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Sermon for July 26, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Text: John 5:1-18

                                    Walk with Me

        

This is one of my favorite Bible stories. Known as the miracle story of the healing of the paralyzed man at the sheep-gate pool, I can think of much better names for it. The story could more aptly be called, “Get Up, Grow Up, Go Home”, or maybe “No Excuses” or “The Cost of Whining”.

         Whatever we call it, Jesus says to a paralyzed man, “Don’t make excuses. Quit blaming other people for your problems. Walk with me.” Picture the scenario. On the northern boundary of the city of Jerusalem, there is an opening in the wall through which shepherds brought their sheep into the city for market. Just inside the sheep gate, there are a series of enormous stone pools into which hot springs flowed. Like Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park, it is said that they would burble up from time to time, and the first people down into the waters at that time would be healed of their diseases, the blind, the lame, the sick.

         One time when Jesus entered Jerusalem he passed by the sheep gate pool and had compassion for a paralyzed man, who was no doubt deeply troubled, lying there alone and frustrated. He’d been there most of his adult life. Jesus asked the man if he wanted to be made well, and the man responded by making up an excuse for why this couldn’t happen. The man said, Sir, I have no one to put me down into the water when the water is stirred up, and by the time I get down into the pool, somebody else steps in ahead of me. Poor me.” Jesus ignored his excuses and told him to stand up, pick up his sleeping mat and walk, making him well.

         Now you would think that the man would have hugged Jesus and gone home thrilled with his good fortune, but that was not his nature. While being paralyzed was his presenting problem, this was not what was actually getting in the way of a happy life for him.  What paralyzed him was his tendency to make excuses for himself, blame other people for his circumstances, and pass the buck when called into account for his actions.    

Jesus said, “If you want to be healed, walk with me. Rise, take up your mat and walk. Take responsibility for your life.” No more excuses.

Years ago my husband Ellis coached a Young America Football team. You may not know this about Ellis but he loves the game, even before he ever heard of the Patriots. He wanted to teach kids to love the game too. So he had his first string offense and his first string defense lined up, and there was Rodney, aged nine, who wanted into the game. At practice one day, Rodney just couldn’t stand it, “Coach”, he said, “just let me play wide receiver this one time.” “OK Rodney,” So the quarterback went out and threw a pass right at Rodney, right to his mid-section. Rodney, had the ball, and dropped it. Then he picked it up and ran for the end zone, jumping up and down at his touch down. Coach Ellis went down the field and gave him the bad news. “Rodney, it isn’t a touchdown. You dropped the ball.” “But coach”, he said, “I didn’t mean to.”

No doubt Rodney learned to hang onto the ball and grew up to play All American, but one of the most important things he had to learn was not to make excuses when he made a mistake.  

Jesus said to the man, “Do you want to be made well? Then get up and walk with me. No excuses. No one is responsible for your well being but you.” This is consistent with an ancient Proverb. “He who cannot dance claims the floor is uneven.”

In the second scene of this Bible story, the man prone to making excuses for himself got caught by the authorities carrying his mat. It was illegal to carry a burden on the Sabbath, just as in colonial times it was illegal to do any work or engage in entertainments on the Sabbath. The healed man could have taken responsibility, but instead he blamed Jesus. When confronted with his mat in hand, he said it was Jesus fault, though he didn’t know his name. He was to blame for healing him, (also against the law on the Sabbath), and for making him carry the burden by telling him to carry his mat. It was Jesus fault.

We have a tendency as human creatures to blame our unhappiness on our circumstances or on people around us when life isn’t what we hoped it would be.  I once went on vacation with a relative who was never happy with anything. The food in the restaurant cost too much money. The hotel was too hot, the weather was too humid. After we checked into the motel and drove down the road to the county fair, he was miserable. There were too many people, the funnel cakes were too greasy, the rodeo was too long, the fireworks were shorter than the ones he remembered as a child. We kids couldn’t say anything about it, but we were miserable too. He blamed everyone around him for his underlying dissatisfaction with life.

         We humans have a tendency to blame other people for our unhappiness. Regardless of what has happened in the past, you get to choose how you will respond today. When we blame others, we give our power away.

 

"People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are.” George Bernard Shaw once said, “I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them." Now that’s empowering. That sounds a lot like, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk”, to me.

Taking responsibility for your life is nothing short of revolutionary. This is what it looks like to be healed by Jesus. But the cost of healing isn’t free. It requires us to stop making excuses for why life isn’t what we had hoped. To be healed means that we no longer blame others for anything. We stop being victims, and claim our agency to respond to the new life Christ gives. This is hard. It’s easier to blame the government, our boss, our cranky relative, ungrateful children or unpredictable weather, than to respond to God’s gift of life by taking responsibility for living it as God intends.

   
   

It hurts us when we blame other people for our troubles, but it hurts others too. This story ends badly for Jesus.

First, the man that Jesus healed made excuses from not being able to walk. Then he blamed somebody else when he got caught breaking the law by carrying a load (his sleeping mat) on the Sabbath. Then things got worse. When it looked as if he might actually take responsibility for his own actions, he figured out the name of the person who healed him and went straight to the authorities to report him and thus, get him off the hook. “Uh, Mr. Rabbi. I found the guy. The man you are looking for is named Jesus and he’s over there talking to John.”

“I know the guy who healed me on the Sabbath, so, like it’s not my fault, right? I mean I tried to talk Jesus out of it, and so like he healed me against my will, and then when I wanted to just walk away he made me pick up my bed and carry it out of the area. Like he pretended that he was making room for somebody else to get into the healing waters, but he made me do it, and it’s his fault that I broke the law and carried this bed on the Sabbath.

So the authorities confronted Jesus, and when Jesus said, “God is still working. My father is still working (God is still speaking), and I am still working”, it made them extremely angry, it the Bible says that they looked for ways to kill him. They were livid with him for healing on the Sabbath, and making a man carry a load on the Sabbath, and talking about God in a personal way as if he were his Father.

And the man who was healed got to go home to dinner. And the authorities set their minds against Jesus and began plotting a way to get rid of him.

         Making excuses and blaming others has become a contagious cultural disease according to research by Stanford’s Larissa Tiedens.  

In an experiment conducted by USC's Nathanael Fast and Stanford's Larissa Tiedens, people were asked to read a passage reporting on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's handling of a 2005 special election: the Republican leader had called for a special election for several initiatives (at a cost of millions), but none of the initiatives passed. However, some of the people read a version of the article in which the governor blamed special interests for the defeat of his propositions. Others read a version of the story in which the governor took full responsibility for the defeat.

Later the researchers asked all the participants to write a short essay about a time in their lives when they had failed, including in it an explanation as to why they had failed.

Fast's team then blind-coded the essay responses—they didn't know which passage people had read. Instead, they just scored each essay on the basis of how much blame participants had placed on others.

Participants blamed others twice as much—for their own personal failures —if they read the article about Schwarzenegger blaming the special interests. (In case you were wondering, the pattern was the same for both Republicans and Democrats.)

Considering how small the blame catalyst was, the result was remarkable. The researchers did variations on the experiment—people read stories about who was to blame for someone not being able to find a job, a philanthropic organization that was poorly managing its money, etc. Each time, the pattern repeated itself.

When the participants were exposed to stories in which someone laid the blame squarely on another's shoulders, they were more likely to blame others for their own problems.

It works like this: Watching cable news, a mom hears (someone) blaming the President or State Senator or local Selectman for poor leadership on something. A few minutes later, she insists to her husband that it is his fault that she didn't get the dry cleaning: he should have reminded her of the errand. Her son, having witnessed his mother's blame game, later posts a Facebook status update that his low grade on the algebra quiz was due to his teacher's poor teaching ability.

The good news is that God gives us antidotes for the blame contagion. The Bible tells us that “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.”  Jesus responded to the man’s tendency to make excuses and to blame other people for his problems by telling him to knock it off.

I’d like to conclude this morning with a story told by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, teacher and peace activist.

"When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change." 

“Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asked. Then get up, stop making excuses, take up your bed and walk, go your way and don’t blame anyone for the things that happen in your life. Make choices that support the life God intends for you, and by the grace of God, your faith will make you well.”

May it be so. Amen