Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-15, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 5:1-9
This morning, I’m going to begin with something of a shaggy dog story, or, more accurately I guess, a “shaggy David story.” Not because I like to hear the sound of my own voice…well, maybe a little…but because I think my experience of creating this homily exemplifies, in some ways, the reflections on the gospel that I want to share today. When I first read today’s Gospel passage, I thought my worst nightmare had come true: that I had to preach on the subject of miracles. Like Thomas Jefferson, I have always been uncomfortable with the miracle stories. Jefferson resolved his discomfort by constructing his own Bible, with all the miracle stories removed. He titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, popularly known as The Jefferson Bible. Well, needless to say, I didn’t have that option. I was stuck with the New Revised Standard Version of the story. So, over the weeks that followed, I wrestled with the question of what wisdom I could offer about miracles. Lucky for me, I received some unexpected help, both human and, dare I say, divine. The first was from my friend, Leora Weitzman. When I described my dilemma to her, Leora asked, in her caring, thoughtful, and incisive way, “Which miracle?” In pondering her unexpected and wonderfully concise question, I realized that I didn’t need to reflect on the somewhat grandiose question of the meaning and significance of miracles in scripture. Rather, I had only to deal with this story of the man at the pool at Beth-Zatha. Thank you, Leora.
However, even with this moderate lightening of the burden, I lived through many more days of puzzlement as I pondered this particular miracle story. Then I was granted help of, I will say, the divine variety, while sitting in the candle-lit silence of my centering prayer group. There I was, focusing my awareness on my breath, being carried off by one mental distraction after another, returning to the breath…you centering prayer and meditation practitioners know the drill! In the midst of this, the question came into my mind: What does it take for us to stand up and walk?… What does it take for us to stand up and walk? And a few days later, again while sitting in silent prayer, another question came into my wandering mind: In what ways are we all “blind, lame, and paralyzed?” What are the characteristic habits of heart and mind that keep us from standing up and walking…walking out of a life in which we are constricted, living inauthentically, untrue to ourselves? And, in turn, what keeps us from standing up and walking into a life of unencumbered, authentic action?
The message I received is that we are the invalids sitting by the healing and liberating water of our true, authentic life. In one way or another, we all are invalids; in one way or another, we are all living invalid, in-valid lives due to our habitual failure to realize the truth that lives at the center of our life…the truth that each of us, at the core of our being, IS a relationship with God. The life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are for us, as Christians, the unveiling of this truth. To “put on the mind of Christ,” as St. Paul tells us repeatedly throughout his letters…to put on the mind of Christ is to live in the sustained realization of this truth. As the contemplative writer and retreat master, James Finley, puts it, “”The mind of Christ is the revelation of our eternal union with God.”
Today’s passage from the book of Revelation gives us a grand symbolic rendering of the experience of our life in God: as a glorified Jerusalem, a city which is, in effect, all God…the temple, the river, the tree of life, the light which illumines it all…all are, ultimately, God…the same Mystery that is our own being…not in some future place at the end of time, but right here, in the midst of our messy lives.
But, alas, despite this ever present reality, in which we live and move and have our being…despite this infinite truth, more often than not, we are attached to a variety of finite untruths; fictions that are mostly cooked up by our finite minds. These untruths are mostly our ideas about who and what we are, and about who and what our neighbor is. And these ideas are not always private. Some are shared and codified into the ideologies that drive the various forms of tribalism that threaten the very future of our human community. Out of the desire for comfort, safety, security, certainty…the list is pretty long…we are made “blind, lame, and paralyzed,” and sometimes cruel, individually and collectively.
Jesus asks the unnamed man by the healing pool of Beth-Zatha, “Do you want to be made well?” And rather than actually answering the question, the man responds with a story of how he has been prevented from receiving the healing benefits of the water. He responds not by expressing his desire for real life, but with his conception of his life and how it has been; his story about his experience; his story of his suffering. And so we, too, construct a variety of stories that we are convinced are the real truth…stories about who we can and can’t be, what we can and can’t feel, what we can and can’t do. We mistake our ideas about ourselves for our actual selves…our actual, eternal being in God. In the closing pages of New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton says it as only he could:
The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity, and despair.
Mark Twain had more light-hearted take on the subject: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
However we choose to frame it, the more we perpetuate our ongoing argument with our own experience, because it’s not what we had in mind, the more we will continue to suffer; the more we will sit beside the living water of our life, rather than standing up, taking our mat, and walking into it.
Now, I need to pause here and say that I don’t want this to sound like I’m blaming the victim. There’s more than enough of that going around these days. I’m not saying that the 38 years of pain and suffering of this unfortunate fellow lingering by the healing water is his fault. He’s not to blame. Indeed, it’s not really about blaming or, for that matter, about deserving. We all have been knocked about by life in one way or another. We all are sensitive, sentient beings, and life has had its way with us, impinging on us, mostly in ways that we didn’t have in mind. Each of us is carrying the load of our life, and, thereby, each of us needs to give and receive compassion…ALL of us need to give and receive compassion. AND…AND, we also need to wake up. We need the insight to see when we have been living a dream life made out of our own “…strange finalities and complex purposes….” We need to wake up to our awakened life, which is nothing less than the light of the Divine Mystery shining out of the eyes of all of us in every moment…every moment of this imperfect, broken life that is our life. In practical terms, we all need to cultivate whatever happens to be our spiritual practice, whether it be centering prayer, lectio divina, playing the piano, working on an antique motorcycle, gardening, raising children, caring for an aging parent…whatever our practice is, we need to be faithful to it, with meticulous attentiveness, so that we may see more deeply into our own lives and into the lives of others. Through this faithfulness, through this humility, through this deepening attentiveness to the actuality of our life, to paraphrase James Finley, we cultivate the inner stance which offers the least resistance to the realization of our eternal life in God. At any moment, by God’s grace, we might just forget ourselves and, without thinking, stand up, take our mat, and walk upright into the waters of life.