathering its own nest—Jesus’ protest is a reminder that as soon as an institution ceases to serve the public good, it is already in the first stage of rigor mortis.

This past week I went to see my family doctor.

In the course of our leisurely visit, yes, I said leisurely, he told me that early in his practice an older physician who had become his mentor said to him, “If you look after your patients, if you do what’s right for them, the money will follow. Not necessarily a lot of money, but enough.”

And then my doctor said to me, “He was right. Of course, you can’t disregard issues of money, managed care. But if you are mainly devoted to your patients’ welfare, the other things will work out. And a fulfillment comes from this that you can never get if you’re only worried about your investments.”

In other words, take care of the means and the ends will take care of themselves.

Not long ago Dr. Charles Vialotti announced his retirement and the closing of his office in Greenwich Village where he had been seeing patients since l941.

Dr. Vialotti said, “I’m going to be 97 years old. I figured at that age it’s wise to have a short period of rest.”

According to the reporter Clyde Haberman who was covering this story, “In mid-January, Dr. Vialotti sent letters about his retirement plans to 810 patients he had seen in just the last two years. Many felt they had to call on him one last time—Joseph Buscemi dropped by the other day. He had been going to Dr. Vialotti for 60 years. Jeff Sweetland had moved from the Village to Jersey City, but he never switched doctors. He paid a visit. So did Christine Wandel, who had health questions about her young grandson. ‘I had to check with him,’ she said. ‘There’s never been a time when he’s been wrong.’”

The reporter goes on, “It is always risky to call someone the last of his kind, for someone else is bound to pop up. Even so, when was the last time you went to a doctor who did it all by himself, without receptionist or nurse? Who couldn’t be bothered with all the insurance nonsense, and charged low fees or, at times, none at all? Who kept records on index cards, not computers? Who took patients as they walked in, first come, first served?

Who made house calls? (Some day, kids, we’ll tell you what house calls were.)”

“Dr. Vialotti was, quite simply, an old style G.P., a term you barely hear anymore. The initials stand for general practitioner—Dr. Vialotti said, ‘People didn’t have to make appointments. Sometimes, there’d be 25 or 26 patients in the waiting room. They were sitting out in the hall. The joke among my patients was, “You’ll probably get well before he gets to see you.”’

“As for house calls, he recalls making 19 of them in a single day back in the 1940’s. It helped that some patients lived in walk-ups with connecting roofs. He could move easily between buildings. He recalled, ‘They used to say, “We’re leaving the roof door open, Doc.”’”

“One longtime patient, who preferred to stay anonymous, said, ‘You felt you were as important to him as he was to you.’”

Now we all know you can’t practice medicine that way anymore—and I’m sure Dr. Vialotti was a laughing stock among various high end physicians who considered him a Neanderthal doctor who never caught up—but isn’t it heartening to hear of someone who, for all those years, retained the founding vision of what it means to be a doctor.

And there continue to be doctors, like my own family physician, who, in the midst of the madcap, helter-skelter world of managed care, still honor and cleave to that vision.

You see, I believe that wherever we work and live in institutional settings, we are called to be a little daring, a little nervy, a little audacious, a little unconventional, on behalf of serving the public good—oh, to be sure we need to pick our spots—but at certain critical moments, when the timing is right, I believe we’re called to go out on a limb, risk embarrassment, look a little foolish, ruffle a few feathers, and, even in the teeth of opposition and ridicule, sing our song of justice and righteousness, with a lot of mercy thrown in, which is really the song of Jesus and the prophets.

When things are sliding downhill in the place where we work or spend much of our time, and a cold, calculating cost-cutting mentality rules the roost and clients, customers, and fellow employees are getting short-shrift, I believe we are supposed to sing our song and say our piece with humor, buoyancy, and boldness, and hopefully without being smug, grim, or self-righteous.

In short, I believe we are called to be vulnerable, daring, life-giving agents who willingly take on the costly business of combating institution rot with passion, laughter, and maybe a little creative zaniness.

But I have this problem—I’m a fellow who tends to play it safe, who is allergic to conflict and risk-averse, who hates making waves and will go to almost any lengths to keep the peace and who can be, let’s face it, a little wishy- washy.

This doesn’t sound like a recipe for daring.

But I find solace in the fact that we trust in a Spirit that can, in the moment of truth, suddenly convert our timidity into courage, our cowardice into bravery.

That’s what I’m counting on—how about you?

The Rev. Robert Dwight
3 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
March 19, 2006

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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

The Big Story

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Romans 10:12-13

Of course, each of us has a different story about how we got here.

Each of us has taken a distinctive, one of a kind zigzag path to be in this place this morning.

My own path here was quite circuitous and roundabout—and like most of our stories, my story is full of perplexity, amazement, doubt, awakenings, and comical missteps—certainly my first brush with the Episcopal Church was anything but promising.

As an 18 year old just out of high school and in need of a summer job, I signed on as custodian at the local Episcopal church mainly because my girl friend lived right over the hill.

It didn’t take long for the rector to realize the nature of my priorities—one day the Rev. Mr. Hill told me that he noticed I seemed to be constantly taking breaks and leaving the premises, that he’d deliberately left several piles of dust balls in the parish hall to see how long it would take for me to get to them, and when they were still there after two weeks, he’d decided he no longer needed my services.

As I said, my getting from there to here has involved many twists and turns.

Each of our stories about how we arrived here features various critical incidents—certain influences, certain meetings, certain conversations, certain telling incidents, certain surprises—that nudged or propelled us in one direction rather than another and eventually led us here.

And it is impossible to grasp someone’s story without appreciating these critical incidents, these unexpected events that lured us in a certain direction, that more than once caused us to change course, that down through the years have shaped and reshaped our understanding of God and faith, sin and redemption.

Of course, our stories may be strikingly similar in some respects—but the particulars, the specifics, the concrete details, of each of our stories, the intricacies of our experience, what we have enjoyed, what we have suffered, what we have celebrated, what we have endured, are remarkably, profoundly different from everyone else’s.

When we come together, we may look on the surface like a rather homogeneous group in lockstep, but the reality is we embody all these differences in personal history, family background, economic status, political convictions, social tastes, liturgical preferences, ways of believing.

And differences of this magnitude mean significant tensions, however unexpressed these might be.

It’s been said that one of the glories of Anglicanism is that our tradition blesses difference.

But as we survey the current splintering in the Anglican Communion, we have to conclude that this tradition is under siege.

And the notion that differences can coexist under one roof is not exactly flourishing in our state and national legislatures.

Well, to bring it on home, let us ask ourselves, “How much difference can you and I not only tolerate but bless?”

Apparently not very much.

When T.S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” he might well have added, “Humankind cannot bear very much difference.”

Each of us, it seems, is captive to the boundaries, horizons, and limitations of our own story—those whose stories are markedly different from ours often seem alien, strange, and unapproachable.

Enter the Gospel story.

The Gospel story is a Big Story, a story that is big and vast enough to include and encompass all our stories and all our differences.

The Big Story is bigger than my story or your story.

This Big Story comprehends, envelops, and embraces all our stories.

All our stories fit within the spacious domain of this Big Story.

The Big Story is about how we are all maintained in our aliveness from moment to moment by the energy and vitality of God the source of all life—in the words of Hymn 423, “To all life thou givest, to both great and small; in all life thou livest, the true life of all….”

The Big Story is about how difference is God’s way of making things interesting—how difference is a mark of God’s ingenuity.

This Big Gospel Story is about all the ways we get lost and then are found, not just once but over and over.

This Big Story is about all the ways we are blind and then see, not just once but again and again.

The Big Story is about how we’re all in the same boat, how we repeatedly get stranded in some wilderness or other, and then how suddenly a path opens up.

The Big Story is about all those moments when, in our hour of need, kindness and mercy have suddenly appeared, quelled our anxiety, and relieved and restored us.

The Big Story is about all those little moments when grace abounds, when our nearly empty cup has suddenly been filled to overflowing.

The Irish writer Colum McCann remembers the time when he was 9 and he and his father traveled from Dublin to London to visit his ailing grandfather in a nursing home.

After they had said goodbye to his grandfather, they went to a Hard Rock Café for a hamburger—when the waitress, who turned out to be Irish, found out why they had come to London, she reached out and gently touched the boy’s cheek and then brought him an ice cream sundae.

Mr. McCann, who’s now 44, said “I know, for a fact, that if she’s still around, she would not remember that. But every single time I touch down in London, I can feel that woman’s presence, and also her generosity. So this tiny little moment affected me in all sorts of extraordinary ways.”

Yes, the Big Story is about how the simplest gesture of generosity can reach across all our differences and reverberate for a life time.

The Big Story is about how the smallest act of kindness is monumentally important, cosmically significant, and transcends all differences.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Lent 1
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, OH
2/21/10

A New Vision of Greatness

“So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”

Mark 10:42-45

Some of you have probably seen the National Geographic Special entitled “Killer Stress.”

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, has been studying chronic stress in the social hierarchies of humans and other primates.

Much of the program was devoted to examining the social hierarchy of baboons in East Africa and which members of the community are most prone to stress.

What he’s discovered is that baboons typically organize themselves in a steep pyramid of power with a few dominant males ruling rather tyrannically over the rest.

The few males at the top are remarkably free of stress—they are “golden,” luxuriating in their privileged status while the more submissive males and females are awash in stress, have more health problems, and die earlier.

It reminded me of that CEO I read about the other day who was making command decisions while lounging on his monster yacht which was equipped with every conceivable extravagance; while he was throwing big, no holds barred wingdings and seemingly feeling no stress or pain, the company was going down the drain and his land-based employees were sweating bullets over their future.

But something interesting happened to the particular troop of baboons Dr. Sapolsky was studying.

Some tourists had left mounds of garbage around their camp site and the dominant baboon males, seizing on their kingly status, claimed the spoils for themselves, promptly gobbled up all the garbage, were stricken with food poisoning, and died.

The remaining more submissive males and females then proceeded to form a more collaborative society in which food and power were more democratically shared.

When Dr. Sapolsky tested the surviving baboons, he found their stress level had diminished considerably.

When some new, more aggressive males happened along and joined the group, they were gradually over a period of months induced to adopt a more cooperative mode of operation—they were in effect overwhelmed by the greater number of collaborative males and discovered that their former aggressive conduct no longer paid off.

We might call this a bump up the evolutionary ladder.

But it took a trauma, namely, the food poisoning calamity that wiped out the baboons in charge, to bring about the change.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is trying to introduce his disciples to a new concept of leadership.

He’s trying to redirect their competitive instincts toward a shockingly new mode of greatness.

He’s not so na├»ve and unrealistic as to think that the competitive urge is going to dry up and blow away.

But he’s trying to nudge them into competing in a different way—competing in serving and collaborating rather than in a zero-sum game in which I win, you lose!

Jesus is describing a fundamental power shift, a drastic change in the way of doing business, as different as democracy is from dictatorship.

He’s suggesting that the old images of leader as kingpin and cock of the walk, the head honcho sitting in the catbird seat, have to be jettisoned for a drastically different image—he turns the traditional notion of leadership on its head by defining greatness in terms of serving.

But it’s a tough sell—the disciples are too steeped in the old pyramid model of power to grasp what Jesus is getting at.

It took a trauma, that is, his death for them to get it.

We might say the end result was a bump up the ladder of spiritual evolution.

A couple of years ago I received in the mail a glossy album containing photographs of my college classmates then and now along with autobiographical sketches of how they had fared over the years.

As I leafed through this book, what struck me was that so many of these accounts of life after graduation sounded like 6th grade kids doing “show and tell.”

Here’s a sampling.

“I have been a successful investment banker for thirty years and have recently become a consultant to the State Department on new economic initiatives in Viet Nam.”

“I developed precision instruments for micro-surgery that enabled me to retire at 35, and since then I have written a book on the wild flowers of Western Washington that is now in its third printing.”

Well, who among us has not at some time or other been consumed by the itch to do something fantastic and extraordinary that would demonstrate beyond a doubt that we are inspired and set apart from others?

So this is perhaps the most common understanding of “inspired”—to do something exceptional that sets one apart from the average, run of the mill bloke.

But Jesus’ view of inspiration seems to be an almost 180 degree contrast.

Jesus’ view seems to be that the most inspired person is not the one who excels, surpasses, and sets himself apart from others but rather the one who holds things together.

Jesus’ view seems to be that the most inspired person is the one who, when a group or community is on the verge of splintering and coming apart at the seams, manages somehow, by hook or by crook, to hold things together.

We’re speaking here of someone who is steadfast and stalwart, someone who especially when others are bailing out can be counted on to show up come hell or high water, who more than anything is trustworthy.

We’re speaking here of a person whose inspiration consists of an almost infallible sense of when and how to be helpful and when to leave well enough alone.

This is not the inspiration of a newsmaker or trendsetter but the kind of inspiration that is unassuming, unpretentious, and often scarcely noticeable, that does not call attention to itself, that goes about its business without pomp or fanfare.

We’re speaking here of a person who has a low profile, who mostly functions behind the scenes, who does not consider herself remarkable in any way, and yet who, a good part of the time, is the heart and soul of the operation, the linchpin, the center of gravity.

We’re speaking here of a person who is equally adept at bandaging skinned knees and soothing ruffled egos, who’s an artist at balancing and defusing tensions within a family or parish or office.

This is not a person who’s “nicey nice” but someone who can be tough as nails when the occasion calls for it, who has the intestinal fortitude to voice out loud that hard, cleansing truth which others know but are too timid to say.

We’re speaking here of a person whose inspiration is that without even realizing it, she consistently practices the old fashioned virtues of faithfulness, patience, integrity, and kindness.

This is a person with a sense of humor that won’t quit, someone who has a talent for bringing out the hidden best in those around her.

This is the grandmother or uncle who, as we were growing up, was the glue that held our family together.

This is the teacher who has 27 kids in her kindergarten class and who’s able to hold this impossible situation together by instinctively knowing what’s going on with each child, who needs to be comforted because his parents are going through a divorce and who needs to be pushed and challenged.

This is the parish secretary we once knew who, more than anyone else, held the various factions and constituencies of a parish together.

We’re speaking here of a person who is able to hold things together, to endure, not because she trusts in her own strength or capability, but because she trusts in the under-girding power of God that holds all things together, that is, she trusts in the One in whom, as Paul says in one of his epistles, all things cohere.

There’s a fictional example of this kind of inspired person who holds things together in William Faulkner’s novel, “The Sound and the Fury”.

The Compsons are an old Southern family that has fallen on hard times.

Three generations of Compsons live in the old, cavernous family place–a brooding, elderly mother, a ruthless, cynical son, a brain-damaged son, a promiscuous daughter, and a flippant, surly granddaughter.

And each of these figures does his or her part in maintaining a perpetual whirlwind of strife and resentment.

Amidst this frenzy of confusion and ill will, carping and feuding, the black servant Dilsey Gibson is this rock solid, stabilizing force of sanity, health, realism, and compassion who somehow keeps this family going.

Depending on the circumstance, Dilsey rebukes, mothers, prods, or comforts, and from day to day exerts enough of a unifying, settling influence to hold the family together if just barely.

Dilsey is able to endure, she is able to hold the family together, because she trusts in the Divine power that holds all things together that is stronger than human folly; she trusts in the One in whom all things cohere.

Maybe we can call this Dilsey power which I think is close to the kind of inspiration that Paul refers to in one of his epistles where he writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

So this day let us remember and praise those various, unsung persons we have known who have exuded Dilsey power, who have shown us the true nature of inspiration, who have been gifted at holding things together, who have personified the kind of greatness in service Jesus is talking about.

And especially when things seem to be crumbling, may we learn from these mentors and guides to trust in the One in whom all things cohere and use our gifts to hold things together.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
20 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
10/18/09

The Disappointment Blues

“Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Mark 9:30-32

Let’s face it—the disciples are a pretty disappointing lot.

When it comes to understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission, the disciples, to say the least, are slow on the uptake.

Jesus seems repeatedly disappointed that the disciples are so dense and obtuse, so slow to catch on to this new gospel way of life, so stuck in their old egotistical mode of trying to outdo and outshine one another —as in today’s reading when Jesus overhears them arguing about who among them is the greatest.

But, of course, the disciples are also disappointed in Jesus.

Jesus and his comrades have just completed a successful swing through a series of villages where they have been lauded and applauded, and they are riding the crest of public acclaim and popularity.

But just as the disciples are reveling in their new-found fame and celebrity status and the prospect of being major players in Jesus’ new kingdom, this Jesus, who always seems to keep them guessing, throws a big, gloom and doom damper on their frivolity and high spirits.

He completely deflates their merrymaking by telling them that he must undergo betrayal, suffering, and death—which leaves the disciples speechless and afraid.

Jesus mentions something about resurrection—but surely the disciples can only hear those ominous words that point to their leader’s destruction and the destruction of all their hopes—betrayal, suffering, and death!

Jesus’ words take the joy out of their joy ride—the disciples sense that their glory days are going to be short-lived—Jesus is turning out to be a huge disappointment!

The disciples disappoint Jesus and he, in turn, disappoints them.

Sound familiar?

Aren’t we all well versed in the disappointment blues?

Aren’t we all intimately acquainted with being on both ends of the disappointment syndrome? Don’t we all have a long history of both being disappointed by others and also being the ones who disappoint?

Belonging to a tradition that continually reminds us in our liturgy that we are fallible, flawed, myopic, anxiety-driven creatures should give us a leg up in understanding this universal phenomenon of disappointment.

How helpful it is to have several thousand years’ worth of stories and images that put our perennial tendency to disappoint one another in perspective!

Look, we have all these great old stories in the Bible about people disappointing each other, even the great and the near great—Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, David and Absalom, Joseph and his brothers, etc., etc.

And in one of the apostle Paul’s most oft-quoted utterances, he declares, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” which is another way of saying that everyone is disappointing—everyone is less than what he or she could have been, should have been, might have been.

These texts suggest that at least for a million years or so we have all been disappointing each other.

We could give the doctrine of original sin a contemporary spin by saying we come into this world with a predisposition to disappoint and be disappointed.

This means that none of us, no matter how sterling our character or how admirable our virtues, can escape the sting of repeatedly disappointing and being disappointed by those whose lives are bound up with ours.

When a couple shows up for premarital counseling, they should have ample opportunity to describe all the impressive qualities of their respective partners and why they are well suited to each other—but at some point they should probably be asked some version of this question: How have you dealt with your mate disappointing you?

Because the path from that first stage of romance and infatuation when she says to him, “You’re Mr. Wonderful” and he says to her, “You’re my everything!” to a love that is substantial and enduring is long and crooked and strewn with innumerable let downs and disappointments.

Parents, no matter how dedicated, will invariably disappoint their children, and the children, no matter how much they want to please their parents, will inevitably disappoint them.

Parents of a conservative bent are taken aback when their 20 something daughter, whose college education they are paying for, comes home at spring break spouting radical liberal notions which, needless to say, leads to some acrimonious dinner conversations.

Parents want their son to choose a career that’s practical and has a reliable income and he decides to be a composer—and he’s disappointed that they’re disappointed.

A child whose parents are divorced and lives with her mother is distraught when the father fails to show for a promised visit—and the mother is furious and sorrowful as she tries to explain to her daughter that it’s not her fault.

Or take the case of volunteers for a political candidate who spend countless hours making calls and knocking on doors—when their candidate wins, they celebrate into the wee small hours—but within several months they are already disappointed because she has compromised on certain issues on which she had pledged to take a firm, unwavering stand.

Friends disappoint each other.

I remember reading a comment years ago in an alumni newsletter by the university president which has stuck with me—he said that if we wait to find friends who will not disappoint us, we will be consigning ourselves to living in an isolation tank.

Now the fact that this gentleman resigned some time later after his affair with his secretary came to light does not detract from the validity of his observation that friendships that last are friendships that have weathered serious incidents of disappointment.

And need I mention that no matter how productive and progressive the work place, bosses and employees are inevitably involved, to some degree or other, in a round robin of disappointing each other.

And then there’s the matter of clergy and congregations.

When a parish is going through the search process, the head of the search committee should stroll through the congregation each Sunday with a large placard with big, bold letters stating, “Whoever is chosen as priest in charge will disappoint us and we will disappoint her!”

Simply put, it’s in the cards for us to disappoint one another—and it definitely behooves us to recognize this as part of our reality.

So what is the gospel remedy for the disappointment blues?

The gospel intercepts the cycle of disappointment by, first of all, confronting us with our own disappointing ways and then announcing that our personal “disappointing-ness” is unequivocally, absolutely forgiven.

The gospel says to us, in effect, “You are forgiven for all the disappointing you have done; now go and forgive those who have disappointed you.”

Of course, left to our own devices, forgiving ourselves and others is something we are utterly incapable of.

In fact, we are usually incapable of even wanting to forgive those who have disappointed us.

It is far more natural for us to cling stubbornly to a delectable self-righteousness or an even more delicious self-pity than respond forgivingly to those who have offended us.

We can say that forgiveness runs counter to our natural instincts, that we are naturally inclined to nurse grudges and grievances indefinitely or at least keep them in reserve as ammunition for the future.

But on those occasions when we are able to forgive ourselves and others for being disappointing, perhaps we sense that a power beyond us has suddenly infused us with a new generosity, a new urgent desire for reconciliation and restitution, a new realization that “disappointing-ness” is a condition that we all share and that the forgiveness and mercy of God extend to all.

To be able to forgive ourselves and others is something of a miracle.

And it is a miracle that needs to happen to us again and again for the ability to forgive is never a permanent possession—we have it one moment and suddenly we realize it has slipped through our fingers and we are back to our old ways of rationalizing and resenting.

But once having known this forgiveness and the freedom and elation it brings, we can never be satisfied with anything less.

The kind of forgiving that comes upon us as a gift from the God who is beyond us and yet closer to us than breath is both costly and jubilant.

It is costly because it always acknowledges the pain and grief we have caused and that others have caused us.

But, more than anything, this forgiving is jubilant because it releases us from the guilt of disappointing and the resentment of being disappointed.

The gospel offers us a power of forgiveness that repairs relationships, heals estrangement, and creates new beginnings.

Amazingly enough, the gift of forgiving that comes from God is actually able to turn our disappointment blues into a laughing matter and a source of celebration.

For this forgiveness can transform the tragedy of disappointment into the comedy of redemption.

And in this assembly where we continually celebrate the reality that our disappointing ways have been thoroughly and utterly forgiven, it is the note of laughter and jubilation that should resound.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
16 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
9/20/09

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

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