Earlier the dean invited us to take a deep breath. I invite you to take another deep breath while I take a deep breath. I’m deeply honored to be invited to be here today. I bring a great cloud of witnesses with me this morning. Among whom are my unlettered share cropping father, my mother who graduated from college the year that I graduated from high school and my little brother who died from appendicitis at age 12, because he was refused medical care at the local whites only hospital, since he was poor and black. It’s been a very long journey from those cotton fields of my father to this pulpit. And I have learned many lessons while traveling on it. Today I want to share a little bit about that. And because I believe that some of those lessons have to do not just with me, but with our collective journeys, I’m so thankful for all of you who are present in this space, and for those of you who are joining us by the medium of modern technology.
Thank you for allowing me to have your ears and perhaps your hearts for a little bit of time today. This lesson from the gospel of John has been my companion for many, many years. And I was so thankful to discover after receiving the invitation to preach that this was one of the possible gospels for today and not some strange thing that I couldn’t understand.
As is always true, when Jesus is talking, there is much being said. And while some of it is immediately present and apparent to us in understanding him, a lot of it is subtext and you have to pay close attention to catch it all because in his stories, he’s always telling us more than we think he is. This conversation invites us to listen on many levels, but here are a few things that I want to highlight that have to do with my journey. And I think has to do with yours. I believe that every human being on this planet is engaged in a pilgrimage and on a journey. It’s not a destination, it’s a process. And part of what gets us into trouble is looking so hard for the destination.
And I want to ask you this morning to put yourselves in this conversation at this pool, with Jesus and with me, and see what you hear and see what you see. This pool at Bethesda offered hope at the times when an angel would come and stir the waters. And at that time, if you could get yourself in the pool, transformation could happen for you. But this particular man who Jesus called attention to makes me wonder, what was it about him? What made Jesus single him out from all of the other blind and lame and disabled people that were there. So that may be a question to ponder. How does one get their eyes, get Jesus’ eyes, to catch you? And Jesus started to inquire about him for whatever reasons, whatever was making him so curious about him, and learned that this man had been there for 38 years. And Jesus says to him, “Do you want to get well?”
This was a primary question that I had to answer 37 years ago when I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and began a tutorial that has been orchestrated by arthritis and would become one of the most important resources and teachers that I could have ever had. As I sought the pathway to liberation and freedom as a young woman, living in a black body in a country that was not really interested in my wellbeing.
I’m asking you to reflect upon what tutorials have been sent to you and how they have asked or continue to ask you to explore this profound question that Jesus is asking, “Do you want to get well?” You see, if I’d been speaking to this man who’d been lying there for all those years, I would’ve been far more likely to question him about whether he had any help to get in the pool. I might have asked him some other questions about other things, but I don’t think I would’ve ever gotten to that core question, that has to do with why are you an invalid in the first place. Our intention. What is the energy at the core of your being that is propelling you through life? What is your intention? What is your focus? What are you after? Do you want to be well?
There are other ways to interrogate ourselves about our intention as we reflect upon Jesus’ query. It would never have occurred to me to ask that question, because I would’ve been concerned about why the community had failed this man and missed out on perhaps understanding what the real question was. Arthritis took me over with the vengeance when I was 39 years old and has been my companion ever since. Many around me advised that I should declare myself disabled and quit teaching and resign myself to living the life of an invalid. I thought that advice to be very unacceptable because I knew that something was up with my soul and that it had to be acknowledged. I knew that the answer did not lie in looking for the easiest and the quickest way to solve the problem. I went on a pilgrimage to find a remedy to the debilitating pain and stiffness that wouldn’t cause the rest of my body to break down and die.
I would rise each day at 4 am and begin my regimen of applying various herbal rubs to my joints, taking hot showers, spending time in silence and meditation, journaling, and taking many herbs that were touted to impact this illness. I changed my diet and became a vegetarian. I went to do exercises in the swimming pool almost every day. Each day of my life required me to inquire of my myself whether or not I wanted to be well. From some deep place in my soul, the faint “yes” emerged. And I embarked upon learning what arthritis had to teach me about perseverance, pain, limitations, uncertainty, vigilance, patience, flexibility, faith, fear, and love. I was taught so many profound lessons. I came to see that this journey with my body’s autoimmune system, which had turned on itself in ways that made me sick mirrored the world that I lived in in many ways. But one of the major ones was related to my skin color and all of the narratives and structures that were designed to keep me in my place and away from freedom. I came to understand that I could not say yes to arthritis’s attempt to debilitate me anymore than I could say yes to the world that dared me to imagine that I could do and be whatever I wanted to be. And that I had a right to imagine that.
And my earlier faint yes became a stronger “yes, I want to be well.” It got to be stronger as I searched for healing remedies, and I learned to incorporate the pain and struggle into my daily life. My two sons, who are amazing young men who are here with me today, helped me a lot because they did everything they could do, even as children, to make sure that I could stay on my mission as they continue to do as adults. And I’m so grateful for these two young black men. But it concerned me that I was traumatizing my children. And so I wanted to try as hard as I could to do the best I could to respond to this illness and to teach them that while you may not be able to avoid struggle, there are ways to address adversity. I hope they learned about that.
Eventually arthritis got ahead of me and caused damage to my hip joints. And in the past six months I’ve had both of them replaced. So I’m a bionic woman. I still have arthritis. It will not go away, but I am well. I am well because my arthritic tutorial taught me how to live in the dissonance that it causes and embrace the rest of my life with courage and faith. It taught me that pain and joy can live together. It taught me that asking for help is a good thing. It taught me to love myself more than I had ever done before. And it taught me to develop a new way to see and a new way to be. So we sit here in this place this morning, Jesus’ question rings in our ears and in our hearts. And each of us has to answer it again today because yesterday’s answers won’t do.
What tutorials are before you now? What is causing you to have to take up your invalid’s bed? Where are you at the pool of Bethsaida? Are you lying there, wondering if you want to take a chance on change or not? Wondering if you want to bear up under the transformation that might be occurred, if you say yes to whatever lessons and invitations are being given to you? Or are you ready to fling yourself into the pool no matter what cost? Is it physical illness, the possibility of having to see yourself in a new way, crossing internal boundaries that are frightening, building a bridge that seems impossible to you in order to get from your head to your heart? Letting go of false narratives about the way the world is supposed to work or seeing yourself as superior or inferior?
Is it fear? Is it worry? Is it anxiety? Is it about the state of the world in this present moment? The list is endless, but Jesus says, “Do you want to be well,” offers us a remedy. “Get up and pick up the mat. Walk,” the rabbi says to this man, as he says to all of us gathered here today, “Get up and walk, if you have determined that you want to be well.”
Do you want to heal our land of its many “isms”: violence, greed, racism, particularly that’s on our minds, as we think about people being murdered because of the color of their skin and all of those things that separate us. Do you want to be well? We have to decide each one of us first for ourselves. And each time we make that decision for ourselves, it will help the collective decision to become stronger so that this land might be healed.
You may not believe that you have anything to do with the collective. And I don’t have enough time this morning to try to argue with you all of the philosophical perspectives that might help you to believe that. But I tell you one thing, my arthritis tutorial bears witness to its truth. You will find the validation that you need to keep encouraging you to go forward as you keep saying, “I want to be well.” You will find what you need. God is faithful. All we have to do is get on the path, stay faithful, stay focused.
So I want to ask you all listening to me, as I ask myself over and over, what is the major thing that needs to be set free in you this morning so that will that there will be a clear response saying, “yes, I want to get well.” What is the major thing that you need to let go of to allow to be set free? And do you have the courage to say yes? Do you have the courage to say yes, I want to be well? I want the church to be well. I want the country to be well. I want the world to be well. And I will do my part by being well, by saying “yes.” See, it sounds so simple. It just takes one lifetime to get it done. One lifetime. That’s all it takes. And that’s all we’re being asked to give is one lifetime.
It is time for us to make up our minds if we just wanna play about it, or if we really wanna do it. Do we wanna save this place, this world, this home, this stuff, then let’s think about that today. And as you leave this place, and as I finish these words, I want to leave you with a declaration from the Psalmist. This is the 91st Psalm, which I read for one solid year when I was going through a very bad year. I read it every day for a year, 365 days. I never missed a day. And it was just such an affirming and helpful set of words for me. And I have written it, rewritten it a little bit, as a declaration for us this morning. As you depart from this place and these words that I have spoken, take these words with you as you ponder, do you wanna be well, do you want to be well?
“If we dwell in the shelter of the Most High, we will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. We will say of the Lord, God is our refuge and our fortress, our God in whom we trust. Surely God will save us from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. God will cover us with God’s feathers and under God’s wings we will find refuge.” (And I must pause here to say that a little bird came and made a nest and a flowerpot on my front porch as I was reading this scripture for a year. So I had a chance to see what it was like to be covered under the wings of God as I watched this mother bird take care of her little birds. How wonderful to have that affirmation and how good of God to bother to send it to me). “God’s faithfulness is unmatchable. God’s faithfulness will be our shield and rampart. We will not fear the terror of night nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.”
“A thousand may fall at our side, 10,000 at our right hand, but it will not come near us. We will only observe with our eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. If we say the Lord is our refuge and we make the Most High, our dwelling, no harm will overtake us. No disaster will come near our living space for God will command angels concerning us, and ancestors, and all kinds of heavenly forces that we often don’t even recognize to guard us in all our ways. They will lift us up in their hands so that we will not strike our foot against a stone. We will tread on the lion and the cobra. We will trample the great lion and the serpent because God loves us. The Lord says I will rescue them. They will call on me and I will answer them. I will be with them in trouble. I will deliver them and honor them with long life. I will satisfy them and show them my salvation.”
Do you believe it? Do you believe any of it? Then go in peace to be well, and say yes to the tutorials so that we can heal our land. Amen.