Take Up Your Mat and Walk
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

May 1, 2016
Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 14:23-29
John 5:1-9

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

There are many debilitating conditions that show no obvious physical signs. You cannot see depression, unless maybe you know the person well and you know what to look for. Fibromyalgia does not mean they put a cast on your arm or your leg. There are people going through chemotherapy, or radiation treatments, or dialysis, or addiction, or recovery, and from the outside everything looks normal.

There are lots of people struggling with pain, mental or physical or spiritual, who on first glance look just fine.

How often do we have a “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality about people who are going through stuff we do not understand?

This is the power of sponsors in the Twelve Step programs. This is the benefit of people who have been through these valleys of deepest darkness, and have come out the other side. They get it. They know what it is like in the depths. They know what it is like to win a major victory just getting out of bed and getting dressed and combing hair and setting one foot in front of the other.

Of course, even if we have the vestments of illness – cane, walker, crutch, wheelchair – sometimes that comes with a different problem. It renders people invisible. Talking with Jan Shall about her MS. When she has uses her crutch, people look right past her. They do not make eye contact. It is as if we are afraid that we can somehow catch whatever it is by acknowledging that this is a human being with a condition we do not understand.

Now maybe we were raised with “Sweetie, don’t stare.” Because kids have no filters until they learn them. But what if instead we taught them to say hello just like they would to anyone else? What if we learned, as adults, to say “good morning?” Or if we ask “May I help you with that?” and let them say what help they might need?

On the one hand, we do not know what to do with the difficulties that are not obvious to the naked eye; on the other, we do not like to see the difficulties that are obvious.

Jesus is at the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, at a pool known for its healing waters. And God comes and troubles the water, and people get in and are healed of whatever it is that afflicts them.

Wade in the water,
wade in the water children,
wade in the water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

And there are five porticos around this pool. Our text says

In these lay many invalids—
blind, lame, and paralyzed.
One man was there who had
been ill for thirty-eight years.

A number! When we get numbers, we start to hear echoes of other Bible stories. In the stories of Noah and Moses, David and Jesus, 40 is the fullness of time. 40 days and 40 nights of the flood, 40 days and 40 nights of Jesus fasting and praying in the wilderness. 40 years of Moses and the Israelites wandering the wilderness before the promised land, 40 years old and David becomes king, and he reigns for 40 years.

Whether you think these are all the exact same amounts of time and God’s providence made the math easy, or you think these are symbols of how long it is for something to be complete, the number 40 stands out.

This man has been ill for 38 years. Almost 40. Still a little time left, but 38 years means that he is just about stuck like this. What happens in another two years? Is the condition permanent? Is he two years from dying?

It also does not tell us what his illness is. There is a grace in this, because were we to be able to diagnose him, we would have more control over this story, and we might be able to exclude those whose condition is not exactly like his.

What we know is that he has been ill, and for way past long enough.

Jesus asks that question that is so difficult in chronic illness: “Do you want to be made well?” The man does not answer. At least not with a yes or a no. He tells why he never seems to make it to the pool in time.

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.

38 years of not stepping up. 38 years of not thinking he is worthy of being first in line for healing. Nearly a complete life of not quite being there.

Jesus say, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

And the man is healed. Now that day was a sabbath. Our reading this morning ends with this line. Now that day was a sabbath. Sure, Jesus is about to get in trouble for healing on the Sabbath, although apparently waiting on the pool to be troubled is not a problem.

But ending the reading here reminds us that when someone is healed, when someone is loved in body, mind, and spirit, when someone is restored, redeemed, made whole, it is the day of the Lord.

From this, I want to ask two questions.

The first: What does it mean for us to look at someone who has a difficult condition, whether obvious and visible, or hidden and hard to comprehend, physical or mental or spiritual or social or economic, or more likely some combination, and to see them not as less than, but to see them as a whole and beautiful and lovely child of God? What would that change?

The second: What excuses have we, as a church, as a congregation, used over the past 38 years of deficit budgets and not asking people to come and worship with us? What story have we told about ourselves in the past that has kept us, as one newcomer called us at our annual meeting, “the best kept secret in town?” What has kept us from taking up our mat and walking into the ministry and mission that is passionate and public and open and welcoming and offering to see all people as children of God, regardless of their life or their condition?

If the answer is fear, and I believe it probably is, then I want us to remember what Jesus told his disciples. Write this on your mirror at home in dry erase marker so that you can read it every morning and every night. Write it on a sign you can see from your desk, your workspace, wherever you spend your day.

Peace I leave with you;
my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you
as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled,
and do not let them be afraid.

Thanks be to God. Amen.