May 11, 2010
Return to Sermons
When I was in college I took an elective course called "Interpersonal Communication." It was one of several classes that I managed to avoid with great skill. One day, however, my great plans fell through and I found myself in class.
That day the professor assigned us an experiment. We had been discussing social norms and what an unspoken social contract was and so she told us to go to the local shopping mall and cut in line.
Yes, cut in line.
You know, go to your favorite store and get the things you would normally buy and then just walk up to the counter and try to pay. Pay no attention to the other people in line. Record your results. Share them in class.
The class session the following week was one of the few times I made an effort to attend Interpersonal Communication. Cut in line? Seriously? We spoke of how hard it was to fulfill the assignment. Many could not complete the assignment. They would rather take a zero on the assignment than suffer the embarrassment. That was a lesson in itself. One student was asked to leave the mall...not just the store but the mall and was told never to come back.
What did we learn?
First, our professor was a sadist. Second, stepping out of line is is an incredibly risky act. You should prepare yourself to be punished. How can you have an orderly society if people won't stay in line? So rude! So uncomfortable! Outrageous!
This is exactly where we meet Jesus, the religious authorities, and the man who had been ill for thirty-eight years. In a sense, they are all standing in line...
...Jesus is walking by and noticing how long the line is. The authorities are keeping everyone in line. And our invalid is dutifully waiting his turn hoping that someone will help him move to the front of the line. But there is too much competition and too little compassion and this guy has been there for thirty-eight years. Stuck in line for thirty-eight years...
So Jesus approaches this guy and does the strangest thing. He asks him this question. "Do you want to be healed?" Not a polite "may I help you?" But, "Do you want to be healed?"
Now, in my imagination, the invalid is probably thinking that this guy, Jesus, has just escaped from...somewhere. What kind of question is that?
So he says "I'm waiting in line and no one will help me move up."
"Cut. Cut in line. Get up and take your mat. Go home."
Now, of course, this is where everything goes wrong and the people monitoring the who and the how of first century health care get bent out of shape. Not only did this guy get out of line but he circumvented the process all together.
Outrageous! What about proper order? What about the understood social contract? What about God's love for our social contract. Remember, last week we spoke about how hard it is to leave much of this stuff behind because it is believed that God gave them this social order in the first place. We still struggle with these things today. So...
Why is it that people get so angry when God breaks into the world and someone is healed? When someone encounters love, compassion, community, and grace in an unexpected place? Why is it that people would rather wait in line for thirty-eight years? Or keep someone waiting....or would rather punish the ones who stepped out of line...
...than lead people, or follow the healed? Now before you begin formulating some anarchist fantasy (or nightmare depending on who you are) I want to focus again on this question that Jesus asks. "Do you want to be healed?"
Kirk Byron Jones pointed this out for me.
Jesus asks the invalid a simple but essential question. None of this is going to work if he's not actually interested in healing, in changing a thirty plus year old lifestyle. Jesus knows that some people become so invested in the process and the institutions that they forget why they got in line in the first place. The devil you know...
The grace Jesus offers is threatening to those who are too invested in the processes and institutions of this world. The people who would sacrifice their neighbors or their neighbors' children to keep the social contract alive have somehow lost the ability to receive this grace. They have opted out.
And that is why Jesus is asking the question. He's giving the man a choice. We always have a choice. This is free will and though God's grace is for all - even for our institutions - Jesus is no tyrant. We can always choose.
Last evening I was singing in the choir up at Christ Church Winnetka. There were several congregations present for a combined confirmation process. The bishop was there since it's his job to confirm the young believers and he preached this great sermon about the shifting landscape of American religious life.
As I have said before, we're not the only ones who are effected...
Every week some poll is released...everyone is talking about it and I was stunned to hear the bishop, the personification of institution tell people to step out of their institutions...to step out of line...it hit me...Jesus is asking us, The Church, the institution "Do you want to be healed or do you want to stay in line?"
You see, people are opting out. They are stepping out of line and finding community, grace, loce, and yes, even Jesus Christ and circumventing the familiar processes all together. They are choosing grace.
I've been very proud of us as a congregation. We have been finding ways to step out of line. Our retreat with Jeff Woods showed me that. Our Council is finding ways to put into action much of what we discussed at the retreat. This stepping out of line is just the beginning of what our future will hold. We are living into an important truth and remembering that this age is not more or less holy than any other. Jesus is no more or less present at this time than any other time. He is still loving us.
And so he finds us waiting to be rescued, waiting in the familiar line. But he won't rescue us. No. He'll ask us "Do you want to be healed?"
The Kingdom of Heaven is now.
Step out of line.
People are proclaiming God's justice and mercy.
Step out of line.
Grace has been set loose in the world.
Step out of line.
When the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.They have taken up their mats and have stepped out of line.
Thanks be to God.