Monday, May 06, 2013

Do you want to be whole? (J. Barry Vaughn, May 5, 2013)

Even though Bonnie Polley did a great job of reading today’s gospel, I’d like to read it again and add a few verses. I’ll be reading from J.B. Phillips’ translation:

Some time later came one of the Jewish feast-days and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. There is in Jerusalem near the sheep-gate a pool surrounded by five arches, which has the Hebrew name of Bethzatha (the Pool of Bethesda). Under these arches a great many sick people were in the habit of lying; some of them were blind, some lame, and some had withered limbs. (They used to wait there for the "moving of the water", for at certain times an angel used to come down into the pool and disturb the water, and then the first person who stepped into the water after the disturbance would be healed of whatever he was suffering from.) One particular man had been there ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there on his back - knowing that he had been like that for a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to get well again?"

"Sir," replied the sick man, "I just haven't got anybody to put me into the pool when the water is all stirred up. While I'm trying to get there somebody else gets down into it first." "Get up," said Jesus, "pick up your bed and walk!" At once the man recovered, picked up his bed and walked.

This happened on a Sabbath day, which made the Jews keep on telling the man who had been healed, "It's the Sabbath, you know; it's not right for you to carry your bed." "The man who made me well," he replied, "was the one who told me, 'Pick up your bed and walk.'" Then they asked him, "And who is the man who told you to do that?" But the one who had been healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away in the dense crowd. Later Jesus found him in the Temple and said to him, "Look: you are a fit man now. Do not sin again or something worse might happen to you!" Then the man went off and informed the Jews that the one who had made him well was Jesus.

It was because Jesus did such things on the Sabbath day that the Jews persecuted him. But Jesus' answer to them was this, "My Father is still at work and therefore I work as well." This remark made the Jews all the more determined to kill him, because not only did he break the Sabbath but he referred to God as his own Father, so putting himself on equal terms with God.

I wanted to read a few verses beyond where the lectionary ends for a couple of reasons. First, I think this story makes more sense if we read to the end of v. 9. Secondly, the whole business about the angel moving or troubling the water is omitted from most translations because New Testament scholars believe that this was added by a later editor of John. And finally and most importantly, Jesus' question to the paralytic is almost always mistranslated as "Do you want to get well?" Jesus really said, "Do you want TO BE MADE WHOLE?"


Do you want to be made whole? What kind of question is that? On the face of it, the question seems a little ridiculous. Of course, we want to be made whole. Who would not want to be made whole? But maybe the question was not so ridiculous after all.


First, modern medicine and perhaps medical science from the beginning of time, has been more geared to treating illnesses than to promoting wholeness. Please understand that I am not criticizing physicians, nurses, and other health professionals. Actually, I think that most people I know who practice medicine, whether they are doctors, nurses, or medical technicians, really do see medicine more as an art, than a science. They understand the difference between alleviating symptoms and promoting wholeness. Most of them understand that the real question is the one that Jesus asked: Do you want to be made whole?


But sometimes all a physician can do is treat the disease and most of the time that is enough.


One of the great TV series of all times was Northern Exposure, a show about an East Coast physician who is sent to a small town in Alaska to pay off his student loan. In one episode, he spends time with a Native American shaman or healer and is appalled at all the time the shaman apparently wastes in getting to know everything he possibly can know about his patients.


But I believe that medical science is beginning to learn that we are so much more than the sum of our parts, that we are products of our environment, our relationships, our families, our culture, that healing is not just a matter of prescribing pills and that sometimes, maybe most of the time, healing is as much spiritual and psychological as it is physical.


The second thing I want you to note is what John tells us about the pool of Bethesda. Apparently, there was a popular belief that held that an angel would sometimes trouble the water, that is make it foam and gush. Perhaps the pool was connected to an underground stream. Perhaps it was even a hot spring. No one really knows.


But the paralytic in this story and apparently many others came to this spring seeking healing, hoping that they would be the first into the water and therefore would be healed.


But my question is, Why? Surely there were other ways to be healed. Medical science was primitive in the 1rst c. to say the least, and killed more often than it cured. But there were some physicians in the ancient world who achieved a degree of success.


I believe there's a parallel between the paralytic and people in our day who neglect the well-established and successful medical treatments offered by physicians and seek instead to be treated by dubious and often dangerous alternative treatments. There is a certain appeal to the idea that traditional Asian or native American treatments can do what modern medical science cannot do. There are far too many shady characters who play upon people's fears and anxieties or use the lure of the spectacular and mysterious to gain financial advantage.


Finally, consider Jesus' question again: "Do you want to be made whole?"


In John's gospel every detail is significant, and numbers are often highly symbolic. John tells us that the pool where the man was lying had five porticoes or gates. Could five signify the Torah, the first five books of our Bibles? I don't know.


The more significant and interesting number is the man's age. John tells us that he was 38 years old. In the 1rst c. life expectancy was considerably lower than it is now. Fifty was quite old in Jesus' day and time. So this man has been ill for the great majority of his life and probably doesn't have many years left.


The question that would occur to me and seems to have occurred to Jesus is, Why has this man been sick for so long? Could he not have found someone to treat him? Couldn't he have sought relief from some other healer? Jesus wasn't the only spiritual figure performing miracles of healing in the 1rst c. Perhaps the man could simply have learned to live with his illness.


But instead he has been lying on the edge of this pool for years. Perhaps he doesn't really want healing or wholeness at all.


There can be a certain satisfaction, a certain pay off, in remaining stuck in our brokenness, our DIS-ease. The philosopher Voltaire said, "People don't go to physicians to change their lifestyles: They go to physicians to relieve their symptoms so they can resume their lifestyles."


There are even those who use their illness to manipulate others' compassion.  There are always so-called "bleeding hearts" like me (and frankly like a lot of my colleagues in the ministry) who even feel a little guilty that we are relatively healthy and that sort of guilt is easily manipulated.


I believe that there are two fundamental, though unequal, forces in the universe. One is the drive toward disintegration and brokenness. The Bible calls this SIN.


In other words, sin is not overdrinking, over-eating, sex outside of marriage, greed, and so on. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I'm not saying these things are good. I'm saying that they are really symptoms of a much larger problem. They are symptoms of the fundamental brokenness of the human heart and of the universes.


The playwright Eugene O'Neill said, "Humans are broken and they live by mending." Exactly. We are broken and we live by mending... unless we are like the paralytic in today's gospel reading and have learned to enjoy our brokenness and stay stuck in it.


The other fundamental force in the universe is the drive toward integration and wholeness, and I believe this is far stronger. Call this grace or even love. I believe that God is always summoning us toward wholeness and that if we make even the slightest move in this direction, God will help us, pull us upward and out of our brokenness, our DIS-ease in the direction of wholeness.


The early Christian theologian Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." The healthier we are, the more complete we are, the more whole we are, the more we reflect the glory of God. God longs for us to be complete and is always pushing us toward wholeness and away from brokenness. But we have to recognize our brokenness, recognize the fundamental force that is pushing us in the opposite direction, toward brokenness and disintegration and resist it.


Do you want to be whole? Jesus asked the man beside the pool. But it is a question that Jesus also asks institutions.


I believe that God is asking Christ Church, Do you want to be whole? Do you want to be healed? Do you want to move forward? Or do you want to stay stuck in the past, stuck in old, destructive ways behaving? Make no mistake: I believe this is largely a healthy church. There is an enormous amount of love and grace here. If I believed otherwise, I would not have come.


But churches can sometimes be like the paralytic in today's gospel reading. The paralytic believed in what we might call a "quack cure" - that if he could get into the water first while it was moving and foaming, he would be cured.


Churches often believe in quack cures. We will be fine if only we trade our pipe organs for guitars... if only we sing praise songs instead of hymns... if only we had more young families with children.. if only we fed more hungry people...


Make no mistake: Christ Church needs more families with children. We need to feed as many hungry people as we can. But there is no quick fix for our problems. And what we need is not guitars or praise songs or even families with children: what we need is Jesus.


Jesus is asking Christ Church: Do you want to be made whole? I hope and pray that we will answer yes and do everything in our power to promote wholeness.