A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 22 May 2022 [Easter 6.C]:
Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:1=0, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9
Yet again, the events of this past week unnerve us, frighten us, overwhelm us. Yet again, a mass shooting (this time in Buffalo, New York) engulfed innocent people in the violent rages of one person’s distorted soul, resulting in ten more deaths with guns that are not intended for safety or sport but are solely meant to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Gun violence in our country seems to be spreading its appalling deadliness like the Covid-19 virus. I am grateful to our Bishop Doug Fisher for his steadfast and public protest about the availability of these military-style weapons. Sadly, common sense change is still a long way off.
And speaking of the Covid-19 virus, this tragic gun violence news comes in the wake of other unnerving, frightening news. Specifically, last week, as we entered our third pandemic spring, the United States soberly marked the one millionth American death due to the Covid virus. Beyond this truly unfathomable number stands an even larger number – a number our nation has barely noticed: namely, the estimated nine million people who have lost a loved one to Covid, a third of whom are now orphaned children.
Where does all this pain and grief go? Especially in a context of the rest of us demanding that we just “return to normal”? How can we face such losses? Where does all this heartbreak go? What do we do – what can we do -- with all the grief and the sense of being overwhelmed by events? The impact doesn’t go away, even though we want it to. Rather, such pain lingers and often festers in minds and warps the soul, often resurfacing as anger and then blame and then hatred and then some form of violent lashing out.
There is a tellingly wise description of this from the spiritual tradition of the church. It goes something like this: Pain which is not transformed gets transmitted; and from all this truth I am drawn to the action of this morning’s gospel lesson.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is seen -- once more – in his healing presence. Without exception, all the stories of Jesus’ healings – of Jesus performing what folks like us casually refer to as “miracles” – all these stories have one, essential meaning They reflect what life is like on God’s terms. These healings are not magic; rather, they are revelations, insights into what the God-life is like. In God’s life, brokenness is mended. Desperation is overcome. Hope is restored. New life arises. These healings, these miracles are reflections of the God-life: redeemed; restored; transformed; renewed. But today’s healing story raises some hard questions. For instance, I am glad that after thirty-eight years of waiting and suffering, this crippled man got his chance to be healed. But what about all the others? Why him? Moreover, if God is truly God, why is such suffering and despair allowed? Why is there such pervasive resistance to Go’s will?
The man’s story is nothing short of pathetic. What appears to be his only hope, only avenue for healing’s restoration is to gather at the Temple’s north side with other disabled folks around a pool. The pool’s water is regarded as having healing properties that are specifically available when (and only when) the pool’s waters are mysteriously agitated by what common belief regarded as the wake of angels’ wings. When the divine presence is thereby visible, those who enter the rippling waters are healed. Yet, there is the implication that the agitation of the waters occurs in the briefest of spans, to the extent that our lesson’s cripple tells Jesus that for thirty-eight years, he has not been able to get to the waters. He is, after all, unable to walk; and he has no one to assist him, which leaves him vulnerable to those who cut the line before him. ‘What’s the use?!” After almost four decades of frustration and misery, this must have been the poor man’s daily question.
Hearing all this, Jesus asks what can appear to be a silly – or at least an obvious -- question: “Do you want to be made well?”, to which the crippled man never gives an answer just that he has no help to get to the water in time. Others always jostle him out of bounds, and then the waters become still again, signaling – again – that he is too late – again! Rather than respond with an “of course, I want to be made well!”, the crippled man’s reply to Jesus’ question speaks about the hopelessness of his experience and his expectations. “What does it matter? I can’t get there in time. Nothing changes.”
I see three significant items in Jesus’ response in this scene.
The first is that unlike all the other examples of Jesus healing, the man in today’s lesson does not offer any indication of faith. Look it up: In all the scenes that I can think of, Jesus asks the needy soul in question to offer some modicum of trust, of faith in Jesus and what he represents. So it is that as soon as Jesus hears the crippled man’s crushing story of despair, he commands the cripple to “[s]tand up, take your mat and walk.” Immediately, that is precisely what the man did. He walked.
Where do you think he went? After gaining confidence in his newly restored legs, what happened next to this guy? What would you do with new life?
The second telling item in Jesus’ reply to the man’s disheartening story was that the Lord healed him on the sabbath; and not only that but Jesus did this on the Jerusalem Temple grounds. What chance was there that no one noticed that Jesus violated the law that honored the Sabbath Day while he was standing at the Jerusalem Temple’s pool? The gospel’s message is quite clear to those who wish to see. Not only is this healing (as are all the other miracle events in the gospel) a palpable sign of what life is like on God’s terms, of what life is meant to be with God at the center -- that this revelation occurred on the Temple grounds further underscores the central point: namely, that Jesus is the embodiment of what the Temple was always supposed to be. And in a nutshell, we can understand how it was that the authorities needed to eliminate Jesus and the threat he posed.
But there is to me a third element to Jesus’ response to the crippled man. And it is this element that speaks to my own sense of being in this troubled and often frightening world as an imperfect follower of Jesus. This third element speaks importantly to the corroding question that can and does haunt many of us, as we try so hard to keep the faith amidst all the pressing news and demands of the day.
Here is what I see. What this man needed before Jesus entered the scene was not a miracle. He needed a friend. He needed an advocate, someone to take him to the healing waters, someone to fend off the elbowing crowd so that this broken man might receive the water’s promise.
Clearly, there had to have been any number of instances where some of those gathered around the pool did receive unexpected healings. I can’t imagine that it was just a “sacred con” put on by the Temple. There had to be some result for this healing tradition to continue. If only this man had a friend, an advocate who could have managed to get him to the water in time…if only. But no.
And this is my point: To what extent might this type of simple advocacy be a model for our lives and ministries amidst the overwhelming needs of the world?
There are so many of “them” who are broken in body, mind, and spirit; and we have the same needs. What can we do with such an overwhelming task? How can we face the magnitude of the world’s grief and fear – not to mention our own grief and our own fear? What difference does any of our actions make?
I confess that I do not have a convincing answer – at least one that solves the problems we all face; but in this struggle I have remembered a piece of wisdom from the Talmud that sheds some much-needed light and perspective on things, that allows us to take one more step forward.
The Talmud comes from the Jewish tradition of compiling the writings and deliberations of the rabbis, as they reflected on and debated both the meaning of the Law of Moses (the Torah) and how the Law guides God’s people for faith and life. The piece that comes to my mind in the context of how we are to remain faithfully engaged with the world’s brokenness and needs stems from the famous words of the Prophet Micah [Chapter 6; verse 8], where the rhetorical question is raised: “What does the Lord require of you?” Micah and the prophets name justice, kindness, humility as the touchstones of the God-life; and the Talmudic interpretation expresses this Godly wisdom with these words:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief.
Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to abandon it.
We are rapidly approaching the completion of the Easter season, in which the double insight contains the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection – a stunning proclamation that life with God is stronger than fear and death; and that God calls all God’s people (including you and me) to become what we have seen in his Risen Christ. For the most part, you and I are not fully ready to be what we see in Jesus. In the regard of being Christ-like, to quote our poetic neighbor, Robert Frost, we “have miles and miles to go before we sleep.”
Nonetheless, in this meantime between what we are and where we are now and what we shall be, we do what we can to make a difference – in Christ’s Name. We do justice now as best we can -- in Christ’s Name. We love kindness as best we can now – in Christ’s Name. We walk humbly with our God as best we can now – in Christ’s Name. And in all of this, we prepare ourselves to respond daily and with integrity to Jesus’ deepest question: “Do YOU want to be made well?” Amen.