Years ago, my family owned a dear, indoor/outdoor cat. His name was Sammy. Before he became ours he just kept coming by the house and coming by the house—and then at some point my three girls actually let him inside. From there, it was a natural—he entered our hearts, too. So again, Sammy was indoor/outdoor cat.
One summer we were preparing to go on vacation, just a few days at the beach. Sammy was not a good traveler. We decided that Sammy would be happier staying home, and he would also be happier staying outside than inside. I arranged with a neighbor teen, then, to feed and water Sammy while we were away. I would leave Sammy’s water and food bowls out on the front stoop. She could fill the water bowl at the outdoor spigot. I would leave a container of dried cat food beside the front stoop behind some bushes. That container was made of heavy plastic and it had a screw top.
The night before our family was due to leave, I set out Sammy’s bowls, and the container of cat food, and then I went about loading the car.
I was heading out the front door of the house, my arms full of I don’t know, maybe board games and jigsaw puzzles, when I saw through the screen door an amazing sight! A family of five raccoons, was sitting on our front stoop. The raccoons were sitting on their haunches, so in an upright position. Dried cat food was scattered all around and on the stoop next to them, was the now-open container of cat food. With their little raccoon hands, they were picking up those dry morsels, and putting those morsels into their mouths! They looked like toddlers, eating finger food at a birthday party. I let out a whoop, their masked faces turned my way, then they slowly lumbered off, across the front lawn, and shimmied into a sewer opening further down the street.
When I regained my wits, I inspected the now mostly empty plastic container and its screw top. No teeth marks. “Raccoons can’t twist off lids with their little hands, can they?” That’s what I asked myself. I mean, in eighth grade, history teacher Ms. Maddox taught us that what separates humans from animals is the fact that WE have opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs allow US to touch with our thumbs all the other fingers on our hands. With our opposable thumbs we can twist off most lids, anyway, except for those despicable pill bottle tops!
From reading I did this week, though, I learned that actually we AREN’T alone among the primates in opposable thumb-ness. Chimpanzees actually have FOUR opposable thumbs. Yep, they have opposable thumbs on their feet! The giant panda has opposable thumbs, too. Raccoons, though, don’t have opposable thumbs. I still don’t know how those raccoons twisted off that lid.
Over the course of human history people have come up with various ideas about what separates us from other animal species. Mark Twain famously said, ‘Man is the only animal that blushes - and the only animal that needs to!" I’m not sure anyone has ever proved him wrong.
Some people have suggested that humans are the only species that makes and uses tools. Jane Goodall, I mentioned her in a sermon a few weeks ago, Jane Goodall is a primatologist, that is a person who studies monkeys, and an anthropologist or a person who studies humans. She is one among many people who have disproved the theory that animals don’t make and use tools. In the jungles of Africa, tracking chimpanzees, she watched a chimp pluck a twig from a bush. He stripped off its leaves and lowered it into the top hole of an ant hill. When he pulled it back out, it was covered with ants. Then he licked those ants-- Ummm good! An Ant-sicle!
Some people say that humans, as opposed to other animals, are rational beings. Honestly, I don’t know what that means. What is rationality? Sammy was a very smart cat. And if we concede that children are less rational than adults, does that also mean that children are less human than adults? How about people with mental handicaps?
I want to offer you this as a possibility--what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our capacity to hope. Now by “hope” I mean Hope with a capital H. My dog Pepper sits in the kitchen every morning after our morning walk. She is hoping that I will give her a treat—which I always do. That is hope, with a little h. By hope with a capital H—I mean Hope that can be defined best maybe as Compassionate Imagination. We humans have it and animals, at least as far as I am aware, don’t.
Hope with a capital H is the capacity to imagine favorable possibilities for our species and then to act, and possibly galvanize others to act, to turn that imagined, compassionate possibility into reality. Compassionate imagination drives humans to look for cures for diseases and to work for social change. Certainly other species have feelings for each other. But not on the wide scale and with the imaginative impulse I am talking about.
As someone has said, “The world will be saved by the human spirit.” We humans have the ability to rise above ourselves—to relate to others who are not even our kin, and to connect with a supreme Spirit, which we, here in this place, call the spirit of God.
Compassionate imagination is difficult to contain. It’s like kudzu. Kudzu. If you’ve lived in the South for any length of time, you know kudzu. It’s a fast growing invasive vine, that covers great swathes of our south. As any long-time southern farmer will tell you, the way to plant Kudzu? Just drop a seed on the ground and run! That’s what compassionate imagination, or Hope with a capital H is like, too. Churches can be and sometimes are, plant nurseries for compassionate imagination.
And now we are ready to turn to our scripture reading for today. Jesus heals a man born blind since birth. As the blind man himself says, “Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind.”
Still today, with all our medical advances, that is pretty much the case. It is true that infants who are born blind, have, with medical intervention, been able to see. But, within a very short period of time after birth, the eye-brain pathways in a blind person, shut down for good. So, even if through medical intervention, the eyes themselves are made to function correctly, the brain doesn’t know how to interpret what those eyes see.
That Jesus heals a man born blind, then, really IS extraordinary. Almost as extraordinary, though, is the reaction of the Pharisees. They don’t like Jesus’ healing one bit. Right away they start slinging accusations. “It’s just a trick. After all, blind people don’t regain their sight.” Then, when the formerly blind man convinces them that he really WAS blind, and now he really DOES see, the Pharisees decide that Jesus must have an evil spirit. And of course, for good measure, they throw in the fact that Jesus has not honored the Sabbath.
Why would they act that way?
I read this week a really gripping story about a man named Virgil who lost his eyesight when he was three, and then had his eyesight restored when he was in his forties. Here’s the written testimony by the man’s fiancée, who was present in the doctor’s office, when Virgil’s eye bandages were removed. She writes,
“He can see! The entire [doctor’s] office is in tears! It’s the first time Virgil has had sight in years! Virgil’s family is so excited they can’t believe it! Miracle! Incredible!” Since I am reading this, you can’t appreciate all the exclamation points in those two short lines—but they are there—SIX exclamation points.
THAT’S the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way people are supposed to act.
Apparently, the Pharisees don’t want their subjects, that is the common religious people, in Judah—farmers, shopkeepers, mothers and children, all of them oppressed, to HOPE with a capital H. I mean, if Jesus can give sight to a man born blind, then what else is possible? People who have Hope, who have Compassionate Imagination, are dangerous. They are dangerous because they are willing to go to great lengths to right wrongs, to make things better. They have tapped into that common spirit, that we here call God—that gives them immense power--power to upset what is—the status quo.
Friends, today there are leaders in the US, I will say in politics and in the financial world, certainly, but not just in politics and the financial world, who want to suppress Hope with a capital H. These modern day Pharisees are consumed with self-interest and greed—they are NOT compassionate. They want to maintain their positions.
However, we who are here, we who are Christian—WE are people of Hope with a capital H. Happily there are plenty of people both in here and out there, who are applying compassionate imagination in an effort to make our country, and the world a better place. In fact, there are so many of these folks right here in our country, that I had trouble choosing just one to talk about today. I decided on Stephanie Cox, simply because I know about her the best. Her mom is a retired Presbyterian pastor and a personal friend. So ready yourselves to receive a dose of Hope with a capital H.
Stephanie is in her 30’s. She grew up in Charlottesville. She has worked as a senior executive for several non-profits. One of the non-profits sells equipment that cleans water. The company sells the equipment to areas of the world where potable water is not readily available. Then she worked for a non-profit that sells portable solar lights—to areas where electricity is scarce. Stephanie has traveled extensively in impoverished countries. It was in Indonesia, though, that she had a life transforming experience. In December, 2004, an earthquake shook the Indian Ocean. That earthquake and the resultant tsunami, caused waves 100 feet high! The earthquake and tsunami together killed 250,000 people in 14 countries. Two hundred fifty thousand. It is considered one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
Stephanie was lucky. She was staying in-land, so away from the devastation. But, she experienced first hand, Indonesian peoples’ horror and then frustration as they scrambled to gather supplies and send them to the survivors.
That was 15 years ago. Today, she is the CEO of her own company. The Level Market. The hopeful vision for her business is stated on her website:
Our mission is to make it as easy to buy aid supplies as it is to buy books on Amazon. We provide a one-stop-shop for aid & development products that meet humanity's needs. Our goal is to become the Amazon for Aid.
Her company sells blankets and light weight sleeping bags, equipment that cleans water, and those portable solar lights, and a lot else, and it ships them at a quick turn around. If another tsunami hits, if we have another Katrina, she and her company are ready. In the meantime, her work is being celebrated around the globe. She’s putting together a TED talk. She received an international award in London a few months ago. My friend, her mother, is rightly proud.
Friends, that kind of Compassionate Imagination is NOT in short supply. It is everywhere. We just get blinded by the light of so many self-serving, Pharisee types, sometimes that we loose hope. In fact, they want us to lose hope.
Our scripture reading for today, then, reminds us that if Jesus can heal a man born blind since birth, then anything, anything, is possible. Believe it, it is true. Amen