Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help! It’s the fifth question of our baptismal covenant, the set of questions we ask one another every time we baptize a new member into the church. These questions ask us, and remind us, how we intend to live as God’s people. And our answer to each one is, I will, with God’s help. Affirming both our commitment … and our need for divine assistance.
Today’s Gospel comes from John’s account of the life of Jesus. Unlike the other Gospels, in John’s version, Jesus visits Jerusalem several times. He’s walking near one of the great gates of the city, past a place where people go seeking healing. Scholars of the ancient world think this was probably a temple to the Greek god Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. Asclepius was adopted by the Romans and honored all around the ancient world. His temples were, essentially, some of the world’s first hospitals. They often included a pool, for rituals of cleansing and healing. If this pool in the Gospel were part of a temple of healing, it explains why there were many sick and disabled people around, waiting, hoping, praying that Asclepius and his priests would favor them with restoration and health.
There were stories that this was an especially powerful pool – that from time to time, the waters of the pool would be mysteriously stirred up, perhaps by an unseen angel, and the first person to get into the pool after that magical stirring was practically guaranteed to be healed. Jesus is walking past this place, this pagan temple full of human agony and desperate hope. And his eye falls on one of the people lying there, a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. Why this man? Who knows? Maybe Jesus just saw in him the potential for health, for faith.
So Jesus speaks to him. He asks, Do you want to be made well? The sick man’s response is interesting. He doesn’t say, Yes, of course I do! Please help me! Instead he explains why the approach he’s already trying hasn’t worked for him yet. “Sir, I don’t have anyone to help me into the pool when it is stirred up, and by the time I can get to it, somebody else has already jumped in and stolen the miracle.” Jesus brushes aside the explanations and excuses. He says, Stand up, take your mat and walk. And the man stands up, and walks.
This man’s illness is an individual situation. Something particular to his body and his life story. But this is also more than just an individual situation. Just like the homeless veteran whose PTSD leaves him muttering in a doorway downtown. Just like the single mom dependent on public assistance who calls to see if I can resolve her delinquent utility bill. Just like the former drug dealer who can’t find honest work because of his record. There are layers and layers of larger systems that have contributed to this individual’s need and misery.
Maybe this man’s illness or disability is just a fact of life. Even today, with all the tools of modern medicine, bodies break. Bodies fail. But there’s more to his situation than illness. He is alone. No one is tending or helping him. He is poor. If he weren’t poor, he wouldn’t be alone. And he is looking for help in the wrong place. This temple to an empty god, which has no power to help him or change his life. But it’s the only place he knows to go, so he goes there. Quite possibly he’s been going there for thirty-eight years.
Jesus, because he is Jesus, just stops by and heals him. Most of the time it’s not that simple for us. I can’t just command health back into somebody like this man. But I, or you, could address the fact that he’s alone. That he’s poor. That he doesn’t have a place to go that would welcome and care for him. It is within our reach, within our power, as citizens of goodwill in a democratic society, to address things like that.
And this brings us to the point where Baptismal Question #5 opens out from Baptismal Question #4. The fourth question, remember, is: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Our faithful response to that question calls us to reach out in kindness to the individual who is suffering, since we know that God can look a whole lot like a human in pain. But the fifth question, today’s question – it asks us, Will you strive for justice and peace among all peoples, and respect the dignity of every human being? That is a big ask, folks. Justice and peace among ALL PEOPLES. Dignity for EVERY human being. Phew.
If the fourth question demands our response to suffering, the fifth question demands our curiosity about suffering. It asks us to look at the big picture. The world-system that Jesus came to transform and redeem. Where does it come from? How is it created and perpetuated? Why are things like this? Why can’t they be different? Could we shift our society and systems, in ways that would lower the quota of human suffering, and add to the world’s measure of hope, wholeness, and delight? Where would we start?
Some of you are thinking, right now, There she goes again, telling us to fix the world. Doesn’t she know I already try to help all I can? Doesn’t she know how overwhelming it is? Doesn’t she know that sometimes I just need to watch Seinfeld reruns and forget it all for a while? I do, actually. I really do. Because: me too.
Sometimes – when we’re overwhelmed, weary, ashamed, angry – we struggle with whether our neighbor’s wellbeing is really our responsibility. It would be so great if that person’s misfortune were really their own fault, full stop. No layers of shared social and economic and political systems to muddy the picture. Just one person’s successes or failures. Because then we could still help if we wanted to, but when we don’t, there’s no guilt. He brought it on himself. It’s not my problem.
But as Christians, and as thoughtful people, even though those thoughts and feelings touch us sometimes, we can’t really stay there. We know better. We are all in this together. There is no such thing as other people’s children. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” may be a quotation from the Bible, but the person who says it has just, in fact, murdered his brother, and is not a model for our moral behavior.
We would all very much like it if all the ills of the world were someone else’s fault and responsibility. The sick man’s response to Jesus, that little speech about why he can never get to the pool in time, sounds familiar to me because I hear something a lot like it from nearly everyone who calls the church looking for help. Everyone has their reasons why their life has fallen short of their hopes. I lost my job and my jerk landlord won’t cut me any slack. My daughter is in prison and I’m trying to care for my grandbaby. My food stamps cover one adult and one child, and my son eats like an adult now, so we’re hungry all the time. My mother died out of state and we used our grocery money to go see her, and next month’s rent money for funeral expenses. Our apartment complex has bedbugs and we had to throw away everything we own. The employers in this town are racist and won’t give me work. Everyone has a whole list of reasons and circumstances that explain why they just can’t catch a break. Why they haven’t yet managed to stand up and walk.
Here’s the thing: regardless of whether the details of those particular stories are entirely true, the big story they add up to IS true. It IS true. Like Jesus and his contemporaries, we live in a society of deep, entrenched inequality, that does the bare minimum to care for the poor and vulnerable. If you’re not convinced of that, I invite you to do some research comparing our public systems, our safety net for the poor and sick, and our incarceration rates with those of other developed countries. That’s why even when I’m tired and jaded and skeptical, my capacity to respond clouded by compassion fatigue, I try to help, at least a little. I try at least to offer prayers.
Our texts from the book of Revelation describe John’s vision of the redeemed City, at the end of history, when God has fully restored and renewed our world. That City is clean and bright, shining with the light of God, undimmed by human tears, unmarred by pain or grief. The river of Life flows through it, and the Tree of Life grows in its heart, the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
It is, truly, a beautiful vision – and sometimes the gulf between that holy someday City and the cities of this world feels… paralyzing. It’s enough to make us start to recite our own list of reasons why our lives have fallen short of our hopes. I have to work long hours to pay the mortgage and child care; I just don’t have time to volunteer. My family is going through a rough time and I’m the one holding things together; maybe later I’ll be able to do more for others. There’s so much money in politics, it’s impossible for ordinary people like me to make a difference. I help people all day at work; by the weekend I’m drained, with nothing more to give.
We would all very much like it if the brokenness of the world were someone else’s responsibility. Here’s my good word to you, my sisters and brothers in weariness and perplexity: It is. It is somebody else’s responsibility. The redeemed City is God’s city. We are not going to get there by human efforts. It’s not up to us. The image of that City is not supposed to be like a Pinterest Fail that shames our best endeavors. It’s a vision of God’s intentions for humanity, meant to give us hope and reassurance as we struggle and strive in this world.
It’s not up to us. It’s up to God, and God is already on it. Now, that doesn’t let us off the hook entirely. The Jewish tradition gives us the phrase Tikkun Olam, which means, mending the world – very much what we mean when we talk about reconciling as a core Christian practice. And a great rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon, said this about Tikkun Olam, about the work of mending the world: It is not your obligation to finish the task. But neither are you free to stop the work entirely.
It is not your obligation to finish the task. But neither are you free to stop the work entirely.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being – That question can feel as overwhelming as the morning headlines. Like it’s asking us to finish the task. To fix the world. To bring about the redeemed City.
Here’s what I want for you, for us, when we hear that question – I want us to feel our feet on the ground, our community standing shoulder to shoulder, the landscape of our lives stretching out around us. I want this big question to stir up another question inside us: Yes, there’s a lot of brokenness, disorder, injustice and pain. Where can I reach out and touch it? Without even trying? Without leaving the path of my everyday life, without even stretching my arm out all the way? I guarantee you that every single one of us has someplace where we can easily lay hands to the world’s brokenness.
I want this baptismal question to invite us in to the practice of reconciling, to noticing where God is at work in our city, neighborhood, school, workplace, church, family, and joining in what God is doing, wherever the lost are being found, the oppressed are finding justice, the broken are being healed, those in need are finding mercy, those in bondage are finding freedom, and enemies are making peace.
I got about this far in writing my sermon, Thursday morning, and then I went to a forum over at Fountain of Life Church on steps towards greater racial equity in Dane County. The event was a collaboration between three big local anti-racism organizations, Justified Anger, the YWCA, and Race to Equity. And what was striking for me was that those leaders said something a lot like what I just said: Racial disparities and their impact on people of color, and on our community as a whole, are a huge, hard, messy problem. And there’s no master plan to fix it all. There’s no one organization or leader that’s going to give us the perfect 5-step plan to transform Madison into the Redeemed City. Instead, they said, look around your life, your landscape. Get together with your people – your friends, your coworkers, your church folks. Have your own conversations about where you can see and touch the patterns of poverty and inequality in our community. And figure out your role, your call, your work, in common purpose and hope with the work of others across our communities. With the work of God in our communities.
Systemic racism is just one of the shadows that mars Madison, that makes us look less like the redeemed City of John’s vision. It’s just one of the evil powers of this world that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, to borrow words from another part of our baptismal rite. The powers that sicken, impoverish, and isolate people, like that man on the ground in our Gospel story; and that demand our courageous and compassionate response.
I want this great big bold baptismal question to stir up in you the intention and hope that you, YOU, just as you are, can find a way to program or plant or knit or paint or counsel or heal or make music or care for children or report news or call politicians or visit friends or dance or learn or run a business or manage employees or teach or act or administrate or clean or sew or serve on a board or feed people or visit the sick or sell houses or keep cows healthy or solve crimes or go to rallies or write poetry or care for elders or comfort the grieving or catch babies or run a household or take care of animals or write grant proposals or do research or sell insurance or design products in the direction of justice, peace, and human dignity. AMEN.