United by our Deficiencies


I love reading the Acknowledgments page in every new book that I buy. In his most recent book, Principalities in Particular-A Practical Theology of the Powers That Be, Bill Wylie-Kellermann included an acknowledgment of his church community in Detroit with the following words: “St Peter’s Episcopal Church, place, base, sanctuary, beloved community, hospitaliters, water distributers, and ministry makers, who have allowed me to bend their hearts and ears, preaching on my mentors and the powers.” Beautiful words, clearly coming from deep experience of shared ministry.

The paralytic in today’s Gospel reading had no one to help him, no one to share his pain. He and his fellow sufferers by the pool were in competition, survival of the fittest, win-lose. Nothing shared, nothing sacrificed. As I was reflecting on this Gospel reading, I received an email from Deane in Damariscotta. He can’t come down more than a few times a year, but he stays in touch through emails. He sent me a homily by the British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks is very well known and he sits in the House of Lords in London – that’s the upper house in the British Parliament. In this homily Rabbi Sacks talks about Noah and the flood in the book of Genesis. He makes some interesting observations that are worth repeating.

Genesis 1 tells me that I am in the image of God. Genesis 9, after the flood, tells me that the other person is in the image of God.

This really is a life-changing idea. It means that the greatest religious challenge is: Can I see God’s image in one who is not in my image – whose colour, class, culture or creed is different from mine?

People fear people not like them. That has been a source of violence for as long as there has been human life on earth. The stranger, the foreigner, the outsider, is almost always seen as a threat. But what if the opposite is the case? What if the people not like us enlarge rather than endanger our world? 

Rabbi Sacks quotes a common Jewish blessing in which God “creates many souls and their deficiencies.” A strange blessing: Why should we praise God for creating deficiencies? Rabbi Sacks answers:

If we had no deficiencies, we would lack nothing, and we would never need anyone else. We would be solitary rather than social. The fact that we are all different, and all have deficiencies, means that we need one another. What you lack, I may have, and what I lack, you may have. It is by coming together that we can each give the other something he or she lacks. It is our deficiencies and differences that brings us together in mutual gain, in a win-win scenario. It is our diversity that makes us social animals.

Rabbi Sacks concludes:

Next time we meet someone radically unlike us, we should try seeing difference not as a threat but as an enlarging, possibility-creating gift. God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. 

That is a brilliant and truly moving statement. Should I repeat it? God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. 

When I preach on the miracles of Jesus I usually don’t focus on the miracles themselves, but rather on the messages around the miracles or hidden in the miracle stories. Clearly the message today is about helping each other in our deficiencies – what did not happen in that pool in Jerusalem. I’m no Bill Wylie-Kellermann, and we’re not St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit. From what he writes in his books, it is clearly a church with a heart for social ministry. Our heart might be a little different than theirs. And our deficiencies might be different, to return again to the beautiful thought of Rabbi Sacks. And that is why we need each other. Let no one be left behind. God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. 

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