I’d like to open this homily by asking you two questions. How many of you love to solve problems? There is something so very satisfying about seeing something that is broken that you can fix. My brother Steve is a do-it-yourself technology fixer—he loves to figure out why your smartphone has suddenly stopped syncing with your email and stuff like that. I love to solve problems. In fact I’ve noticed I often seem to believe I’m better at solving other peoples’ problems than I am at solving my own. There are all sorts of problems in the world and I think there is something innate in human DNA that wants to make things whole.
Let me ask you another question. How many of you have ever had to deal with a chronic problem in yourself or in someone or the world around you that just does not go away no matter what you do about it, that really impacts you? Tell me in one word what it was. Popcorn out your answers. How many of you tried everything you could think of and it didn’t make much of a difference?
I was talking with someone recently who said, you know, God doesn’t magically just make us better. We make ourselves better. We have work to do, effort to make, we have to try. And there are lots of things we can solve ourselves. But as we just discussed, there are some issues or problems that are really entrenched, and really painful, and it can feel like the universe is just picking on you because you are really totally stuck even though you’ve put forth all your effort and resources and skill to make it better. Addiction and depression can be like that. Trauma is like that. Generational poverty and the legacy of systemic racism are like that.
So today’s gospel reading is about a man who had been ill for 38 years. That is a long time. Just for reference, 38 years ago was the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency; it was the year he was shot by John Hinckley, and when the Iranian hostages were finally released. It was the year the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark came out. Some of us actually remember those things. A whole lot of you have no idea what I’m talking about. Thirty eight years is enough time to have a child and even a grandchild. It’s a really long time to be stuck and sick.
So Jesus asks him, Do you want to be made well? The word for well in Greek is ὑγιής, hugeas, and it means to be whole. Do you want to be made whole? And do you notice what the man answers? He doesn’t say yes, because of course he wants to be made well. Doesn’t he? He answers Jesus with the reason why he can’t get well. I have no one to help me get in the water, he says. When I’m making my way, which I imagine takes time because of his condition, someone else is faster. That really moves me, that after thirty eight years this man is alone. No one should be in this condition. You notice he doesn’t say, I’ve stopped trying. You notice he is still doing the best he can.
So what does Jesus then say to him? He says, Get up, pick up your mat, and walk. Jesus tells him to do the one thing he can’t do, the thing that is impossible. And he does it. And he is made whole. Now I don’t know if his condition is utterly and completely fixed. I don’t know if he is made perfect. I do know he can now walk. He can move forward again. He is no longer stuck. He is whole.
And what is it exactly that makes him whole, do you think?
Maybe it’s the fact that he is finally no longer invisible. Maybe it’s that he has had the chance to tell the story of his efforts and his isolation and be heard. I think it’s both of these things, and I think it’s more than that. I think it’s that he is in relationship with God in a body, that the very fact of telling his story and being seen and heard and loved ends his isolation and puts him in relationship with the living God in Christ. Because no amount of problem solving and fixing can heal him. Relationship is what heals and what makes healing possible.
This past week I was in a group that went to hear Don Samuels speak at the Episcopal Church in Minnesota’s headquarters in North Minneapolis. How many of you know who Don Samuels is? Don Samuels was originally from Jamaica, and came to the U.S. to go to seminary at Luther. When he graduated from seminary he felt called by God to live, for the rest of his life, in low income neighborhoods. So he and his wife Sondra moved to North Minneapolis, to the Jordan neighborhood, which at the time had the worst crime in Minnesota, one alley away from the spot with the worst drug trafficking in Minnesota. That was twenty years ago, and they have lived there ever since, they have raised their two young girls there, even after a stray bullet went through their living room wall. They lived there for quite a long time before they tried to “do anything for” the people in the neighborhood. They had to become part of the neighborhood before they could be part of its healing. After a while they started holding peace vigils for every person who was killed through gun violence, and I am proud to say that St John’s was one of three churches he named that always sent people to stand in vigil with them. After a while of doing these vigils they noticed that nearly everyone who was killed and who was doing the killing did not have a high school education. So they created the North Side Achievement Zone, which is a neighborhood specific organization whose goal is to provide wrap around services to children and their parents so that every child in North Minneapolis can graduate from high school and be ready for college, which is the single best predictor of escaping violence and poverty. Now Don Samuels is involved with a number of Episcopal Churches throughout the metro helping us to explore the intersections between the Way of Jesus, dismantling racism, and participating in God’s Beloved Community. Don and Sondra are modeling that justice and peace and transformation have to be grounded in relationship, specifically relationship with God and one another.
Church can sometimes seem like a social club, or even a country club, but it’s meant to be far more than that. Church is meant to be a hospital, and a garden, and a school. It’s meant to be a place where real people with real issues can come together to encounter the living God through Christ in the power of the Spirit, to heal, to grow, to learn, together, in relationship with one another and God. Contrary to the norms of our culture, which are about individualism and the self-made person above most other things, we are made for community with one another and with God. Our faith is not just a set of ethical principles teaching us how to be good in the world. It’s a spiritual incubator in which can have a relationship with Christ through the Spirit, as the Beloved Community, and as such we can be made whole.
And we are made whole, here, because the real ministry of St. John’s is all of our daily lives Monday – Saturday. It’s the love Don and Sondra Samuels show to their neighbors and friends on the North side, and it’s the love you show to family members, and other kids at school, and it’s the power of love you bring to your work and volunteering, in law and accounting and medicine and marketing and teaching and waiting tables and coffeeshops and babysitting. We as the body of Christ are called to the places of the world’s pain, the places where people are really stuck despite their best efforts, because our wholeness is bound up with the healing of others. As former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone said, We all do better when we all do better. But we can’t share what we don’t have, and so once again, I ask: Do you want to be made whole?
In the story from today’s gospel the man who is made whole is at the pool of Bethesda, which in Hebrew means the House of Steadfast Love. The word in Hebrew is chesed, which is always the word used to describe how God loves God’s people –faithful, everlasting, the love that will not abandon or betray, the love that is in it with us for the long haul, the love that does not fix us but stays with us, forever. It is a relational love. That is because it is relationship that makes us whole; no amount of problem solving can ever really do that.
At the beginning of this homily I asked each of you which problems you had encountered that you could not fix. What if you imagined that God is truly in relationship with you through Christ, and that in that relationship, wholeness is possible? I’d like to invite each of us to hold silence now, so that whatever you are honestly thinking and experiencing might be seen and heard by God.
How might God give us the chance to see and hear one another into wholeness? How might God empower us to risk vulnerability with one another, so that we might discover the healing God offers us in community with each other and with Christ? From that place, where is God’s Spirit leading us to enter into deeper relationships with our neighbors, that we might become whole together?
Do you want to be made whole?