December 15, 2019, Look for the Helper, Matthew 11:2-11
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There’s been quite a bit of attention these days on Mr. Rogers, that kindly man on public television who was such an important figure in the lives of so many children. One of Mr. Roger’s best known quotes is this, “My mother would always say, when there was any real catastrophe. ‘Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.’” He went on to say, “That’s why I think if news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, of showing medical people, anybody who is coming into a place where there is a tragedy, to be sure that they include that, because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”
We might dismiss this as just a nice sentiment for children, a diversion for the kiddies from the real life grown-up stuff that we all have to learn to accept. But how many of us find ourselves sick at heart after the endless tragedies we see on the evening news or read online? We lose track of how many mass shootings there have been in the last month – or in the last week. We grow numb hearing about immigrant children taken from their parents, living in filthy cages, dying for lack of medical care. We hear such a constant stream of vitriol hurled from one political party to the other and back again that after a while we just stop listening. The pain and suffering and anger and fear of the world around us often becomes so overwhelming that it is easiest to just stop caring.
But Mr. Roger’s gentle advice suggests – even to us grown-ups – maybe especially to us grown-ups – an alternative to tuning out and shutting down and closing ourselves off from the world in our own little personal bubble. “Look for the helpers,” he says. In all the horror that is happening, all around us, every day, watch for the grace that is there. Look for the healers and the comforters. Look for the light of kindness and compassion in the darkness of violence or fear. Listen for the voice of reason in the midst of all the name-calling and accusations. Look for the helpers. Because healing, kindness, grace and reason – those are signs of God’s presence in our world. And when we see them we know there is hope.
We read about John the Baptist today in the darkest moment of his life. He has given himself wholeheartedly to the call God laid upon him, to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. But he finds himself in the end locked up for speaking the truth, isolated and condemned and helpless. And in this place of physical and emotional darkness, John is longing for a ray of light. He needs to know that there is hope. So he sends his disciples out to ask Jesus, “Please, tell me if you are truly the Messiah, the hope of Israel. Or are we still waiting for hope to come to us?” It isn’t an intellectual question for John. Depending on the answer that Jesus gives, John will have spent his entire life for a prize of infinite value – or just chasing after wind. It’s a matter of hope or despair, of life or death.
And Jesus tells John’s disciples, “Go tell John what you see and hear. the blind can see again, the lame are walking, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised to life again, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In the midst of poverty and sickness and suffering, those were the signs that God had come into the world – healing and mercy, light and health and hope. When John heard the message that Jesus had sent, he believed that the Messiah had truly come. He knew there was hope.
Mary sang about the hope of the Messiah when the angel came to announce that she was going to be the bearer of the Child. She sang a song of praise to the God who is our Helper: “He scatters the proud and lifts up the lowly; he fills the hungry with good things; he remembers his promise of mercy, to Abraham and his children for ever.” The Jews had been eagerly awaiting a Messiah for centuries – expecting someone who would come charging in with fearsome power to crush their enemies and restore the Golden Age of Israel in all her glory. But instead, the Messiah came in humility, a healer, a man of compassion: a helper. The religious leaders were offended by him. But the multitudes of the poor and helpless and hopeless came flocking to him by the thousands, because they recognized that in him there was hope.
We sing a song from the Green Celebration Hymnal that many of us always think of as Joan’s song – number 651. “All that is Good, all that is Right; All that is Truth, Justice and Light; All that is Pure, Holy indeed, All that is You is all that I need.” That song reminds us that whatever good we see in the world around us; whenever we see kindness, or gentleness, or mercy, or healing – absolutely everything that is good and right in this world is a sign of the presence of God among us, a sign that he has not left us or forsaken us, a sign that he will be with us even to the end of the ages.
We find real hope in the good that we see in the world, in acts of kindness and selflessness in the face of evil and suffering. But what John understood when his disciples came to report what they had seen and heard – it was something much more than the hope of good deeds in a dark world. John understood that the Helper had come who had real power against the darkness. Jesus didn’t merely show kindness to the man who had been born blind. Jesus reversed his whole biology – the cells in his eyes or the neural connections in his brain – whatever had prevented that man from seeing from the moment he was born – suddenly it was all transformed. Light and color came flooding in where for years and years there had been only darkness. The man who had been sitting on the roadside for years begging for mercy and handouts, whose leg muscles were shriveled and atrophied from disuse – suddenly he felt those nerveless legs grow strong. He stood up, slowly at first, wondering. He took a few steps. And then he leapt and ran and danced with pure joy. The leper who hadn’t felt the touch of a human being for years on end watched in silent wonder as his sores melted away and his skin grew clear and smooth and whole again.
There are a lot of Christmas lights along our street. Some of them are really cheerful and beautiful and some of them are a little bit gaudy for my taste. But my favorite lights are across the street from us. There is a huge maple tree in front of the house, and at Christmas time our neighbor sets up something that projects lights up into the tree, so that it looks like thousands of many-colored fireflies in among the branches of the tree, mostly greens and blues. The effect is magical. But all that magic, and all that beauty, comes from the source that projects it. Without the source of light and power, it’s just a dead-looking maple tree with bare, empty winter branches.
John had staked his life on finding the source of all that is good and holy and gracious. Sitting in prison, knowing that his death was very near, he needed to know that he hadn’t just been following just another shimmering reflection, but that the man, Jesus Christ, really was the One, the source of all goodness and beauty and wholeness – that he truly was the powerful love of God in human flesh. And that is our claim as well, the reason we share the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, the reason we celebrate Christmas, the reason we wear our crosses and do whatever acts of goodness and kindness we find it in ourselves to do – and the reason we find hope in goodness and mercy and beauty in all its forms. We find hope in all the reflections of his goodness, because we have seen the power source of all goodness, in Jesus Christ.
It is a curious thing that some of the kindest and best people I have known have been people who don’t consider themselves Christians. Some don’t consider themselves believers of anything in particular. And yet, they are people who touch the lives of so many others with gentleness and compassion and beauty; they are teachers and healers; they have a heart for the poor or the suffering or the neglected. There are helpers who reflect the goodness of God, even though they don’t yet know him. And it seems to me all the more wonderful a sign of God’s goodness and power in this world, that he is at work in his children even before they have come to know him. It is our great hope as children of God, that his light is the life of all men, as John said. And we recognize his handiwork, every time we see healing, every time we see mercy, every time we see compassion and patience and kindness. In the helpers, in all the helpers, we see the gracious fingerprints of the Creator. And when we see them we know there is hope, just as John had hope: because when he heard the works that Jesus was doing he knew that Jesus was indeed the One the Father had sent to help the world he loves.