What Can We Do? by Rev. Richard Hasselbach
Back in 1974 when she was a presence but not yet a powerhouse on the world stage, Mother Teresa spoke to a gathering at St. Olaf’s Church in Minneapolis. She talked about the plight of the poor in India and around the world, and about her work to alleviate their suffering. We must not merely be passively concerned about the marginalized; we must help them with our compassionate service.
At the question and answer period after her talk, a woman in a wheelchair came to the microphone to ask Mother Teresa a question. The woman had end-stage cerebral palsy; it was difficult for her even to form the words of her brief question; as she struggled to speak her body convulsed. Mother Teresa and the crowd in the church waited patiently as the woman finally asked her question:
“Is there anything I can do?”
Jesus inaugural sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30) initially it went splendidly. He read the prophecy of Isaiah announcing good news for the poor, release to captives and the oppressed, sight to the blind, and God’s favor to all. “Today,” the Lord proclaimed, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:22). Jesus got good marks from the congregation. The crowd was riveted on him, and when he concluded: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words.” Things went south quickly, though!
Jesus had a reputation throughout Galilee: he was a healer, he brought hope to the hopeless, he taught with authority. His was a prophet’s voice in Israel after centuries of silence. In Nazareth, they wanted to see Jesus’ pizzazz, but he didn’t produce for them as expected: that’s not why Jesus was there.
The crowd came to the synagogue that day to get something from the wonderworker. They wanted their sick healed; abundant blessing; success, happiness; hope, liberation. There is nothing wrong with wanting any of this; many believers today turn to Jesus in need expecting the same things; for help obtaining whatever it is, that’s most glaringly absent in their lives. We ask, and ask, and ask, and we should. Our needs are endless and our emptiness infinite. “Ask,” the Lord said elsewhere, “and you shall receive in overflowing measure.”
Jesus disappointed the crowd in Nazareth because he didn’t go there to put on a show or to give the people what they wanted; he doesn’t come to us that way either. He came to expand their hearts and minds. That’s why the people of Nazareth became angry with him: he wasn’t being the prophet they wanted, he was being the savior the Father sent him to be.
Jesus wants more than our neediness: he wants our hearts; he wants us to love the unlovely the same way he does.
In Nazareth, to open their hearts of his hearers, he gave them a history lesson: when there was a famine in the time of Elijah, God sent the prophet to help a gentile woman in Zarephath, an outsider! Later on, God Elisha to heal a Syrian general, Naaman, though there were plenty of Jewish lepers who would have loved to be made clean. The message: God’s healing and saving love know no boundaries; he made us all, and he loves us all. In God’s eyes, there are no outsiders, only beloved children.
Jesus invites us to embrace, and reflect the unbounded love of God. He doesn’t want us only to ask for ourselves; he wants us to give of ourselves, in love, to those in need, regardless of who they are.
In a world and a nation divided by hatred, Jesus challenges us to create a space in our hearts and lives that transcends our differences; a place where we can love and respect each other as brothers and sisters.
Who are our “outsiders?” Where are the fissures that divide us? Who is “different” from us? What theories do we fear so much that we despise those who hold them? These are important questions because once we identify the “outsiders,” we must also recognize that God loves them, and so must we.
Healing starts with prayer: we must pray for our outsiders; for the ones who we disagree with; the ones we dislike and who dislike us. If we perceive that others have done us some harm, forgive from the heart, forgive those trespasses as God forgives us ours. Only with prayer and forgiveness can we begin to create a space of love, respect and caring where we can be present to each other regardless of our differences. In that space, we can we begin to heal the soul-wounds that afflict us.
The task is so great, and we are so small, that it is easy to think, as the woman in Minneapolis with Cerebral Palsy did, that there is nothing we can do that will make a difference. That is where we’re wrong. After patiently listening as her questioner asked: “Is there anything I can do?”
Mother Teresa replied: “You can do the most; you can do more than any of us. You can unite your suffering to the suffering of Christ on the cross. That brings strength to all of us.”
In the remaining year of that woman’s life she did what Mother Teresa suggested: every day she prayed for her suffering to be redemptive so that others might be strengthened. Toward the end of her life she said: "We are fortunate to have a share in Christ's cross. Lord, let us suffer without regret, for in your will and in our acceptance of your will lives our eternal destiny."
This woman came to the Lord not to ask, but to give. The irony is that, in the act of giving she received an abundance of joy, courage, and strength.