The Right Rev. Eugene T. Sutton
Let us pray. Tell us what we need to hear, O God, and show us what we
need to do to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, happy Mother’s Day everyone! I know that this feast day
was not instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, but probably by Hallmark,
this day the biggest selling day for flowers in the year. But it is a
good time to be together with families and to reconnect with mothers,
whether on this side of the veil of death, or on the other side. My
mother is here this morning in the front row. I’ll be taking her
to dinner following this service. The things you have to do to get a
dinner from your son! You first have to hear the message.
I participated in two conferences this past week on the same theme:
the emerging Church of the 21st Century. The first conference, I and
Canon Barnwell joined Dean Lloyd at Kanuga Conference Center in
Hendersonville, North Carolina, where Dean Lloyd led us in keynote
speeches about what the shape of the new Church will be in this age of
social dislocations, this age of change. How can we prepare ourselves
for change, how can we let go of the old, and bring in the new.
And then, just here at the Cathedral in a conference sponsored by the
Cathedral College under the leadership of Canon Howard Anderson here,
there was a conference on, yes, on the Church of the 21st Century, where
200 people gathered from around the nation in this space to talk about
the new Church. The funny thing that happened was, just before the
conference it so happened that this was the time of the year that the
fire alarms were tested at the Cathedral College. So there we were
preparing for the conference and just heading to go over and talk about
the new Church, when the alarm bells rang! And I’m thinking,
“How appropriate.” The Holy Spirit has a sense of humor.
The alarm bells ought to ring when we’re talking about
changing, and changing our religious institutions and our beliefs and
our practices, changing liturgical practices in ways of being together.
Change. Let the bells ring! It’s not a new thing. The bells have
been ringing for two thousand years.
Two thousand years ago in an episode that was told in today’s
Gospel Lesson, Jesus had entered Jerusalem by the Sheep’s Gate,
and there he passed by the Pools of Beth-za’tha, it’s called in
that Aramaic. In English, we call it Bethesda. I’m sure that even
three miles north of this place there is some pool in Bethesda,
Maryland, that has especially curative powers. But this pool was three
thousand miles away. And many of us on pilgrimage saw that pool recently
recovered in an archeological dig right by the Temple, right outside the
walls of St. Ann’s Church. There we saw the ruins of the Pool,
where this man had laid for thirty-eight years. Why so long? He was
there at that Pool to be cured because those waters were known to have
healing power. And a legend had grown around that when the waters of the
Pool were disturbed by an angel: the first to get in would be healed.
Obviously, it’s a legend; those verses are not in the original
manuscripts; it was a later edition to explain why he was there.
But even we in the twentieth century know about healing waters: the
healing waters of Tiberius; and some swear by the healing waters of the
Dead Sea as you float on that Sea, and people who cover themselves with
mud to take advantage of its healing. And even here in this nation in
Hot Springs, Arkansas, people go there to go into those springs and be
healed. It was no different two thousand years ago. Only this man never
made it into the water.
Jesus picked him out among all those people, and he asked him,
“Do you want to be healed? Do you want to be made whole?”
What a question! Isn’t it obvious? Someone who was disabled in
some way, someone by the pool of the healing waters—wasn’t
he there to be healed? Why would Jesus have to ask him, didn’t he
want to be healed? Of course, he did! Didn’t he? Maybe not. At
second glance maybe something was holding him back.
You know the word for heal used here, it’s from the Greek word
hygeus, from which we get our word hygiene. And I might add we
get our word eugene as well, a name that is dear to me. When I was in a
fraternity many years ago at college, those frat brothers of mine put on
the back of my frat sweatshirt “Hygiene.” Ah, the humor you
get for no charge.
That word hygiene, hygeus, is used six times in the Gospel of
John, and five additional times in the New Testament. It can be
translated not just “healed,” but “to be made
well,” as you read in the Gospel Lesson this morning. Well, that
word can mean physical health. It’s also used to connote
soundness, that is implying more a sense of being whole, of well being,
of being right with the world.
Ancient Mediterranean society had a different view of sickness than
modern Western society. In non-Western medicine, the main problem with
sickness is the experience of the sick person being dislodged from his
or her social moorings and social standing. Social interaction with
family members, friends, neighbors, and villagers come to a halt. To be
healed, then, is to be restored to one’s social network. In
contemporary Western medicine, we view disease as a malfunction of some
organism that can be remedied, assuming a cause and cure are known, by
proper biomedical treatment. We focus on restoring a sick person’s
ability to function, to do. Yet, often overlooked is the fact that
health and sickness are always culturally defined, and that in many
societies, the ability to function is not the heart of the matter. In
the ancient world, one’s state of being was more important than
one’s ability to do, or to function. What was valued for humanity
was that they would be human beings, not human doings. Thus, the healers
of that world focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being,
rather than an ability to function.
Anthropologists therefore distinguish between disease, which is a
biomedical malfunction, and illness, which is a state of being in which
a person is disvalued, has been dislodged from social networks. Their
lives have been disrupted and their social significance lost.
So the man in our text said to Jesus, “How can I be healed? I
have nobody here to help me.” There is no one to put him in the
water when it is stirring. He has no friends. He has no family. There is
no one to help him. He is alone. He is isolated. Do you know what it is
like to be utterly alone? Cut off from society? Cut off from God? Cut
off even from the deepest core of yourself? Do you know what that is
like? Because in such a state, that man simply gave up. He stopped
Jesus saw his depression. Setting his eyes upon the man, looking past
his obvious disability but gazing directly, it seemed, into his soul,
Jesus said to him, “Do you want to be made whole? Do you want to
become a human being again? Do you want to live?” And for the
first time in many, many years, the alarm bell went off in that
man’s life. I imagine him nodding, holding back tears, and unable
to say anything because of the enormous lump that was in his throat. And
Jesus said, “Stand up. Take your mat, and walk out of here.
Go.” And the man went. For all we know, he might have been able to
walk for years, but he never dared to do so because he was not prepared
to live again. The healing apparently was within him.
Jesus may be saying to you this morning, “Do you want to be
made whole?” No matter what your illness is—and some of us
are ill—we are stuck, not just physically. Some of us are in ill
relationships, not in marriage, not in a committed relationship, that is
either abusive or cannot stand in the light of day. Do you want to be
healed? Some of you are in jobs that are destroying you and perhaps the
world. And at some point an alarm bell may have to go off to say,
“Do you want to live again? Do you want to be stuck in that way in
your illness? Stand up, and walk out of there.” No matter what
your illness. No matter the disability. No matter the disease. Do you
want to be restored to a whole new life?
Following this Eucharist, if you are in need of healing, I invite you
to go to Memorial Chapel, to my immediate left, and receive the laying
on of hands for healing. This is the Church’s way of following our
Lord in his ministry of healing. And there, the ministers will offer to
you through their hands the presence of the healing Christ. There, you
may not be cured of a biomedical disease, but you will be healed. You
will be made well.
But I mentioned that there were two alarm bells that sounded in
today’s Lesson, one for you personally, but one for the Church at
large. You see, that Gospel Lesson today ended with this strange
sentence, “…and it was on the Sabbath.” Jesus had
healed this man on the Sabbath, which of course in the established,
traditional way of thinking of the Sabbath, was verboten. He broke the
rules. He didn’t have to. There was in the Torah a provision for
healing someone and allowing that work to happen. There was a provision
if it was a life-threatening disease. But this man had been ill for
thirty-eight years. There was no emergency.
Or Jesus could have waited until sundown after the Sabbath, and said
to the man, “We know you are healed, but don’t carry
anything. Don’t announce it. Don’t let the world know that
you are healed, so that you and I won’t get in trouble.” But
he did not wait. He did not delay. The moment of the Kingdom breaking in
was now. That was the moment of healing, and that’s what
eventually got Jesus in trouble. In the Gospel of John, this starts the
train going of people wanting to get rid of him because he had broken
Jesus, later on, had talked about this new reality that he’s
bringing into the world. He called it “New Wine,” but he
said new wine cannot exist in old wineskins. The new Gospel, the new way
of life, cannot exist in the old structures. It breaks down the old as
it brings in the new.
And so I ask you this morning, not just as individuals, but as
members of Christ’s Church, what needs to die, needs to be broken
in your Church, that may even be dear to you but needs to go away so
that persons can be healed? How might your Church be holding people back
from walking and becoming who they truly are? But the tradition and the
structures keep them by the poolside, unable to get up. And how might
this Cathedral live more and more into its vocation as a House of Prayer
for All People, announcing a generous-spirited Christianity in being a
place of reconciliation? How might that change how we worship and what
I hear the alarm bells.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.