Easter 6 May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15                                                                        

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5                                                               

John 5:1-9

Last Sunday Jude Desmarais, our breakfast chef, was out of town, attending his daughter Carina’s graduation from the University of Michigan. So the whole responsibility for breakfast lay on Kourtney Williams, the high school junior who’s been working as Jude’s assistant. She was nervous, but she pulled it off beautifully.

Talking with her about it, I told her of a story that I’d read when I was little in a children’s magazine we got, Jack and Jill. The story was about a little girl who had to prepare dinner for herself because of some emergency absence of her mother. The girl had fixed dinner with her mother present, but never alone. So she went up to the attic and brought down a dressmaker’s dummy – something common back then when more people made their own clothes. She put one of her mother’s dresses on the dummy and pretended her mother was there, giving her cooking instructions. And she cooked her dinner all by herself.

 “Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asks the man in the gospel this morning. The man had been ill for 38 years and was lying by a pool in Jerusalem noted for its healing powers – powers attributed to angels who stirred up its waters from time to time. The problem the sick man had was that no one was there to carry him into the pool at the crucial moment, and when he tried to drag himself in he was always crowded out by others waiting to enter the waters. And what does Jesus do about this? He says to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Which the man does, and he is healed. Then comes the cryptic statement: “Now that day was a sabbath.”

Several things are going on in this story, and as we look at them I think you’ll see why I connected them to Kourtney’s success in the kitchen last week and the story I read so long ago. On the one hand, we have a paralyzed man lying there helplessly, unable to secure healing. We assume that his paralysis has a symbolic, not just a literal, meaning. He’s stuck in life, can’t move, just complains that others rush in and prevent his getting what he needs. On the other hand, we have Jesus, who simply commands the man to stand up and walk – and who in doing this violates the sabbath laws, which forbid healing because it is a form of work. Looking at that symbolic opposition between the paralyzed man and Jesus, what seems like a rather humdrum story suddenly breaks open to reveal all sorts of important meanings.

In my years of ministry I’ve often wanted to ask people the question Jesus asks the paralyzed man: “Do you want to be made well?” I’ve never dared to, because it’s such a powerful question. So many people get stuck in life – in all sorts of ways: stuck in jobs, stuck in marriages, stuck in family situations, stuck in their religious faith, and certainly stuck in illnesses.

A wife endures years of abuse from an alcoholic husband. Why does she not leave him? An employee works years in a dead-end job where annually his boss gives him only a 25 cent an hour raise. Why does he not quit? A family goes week after week to a church whose practices and teachings enrage them. Why don’t they try another church? A woman is always going to the doctor about one malady after another. Why can’t she seem to get well? And on and on. Why do we get stuck in life like this?

Because standing up and walking, taking responsibility for changing things in our lives, is hard. Many times it seems safer to stay stuck than to stand up and walk. The wife can blame her unhappiness on her drunk of a husband (who, of course, can blame his drinking on his wife). The employee can blame his stingy boss, not his own lack on initiative. The family can complain about their church rather than focusing building a relationship with God. And the sick woman has a wonderful excuse for everything wrong with her life.

So one of the things this gospel is about is that we have the power to stand up and walk, to take responsibility for our lives. Not total power, of course. But power to look honestly at the things that seem to block us from happiness and productivity and to take responsibility for changing the things we can – which are always more than we think. Indeed, the religion of Jesus is about precisely this kind of healing, this kind of power. This gospel appears here in the Easter season, a season about resurrection, to remind us that resurrection is something with application to our own lives, something in which we have an active role. Jesus is speaking to each of us when he says, “Stand up and walk.” He’s telling us to put resurrection into action in our own lives.

And another thing this gospel is about – connected to its message about our personal responsibility – has to do with the Church (the capital-C Christian Church). We see it acted out, I believe, in the tragic events unfolding in our sister Roman Catholic Church. But the Episcopal Church has its own versions of what I’m going to say, as do all the other denominations. It has to do, I think, with Jesus healing on the sabbath – a very central part of his proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God.  The sabbath, Jesus said when he was criticized for the healings he did on this day, is made for people, not people for the sabbath. In other words, everything about religion is meant to serve people, not the other way around.

When you take that message to heart, a great deal of established religion simply falls away, exposed as evil: all the authority stuff, the titles and the costumes and the rules and regulations – to the extent that they are founded not on experience and expertise, which are real sources of authority, but simply on institutional power and self-preservation. Why do people put up with it all – for far longer than 38 years? Because it’s safer, easier, than taking responsibility for yourself, standing up and walking spiritually on your own two feet. Safer and easier to say, I belong to this institution and therefore I’m saved and God loves me, rather than looking at our own lives honestly and setting out to live a Gospel life, a life Jesus would recognize?

Jesus calls us to come and see, to follow him. But we can’t do this lying down. Each of us is responsible for our own life: to stand up and walk as citizens of the kingdom of God.

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