Based upon John 5:1-9
For those who haven’t kept up, yesterday morning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, worshippers gathered at the Tree of Life Synagogue to celebrate a bris – a ceremonial circumcision of an 8 day old infant boy. They were reading from the section of Genesis where Abraham welcomes total strangers into his home – when 46 year old Robert Bowers, a white supremacist, stormed into the service with an AR-15, a Glock, and two handguns, shouting “All Jews must die!” as he opened fire for the next 20 minutes. As Bowers tried to leave, he was confronted by police whom he also fired at, and then fled back inside the synagogue where he barricaded himself. Bowers was eventually apprehended with gunshot wounds, and taken to the hospital for treatment. But 11 members of the Tree of Life Synagogue celebrated their last Shabbat service here on earth. In addition to, 2 police officers, 2 SWAT officers, and 2 other people were also injured. The event is the deadliest anti-Semitic shooting in American history.
But somehow that didn’t bother me the most. Mass shootings feel like such an everyday occurrence that I just felt numb when I read it. Instead, the thing that disturbed me enough to stay up all night to re-work the entire worship service, came from the highest office in our nation. When asked about the shooting, the president responded: “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him, maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him, frankly.” I find this statement deeply disturbing, totally lacking in compassion, and beneath the office of president. Such a statement implies that the victims are responsible for their murder at the hands of an anti-Semitic mass shooter.
And what I struggle with the most as a religious leader is the sub-text of the president’s statement also reinforces a rhetoric that the only way to solve the problem of gun violence is by having more guns. Now before anyone blows my words out of proportion, I will tell you that I strongly support the second amendment. If it wasn’t for my father having guns to go hunting, my family would have gone hungry many a winter. But I do also recognize that the second amendment itself uses the word “regulated,” yet our lawmakers keep loosening gun regulations so that anyone can have any gun they want – even those charged with domestic abuse, those with severe mental health issues, and even those listed on the FBI’s terrorist no-fly watch list.
As a pastor, I also struggle with the paradox of bringing weapons into a church where the Messiah we worship, says: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Or in a 21st century context, “Those who live by the gun will die by the gun.” I worry that we have developed a disturbing idolatry of guns as a nation. So much so that a car recently passed me on I-55 with a giant sticker in the windshield that said, “In guns we trust.” with a cross made out of rifles. If that’s not idolatry, then I need to leave the ministry. Why this obsession with guns? And then I look at our text today, and I see the reason why.
Jesus meets a man at the pool of Bethesda who has been ill for over 38 years. The pool of Bethesda was famous for healing. It’s believed that angels come and stir the waters of the pool with their wings and anyone who climbs into the pool first is healed of whatever ails them. And this man’s been sitting there for 38 years, desiring to be healed in the pool of Bethesda. And even though nothing changes for 38 years, he still desires the pool. So this man keeps doing the same thing, day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year for 38 years. Seeking no other avenues to alleviate his suffering. And so his situation only feels more and more hopeless.
I imagine that many helpers came by over the years with advice on how to solve his health issue – “You should take action and climb into the pool and get better.” To which the man replies, “Yes but, I don’t have anyone to put me into the pool when the water is stirred.” So another helper replies, “We can give you the support to take action and get into the pool.” To which the man readily replies, “Yes but, while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Feeling defeated, the helpers respond, “Well, I guess all we can do is keep you in our thoughts and prayers.” And the helpers depart, feeling satisfied that they are at least praying for the man. And the man feels vindicated that his hopeless situation simply has no other solution but to keep doing the same thing, over and over again.
But then Jesus shows up and addresses NOT the man’s outer issues, but the man’s inner issues. And so when Jesus asks him: “Do you WANT to get well?” the man doesn’t even know how to answer. So he goes to his regular responses, “Sir, when the water is stirred, I don’t have anybody to put me in the pool. By the time I get there, somebody else is already in.” But that doesn’t answer Jesus’ question. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be well. If he wants to be free of this experience of living death and experience real life? But the man can’t answer his question because his desire for the “magical solution” of the pool of Bethesda over the last 38 years has numbed his suffering just enough that he never has to confront the deeper issue within himself. Even though this desire for the pool of Bethesda drags out his misery, after 38 years of the same thing, the familiarity of his misery it is less frightening than the mystery of what might change if he makes it into the pool. As one of my seminary professors used to say, "people prefer the misery they know to the mystery they don’t know."
But Jesus won’t allow this man to continue this living-death, and so Jesus’ heals him. Jesus shows him how meaningless the pool of Bethesda is, how powerless this idol is to save him. That the pool has no “magical powers.” Jesus unveils the illusion of the idol that can’t give him the true salvation that he needs. And so Jesus gives him true salvation by healing him from the inside out. Jesus commands him “Stand up. Take your bedroll. Start walking.” And the man obeys. Nothing really changes about what he believes. But he does begin to change how he lives his life. Because that’s what Jesus actually calls him to do. Not to change what he believes, but to change how he lives.
And we know this because Greek words have surface meanings and deeper meanings – something that the author of John uses in the text. And so, Jesus’ command, “Stand up. Take your bedroll. Start walking.” has a deeper meaning in Greek. Because the Greek word for “Stand up!” also means “to wake up!” or “to stop a line of thinking.” And the Greek word for “Start walking.” also means “to conduct your life in a new way.” And so you could also translate what Jesus is saying as, “Wake up to reality! Take your stuff. Go change your life!” And the real miracle here is NOT that the man is healed, but that the man responds to Jesus’ command. Because miracles happen when the living are raised to where life is no longer experienced as death. That’s what Jesus means by “eternal life”, by “life to the fullest” – not some promise of escaping to heaven after death, but living true life in the here and now, on earth.
And the question our nation needs to hear from Jesus is NOT, “Do you believe in me?” BUT “Do you WANT to be well?” And do we? Do we want to be free from all this violence? From all this hatred and prejudice? Or do we want to sit by for the next 38 years hoping that our stirring pool of guns will save us? Hoping that the idol of “thoughts and prayers” will save us? And most days, I’m not sure that we do want to be well as a country. Because seeking wellness means that you have to take action. That you have to change something about how you live. And people prefer the misery they know to the mystery they don’t know.
At same time, we have to face the reality that the gospel of the “good guy with a gun” isn’t going to bring about our salvation either – only the gospel of Jesus Christ will. This hard reality isn’t based upon political opinions, it’s based upon objective, unbiased data. For example, school districts trying to arm teachers are finding that their insurance companies will NOT cover them because their actuaries – who simply use objective, statistical data, pure numbers – have mathematically determined that having armed teachers creates a statistically higher risk. Churches have been met with the same data and told told that their premiums will go up significantly or that they won’t be covered at all because of the increased risk that having armed parishioners poses – including our own insurance company. Following the church shooting in Sandy Springs, Texas the Session formed a safety team who spoke to a church security expert on how to keep us safer here at Grace. And this expert – who was a former police officer and Joyce Meyer’s personal body guard – told us that the first thing is NOT to arm parishioners because 1) they are more likely to hurt another church member than stop a shooter and 2) when the cops do show up, they will shoot anyone with a gun, including the “good guy.” Finally, a study of New York City police officers conducted over eight years found that the average hit ratio for officers involved in a shooting where the subject does NOT fire back is 30%. And when the subject IS firing back, it drops to only 18%. So even highly trained officers of the law only hit an active shooter 18% of the time. Yet we believe so strongly in the “good guy with a gun gospel” that we are deaf to the facts. And we are deaf to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And so we have to do more than just say what we believe, we have to demonstrate how we believe it. And while I spent until three this morning re-working this worship service and sermon so that we can have an experience of peace, hope, and healing in the face of yet another gun violence tragedy – we also have to accept the reality that this service is just another Bethesda pool. That “thoughts and prayers,” worship services, and bible studies can only give us temporary comfort, but they are not going to heal us, to save us. Only a deep faith in God can help us to hear the hard reality of Jesus’ words when he says to us, “Wake up to reality! Get your stuff together! And go make the world a better place!” Until we do that, until we have a deep enough faith in God to actually follow Jesus with not only our hearts and minds but also with our bodies and souls, we are going to be stuck in this pattern of violence for a lot longer than 38 years.
And so what was to be a service of healing and wholeness today has become a Service After a Violent Event so that we can get out our initial sorrow, anxiety, and despair. But when this service is over, we have to take action. We have to work to make sure that we do things that will secure the safety of our children, our houses of worship, and our communities. And do we must do these actions in a way that are faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the gospel of guns. A gospel that promotes peace, love, and grace to all people. And only you can listen to how the Spirit is leading you to take that action, but action has to be taken. Write your lawmakers. Get out and vote on November 6. Work with community organizations that promote peace and non-violence. Just so something. Otherwise, “Do you even want to be well?” AMEN.