A sermon based on Psalm 36:5-10 and John 5:1-9a preached on January 17th, 2016
There are many rules that make being a kid a pretty tough gig. I remember that sense of freedom when I first got my driver’s license. The windows down on my cherry-red Mustang, my best friend Joel and I sailing down the road with the wind blowing through our hair. That was my very first road trip behind the wheel. We decided it would be a short one—we just went to the 7-11 a mile down the road and got Slurpees.
For all those years before, we made that same trip on our bikes, midsummer, pedaling down the asphalt, cars whizzing by, and by the time we got the 7-11, we needed those Slurpees, and we wondered if they’d melt in our hands as we pedaled back to his house. A car and a driver’s license meant freedom in so many ways! And there was no going back to the old life of being towed along by your parents wherever they went. Somehow, 16 meant we earned our freedom, at least in this very particular way.
There are lots of rules kids have to endure, and even though there are some legitimate rules in place to keep them from getting hurt or into trouble, some just seemed to me a little questionable…
You have to eat all your lunch, there are starving kids in Africa.
When we walk into this store, don’t touch anything…You break it, you buy it!
A rule like that strikes fear in the hearts of children everywhere. We want to reach out and touch things; that’s how we learn. And when our parents tell us we need to keep our hand to ourselves, we don’t hear it as a warning, we hear it as a dare! Seeing is never enough; our curiosity isn’t satisfied until we can reach out and touch things. We know from the very beginning of our lives that there’s a world our there that is begging to have our little fingerprints all over it! Life isn’t just about observing things; we learn by grabbing a hold of them!
There’s a museum in Athens, Greece called The Tactual Museum for the Blind. It’s filled with replicas of Greece’s greatest art, and everything can be touched, in fact, you’re encouraged to touch it all. No red velvet ropes to stay behind, no signs on the walls asking you to mind your manners.
Please touch all the objects you’d like!
Children’s museums are set up that way. They’re one of the few places where children can be let loose in, where they can satisfy their curiosity by grabbing a hold of everything they see—discovering how it feels, interacting with it. That’s how so many of us learn, so, please, touch everything you see! Find out how it works. You can even pull it apart, put back together again. Spin it, flip it, throw it, drop it, smell it, you’re encouraged to!
I wonder if most of us see our faith more as a museum full of priceless, untouchable things or as a children’s museum or the Tactual Museum in Greece? Are there red velvet ropes or panes of glass in place that keep us a few steps back from touching, so all we do is observe our faith from a distance? We see it but never touch it. Have we learned somehow, that when it comes to our faith, it’s best to keep our hands behind our backs and just observe—where God stays this untouched thing that we can only gaze upon, where we’re too polite to come any closer—too scared we’ll break something if we reach out with our hands and grab a hold of it? Do we simply observe our faith, or are we curious and brave enough to stretch out and take it by the hands to make sure it’s real? Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way:
Many an atheist is a believer without knowing it, just as many a believer is an atheist without knowing it. You can sincerely believe there is no God and live as though there is. You can sincerely believe there is a God and live as though there isn’t.
The man lying down near the edge of the Pool of Bethsaida didn’t know who Jesus was. For 38 years this man struggled under his own power to find a way to be healed. This pool was his last shot at it, he thought.
Legend was that hovering over the surface of the waters in the Pool of Bethsaida was an angel, who from time to time would flutter over the surface, creating ripples in it, and whenever that happened, the one to scamper into the pool first—or maybe just touch the surface with the tip of a finger—they’d be healed. Archeologists have found pools like these everywhere. People would come from all over to sit around them, just waiting for the next time one rippled.
38 years, this man had searched for a cure for his paralysis, and who knows how many of them he spent lying next to the Pool of Bethsaida. This pool was the Powerball of pools—it was hit or miss (mostly miss)—this unnamed man just hoping to reach out and touch the water—if only just the surface of it with his fingertip, to be made well.
Did he really ever think it was going to happen? After all this time? Did he really ever think he stood a chance, or was going to the pool just mindless habit? Maybe he knew no other way to be healed, so the pool—however far out of his reach it was—was his best shot. You have to wonder, after 38 long years, where he’s gotten so used to coming up short, did he even know what he was after anymore? Is it possible that he really gave up hope a long time ago, but didn’t know another way, so he just stayed there? Did he really ever expect healing? We all get used to our lives, however painful or small they may be.
Prisoners say the hardest thing about being released at the end of their sentence is getting used to what it’s like to be free. Prisoner recidivism rates are up around 50%, and you have to wonder how much of that is a desperate plea to be locked up again because after all those years behind bars, they can’t handle they’re newfound freedom. Is that what is was like for this paralyzed man in our story for today? Maybe he’s gotten used to wasting away beside this pool that he’s unable to see a better way. So when Jesus comes up to him and asks him, “Do you want to be healed?”, the man’s answer isn’t “Can you do that for me, Jesus?” It’s “There’s no way for me to make it into the pool!” Even with Jesus kneeling right beside him, this man’s hope is still in that ridiculous pool. He’s got blinders on, and he cannot see anything bigger. Sometimes, we put our hope in too-small things.
The man never answered Jesus’ question, did you notice that?
Do you want to be healed?
Jesus asked him.
A simple Yes or No from the man would’ve sufficed. But because all he could see was pool, he had no awareness that Jesus was offering him healing by a completely different way. In that sense, this man was like Frederick Buechner’s functional atheist. He may know that there is a God, but if you want anything in this world, you gotta find it for yourself—you can’t rely on anyone else to give it to you. This is every person for him or herself! Dog eat dog. The man might have believed there was a God, but he was living as though there wasn’t. Instead, all of his hope was tied up in his own efforts—and hope like that is no hope at all.
This story has much to teach us about how we live our lives—the choices we make; the things we pay attention to. Do we live under our own prowess to get ourselves what we need? When something is missing in our lives, where do we go to be made whole again? Do we reach inward, grit our teeth, hunker down, and rely upon our own willpower and determination? Or do we know there is something out there—some way out that’s much more promising than anything we could ever hope for or imagine?
Our story today says if that’s what we’re trying to live our lives under our own power and prowess, wits and wisdom, we’re going to get stuck where we are for way too long. We’re going to suffer the indignity and the futility of coming up short over and over again—for years and years and years—that we too will be unable to imagine a better way for ourselves. Even when that Way is standing right in front of us, reaching out His hand to us, and offering us a future.
But even being healed by Jesus isn’t easy. Jesus heals this man who is paralyzed in body, in mind, in spirit for so long, and he tells him to pick up his mat and walk. After all these years of being held a prisoner in his own body, much like a prisoner held in by bars, moving forward into his own life was going to be the hardest part of it all. He had a lot of unlearning to do. 38 years of old habits to break. Entering back into community after all this time! Jesus didn’t seem to care whether or not this man wanted to be healed. The guy never answered that question. Jesus simply healed him and told him to get up and go forward with his life.
When Jesus heals us, it doesn’t mean that everything that comes after is going to be easy. Jesus doesn’t give us easy. Jesus gives us purpose. Jesus gives us a way forward. Jesus is the Way forward. And He says He will be with us as we walk it.
Jesus, we know it’s not going to be easy; but yes, find a way for us, and make us whole people!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!