Sunday, May 5, 2013

In My Way

In My Way
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 5, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 5: 1-9 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

5 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 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?” 7 The sick man answered him, “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.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. [1]  

This past football season ended great, but there were lots of ups and downs along the way. There was one week where we had to play two games within four days. We played at Christchurch on the Tuesday and lost, and then four days later on Saturday, we battled against Virginia Episcopal School at home. The game was crazy, hard fought, but we started to pull away, but the big event of the game happened towards the end of the third quarter, when on a punt return one of our players hit one of theirs and hurt the kid's neck. He ended up fine, but was in the hospital for a couple of days. It was a tense and scary moment. He was med-evac'd out on the UVA hospital pegasus. The two teams came together and prayed for him. To make a long story short, the reason I bring this up this morning, is that the coach of the other team, who like me is a pastor as well as a teacher, the following week asked if he could meet us before our next game to talk to our players, give us an update on their injured player, but also to give us a pep talk because he was impressed with the way our players played, and the gentlemanlike way they showed sportsmanship and caring towards his player. It was a cool speech, and the reason that I bring it up today is that he used this very scripture passage as his reference point for his motivation. It was cool too, because he wasn't afraid to thump the Bible and talk to these kids, where I always feel I need to be more subtle. He came right out. He used this passage to show how Jesus heals, and how the healing is already inside us, from him, usually before we even know it, that all we need do is rise take up our mat and walk. Now we tried to do that, that night, but we were playing at Liberty Christian Academy, and got worked, 54-0 was the final, but they literally scored 5 tounchdowns in first 5 minutes, and 7 in the first 9. So we didn't perform our miracle that night, but did afterwards go on to win three straight and win the state championship. Who knows what motivational seeds were planted that night.
As I was thinking and studying over this passage all week, I kept remembering that speech, kept thinking how we sometimes just have no clue of what wonders we are capable, until Jesus comes along seems to introduce himself to us and to introduce us to ourselves and we see that amazing possibility first hand. The other aspect of this passage that kept sticking out was the phrase, "while I am making my way."  I'll get to that in a minute. . . Let's look at the story.
So  here is this guy, who has been ill for 38 years. Ill. No description of what the illness is, left generic. The word for "Ill" actually is the same word in Greek that is translated as "invalids" in the 3rd verse above: "In these lay many invalids--blind, lame, and paralyzed." And there it is used as the category, the standard, the word, grammatically before the dash, that goes on to then give examples. So the Gospel writer John goes into detail about what it means to be an "invalid" or "ill," giving specifics on the types of people, who were coming to this pool to be healed, but then when it comes to the actual person healed he goes back to the generic term. He gives the detail about how long he had been infirm, but not what his ailment is. Why? Is it because it doesn't matter, or is it because we would rationalize about it if we knew. Instead by leaving it general, it can be anything, and it can apply to any of us. No name is given, and only a generalized ailment, so insert yourself, and insert your own. What is it that afflicts you? How long has it done so? This could be you, it could be any of us, it can be all of us. I like this detail of it. So go ahead an insert yourself into that place. I can assure you that I find myself very much in that invalid's shoes, often.
Now look at the next part. Why hasn't he fixed it? All of these other people have been going to this pool, the pool seems to be the place to go to get fixed of your ailments. It is called Bethzaida, or the "House of Mercy" and he is there, but he is not actually in. He is at the gate, but has not gone through the door. He is by mercy but has not attained mercy, hasn't asked for mercy, neither has he begged for mercy? And for 38 years it would seem it has been like this. Jesus asks him: "Do you want to be made well?" Now look at the man's answer. Notice that he does not say yes. Instead he starts talking logistics. He starts talking about how the circumstances have not allowed him to get into the pool. I guess the yes is implied then. Obviously I want to be healed, it's just that I can't. I have no one to help me. Of course I want to be  healed, but no one cares, so it's just impossible, it's too hard, it's not worth it, I can't. Notice there all of the things he doesn't say: we've already stated he doesn't say yes, he also doesn't ask for help, he doesn't ask Jesus to put him in the pool, he doesn't do anything to suggest that he is willing to fight for what he wants. . . if he even wants it. Is he so defeated that he can't even allow himself to want to be healed because he has already decided that it is too hard and much too plain impossible. It is here that he says the other part of his excuse. The first is that no one will help him, but then he says, "and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me." Why does he say, someone? Is it always the same person? Who is this someone? You'd think it would say people? People always get in front of me, but someone seems personal, someone suggests that someone is keeping him down, and someone always ill. So no one will help and everyone, or at least someone, keeps getting in his way. No matter what, he is blaming others for his inability to get into the pool, and in that way be healed. But also here is that phrase that has been staring me in the face all week. "and while I am making my way."
It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, one of my favorites, I've always liked the curiouser and curiouser line, but also there is the old Cheshire Cat, who is telling Alice about the Queen of Hearts. Alice is excited and thinks that maybe the Queen can show her, her way home. The Cheshire Cat tells Alice in his typical evasive subtle fashion that she has no way, that all the ways here are the queen's ways. She takes this advice as silly, as does the audience, until she actually meets the infamous Queen of Hearts, who at the top of her lungs exclaims it to Alice repeatedly, "Your way, you have no way, all ways here are my ways! Off with your head!" Now we hear the Queen yell that and think to ourselves what a tyrant, right?
So to me this week this idea is going through my head here. The real reason that this man has not been able to be healed is that he, for 38 years has been doing it his way, and his way is to blame, to wallow, to lose faith, to be almost there, but not able to take that next step that, risking step, that challenging step, that step into the pool that may or may not heal him, forever answering the question that he cannot stand the answer to, because to him the possibility of healing is better than learning forever that the pool just doesn't heal, and that there really is no hope. I've been a teacher for a long time, and I've seen this over and over, the kid who is so afraid of failure that they just won't try because trying would take away the excuse, trying would answer forever that question, am I good enough, and the possible most likely answer they are sure is no, you aren't good enough. But it's not just kids, it's not just teenagers, but all of us. There is something in humanity that doubts our worth, doubts our ability to do things, doubts our value, and holds to false hope because at least it is hope, but we can never challenge the hope because we know deep down that it is just not real, that it is just as fake as we are. It's built on untested lies. Or is it?
Look at God's way. Jesus' way. Jesus says rise take up  your mat and walk. Go do it. Right now. Do it. You are worthy, you can do it, you do have value. You can, but you have to take the step. Rise take up your mat and walk.
God is good right! Yes, but God gets some bad press these days. Why does God let this man suffer? Why does God not just heal him? Why does God allow us the freedom to make choices that harm us and harm others? Why doesn't God just force us to heal ourselves? Why doesn't God just make us different? Does God even exist? Is God good? What kind of God would allow such suffering? Why wouldn't he just step in and do something? Why, Why, Why? Is God still there? Does God still care? Or is God just too weak to make a difference? These are the questions of a world full of people too afraid to take that step on our own, doing things our way, and getting in our own way.
What do we want God to do? Do we want God to force us? Do we want God to make the choices more real? The consequences more in our face, more tragic, more immediate? The Queen of Hearts does that. . . The only ways are my ways, and all other ways result in her yelling "Off with her head!" It is effective. Everyone stays in line, or if they don't they learn quickly, completely, and eternally. Would we rather live in the wonderland of the Queen of Hearts? Where there are strict rule, strict and immediate punishments? Or would we rather live in this world, God's world because look at what God does instead: He allows us to follow our own way rather than his. He allows this man to be ill, infirmed, paralyzed, lame, etc. for 38 years, doing things his own way. And for 38 years he doesn't step in to help him. How hard that must be to allow his beloved creation to suffer for so long, and since it is so hard, we should respect also what it says about God, his love, and his world. It screams that a major part of love is freedom, freedom to choose the wrong path, freedom to suffer in ignorance of our worth even for a greater part of our lives, and sadly it would seem some for eternity.
But at the same time God sends us Jesus, and Jesus tells us to rise take up our mat and walk. Jesus tells us that we can be healed. Jesus knows of our worth. And there is a sense of urgency here as well because this healing takes place on the Sabbath. Jesus comes in contact with this man and doesn't say, wait until tomorrow to get up and walk, he says to do it now, removing all our excuses, even our most pious ones for not being willing to worthy of our place as children of God, created to be amazing, and free to not be.
In my role as a teacher and a coach I am called to teach my students about character, what it means to be human, and what it means to be a human of high quality. Many think that you can teach it by example, that you can teach it through discussion of ethics, that you can teach it through instilling good habits, by imposing soft artificial consequences that will show people the sting of bad behavior to try to steer them away from it. It's possible that all those ways are effective and have their place, but I am convinced that true character cannot be completely taught, or at least completely instilled without giving them the opportunity to fail and believing that they will succeed, giving them the opportunity to cheat, but believing that they will be honorable, giving them the opportunity to be less but believing that they will be more. The rest are simply training wheels, which have to at some point come off. Remember it is the tyrant who lacks faith in his subjects. Freedom derives from faith and trust. Passages like this one, stories like this one (rise take up your mat and walk) seem to scream out to us that God has faith that we are more than we think we are, that we are stronger than we think we are, that we are better than we think we are, and that we are capable of much more than we think we are. . . and he should know, since he made us, each and every one of us, maybe we should start believing him.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 5:1-9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.