Listen to the sermon from Sunday, May 1, 2016 titled “Valid” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper.
One morning this week on my way to the church I was flipping through the radio stations, which is unlike my usual habit- No, we don’t have one of those fancy cars that you tell Siri to turn on Beyonce through the Bluetooth—maybe one day. So I typically stay tuned to KUT or KGSR, but for whatever reason this particular morning I found my finger hovering over that radio scan button when I came across some talk radio station I didn’t know could exist in Austin Texas. The nature of their conversation caught my attention.
“Go to the next caller:”
“Hi yes, thank you for taking my call. You are absolutely right- Austin has a huge homeless problem. And you know right down there across from the police station they let em just sleep between the cars. It’s just not right!”
“You know he has a point, Todd.” One of the host replied. “The police could care less about keeping those people out of downtown. They’re setting up camps under 35 and no one does anything about it.”
The other host replied, “ You know, we aren’t doing them any favors by calling them homeless. That’s not what they are. They’re mentally ill. They all need some help. And it’s just not safe to have them roaming our streets at night.”
At this point in the conversation, for my own blood pressure’s sake, I had to turn the radio off.
People suffering from mental illness? Of course. People not being able to afford their meds? Yea. People who have no other option but to sleep under a bridge. Yep. And system after system after system that has failed them.
I thought, have you ever had a genuine conversation with someone who can’t afford housing or medication? Probably not.
But I think what got under my skin more than anything… because I know those conversations are happening out there… But what got under my skin was this well-developed ability to other. To talk about them. Those people. To invalidate whole groups of people.
The capacity to other is a dangerous weapon. When we can paint fanatical pictures of people who look different from us, act differently than we might, different skin color, different religion, different way of life—we can put all of those people into this one group and paint them all in any way we’d like.
The capacity to other is a dangerous weapon. In fact, we don’t even have to look back too far to see the implications of that. Perhaps the most famous example of that is the reign of terror from the Nazis.
At first it’s just a star pinned to your jacket to show that you’re a Jew. Seems harmless enough. But soon enough, their fanatical leader had whipped them up into such a frenzy that Germans began to question people they’d seen for years.
The capacity to other is a dangerous weapon. We’ve seen the horrors that can happen when we other. When whole groups of people aren’t given our stamp of validity.
In today’s gospel reading, we find Jesus headed to Jerusalem for a Jewish festival. It’s important to remember that the context of these stories are in a Jewish society. As he comes up against Jewish leaders throughout our gospel narratives, remembering that he is a Jewish man within Judaism is really important. When he pushes up against the Jewish authorities- it’s not antisemitic. He is within a system looking with fresh eyes from the inside.
So, like any a good Jew, Jesus is headed into Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. As he approaches the city, on the outskirts, he comes to a place called the Beth-zatha where there is a pool where many of the invalids gathered. Now this pool, about the size of a city block was surrounded by porticoes or porches. And the gospel tells us that in these porches lay many invalids- the lame, the blind, and the paralyzed.
After looking at pictures and models of where this pool likely sat within the city, it just doesn’t seem like something you happen upon. I always imagined Jesus walking along a small footpath and happening upon this pool. And I don’t think the cheesy Christian art helped the development of images in my head.
Because this pool was very large. So Jesus takes… his little troop I assume based on these pictures… through the walls of this pool to encounter the disposed of. The invalids. The gospel says that many gathered there. 50? 100? 500?
And the invalids were of course pushed to the outskirts of the city but they gather at this particular pool because sometimes the water of the pools would begin inexplicable bubbling and the waters would stir up and it was popular belief that this was the work of angels or spirits that they were stirring the waters up for healing.
And so as Jesus is walking through the steps of this crowded pool, he comes upon this man that had been lying around that pool for 38 years.
38 years. Can you imagine?
And the gospel says, “Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time.” More than half of a lifetime. Just let that sink in. I can imagine that any hope of healing had faded many years ago.
And so when this joker walks up and asks, “Do you want to be made well?” I can just imagine this guy saying, “Look, son. I know you are trying to do me a favor, but I know my place. Thanks.”
In fact, he doesn’t even answer Jesus’ question: Do you want to be made well?
Instead, he explains why the system of healing hasn’t worked for him. He says, “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.”
Certainly he wanted to be made well. But he hadn’t experienced any reason to believe that was gonna happen for him. And not once in 38 years had he made it to the healing waters.
And he was just one of the many invalids gathered there… disposed of. This whole group of people who didn’t fit the mold of what society said was acceptable. The outcasts. The In-Valids.
And so Jesus who instead of saying let me help you to the water says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
And at once the man was made well.
This in-valid at once gained validity.
Sometimes, the way we’ve always done it, just isn’t the answer that’s gonna fix the problem. Sometimes the systems we’ve set up, validate some, but leave others laying beside the pool, at the border crossing, in the closet… for years.
And sometimes we work so hard to keep systems in place that work for some but not for others because we get comfortable within our nice walls and the all of the people inside who look just like us and think just like us and pray to the God that we like. When right outside of those walls, people are being failed by the system.
But Jesus, on his way from point A to point B takes the detour through the walls of the pool of Bethzatha, where he would encounter those people who have been pushed outside of the norms of society.
And he looks into the eye of a man and gives validation where validation has never been given.
Jesus comes and offers a new way. Because when the system isn’t working for everybody- you’ve got to fix it or you’ve gotta create a new way.
And our gospel passage today ends with, “And that day was the Sabbath.” Not only were the systems of healing broken, but there were some leaders within Judiasm that created some hard and fast rules about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath day. And apparently healing was one of them.
So Jewish Jesus comes with this message of reforming the way things are. Comes looking at things with new eyes from the inside of the system. Jesus comes and points out the places where the system is failing, not just failing, but failing whole groups of people.
So when our systems aren’t offering safety and protection for all people… when we demonize the least of these … we have got to reform from within the system.
When loud voices are urging us to live into the gospel of fear and to take up the weapon of othering… we have got to disarm ourselves and lay down our weapons so that we can hold hands with our neighbors.
And when people are left lying beside the healing pools to die… we must find a new way to offer healing and new life.
This Thursday, our church was represented at the National Banner Project Launch Event, an event held just down the street at the University Untied Methodist Church, urging churches and synagogues nationwide to erect banners on their property that state, “We stand with our Muslim neighbors.” Our banner here at the church went up on Thursday, and this may seem like a small gesture, but the climate of bigotry and fear-mongering that we are currently in, it’s an important step to show that the weapon of othering is not going to stand. That we are stronger together. And that the world is a better, more loving and peaceful place when we hold hands with our neighbors. When we learn from our differences and embrace diversity.
Jesus’ message was and still is that all people are valued. All people are worthy of love and care. All people are valid. That includes the homeless, the lame, the blind, the mentally unwell, the Muslim, the Jew, the transgender person and the me and the you. And we as people of Jesus must go on bearing that same message. We speak validation into the lives of those we encounter everyday. We must forge new paths when old paths don’t make room for everybody. Because we know that there is a better way.
Thanks be to God.