Saturday, May 8, 2010
One of the curious things about us as human beings is that we will tend to do the
same thing over and over again expecting to get a different result. To give you an example of this, remember the last time you were on your computer and had a slow internet connection? Do you remember pointing your mouse to click on something or hitting the delete button and nothing happened? How many times did you hit delete or click?.... that is my point exactly!
The alternative Gospel reading for the sixth Sunday of Easter (John 5:1-9) sort of reminded me of that… Let me tell you why… In this narrative, Jesus was in Jerusalem one of the few times he visited Jerusalem before his crucifixion. He is walking near the pool of Bethzatha. In more ancient translations of this scripture there is added a verse that gives a further explanation of why the people that were ill were waiting there. According to legend, the waters were stirred up during certain seasons because the Lord would send angels to stir the waters. It was believed that when person entered the waters at these times, they would be healed from whatever ailment they might have.
We know that the man in this Gospel reading had been sick for a long time, 38years. It says that Jesus knew he had been there a long time; we really don’t know how long; it could have been all day or it could have been weeks, months or years. But what is readily apparent is that he had made several attempts to get to the pool and it had not worked. It is easy to surmise that this man has been desperately trying to get into the pool and that had been his total focus for the amount of time he had been there. Then Jesus comes along and says, “Do you want to be made well?”… it is almost like a wake-up call… You can almost imagine the man saying to himself, “oh yeah, that is why I am here!” It is as if the whole purpose of his being at the pool had been somehow lost. He was so focused on doing something the same way over and over again, getting into the pool, that he seemingly forgot why he wanted to get into the pool in the first place. What he really wanted was to be made well… getting into the pool was just a means to an end. He had totally forgotten why we was going through the motions… Kind of like we all do sometimes… When Jesus brought his focus back to the place it needed to be, that is when things began to change.
It is very easy for us to lose our focus at times; especially during this day and time. We live in some scary times. In the last year and a half we have lived through the most severe economic crisis since the great depression. People have lost retirement funds and unemployment is on the rise. The loss of jobs means a life of uncertainty; no income, no health insurance and a future that is unknown. Foreclosures have become the norm in many parts of the country. Meanwhile, homelessness and hunger are even more common.
Our nation is at war in a number of places, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan. The loss of life and the physical and psychological damage to our service men and women is affecting whole families and communities. Their sacrifice seems as if it is barely scratching the surface in relieving our sense of feeling more secure or a sense of peace about the future. The wars, the economic instability, the oil spills, and threats of suicide bombers makes it a scary time indeed. We all know these things all too well.
The sad thing is that much of the destruction occurring in the world is being done in the name of religion. Those who blow themselves up on airplanes or in the markets do it in the name of religion or a religious vision, as do those who seek vengeance for their actions. There are those who claim a gospel of prosperity and blame the jobless and poor for their own plight also have a religious vision, as do those who would deny food and healthcare to those that do not have them…
Those of us who call ourselves Christians also have a religious vision. Has your religion ever gotten in the way of you offering love and grace to those that are wounded or marginalized? If you are like me, you bet it has!
The problem is that we can get so wrapped up in our high ideals and religious convictions that we will mow down anyone who stands in our way. We lose our focus and tend to forget why we have committed ourselves to following Christ.
Our religion as Christians, our Gospel, if we are genuinely true to it, is a message of hope. It is easy to lose sight of that in these scary times.
The writer of Revelation knew that as well. Throughout the session of Easter for this Church year, we have had readings from the book of Revelation. Revelation is one of those books in the Bible that we rarely use in our lectionary. Revelation is also is the one book that most of us that preach avoid like the plague because it is so strange and weird with its images. Most of the book is a strange mix of supernatural images, fierce beasts, symbols and battles. We read about horsemen, dragons, sea monsters, earth creatures, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them and much, much more! It is enough to give you nightmares for weeks. Despite this, Revelation has had profound impact on Western culture. It is one of the most widely illustrated books of the Bible with depictions in architecture, paintings, tapestries, stained-glass and altar pieces. Even some of the great classic authors of history and modern times have drawn from Revelation. Dante, T.S. Elliot, William Blake, Ray Bradbury and more have been inspired by its images. Even in music, Revelation has influenced some of the greats such as Handel in his Messiah and Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Revelation was written in the late first century, a scary time for Christians. John wrote his letter while in exile on the island of Patmos, to Christians in seven churches in the country we now know as Turkey which was still part of the Roman Empire. Most Romans of that time, saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because they refused to worship the Emperor. They were tortured, imprisoned, and executed because of what they believed and followed. Many Christians gave into the culture of the time in order to avoid the ostracism and economic deprivation. It was a scary time to be a Christian. Because of this (as it is today) many had forgotten why they followed Christ.
Despite what we tend to hear most about Revelation, the letter of Revelation was not sent to predict the end of time but to divulge the truth about the challenges the churches faced in their time. John wanted to give them hope and help them to endure and encourage them to resist complacency and then give into the religion and social practices of the empire around them. We have that same struggle today. It is very easy to give into the fear and uncertainty that we find ourselves living in during our own times. It is easy to point to the “beasts” of our own time, from Sadam Husain, Osama Bin Laden, to Goldman Sachs, as being the culprits for our current hard times.
In the book of Revelation, Babylon serves as the primary metaphor for the Roman Empire complete with its oppression, violence and injustice. Biblical scholar Dr. Gail O’Day says, “ … the goal of Revelation is to invite the Churches (of that day) to move out of Babylon and into the grace of the city of God”. And what a city it is! The New Jerusalem; the city that comes down from heaven. There is no need for a temple because God’s presence is in everything. The gates of the city are always open and the gifts creation are available to everyone. The Tree of Life is planted on both sides of the river and available to all, regardless of which side of the river (or the train tracks) you live on. “The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.” It is a beautiful city indeed. It is the Kingdom of God. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” Those of us that choose to be part of that kingdom and live in that city that comes down from heaven, need to keep our focus.
If ever there was a time when the hope of the resurrection needs to be shared, now is that time. The beautiful city of God is not just about our pie in the sky hope of going to heaven when we die; although I certainly don’t discount that. The vision of the beautiful city that we all long for in the future is here now. God is present and moved into our own city; our own neighborhood.
The fear, anxiety and hopelessness of the man by the pool waiting for an angel to fly by is no different than our own fear, hopelessness and anxiety. Life has a lot of uncertainties and things for as to be afraid of. The Holy City, the New Jerusalem is here now, all around us. We can choose to live inside or outside its walls. We can choose to stay on our mats and keep doing things the same way we have been. We can choose to glorify all the wrong stuff; war, humiliating our adversaries; shaming the immigrant, ignoring and neglecting those that live in poverty; consuming goods that possess us rather than us possessing them; going through the motions of our religion without creating the spiritual discipline that helps us truly listen to Christ and follow in his footsteps. We truly do need to ask ourselves, “do we want to be made well?” We can keep clicking on the same things over and over again expecting something different. Or we can take up our mats and walk into the city of God. Inside these walls we come to know the grace and love that transforms lives. In this kingdom, good overcomes evil, love overcomes hate, hope overcomes despair, and life overcomes death – both are here and now as well as in eternity.