Last week I made a brief trip to Philadelphia for a speaking engagement, and on the drive up and back I had little else to listen to than NPR. Now I love NPR, but for some reason every news story and interview I heard on both legs of this trip was more depressing than the last. Over a two-day period, all they seemed to talk about was either the Boston Marathon bombings and the suspects, the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh, the assassination of the Pakistani prosecutor, the hunger strike by and force-feeding of the detainees in Guantanamo. Every news story seemed to be about some aspect of human violence.
I had some free time before the event, so I made my way over to a place I have always loved, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What better place than an art museum to escape news stories about human ill-will? But as soon as I got there, I realized that even here there was no escape.
Try as I might to find relief from the events of the week, as I walked around the museum, I could not stop thinking about the persistence of violence in human life. Believe me, an art museum is not a place where you want to go on a treasure hunt for images of human aggression. They were everywhere: suits of armor, crucifixion scenes, depictions of land and sea battles, executions. You name it, somebody has painted or sculpted it. To be sure, there’s a lot of love and beauty in a museum, too. But looking at the visual record of human history, the persistence of violence in our personal and social relations is pretty hard to ignore. Where can we find healing from this persistent curse? And if we could find healing, would we actually take it?
Today’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus healing a man who had been ill for 38 years. As John tells it, Jesus encounters him at the pool of Bethzatha:
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?” 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.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” (John 5:5-9)
It is hard to imagine lying by a pool for 38 years without finding a way to get yourself into its healing waters. The arch tone of Jesus’ question (“Do you want to be made well?”) suggests that even he might be a little bit impatient with this guy. Like our seemingly endless tolerance for the violence in our natures and our society, this man’s ability to live with a bad situation appears almost baffling. Why do we continue to tolerate aggression and enmity? Why do we live with ailments when the cure is only a few steps away?
I was once in an extremely tense conversation where I was trying to help resolve an interpersonal dispute between two colleagues. One of them believed that she had been offended and disrespected by the other, and though the other repeatedly apologized she refused to accept his regret as sincere. In the middle of this back and forth rehearsal of grudges, the second turned to the first and said, “You know, I believe you have made a shrine of your wound.” It was such a startling remark that, though it initially offended the first person, eventually it opened the logjam of our conversation and allowed us to move forward to a new way of being with each other. I have never forgotten it.
“You have made a shrine of your wound.” I can’t speak for you, but I know that there are many times in my life where I have made not only a shrine of my wound, I’ve built a temple for it and regularly worshiped at it and checked regularly to be sure that my grievances are maintained in top working order. In today’s Gospel, the man by the pool has made a shrine of his wound. The news stories of violence and aggression, the artworks depicting human violence, all of these are only more extreme versions of the poison that we spread when we worship at the shrine of our wounds as we work night and day to keep our grudges alive.
As people and as a society, I believe we have all made a shrine of the wound of violence in our human nature and in our world. In saying that I do not in any way intend to disparage the victims of violence or to suggest that they somehow bring it on themselves. I would never say that. But I do mean to say that we seem to have accepted violence as a natural fact of life and so we tolerate violence and aggression much more than we should.
And one of the reasons we tolerate violence is that we are in denial about the depth of its roots in our being. After September 11, 2001, do you remember all the talk about how those bombings signaled the end of American innocence? Really? I’m as patriotic as the next person, but as a student of American history, I’d say that “innocence” is about the last trait we have exhibited as a people. Just think of slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, the Mexican War, and the World War II internments for starters. How could we presume to be “innocent” in any meaningful definition of that word? We have many wonderful enduring achievements and characteristics as a nation, but we are not “innocent.” And, more importantly, why do we want to think of ourselves as “innocent”? In this, we Americans are not alone. Every culture justifies itself and blames others. We are peace-loving; only the “others” are violent. We have made a shrine of our wound.
The artists whose works hang in our museums know something deeply true about us. Each of us carries the possibility of violence within our own heart. Only when we acknowledge that possibility, only when we accept that part of us Jungians call “the shadow,” only when we stop pretending that we are somehow better and purer than everybody else, only then will we be open to the healing that can happen when we acknowledge that we actually need it.
“Do you want to be made well?” That is Jesus’ question to the man by the pool of Bethzatha, and that is Jesus’ question to you and me today. “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want socially to be made well? Do you want personally to be made well? Do you want your world, your society, your relationships, even your body to be healed? If so, then start by seeing things as they are. When I build a shrine to my own wound, I perpetrate the fiction that you are guilty and I am innocent. All of us are somewhat guilty. None of us is perfectly innocent. Only as we accept the parts of ourselves we would turn from and deny, only then will we be open to the healing that Jesus offers the man by the pool in the story, to our nation and our world, to you and me today.
Preachers are often asked to summarize the Good News, to give a Reader’s Digest version of what Christianity is all about. Some people can do that, but I’ve never been very good at this exercise. Today’s collect—the prayer appointed for this Sunday, the sixth Sunday of Easter—does it as well as it can be done. This prayer is, for me, a perfect summary of what the Gospel is all about. I use it regularly in my own devotional life. I offer it as a concise expression of the Christian hope:
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire…
The man by the pool didn’t quite know what he wanted. He had made a shrine of his wound. Jesus came to remind him that God’s promises exceed even what we can want; God’s future for and with us is greater than anything we can ask for or even imagine. If we orient ourselves away from our wounds and toward those promises, we will be able to step into the healing waters where our hopes will be realized and our wounds will be healed. Our task, with Jesus, is to love God in all things and above all things so that we may receive those good things that surpass our understanding. “Do you want to be made well?” If you do, walk away from the shrine of your wound, accept yourself in the fullness and complexity of who you really are, and come to this table. As we feed each other and are fed by Jesus, our rage and our pain, our sorrow and our violence will be transmuted into love and hope and peace and joy. Amen.