A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter 2016
When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)
It was lovely this rainy morning to step into our newly repaired and painted sanctuary — the sort of delightful new thing that is in keeping with the Easter season.
This Sixth Sunday of Easter is Camp Sunday in our diocese, and we should hear more about that at announcement time. There’s something about spending time in the outdoors with new friends from across the diocese that makes the camp experience a consistent catalyst for spiritual growth for our children and teen-agers. And in harmony with the outdoor theme, today is also Rogation Sunday, the beginning of the traditional Rogation Days when we pray for a successful growing season and, as a sort of American update to the old English customs of Rogation, think about and pray about environmental stewardship.
I’m pretty sure most of the people gathered at that lecture were unaware of the exquisite timing of having a leading climate scientist in our midst as we Episcopalians begin our annual observance of the Rogation Days, but it delighted me. In my work in environmental stewardship and environmental justice, I’m well aware of the very critical and uniquely challenging situation we are in with regards to climate change caused by global warming. Things are much more dire than people might guess from the disproportionately small amount of attention the news media and political establishment give climate change, and it’s tempting to be discouraged.
But as a Christian, I’m also aware of the hope in which we live always, no matter what. Hearing Dr. Hansen talk about the problems we face and possible solutions, and being in the company of more than 700 people who were willing to spend their Friday evening thinking about these things, was both sobering and heartening.
One of the questions for Dr. Hansen at the end of his talk was from a woman who said that when she had told a couple of other people that she was planning to go to a lecture about climate change, their reaction had been one of what she described as “fatalism” — basically the idea that there’s nothing we can do about this big problem, so why bother? Her question for Dr. Hansen was focused on how we can combat this fatalism: how can we help people feel empowered rather than fatalistic. Being immersed in this morning’s Gospel lesson, I realized how this new question about climate change can be answered at least in part by this old story from John’s Gospel.
This story has a lot to say about why we so often fail to do the things that would make us — and our planet — well, that would make us healthy, whole, and holy. And this story also tells us something about hope, especially the kind of hope that empowers us to take on big challenges.
This story in John’s Gospel is unlike the other Gospel stories about Jesus healing people. In the other stories, someone seeks out Jesus. Think of the story that precedes this morning’s lesson in John’s Gospel: the healing of the son of the royal official. John tells us that when the official heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee, “he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.” Jesus says the word, and on his way home the royal official learns that his son’s fever has left him. Or think of the man whose friends lowered him through the roof of a house lying on his mat when they couldn’t get near the door to bring their friend to Jesus for healing. Or think of the woman whose years of hemorrhaging had made her such an outcast that she didn’t dare to think of speaking to Jesus. But even she approached Jesus, though not in his direct line of sight, sure that if she could just touch the cloak of his garment she would be made well. In today’s passage, though, the situation is reversed: Jesus approaches this man who had been ill in some way for 38 years and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”
It may seem an odd question to ask someone who shows up every day at the place where people go in hope of being healed, but then the man gives an odd answer. Instead of a simple, “Yes, I want to be healed”, he gives an explanation of why he hasn’t been healed. Tradition said that an angel periodically stirred up or “troubled” the water in the pool. The belief was that at the moment when the water was stirred up, it had healing properties, and the first person in the pool when the water was stirred up would be healed. The man explains to Jesus that he has no one to put him into the pool when the water moves, and that by the time he can make his way to the pool on his own, someone else always steps down into the water ahead of him.
In offering an explanation rather than an answer, this man may be telling Jesus more about why he doesn’t expect to be healed than about whether he wants to be healed. Maybe he can’t even make sense of wanting something that seems unattainable.
The puzzling thing is that even though what this man has done for years hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, he keeps on doing the same thing day after day after day.
Why does he do that? It could be that, inaccessible as the pool is to him, it’s still the most accessible means of healing he knows. Maybe he continues his vigil by the pool because it’s his only hope of any sort. Or maybe it isn’t hope at all that keeps him coming back for another day of the same thing; maybe the familiarity of even this discouraging routine holds some sort of comfort that keeps him from changing what he does. His answer to Jesus’s question does indeed sound like the answer of a fatalist as much as it does someone with hope. That may be because there isn’t that much difference between false hope and fatalism. False hope is simply the optimist’s way of being fatalistic. Both work on the assumption that nothing we can do or are doing will make any difference; both assume that our fate and our present choices are unrelated.
False hope is magical thinking, wishing that the familiar thing we keep doing that isn’t helping us at all might magically produce the results we want.
I recall some students from my teaching days who wouldn’t read the books or engage in class discussions all semester yet hoped — in this false sense of hope, I assure you — that they might pull a good grade out of the course at the end of the semester.
That’s false hope. Real hope is something very different. The hope that Jesus offers is always real hope. In this story, we, the hearers of the story, begin to see hope the moment Jesus notices the man and speaks to him.
The startling beauty of the story lies in what Jesus does next. Having heard the non-answer to the question about whether this man wants to be healed, Jesus says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Jesus answers the explanation by cutting to an unimagined alternative. Jesus does just what we celebrate throughout the Easter season: he shows us something new and unexpected, creating a way where there was no way, creating hope where there was no real hope.
The sort of hope that Jesus brings isn’t a passive false hope that somehow everything will turn out well without our changing anything; Jesus brings genuine hope that calls us to act by embracing the new thing that Jesus offers. Real hope can feel risky because it calls us to abandon something familiar in favor of something we haven’t even fully imagined.
“Stand up, take your mat and walk” would be a cruel thing to say unless we somehow know, as Jesus seems to in this case, that the person really does have the capacity to get up and walk. Jesus simply calls us to do what we can do. When we do have the capacity to do something different – whether we had that capacity all along or have through an encounter with Jesus experienced the beginning of healing that we ourselves have the power to accept and complete – then being told to get up and walk is exactly what we may need. When we have the capacity to make different choices, to choose health over sickness, wholeness over brokenness, holiness over sin, then Jesus calls us to get up and do something.
Individuals, parishes, communities, and all of us on God’s good green Earth get stuck more often than we might like. Often when we get stuck in a bad place we put our energy into reciting to ourselves and to others our explanation of why we can’t do anything else instead of putting our energy into the disciplined work of getting up and doing something new. We might dodge the question “Do you want to be made well?”, or we might express a vague desire for our own lives and our common life to be better — maybe we even dream of the assurance of a stable climate that can continue to support human civilization and diverse forms of life on our planet — but our inaction and our sometimes contrary actions answer the question “Do you want to be made well?” with a resounding “No”.
Do we want to be made well? That’s a big question for all of us. Because if we want to become healthy, whole, and holy in our own lives, in our parishes and communities, and in the biosphere that sustains life on this planet, if we tell Jesus we want to be made well, we are also telling Jesus that we are ready to make some changes. We are telling Jesus we are willing to imagine with him a way to live that differs from what we are doing now, and we are saying we are willing to risk getting up and getting to work doing something new. Jesus invites us into his creativity; Jesus invites us to be empowered to engage our creativity and find a way for all of God’s children to have a chance at healthy, whole, and holy lives.
The words of this morning’s Collect remind us that God’s promises “exceed all that we can desire”. May we have the grace and imagination to believe God’s promises and accept the real hope Jesus offers us; may we have the grace to abandon false hope and fatalism in favor of the full life Jesus offers us all. Amen.
Preached on May 1, 2016 by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, Nebraska