6 Easter C—5/26/19
Pr. Scott Kramer
Have you ever believed something, just because “everybody else” believes it? Not because it’s true, or a good idea, but just because that’s what people say, and it feels right, and we don’t have to change.
We like to think of ourselves as free and independent thinkers, but all of us believe certain things because…”everybody else” does. Culture is like that! Some of these ideas and beliefs may even follow us from cradle to grave. I’d be surprised if there’s anyone alive who’s an exception to that rule.
Back in Jesus’ day there was a pool of water by a place called the Sheep Gate, and everybody said that’s the place to go if you want to be healed. Well, one day Jesus showed up at that pool of water. Luke makes a point of telling us that it was a sabbath day—a day when nobody was supposed to work, and that included healing. Although it wasn’t Memorial Day weekend, we learn that it was a festival of the Jews. In other words, it was a day like…today!
Today, people pin their hopes on Donald Trump, or financial wealth, or something else that offers at least the hope of control over their lives. On the day Jesus arrived at this pool of water, people at the bottom of the food chain gathered as they had for countless generations. They knew they couldn’t count on either the secular or the religious institutions to help them, so they clung to the unlikely hope that if they sat by this particular pool of water, and if a breeze stirred the waters, and if they were the first ones in, they might be healed.
Doesn’t sound like much to hang on to, does it, but if society has cast you aside, and you don’t feel empowered, or have a sense of self-worth, you’re desperate and you might reach for anything that gives you hope.
There were lots of such people by this pool—blind, lame, paralyzed—and Jesus walks up to one man in particular. Our reading doesn’t give the man a name, but we’ll call him Matt. Notice that Matt doesn’t cry out for attention. Jesus walks up to him where he is, on his mat, on the ground, and asks, “Do you want to be made well?” What? Well, no, Lord—I’m just here by the poolside working on my tan! Either this is the mother of all stupid questions…or, something else is going on here.
Do you want to be made well? Or, did Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well?” This also sounds like a stupid question. No, I’ve really enjoyed coming here for thirty-eight years, lying on my mat all day! Something else indeed is going on here.
Why did Jesus come up to this man in particular? There were lots of others in need of healing nearby, but we don’t hear anything about them. We don’t know. But I wonder if maybe Matt, like others at the pool, had taken to heart what everyone had always said about him: You’ll never amount to anything. You must have done something to deserve your lot. You’re lazy. Work hard like me and you’ll be somebody. Get your own health care! Or, from the religious folk: God always has a plan. Be patient–you’ll have it better in the life to come. Not so helpful!
Matt 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.”
From Matt’s simple answer we learn a lot. I have no one. Where are his friends? Where is Matt’s family? Where is his church? Does he really have no one? We’ll take him at his word: He is utterly alone. This, by the way, is not a criticism of Matt but an indictment of his community.
What else can we learn? Well, everyone says that being first into the pool is the key to healing. Matt believes that his independence and well-being depend on competition with others. “How can I get ahead?” But he’s never the first, so he’s a “loser.” Tough luck, but those are the rules of the game! “Getting ahead” is the way the world works. Everybody believes it, including Matt. It’s just that the game is not rigged in his favor.
In the gospels, we catch glimpses of Jesus’ anger, usually against power and privilege that keeps powerless folk down. I suspect that this was one of those occasions. “Stand up, take your mat and walk!”
If on that day Jesus was angry, it wasn’t toward Matt, at the edge of society, at the edge of a pool, for thirty-eight years. If he was angry, it was against the indifference, the self-righteousness, the dog-eat-dog, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, look-out-for-number-one attitudes that “everybody” believes—those same attitudes that had been obstacles to Matt’s full inclusion in his community. If Jesus was angry, it was against the idea of one man spending his whole life sitting by some stupid pool, hoping against hope for a different future for his life, with no one to stand up with him, and for him.
Did Jesus miraculously, physically heal Matt? We don’t know. Maybe. But Matt’s deeper healing was in response to Jesus’ willingness to stand up publicly and declare him worthy of love, dignity, and inclusion. Jesus “went to the mat”…for Matt! It may be that Jesus was the first and only person not to believe what everybody else believed. It may only have been Jesus who showed Matt what anyone else could have shown him and what had been true all along: Matt didn’t have to believe what everyone else believed. He had worth. He had power. In the face of indifference and contempt, he could rise up anytime he wanted. It’s this message that got Jesus killed.
You don’t get crucified for being religious. You get crucified for giving people who are down and out the idea that they have value, that they have power, and voices, and that they can overturn godless rulers and systems and beliefs that keep them down. Especially, such downtrodden folk can ignore what “everybody else” believes.
The gospel, therefore, is always good news to those who are down and out, as Jesus proclaimed in his inaugural address. Story after story in the gospels bears this out. What the gospel is for the rest of us depends on whose side we’re on.
The gospel message for those of us whose skin color, or education, or connections, or investment portfolio makes us privileged is exactly the same. “Stand up and walk!”
You see, the good news of Jesus Christ offers healing to all people, even those of us who live lives mostly free of destitution, prejudice, and despair. One of the keys to the healing of privileged folk is to hear the sharp, prophetic voice of our Lord to stand up. Stand up! Dare to take a risk—maybe a public risk–and stand for your brothers and sisters at the pool near the Sheep Gate. Make a difference in the lives of those who have resorted to taking their chances with crime, or Lotto tickets, or other longshot hopes for being included in their communities; or at least, hope for relief from suffering.
Stand up! Take a stand for the neighbor we are called by Christ through the Greatest Commandment to love.
Any risk I take, and maybe you, too, will likely pale in comparison to the risks of folks crossing our borders to escape poverty, persecution, and the threat of death. Any risk I take will be tiny in comparison with someone sleeping under a bridge night after night. Something as simple as kissing a same-sex partner in public is a lot bigger risk than I’m likely to face on any given day.
The very least I can do as one privileged by sinful social and economic structures is to stand up for these fellow children of God who need me to stand up, to lend my voice and take their side.
As this season of Easter draws to a close, Jesus’ command to “Stand up!” is a gentler echo of a much harder command: If anyone would be my disciple, he once said, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Luke 9:23).
Society has showered many of us with opportunity, privilege, and power, and convinced us that we deserve it. Any willingness to stand up–to take up our Matts–is not the same as the much harder task of taking up our cross and following Jesus…but, it’s a step away from what “everybody else” believes…which is a step in the right direction!