Down for the Count: Jesus & the Guy on The Mat


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Knocked down by life’s problems? Pinned down by your circumstances? Learn what Jesus did for a man who had been down for the count…for over 30 years! If Jesus can unstick that guy, Jesus can get you up and running again, too. The question is simple yet horrifying: “Do you WANT to get your groove back?”

 

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

John 5:2-9

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, incapacitated, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years! When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, Jesus said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Jesus, “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.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

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Healing & Wholeness

Most of you know my partner, Lou. Lou is blind. Living with and loving a blind man has completely changed the way I interpret biblical healing stories. In our experience, there are no words that will fix Lou’s eyesight, no secret prayer that will repair his retinas. Occasionally, Lou gets calls from medical studies that want to implant computer chips in his retinas that might allow him to make out a little light and dark again. His reply is always “no thank you.”

At first I was baffled, but I’ve come to realize that Lou is whole[1] as he is. He doesn’t want or need that kind of healing. He’s good at being blind—uses the computer, hails cabs, rides MUNI, gets around the city—and addresses the challenges that others think stand in the way of Lou living a full life.

This confounds the assumptions of preachers and theologians everywhere. Even the gospel writers presume that all blind and differently-abled people need to be fixed.  This sermon is about what real healing is, and what it isn’t — and how we all could use some kind of healing, even Lou.

The Beth-zada Pool

Many people with all kinds of varying conditions lined the five porch-like structures at the healing pool of Beth-zada. (Tradition calls it Beth-zada, Bethesda and/or Bethsaida.) This ancient Aramaic name means “house of grace” but also “house of shame.”[2]  Both of these attitudes—grace and shame—dwell inside of us, battling to influence our choices, whether we’re blind, paralyzed, homeless, depressed, unemployed, tired, behind at work, made a bad grade, just broke up with that someone or are awaiting an unwanted diagnosis. There’s always grace, but there’s often shame.

Tradition has it that there was this angel who would come and stir the waters of the Beth-zada pool, and only then were the waters charged with healing power—for a limited time. For the pool’s miracle-seekers, healing was like Warriors tickets, available only on a first come first serve basis, available to those in the know and those with means. Healing was competitive at the Beth-zada pool.

Our present-day culture of competition agrees, mistakenly, that healing is available only now and then if we are good enough and if we work hard enough and if God loves us enough. Really, is that how it works?  This morning, Jesus enters the scene and eliminates scarcity and competition! The man doesn’t have to claw his way to the front of the line to receive healing, and anyway, Jesus doesn’t run out of healing—not ever. A closer look at John 5 shows that the man on the mat does not even ask Jesus for healing, nor does he express faith in Jesus. This flies in the face of prosperity-related theologies that insist we can get anything “if-you-only-pray-hard-enough.” The conundrum is this: Why do some people receive healing while others are left waiting?

Down for the Count

The guy on the mat has been asking that very question for the thirty-eight years!. He has seniority at the Beth-zada pool, tenure, the best spot to watch everyone. He knows people, has an audience, has a mat where he’s down for the count. Then, Jesus asks him,“Do you want to to be made well?”

“Nobody’s going to help me get into the pool. I’ve been here 38—”

“Do you want to be made well?”

“And while I am making my way down there, somebody cuts in line ahead of—”

“Do you want to be made well?”

The man cannot hear Jesus’ question, let alone respond to it, because he’s too busy repeating his “mat story!”[3]  No wonder he’d been there there thirty-eight years!

Mat Stories

Larry Peers, formerly of the Alban Institute, says that “mat stories are limiting stories. They keep us from wholeness and wellbeing because we’ve repeated them for so long that we’ve actually become them.”[4] Metropolitan Community Church theologian, Mona West, says that “when we repeat our mat stories, we are giving the illusion that we want to change, when actually we want to remain the same but just feel better about it.”[5]  Does anyone here have a mat story?

Mat stories go something like this:

  • If I don’t get into my first choice college, my life is over.
  • I would break my cycle of bad relationships if only people would follow my simple rules.
  • I’m the only one who can do my job.
  • If I miss a day of work, that place would fall apart.
  • Addiction just runs in my family.

What’s your mat story?

Jesus’ Spiritual Assessment

Jesus does not roll his eyes at our mat stories. As in other meetings in John’s gospel, Jesus knows this man’s entire past and future, but he does not say, “Oh come on, you know you can walk!” Neither does Jesus say, “You poor thing! Let’s get you in the pool.” Instead, Jesus empowers the man to initiate his own healing.  On the cover of your bulletin, let’s read together Jesus’ three-step healing plan. “Jesus said: stand up, take your mat, and walk.”[6]

Three Steps to Wholeness

The Greek word translated as “stand up” is egeire, Yes, egeire means “stand up” —but it can also mean “awaken.”[7] [8]  As in “awaken, and smelleth the coffee.” Monya Stubbs[9] writes that  egeire/awaken indicates Jesus is calling the man on the mat into a new way of thinking that will lead him to a full life. So that’s step one: “Stand up/Wake up.”

Step two: “take your mat.”  I wonder why didn’t Jesus tell him to leave the mat for somebody else who needed it. Was it too gross after thirty-eight years? “Take your mat” strikes me as highly symbolic, reminding us to remember how we once were over-identified with our limiting mat story, but now we carry it with us, like Lou carries his cane, to say, “Here I come, and I am not shy. You can deal with me not seeing you, and get out of my way, or we can collide.” Carry your mat with you. Remember your past mistakes, lest you repeat them.

Step three: “walk.”  The Greek word peripateō is usually translated “walk around,” but it also means “to conduct one’s life” in a certain way.[10]  There’s the healing in this story: Jesus restores the man’s ability to engage with the people around him and to claim personal agency.

Awaken, take up the mat, and get on with your life.  Please do not wait thirty-eight years.

Christian Empathy

Whether or not we realize our mat stories, it is our Christian duty to model Jesus by following his example in today’s lesson. Jesus sees the man, really hears him, Jesus empathizes—perceives this man as a beloved child of God. Surely empathy and compassion are the hallmarks of the Christian faith! Why else could we need to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us”[11] and really try to understand people who confound us?

Christians who do not practice empathy need work. I say this in direct opposition to the current “religious freedom”—or legalized discrimination—laws which are sweeping through rural areas of our country.[12] Loving your neighbor isn’t really about quoting the Bible to limit and control them. Please do let the Bible become a mat story! Loving God and our neighbors as ourselves[13] is what Jesus is all about: trying to understand those who are different—like the whiny man on the mat or the person who prefers a news channel that makes you cringe or the minister you think is headed straight to a fiery end.  On Facebook this week I read an insight regarding this new legal discrimination: “It wasn’t about water fountains in the 60s, and it isn’t about bathrooms now.”[14]

Step Out on Faith

We all tell stories that limit ourselves, limit others and, tragically, limit how we experience God’s love for the world. This kind of miracle is not what the guy on the mat had in mind, but God’s healing is rarely what we expect. God’s healing has nothing to do with following the rules—or clawing our way to the head of the line. Can you imagine the effort it took the guy on the mat to actually get on with his life? His identity was shattered. He had to re-invent himself. What courage it takes to be made whole! Are you sure you want to be made whole?

Jesus believes in you, even when you cannot imagine a future. Amen.

(Guest soloist Kristen Heintz sings “You Put Your Whole Self In” by Charles Bloom.)

Invitation to the Table

Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is a liberating story, definitely off the mat. We repeat this story hoping to become it—the forgiveness and grace, redemption and beauty. It’s “what we’re all about”—putting our whole selves in. Friends, this is not a Presbyterian table. God’s sets this table. So, who are we to determine the guest list? Whether you believe or whether, like the guy on the mat, you do not believe, you are welcome. Whether you’re in Levi’s or Prada, you’re welcome at this table. Come, and bring your mat with you.

[1] The old King James Version of Jesus’ question to the man on the mat reads: “Wilt thou be made whole?”

[2] Pool of Bethesda, at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pool_of_Bethesda> (May 1, 2016)

[3] This sermon pays tribute to one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard, preached by Rev. Elder Mona Faye West at the General Conference of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, held in Chicago in July of 2013. I have borrowed liberally from Rev. West, with her foreknowledge and consent (September 2013). My thanks to Rev. Dr. Mona Faye West for sharing her compelling exegesis with the likes of me.

[4] Mona West, MCC General Conference, July 2013, accessed online at <https://vimeo.com/70829285> (April 27, 2016)

[5] Ibid.

[6] John 5:8

[7] Monya A. Stubbs, Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015) 132.

[8] Also see <http://biblehub.com/greek/egeire_1453.htm> (April 28, 2016)

[9] Monya Stubbs’ bio at <https://almanac.logos.com/Monya_Stubbs> (April 28, 2016)

[10] Monya Stubbs, Feasting on the Gospels

[11] Matthew 5:44

[12] The Tennessean, accessed online at <http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2016/04/27/haslam-signs-controversial-bill-giving-therapists-protections/83509448/>

[13] Leviticus 19:9-18, Mark 12:30-31, Matthew 22:36-40, etc.

[14] <https://www.facebook.com/dailykos/photos/a.416444264254.190398.43179984254/10154234674269255/?type=3&theater>

 

 

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