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Jesus and the Invalids

Jesus makes his way from the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem around 33 AD to our city in 2019. Jesus can do this because Jesus is alive and because Jesus shows up behind locked doors and along roads to Emmaus and over breakfast with confused disciples. Also, because, well, Jesus is God. He walks around our city streets to see what he will see.

He makes his way the hospital. Or the Extendicare facility. Or the dementia ward. He sees the sadness, the confusion, the losses piling up upon losses, the ways in which we institutionalize our most vulnerable people, keeping them out of sight where their presence isn’t a nagging reminder of what might be coming for us. He sees the gnawing fear—theirs and ours. He sees the longing for wholeness or relief. Or release.

Or maybe Jesus wanders down the road to the jail. He sees the neglected and rejected kids, the hurt people who hurt people, the addicts and the misfits, the abused and the abusers, the victims of toxic systems of racism. The liars and the thieves, those looking for a warm bed and a hot meal in winter. The ones who will tell anyone who will listen that they didn’t do it. The ones who will tell anyone who will listen exactly what they did.

Or maybe he makes his way to the safe injection site. He surveys the scene—the addicted, the homeless, more victims of racism, the criminals, the mentally ill, the predators and the prey, the broken and discarded pieces of humanity who are far easier to blame than to try to understand.

Or maybe Jesus walks into the mall and sees people consuming and distracting themselves into spiritual oblivion. He sees the expensive gadgets and endless entertainment options. He sees all the ways in people seek to escape. He sees people living indulgently, carelessly, recklessly, thoughtlessly. He sees our addiction to technology and all the ways we have of self-medicating to relieve the boredom of lives in search of meaning.

Or maybe Jesus finds his way to a gym and sees people frantically pummeling their bodies into submission because they’re trying to measure up to some impossible standard of what health and strength and beauty look like. Or because they’re afraid of death.

Or maybe Jesus makes his way into a library, or a coffee shop, or a pub, or a park bench on a lovely spring day, and he listens in on anxious conversations about the future. Our own individual futures. The future of our kids, the church, the culture, the planet. We so desperately long for futures of goodness, hope and meaning, but we’re not always sure how to get from here to there.

Or maybe Jesus shows up at an ordinary middle-class home with ordinary people just trying to make their way in the world. Maybe he sees an untended marriage or estranged kids or lonely suburbanites marinating in social media and Netflix, or people wondering if there shouldn’t be more to life than this.

Maybe he sees people whose faith, hope, and love have dwindled down into not much at all, people who have settled, who are just putting in time, drifting aimlessly instead of living creatively and purposefully.

Wherever Jesus goes, he sees people in pain and in need. He knows the story behind the story. He knows the story behind every story.

He knows all of our afflictions, all the things that hurt and frighten us. He knows the ways in which we have been victimized, the ways in which our suffering is not our fault. He knows the ways in which we are sometimes the instruments of our own misfortune. He knows the things we have done and the things we have left undone.

Jesus could sit patiently and listen to our version of the story. And he might, another time. But today, he just has one question. Do you want to be made well? That’s it. It’s not a question of explanation or analysis or justification or blame. It’s a question of desire.

What do you want?

It’s a question that offends and unsettles us, perhaps. How can you ask such a thing, Jesus? Thirty-eight years by the pool?! Twenty years of grief? Ten years of fighting this illness?! Five years in the fog of this depression?! Of course I want to be well!

But Jesus asks it anyway. He knows how easy it is for pain and victimhood to become our defining narrative. He knows that no matter who we are or what we’ve endured or what we are presently going through, there are forms of strength available to each one of us in every situation through the power and the example of the risen Christ.

***

Jesus made one final stop on his walk through our city. It was Sunday morning, so Jesus decided to go to church. Maybe it was our church. Or maybe Jesus decided to visit the Anglicans, or the Lutherans, or the Evangelicals, or the Catholics.

And what did Jesus see when he showed up at church? Did he see religious business as usual? Did he see shiny buildings and well-dressed people? Did he see clever sermons, polished music, and bustling programs?

Did he see religious professionals who were more concerned with correct procedures and proper interpretations, who, like the Jewish religious leaders of his day, seemed to think that their job was to police and promote the ways in which God was allowed to work in the world, who would rather silence the Healer than celebrate the healing?

Or…

Did he see communities that had room for invalids? For the “not strong” ones? Did he see people who were trying to understand the story behind the ugly and painful stories, people who had determinedly set their course to love the lost and the unlovely.

Did he see people who paid their neighbours and each other the compliment of refusing to see them as nothing but victims of their pain? Did Jesus see a community who knew that they were all, in fact, invalids? That they were all “not strong.”

Did he see a people who had covenanted to walk together, to support each other, to help one another get to the source of their healing? Did he see people who knew that the church was not a museum for the righteous but a hospital for the sick?

One thing we know about Jesus, then and now. He sees. He knows. And he offers life to all who will come.

—-

The preceding is an edited and condensed version of a sermon preached at Lethbridge Mennonite Church, May 26, 2019. The sermon is based on John 5:1-18 and reflects on the Latin roots of the word “invalid” (“not strong”).

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for this, Ryan. One thing that registered with me, though, is the feeling that Jesus would consider us as a church and as church members to be found wanting. So often we preach the “we ought to” and “we ought to be” as opposed to reinforcing that which we have done and are doing that responds to the gospel commission, along with small forward steps, of course. I noted as a teacher that learning happens when a student’s small steps are rewarded, not so much when the distance to a curricular goal is underlined. Setting outcomes that the person in the pew can’t reach is also something we need to guard against. The 85 year-old man who sits in front of me in church knows full well that his life circumstance means there’s no possible way for him to ease the pain of an addict in Vancouver. I think we too often preach to the church universal, or to the church denominational and forget that neither of those are in the pews, but Sarah Martens and John Friesen are. (fictitious names.)

    June 11, 2019
    • It wasn’t my intent to underline “the distance to a curricular goal.” My goal in writing the sermon in the way I did was to anchor the passage in everyday realities and relationships in our city and our church, as well as to shrink the distance between those we consider present-day “invalids” and ourselves.

      June 11, 2019

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