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Becoming Well

Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone

John 5:1-9
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 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, lame, 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, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “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.

Becoming Well

I want to start with a statement that is as clear as I can possibly make it, and that statement is this: There are illnesses which people contract – real illnesses with real symptoms and real outcomes — that are beyond our ability to control, and that however much the people who have these illnesses want to be well, they are unable to simply desire or will the illness away. The kind of thinking which suggests otherwise is similar to the kind which feels able to blame people who are ill for not having sufficient faith to heal themselves, simply because Jesus said to the woman with the hemmorage “your faith has made you well”.  While I am, therefore, going to be working with the question ‘do you want to be made well?’ I want to be really clear that I am not referring in any kind of literal way to this kind of healing or cure. People who are sick are sick because they have contracted an illness – not because they want to be sick…

That said, and in light of the shootings in Buffalo last weekend, I have to admit that this question of Jesus – ‘Do you want to be made well?’ – has taken up a central place in my head and my heart. Obviously this isn’t the first such shooting, and sadly I feel pretty certain that it won’t be the last.  This year alone, counting any event that has caused four or more deaths, there have been 198 mass shootings. 198! Many of these never make the front page and some we never even hear about let alone become able to grieve over – but who among us will ever forget the slaughters in Colombine or Sandy Hook or Parkland, or the Walmart in El Paso or the Pulse nightclub in Florida?  Isn’t it true that after each one of these terrible explosions of violence we were horrified and enraged and heart broken and determined to make change and then…well then, nothing changed?  And this is what brings me to the question: in terms of gun violence and as a nation and a culture as a whole, do we want to be made well?  

Yes! we shout, we do – very, very much! We’ve been lobbying and protesting and memorializing and marching and writing letters to our representatives and doing everything we can think of to increase gun controls and decrease the number of guns on our streets precisely because we do want to be made well!

And it’s the same with the question of racism isn’t it? We many of us decry this strain in and stain on our culture and our history day by day, and particularly of course when something shocking and terrible happens like at the Tops supermarket which brings the iceberg of racism more fully and visibly to the surface. Then again we feel our hearts break as we raise our arms in horror and work and march and organize and educate ourselves and lobby only to find ourselves in the same place a month or two later as we watch  – yet again –another young man of color being killed by the police, or another church, or synagogue, or mosque, or supermarket be invaded by another angry young man who kills another group of God’s beloved children time, and time, and time, and time, and time again. 

So – in racial terms – do we want to be made well in this country? And again the answer for many of us is – ‘Yes! Yes we do – deeply and truly, we do! And we are opening our hearts, and doing the work, even as we pray and work for change…

…And yet, and yet….How long do you think it will be – truly – before another racially motivated act of mass violence occurs? A week? A month? A couple of months maybe? And how many decades has it been that we’ve been beset by the kind of gun violence no other country on earth has to deal with – none, not one? 

Surely if we as a nation really did want to be well in these two arenas of gun violence and racism – and particularly in the places where the two overlap –  we would have made more progress.  Oh, but here’s the thing, I hear you say (you and me say, if I’m going to be honest about it), it’s true that we have wanted to be well and have failed at being well for many, many years – but we are fighting against others who do not want to be well; others who in terms of gun violence believe that wellness requires more guns, not less; who proclaim that it is our sacred right to be able to carry guns that fire400 bullets a minute, and that the best way to fight a ‘bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

And it’s the same with racism too, we insist: we are doing our work, and we are aiming at the kind of change that embraces and honors all people from all cultures and races but just this week we learned that a third of adult Americans now subscribe to something called ‘replacement theory’ which, among other things, asserts that ‘liberal elites’ are opening the doors to new immigrants in order to dilute the power of current voters and establish a permanent liberal majority.  One third of American adults believe this! And if we asked them if they wanted to be well in terms of race they may well say ‘yes’ as eagerly as we would say ‘yes’ but their solution to the problem would likely circle around white supremacy instead of around diversity! So yes, we many of us conclude.  We do want to be well. More than anything in the world we do – but to do that we first we have to beat back these deranged and ignorant people who seem to be taking over our country. 

This is where we are more or less – isn’t it?  And year by year it seems to be getting worse, not better, which means that the ways we have been trying to get well have not been working – at least not quickly enough to save the people in the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, or the Walmart in El Paso, or Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston…

All of which has started to birth another question in me. And that question is this: What if being well is not exactly what we think? By which I mean, what if being ‘well’ means not being right so much as being in relationship – and even in communion – with all our neighbors, those we love and respect and want to uphold and be upheld by – and also those we find it very difficult to love or respect, and whose ideas we do not want to uphold so much as to quash? 

You know, I think many of you, that a few of us have been spending Monday afternoons at the People’s Pantry for the past few months. We haven’t been doing anything very concretely useful there. Instead we’ve spent time outside with the people who use the pantry, sharing coffee and donuts to begin with and then, after a while, sharing stories too.  About 80% of the community there is Spanish speaking – and people are from all over, from Columbia and Guatemala and Mexico and Salvador and Peru. Some were teachers in their home countries, others  small business people, or nurses, or farmers; some are newly arrived, others have been here for a long, long time and one woman, Silvia, is the proud mother of three US Servicemen – three! It is pure joy spending time outside of the pantry with this community, listening and learning and laughing and playing with the kids sometimes too – I could tell you stories about it for hours and would love to – just ask! 

Of course, there are many wonderful English speakers who use the pantry too – people whose families have lived in the Berkshires for generations and who know the land and its ways better than anyone.  And there is a richness of diversity among this group too – working mums, young dads, elderly care takers, people with special needs …and a small group who approach the Spanish speakers in the community with a complicated mixture of pride and hostility. Clearly feeling displaced – or perhaps we should say, ‘replaced’ by the more newly arrived Latin-Americans, this group often presents as both angry and hostile – and among this group there is one woman – we’ll call her Kate  – who is the kind of spokesperson. 

Now Kate is as tough and strong and no nonsense as she is quick – both of mind and of tongue – and the truth is that I am a little intimidated by her. She does not truck with fools, she has told me more than once, and she has little time for people who look or sound different from her and her friends. Now it’s only true to say that I both look and sound different from Kate and her friends, but it is true too that slowly, over time, and by God’s grace, we are developing the beginning of a friendship. Kate has her opinions and though I don’t voice them, she knows that I have mine and from these two positions, diametrically opposed on most everything, we are finding a way to communicate – through jokes mostly, and self-parody too. 

So… this past Monday, Kate chose to wear a fresh black t-shirt with American flags and a violent looking American eagle claws bared on each sleeve and on the front – in the style of a Dr. Zeus book – the words: One gun, two guns, three guns, four, with bright, primary-colored AK47s depicted between them.   This was last Monday, just two days after ten Black people were shot in Buffalo: one gun, two guns, three guns, four…. 

But I knew her a little by then, that’s the thing, so that even with my English accent and my ability to speak Spanish and my brown skin I had the space – and the place – to say to her, with a real if astonished smile: “That’s quite a t-shirt!” 

“Isn’t it?” she said, proud and happy to be noticed. “I love this t-shirt — and who wouldn’t?” she added looking back and forth for approval from the women sitting on either side of her, ‘What is there not to love?’ And in part because she said this with just a hint of self-mockery, and in part because she was unable to entirely hide the aching vulnerability that lay just under it, I was able to respond with laughter instead of with rage. And when, about half an hour later, she emerged from the pantry and then rolled her cart, heavy with groceries, towards the curb, stopping for just a moment to kind of nudge my upper arm with hers with a kind of casual intimacy that said, without words, ‘good to see you – and see you next week’, I knew something important and brand new was happening in my heart – and maybe in hers too…

The truth is that while my personal joy lies with some of the more frail English speakers, and with all of the Spanish speaking people at the pantry, I’m beginning to suspect that my hope – my Christian hope, my hope for real wellness – lies with Kate in her machine gun t-shirt. 

What does this mean in practical terms? I have no idea.  Except to go back to the pantry tomorrow and on every Monday after that, and to listen and learn there not only to and from those I most naturally love, but also to and from those I have no natural connection with – biological, geographical, cultural or political.  To be well, I’m starting to realize is, mostly deeply, to be whole – and to be whole, we must all come together – every one of us – those we agree with and admire and those we might more naturally turn – or even run – away from, too. 

“Love one another as I have loved you” — remember?