Sermon: Spiritual Paralysis

“Spiritual Paralysis”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 26, 2019

James 4:11-12
Don’t speak evil against each other, friends. It’s God’s Word, God’s Message, that takes a beating in that kind of talk. You’re supposed to be honoring God’s message, not writing graffiti all over it. God is the only one who is able to restore and to judge; so who do you think you are to judge your neighbor?

John 5:1-18
After this there was a religious festival, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in HebrewBeth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. 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. So the religious authorities said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the religious authorities that it was Jesus who had made him well.Therefore the religious authorities started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the religious authorities were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

The man in this morning’s scripture has been paralyzed for 38 years. In a time when you were lucky to live to be 50, he’d spent the majority of his life this way. And in his society, those with paralysis, certain kinds of chronic illness, and mental illness were considered unclean and thus outcast, unable to participate in worship, earn a living, or socialize with neighbors. They often lived outside city walls and had to beg for their daily bread. The isolation and stigma would have been crushing.

Yet Jesus says to him, ‘See, you have been made well! From here on out, do not sin, so that nothing worse happens to you.’

38 years of physical impairment in a society not designed to accommodate you, a society that consigns you to decades of literal and social poverty – what could be worse than that?

As with many biblical puzzles, the answer lies in the context, so let’s take a look at what else is going on here. Did you notice that Jesus talks to the man twice? In the first exchange, he asks if the man wants to be made well, then tells him to “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk.” The man stands up, picks up his mat, walks off, and they part ways.

It’s not until after the man has been chastised by the religious leaders for breaking the Sabbath by carrying his mat – a violation of the prohibition against work – that Jesus says to him, “Don’t sin from here on out, lest anything worse happen to you.” Then right after that, the man tells the religious authorities who it was who healed him, and the authorities start persecuting Jesus for having broken the Sabbath.

What could be worse than that? I think Jesus’ point is that spiritual paralysis is far more terrible than physical paralysis.

Think about it – this person who has been ostracized and discounted for 38 years is suddenly well enough to reenter into the fullness of daily life for the first time in decades. Poignantly, one of the first things he does is go to the Temple, presumably to worship. But instead of rejoicing with him that he’s now well enough to stand, walk, and carry the symbol of his long exile, the religious leaders harangue him for breaking the rules. They should be throwing a party, but all they can think to say is, “It’s the Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.”

Lest we be too hard on the religious leaders, I think we’ve all been there. At one time or another, we’ve all been sticklers for the rules instead of fountains of grace. We’ve all stuck to our principles while missing the opportunity to live something greater.

My husband, Chris, was once faced with such a decision. He was visiting his friend Wilson, a Jesuit brother, in Wilson’s home country of Ecuador, and Wilson had invited him to have dinner at the school where he had previously been a teacher. When Wilson and Chris sat down to eat, the school cook presented them with a not inexpensive feast, the centerpiece of which was a roast cohui. For those of you who need a translation, that’s guinea pig. Yes, on the platter was an entire roast guinea pig, complete with four little legs and a cute little face – well, a cute little face that had been stripped of skin and fur. Like most of us here, Chris had grown up thinking of guinea pigs as pets, not food. And did I mention that my husband is a vegetarian?

Chris could easily have said no thank you and stuck to his principled reasons for avoiding meat – principles which he has otherwise adhered to for over twenty years. But for him, there was a greater issue at play: honoring the woman who had so lovingly prepared this meal for him, spending precious money and time on a dish fit to welcome her friend’s guest. So he ate the cohui, and dealt with whatever gastrointestinal consequences come with a vegetarian eating roast guinea pig, as a way to say yes to an offering made out of love.  

It’s not that we don’t need rules, principles, and laws; society would fall apart without some kind of structure. It’s that whenever we hold those parameters too tightly, we lose sight of what’s truly important: living lives filled with God’s enormous grace, mercy, and compassion.

Luckily for us, we follow a savior who excelled at living that way. Jesus ate with the tax collectors he should have shunned for colluding with the Roman occupiers and stealing from the people; he sat and talked with the woman at the well even though as a Samaritan she was considered an idolater; he spent time with and touched those considered unclean due to illness; he let his hungry disciples pick leftover grain on the Sabbath; he healed on that holy day when no work was to be done.

Jesus consistently chose the healing, well-being, and inclusion of God’s beloved children over following rules – even well-intentioned, holy rules.

Speaking of rules, abortion laws have been in the news a lot lately. I know many of us here have engaged in passionate arguments about the subject either online or in real life.

While I hold my own passionate views about it, I’m not here to tell you which position you should hold. As I often say, it’s not my job to tell you what to think; it’s my job to help us consider how we can live out our faith in every area of our lives, up to and including politics. Many of us feel deep discomfort at the controversy that comes with mixing politics and faith. But our faith should speak to and inform every aspect of who we are, just as Jesus’ did; if we’re limiting it to Sunday mornings and mealtime grace, we’re selling ourselves short.

So on Wednesday night at Bible study, we got to talking about abortion. (If you didn’t know, Bible study is where all the fun happens.) And although I’d done research about the biblical underpinnings of positions on both sides – the sanctity of life, the dignity of allowing people to choose what happens to their bodies – that’s not where our conversation went. Instead of debating which side is the Christian approach (spoiler – they can both be), we talked about how the Bible can help us to face impossible decisions like medical termination from a place of faith. And we wondered whether, instead of calling us to passionately defend our version of the rules, Jesus might be calling us to something much harder: to actually live the grace and compassion and sacrificial love we profess to believe in.

We live in a cult of opinions. Thanks to the echo chamber of biased media, the lure of attacking others behind the shield of social media, and the ever-widening division of our country along political, race, class, and religious lines, it has become all too easy to identify ourselves by those opinions. Cancel culture, stans, and internet trolls all encourage us to stake a position and stand by it, come hell or high water. And often we are all too ready to claim moral superiority based on having the “right” opinion, reducing everything to “us” and “them,” and demonizing those on the other side as idiots, uneducated, or downright hateful.

In other words, we cling to our version of the “rules,” living in a constant cycle of attack and defense, instead of pausing to consider whether such divisions and reactivity are a trap – a paralysis.

There are those of us who are pro-life, who believe with all our hearts that each person is created, as it says in Genesis, in the image of God, and that that precious personhood comes into being early in the womb.

What if Jesus is calling us as pro-life people to foster or adopt a child who was born of an unexpected pregnancy and who would otherwise face a lifetime of trauma and upheaval because abortion wasn’t available? What if Jesus is calling us to open our wallets or our government’s coffers to women who face such pregnancies but who don’t have the financial means or social support to raise children – particularly children we might be used to consigning to impoverished neighborhoods and bad schools and a lifetime of decreased opportunity?

Then there are those of us who are pro-choice, who believe with all our hearts that, like the woman about to be stoned for adultery in the Gospel of John, women are unfairly being shamed and criminalized for their actions – or for the actions of men who aren’t made to answer for their choices like women are.

What if Jesus is calling us as pro-choice people to accompany a woman through her own gut-wrenching decision, to hold her hand through the procedure, to sit face to face with the enormity of what choice can look like? What if Jesus is calling us to create and fund mental health resources to help women traumatically affected by abortion make their way towards healing, even though it’s politically detrimental to acknowledge that they exist?

More sacrificially, maybe Jesus is calling those of us who are pro-choice to fundraise for a pro-life religious group that provides a home for mothers who choose to continue unexpected pregnancies, even though we strongly oppose their teachings. Maybe Jesus is calling those of us who are pro-life to hold a woman’s hand in the doctor’s office while she has her abortion, offering our compassion to her even though we vehemently disagree with her choice.

You see, friends, we follow a challenging savior, one who’s always breaking rules and flipping paradigms and asking us to cherish our love for others over our own sense of rightness. This Jesus is always calling us to question whether our deeply held opinions have become our idols. He’s always inviting us down off our soapboxes and out into the crowd, ready to be his body, to live our love in a messy, complicated world – even when it’s inconvenient, distasteful, or even offensive for us to do so. Especially then.

Jesus was – and still is – the king of loving people who sometimes choose a different way than what he desires for them. And thank God – because at some point, maybe even frequently, that includes every one of us.

In our shouting at one another about the correct way to honor God’s message as it pertains to abortion – or anything else – let us strive, then, to follow our king’s example, cherishing his invitation to love over and above our inclination to judge. For that is the only way to avoid spiritual paralysis – which, after all, is the far worse fate.