November 22, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
How many of you know which animal the World Wildlife Fund uses for its logo?
Probably more of you than you think. The World Wildlife Fund is an organization that works to protect the habitat of declining species, and in 1961, it chose the panda for its logo, partly, the organization admits, because it could save printing costs printing in black and white, since pandas are black and white, but mainly because the Giant Panda was a highly threatened species in the 1960’s. Even today, “while its numbers are slowly increasing, the Giant panda remains one of the rarest and most endangered bears in the world,” so the panda is a good representative for the kind of work that the World Wildlife Fund is doing to protect threatened species. (1) Nevertheless, the panda isn’t the only animal that can be printed in black and white nor is it the most endangered animal in the world. The Bermuda Rock Skink, for example, is down to just a couple of thousand animals living in a highly fragile and disappearing habitat in Bermuda, but the World Wildlife Fund doesn’t print the picture of a Rock Skink on its tote bags. Why did the panda get top billing while the skinks didn’t make the gift store catalogue?
If you are like me, you have probably never seen a Bermuda Rock Skink so let me describe it to you. The Bermuda Rock Skink looks like the love child of an illicit snake-salamander coupling. It has a serpent-like body and though it has four tiny legs, it slithers over the rocks like something that just emerged from the primordial swamp. It has a crocodile leer on its pointed snout, but fortunately for humans, the skink is a danger only to its primary prey, cockroaches and woodlice, since the skink rarely gets more than a foot long. It may give you the willies as it skitters and slithers about on the rocks but if it comes to danger, an angry panda can do you a lot more harm than an angry skink. So why doesn’t the World Wildlife Fund choose the Skink for its poster animal? Are people who care about the fate of the world’s animals really going to judge the panda as more worthy of our money than the skink just because the panda looks cuddly while the skink is a little creepy? Are we that shallow?
You bet we are. Our desire to protect the cute and the cuddly is part of our biological hard-wiring. Steven Jay Gould, the natural history writer, pointed out that human children, “compared with adults, have larger heads and eyes, smaller jaws, pudgier legs and feet…. [and these] babyish features tend to elicit strong feelings of affection in adult humans.” (2) The Panda Bear with its black eye patches that make its eyes seem like huge dark pools in that overly big head, with its stubby feet and arms reaching out from a round toddling torso appeals to every parental instinct that has been programmed into us. The skink, however, doesn’t look like anyone’s baby (or if it does we are polite enough not to say anything to the proud parents). We just don’t feel instinctively nurturing toward the poor skink while we will open our purses wide for the cuddly panda because it goes straight to our heart and to millions of years of biological conditioning.
All of this is to say that it’s a lot easier to help someone in need if that someone is appealing like a panda, but skinks need salvation too, and who is going to save the skinks?
I’ve been preaching about the comfort and guidance we can find in the bible in times of suffering, and I have looked at the suffering we experience from injustice, from grief, from mental and physical illness, and from loneliness, but the last type of suffering I want to talk about today is the suffering that we create ourselves; the suffering that arises when our own reaction to the challenges of our lives turns us into slithering skittering skinks. Sometimes, we turn ugly in our fear. Sometimes we become downright disagreeable in our despair. Sometimes we are not able to maintain an admirable and appealing panda-like heart in our pain but instead give into self-pity, whining about our fate. Psychologists call this kind of suffering, “dirty pain” because they liken it to a rolling ball that collects mud as it moves across the ground. The original reason for our pain — the rolling ball itself — may be real and legitimate; it might be the isolation we are experiencing due to the pandemic, or the physical pain of disease, or the heartbreak of injustice, but we add weight to our suffering — we add mud to that ball — by rolling our minds back and forth across our pain, ruminating on our misfortunes. We convince ourselves that “no one understands what we are going through” and “we never catch a break” and “it doesn’t matter what we do because nothing will help anyway.” The self-pity, the blaming of others, the victimhood and sense of persecution, the defeatism that we produce as a response to our pain can become as much a source of our suffering as the original condition itself. And then, ironically, recognizing just how disagreeable we have become in our suffering, we use that as evidence that we are truly irredeemable because, we say to ourselves, “Who wants to be around a skink like me?”
We see this cycle of self-pity in the gospel of John when Jesus encounters a man lying by the pool of Bethzatha who has been unable to walk for 38 years. Somehow this man has managed to get to the pool where it was believed that the spring bubbling up periodically in the pool’s depth had healing powers. The pool was quite large — it was 165 feet by 315 feet — with stairs entering it in five places around the circumference and yet even though this man has managed to get himself to the pool from wherever he lived in the city, he can’t seem to make it the last few feet to one of those many entrances to get into the water itself. It’s no surprise that Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus heal people who go to desperate lengths to reach him — the paralyzed man who is lowered through the rooftop, the woman with a hemorrhage who pushes through a crowd to touch Jesus’ robe, people who travel from far and wide to beg him for healing for themselves and their loved ones — and yet here, when Jesus asks the man, “Do you want to be healed?” the man can’t even give Jesus a firm answer. He only grumbles lamely, “Every time I try to get into the water one of those young whipper snappers beats me to it.” You can hear the defeat in his voice: “What’s the point, Jesus? It’ll just turn out badly anyway, because that’s the way my life goes.” He has added layers of “dirty pain,” to his problem. He has collected grievances and dispensed blame until he has become paralyzed by his own despair.
I can just imagine the disciples rolling their eyes at the man’s whining and muttering to one another, “If he doesn’t even know if he wants to be healed, why bother? Let’s move along to someone more deserving.” Jesus, however, was never one to take a hint. While the disciples are making for the gate, Jesus stops, looks at the disgruntled man, and says, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”
Anyone of us would help out pandas but Jesus reaches out to the skinks, offering grace even to those who are unable to ask for it because their despair has so consumed them. Jesus doesn’t heal just those whose pain tugs at our heartstrings; he offers grace even to those who have become ugly in their self-pity and fear. No one is beyond his concern; no one is too low for him to reach out and offer redemption. And thank God, Jesus is so insistent and persistent in his healing because in 2020, most of us have more of the skink about us than the panda. After eight months of a pandemic, after a brutal and unfortunately on-going election cycle, as the beauty of autumn turns to the brown of November, everyone is tired; everyone is a little crabby. Whining has replaced conversation and self-pity has replaced generosity. We are all becoming skinks.
Jesus, however, assures us that his salvation is not reserved for the cuddly pandas but is offered as well to the skinks: to the grouchy people, the disheveled people, the people who are too distracted to say thank you, too shy to say please; to the complainers and the worriers, the mumblers and grumblers, to the parents sick of their kids and the kids sick of their parents; to the ruminators, and the scattered, and the so self-sufficient that there is not talking to them; to the sharp-tongued, and the mousy, to the catty and the sullen, to the ones who have been beat down so far that the mud has become comfortable in its familiarity; to us. We are skinks more often than we are pandas, but the gospel tells us, that while others are walking around in their “Save the Panda” t-shirts, Jesus is wearing a shirt that says, “Save the Skinks.” He reaches out and offers us grace even when we are completely and undeniably undeserving of such attention, and when we come to realize that even at our worst, we are still not irredeemable in the eyes of our Savior, we will find that we have the strength to take up our mat and walk.
- The Panda’s Thumb, Steven Jay Gould