Monday, May 02, 2016

Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C, "Finding Easter: Made Well," John 5:1-9

Sermon 5/1/16
John 5:1-9

Finding Easter: Made Well

    In my clergy group this year, we read a book called Rising Strong, by Brene Brown. You might have heard of it, because it seems like it has been all over talk shows and news articles in the past few months. When we started reading it and our group, I really didn't think I was going to like it. But I found myself coming back to certain things over and over again. One of the things Brown talks about is the stories that we tell ourselves when we don't know what is really happening in this situation. She says we see something taking place, and we don't know why, so our mind just fills in the blanks. This is natural, but many times our assumptions are very wrong! And then when we act on our wrong assumptions, things go rather badly for us! Brown encourages people to write an actual or a metaphorical first draft when we encounter situations where the stories we are telling ourselves about someone or something are troubling us. I was thinking about this, about the stories we tell ourselves about the people with whom we interact, about the assumptions we make at first glance, before we really look closely, as I was reading our gospel lesson for today.
    Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for a festival, although we’re not told which one. And while he’s there, he comes to a pool, a pool called Beth-zatha, which means “Sheep Pool.” Scholars think it might be so named as the place where washing took place after a sheep was sacrificed. It was a popular belief that when the waters of the pool were stirred, the first person who entered into the churning waters would experience healing. Some people attributed the stirring of the waters to the movement of water from one pool to another next to it. Others gave it a more spiritual origin, claiming that an angel, a messenger of God would periodically come and stir the waters. At any rate, people believed that the first one in would experience a miraculous healing. And so near the pool, all around, are many invalid persons: people who are blind, lame, paralyzed, the text tells us, all waiting for a chance at healing.
    And when Jesus arrives, his eyes are drawn to one particular man. This man, we’re told, has been ill for thirty-eight years. Has he been waiting at the pool the whole time for healing? We’re not sure how long he’s been there, but are told that Jesus knows he has been there “a long time.” Jesus asks him, without preamble, “Do you want to be made well?”
    Our first reaction to Jesus’ question is probably something like, “Sorry Jesus, but that’s a really dumb question. Of course he wants to be made well! He’s been like this for 38 years! He’s lying at the side of a pool where people go to get healed. Obviously, he wants to be made well.” But the man doesn’t seem offended or annoyed by the question, and simply answers Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” So maybe our second reaction is to feel empathy for this man’s isolation. He’s on his own. No one is with him at the pool. No one is helping him down into the water. Many of the others at the pool would be alone too. People who were ill or diseased in some way would often find themselves on the fringes of society, vulnerable. We might pity this man.
    Thankfully, Jesus says to this man, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” And the man is at once made well, and he takes up his mat and begins to walk. And that’s where our passage for today ends. And it is then, after taking in the whole thing, that I at least begin having my third reaction. Ok. Maybe this man wasn’t lying there for the whole 38 years of his illness. But Jesus knows he’s been there for a long time. And in all that time, he couldn’t figure out some way to get to the pool first? He couldn’t work out a deal with one of the other people at the pool? You help me one day, and I’ll help you the next? He didn’t ask for help from anyone and everyone who went by? He had no one in his life that could assist him? Really?
And then there’s everything that happens and doesn’t happen after the end of today’s passage. Often, when Jesus heals someone, he says “your faith has made you well.” But Jesus certainly makes no such comment to this man. There is nothing this man says or does that seems to recommend him for healing, above all the others at the pool. We find that Jesus gets in trouble again with the religious authorities for healing on the Sabbath. They question the man who has been healed because it’s against the rules for him to be carrying his mat - the mat he’s carrying because he’s just been healed. Jesus changes this man’s life, but the man offers no thanks. He does not leave praising God, as many who are healed do. He does not even know who Jesus is - he only learns later who it is who healed him, and immediately identifies Jesus for the authorities when they question him. He certainly doesn’t seem grateful. It’s as if I can hear the doubtful tone in Jesus’ voice when he questions the man: “Do you even want to be made well? Because it sure doesn’t seem like it, what with your lying here for probably years and years.”
So I found myself wanting to preach a sermon about how we’re reluctant to change, about how we’re like a person sitting by a pool of healing waters, insisting we want to be healed, but all the while making excuses about how we can’t get into the pool. It was going to be a really good sermon, let me tell you.
There was just one problem with it. You know who doesn’t ask him why he’s waited around so long to get healed? Oh yeah. Jesus. Jesus says nothing about excuses or inaction or reluctance to change or why don’t you just get off your butt and into the water that we - I - at least, am tempted to put into his mouth. I had my sermon all written - but what I was saying just wasn’t what Jesus is saying - and that’s a pretty bad place to start your sermon!
So what if instead we take Jesus’ question without the sarcasm and instead with the genuine tone of compassion that is much more characteristic of Jesus? He asks, “Do you want to be made well?” When I reread the text through the lense of Jesus’ compassionate gaze, I hear Jesus asking about wellness as an alternative to the healing people are seeking at this strange pool. I think what Jesus is offering to the man is something more than he would have received if he had made it into those pools. In the chapter just before this one in John, Jesus speaks with the woman at the well about living waters, about the water of life that Jesus offers that truly quench your thirst. I think that’s what he’s offering this man. The word in Greek that we read as “made well” has a sense of completeness. Do you want to be made whole? Entirely well? Do you want to be made really well?
Jesus offers the man wholeness, in contrast with a system that marginalized the poor, marginalized those whose health was failing, marginalized those who were anything other than healthy and wealthy adult men. Is this man doing all he can do to get into the pool? Maybe, maybe not. But the better question is why there were no better options for him in his world other than hoping for a lucky chance to get in the water. Why did he have to suffer for 38 years? Why didn’t he have a support system? Why did he have to live in such desperate circumstances? Throughout the gospels, Jesus talks about what the kingdom of God, what the reign of God is like when it’s realized on earth, as we work with God to live into God’s vision of justice for people. I think that’s what Jesus offers to this man: Do you want to be made whole? That’s what Jesus is offering to the man.
I think it is easy for us to fall into the same trap today when we look at people who are at our contemporary pools, waiting for the waters to still, hoping for a long-shot chance at healing. I think of how easy it is to look at what seem so clearly to be poor financial choices of people in need. From the outside looking in, it is easy to figure out exactly what better choices someone should be making to get out of trouble. Easy to say: how can you be in such trouble, still, for so long? How can you not have this figured out? Not have gotten help already? Do you even want to make your situation better? It doesn’t seem like it!
Instead, maybe we can take a step back, and look with the compassionate eyes of Jesus, and wonder, dream, hope, and act to create a world where the gap between the rich and the poor is not ever-widening, where all can drink of living waters and be filled. I read an article this week that included the phrase “It’s expensive to be poor.” In our ironic world, so many things cost more the less you have to spend on them. A poor person who overdraws their bank account incurs a sizable overdraft fee, while bank accounts with higher balances usually have lower or no fees. If an account is overdrawn too long, an additional fee is assess. If the account is not brought back into the black, the account is closed. There are payday loans with interest rates above 100%, heavily concentrated in poor communities, or the lack of grocery stores in the poorest communities, resulting in those who are poor spending more for food at corner stores,  or the decrease in SNAP benefits that someone experiences that is higher than the raise someone might get for going through a specialized training class, trying to worker harder, get ahead. Poor communities have less resources in the schools. Parents working more than one minimum wage job to keep afloat have less time to spend with their children, and less ability to pay for quality child care, and more stressors that make people vulnerable to destructive or addictive behaviors.
Jesus doesn’t offer judgment in the face of a broken world. He offers compassion, and good news: in God’s world, things are flipped upside down. In God’s world, you can be truly well. Jesus consistently acted in a way that showed that he thought the system was broken, corrupt, if in the system it could be wrong to end a man’s 38 year paralysis because it would break the law of carrying a mat on the Sabbath, and if people would be more upset about breaking the Sabbath than they were thankful that someone had been made well. Do you want to be made really, really well?     
These are the questions I think we need to be asking today. Not: Do you even deserve healing? But instead, can’t we seek out wholeness for all people? Can’t we work with God to create a new way, God’s way, God’s reign on earth, where people don’t have to hope someone helps them into the churning waters at just the right moment? Can’t we, alongside Jesus, offer some good news, and living water?
Jesus asked him, “Do you want to made well?” The man answered, “Sir, I have no one.” Jesus said, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Easter, Year C, "Finding Easter: Table Manners," Acts 11:1-18

Sermon 4/24/16
Acts 11:1-18

Finding Easter: Table Manners

Rev. Richard Game writes, “I learned a little bit about behavioral conditioning from our Golden Retriever, Bailey.  And so I beg your indulgence of another sermon story about a family pet.  Bailey is as lovely and true and kind as any best friend a family could ever have.  An indoor/outdoor dog, Bailey spends most of her time on a porch we enclosed for her.  Bailey's palace we call it. From this porch perch Bailey presides over all the goings-on in our wooded back yard.  She also enjoys the freedom to slip through a doggie door whenever it suits her fancy, to chase a squirrel or answer nature's call.  But there are bounds to Bailey's realm.  Bailey is not allowed outside of the backyard.  For beyond the backyard are the suburban perils of the street, getting lost, and the dreaded dogcatcher. Now Anne and I could have built a traditional fence, but that would have ruined the wooded feel of our grounds, both for us and the neighbors around us.  So, instead, we decided on an invisible fence, one designed specifically to contain canines.  The invisible fence kept Bailey on the grass and out of the wooded, unimproved portion of our backyard.
An invisible fence has two components:  a wire buried along the desired boundary and a dog collar that sounds whenever the boundary is approached.  Bailey learned the boundary in three ways, mostly.  First, she had the visual cue of the edge of the grass.  Second, she had the audible cue from the collar whenever she approached the buried boundary.  And, finally, Bailey could count on a mildly unpleasant tingling sensation from the collar whenever she actually crossed over. So with practice and conditioning, Bailey learned to stay in the backyard.  Crossing the invisible fence became repulsive to her.” (1)
In our scripture text for today, we find a story of Peter being called to cross the boundary of an invisible fence. Peter eats food that he believed had been named unclean, and it means he must wrestle with crossing over the fence, an act that’s repulsive to him, to do so. The whole passage is sort of a flashback, and you can read about the events Peter describes here in the previous chapter, chapter 10. Peter, apparently, has eaten with some Gentiles – and the food the Gentiles ate was forbidden to Peter by the law that governed Israelites, laws that had very detailed dietary restrictions, laws that centered on cleanliness and uncleanliness. So some of the believers who are following these dietary laws want to know why Peter has eaten with these people. And so Peter must explain himself, “step by step,” and that is where he flashes back to describe what has caused this strange behavior in him. He’s had a vision, he says. A large sheet, maybe like a giant tablecloth, was lowered from heaven by its corners. On the cloth were various kinds of animals, representing animals that Peter would not be allowed to eat according to Mosaic law. Surprising Peter, he hears God’s voice telling him to get up and eat these forbidden foods. Peter refuses, insisting he would not eat anything unclean. But God responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This sequence Peter saw repeated in his vision a total of three times, which tells us that there was no mistake – he heard God in the vision correctly.
Right after this happens, Peter meets Cornelius and his companions, Gentiles, and Peter feels the Spirit telling him “not to make a distinction” between himself and these men. So he goes with them and eats with them. In his heart, Peter finally understands his vision. He tells the questioning apostles, “I remembered the word of God . . . ‘John baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in . . . Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” After hearing Peter’s story, they praise God and say, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”
This is a significant moment for Peter and the apostles and for the shaping of the early church. See, Peter and the rest of the ‘original’ disciples and the apostle Paul and the apostles working with him approached their ministry very differently. Paul, certainly a devout Jew, spent most of his ministry reaching out to those who were not Jewish – reaching out to the Gentiles. Paul believed that in Christ we are new creations - and if we are new creations, we’re not bound to the former ways. For Paul, this meant that Gentiles who were becoming Jesus-followers didn’t need to also adopt all the commandments of Jewish life. But Peter and company didn’t see things Paul’s way: Unlike Paul, they’d spent years following Jesus, decidedly grounded in Jewish life and culture. Peter and the rest of the Twelve were focusing their preaching and teaching primarily on those who were already Jews, viewing God’s message in Jesus as part of their identity as Jews, not a new or separate thing. To Peter, it made perfect sense that Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus should at least convert first to the Jewish faith. The two sides spent a lot of time disagreeing over the right approach, and ultimately they agreed each to focus on their own special area of ministry. Here though, Peter is compelled by his vision from God to cross his own invisible fence
In Bible Study, we’ve been reading the book of Acts, and I shared with the class that a major theme in Acts is tracing the story of the early church and showing how what began as a movement within Judaism eventually became more than a movement. It became the church. It is a remarkable sequence of events. Another thing we talked about in Bible Study was the care we must take when we read the scriptures to examine our own stereotypes. There’s a theological concept called supersessionism. That’s a fancy word that refers to the idea that Christianity came along and really “got” the message God sent in Jesus and therefore sort of replaced the Israelites as God’s people, or fulfilled everything God was saying to the Israelites. It is easy to slip into talking about the law that guided Jewish life as contrary to and lesser than the heart message of grace we find in the gospels. Some of these kinds of readings of the scriptures have led to anti-Semitic viewpoints over the centuries. We have to remember, though, whenever we read texts like this that the dietary laws that Peter feels compelled to break because of a vision from God - those very dietary laws were part of the law of Moses that Moses received from God.
    So, Peter wanting to keep the dietary laws he’d always kept isn’t bad. The laws that God set out for the people weren’t bad. The laws given to Moses shaped the young emerging nation of Israel, gave them an identity, gave them order, shaped them and set them apart as God’s people, distinct from other nations around them who didn’t follow God. They were important markers of identity - the laws and customs and practices of the Israelites. But, sometimes, a situation, a circumstance emerges that requires breaking the laws. Sometimes, the rules that governed a people well for a long time no longer serve the purpose they intended, but instead restrict. Is the law drawing people closer to God? Or is it hindering people from drawing near to God? Into Peter’s path come this group of Gentiles. If Peter will visit with them, break bread with them, share in a meal with them, he can also share Jesus with them. What should he do?
The scriptures and the pages of stories of faith over the millennia recount the stories of people who had to cross the invisible fences, challenge their own long-held beliefs, challenge laws and customs and practices, rather than hinder the boundless and ever-unfolding and expanding grace of God. We have examples of this in our Methodist heritage. John Wesley, for example, leader of the Methodist movement, was constantly breaking some of the rules he actually held dear if it meant reaching more people with the good news about Jesus. Proper John Wesley found it distasteful at best to consider preaching outdoors, in the fields, to crowds of people, like some of his contemporaries were doing. But when he saw that this way of preaching was reaching people, he adopted the practice himself. A few weeks ago at Confirmation Class, we learned that John Wesley’s Methodist movement was taking shape at the same time in the Revolutionary War era. Wesley was a priest in the Church of England, and he was not a supporter of American independence. However, more than that, he was a supporter of reaching people in America with good news in the Methodist way. And so he made sure to commission leaders to serve in America, ordaining them himself when the Church of England refused to do so. He went against his own wishes and preferences, because he felt it was more important for God’s mission to succeed than for him to get his own way.
    What fences are up in your life? Some of them are easy to see, but sometimes invisible fences separate us from others, fences that we are unwilling to acknowledge, fences that have been ingrained in us since childhood. What walls do you have up that are hindering not only you but others from coming closer to God? Who is it that you’d hesitate to sit down to supper with? What rules seem unbreakable, even though God is calling us to a new thing? Whenever our fences have become less about protecting ourselves, and more about keeping others out, God will act to break them down. God is all about breaking barriers, even tearing down the dividing wall between life and death in the resurrection that we’re still celebrating in this Easter season. Are we hindering the work of God?  
    Rev. Game finishes his story about his dog Bailey: “The invisible fence kept Bailey bounded for many years until the blizzard of January 2011. Snowmageddon, as the media called it, shut down Atlanta for a week. I received a telephone call from a neighbor at about 9:30 in the morning, the first day of the blizzard.  Bailey had escaped. Why this time and not on other snow days? Well, this time school had closed.  And that morning children … were whizzing down the best sledding run in the neighborhood, which happens to be located in our side yard, just beyond the invisible fence.  The blanket of snow from the heavens obscured the boundary of the yard, as it had on other snow days.  But what caused Bailey to cross that day was children at play.
As was true for Peter, and for me, and is true for you as well, real live human beings - children in this case - caused Bailey to cross over.  I had to laugh that morning as I found Bailey unbounded and happy and carefree, romping and running and chasing the sledders as they sped along.  That seems to me a lot like God's own joy available for us, too, on the other side of our invisible fences.” (1) Amen.

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...