A sermon preached April 10, 2016, based on John 5:1-8.
By the Christian calendar, we are in the season of greatest joy and triumph. But according to another calendar, we are entering a season of great deprivation. College basketball is over. This last Monday, Villanova beat the University of North Carolina in the finals of the NCAA Tournament on a last-second three pointer – my friend Geoffrey called it the sixth greatest moment in Duke basketball history. As the ball was passing through the net, our 21-year old Laken sent us a celebratory text message and a picture of Michael Jordan crying – upon receiving it, Jennifer looked at each other, and we were so proud.
The animosity between Duke and Carolina runs deep, and it has inspired many, many stories. Lately, however, I’ve been more interested in a story of what didn’t happen. While I was doing some online reading about my team, I discovered that just a couple weeks ago, Duke’s squad shared a restaurant with a couple of Tarheels during a team dinner at Kanki Steakhouse. It turns out, Duke always has its team dinners at Kanki, and the Tarheels didn’t know. The two groups avoided each other, nothing happened, and there is no reason at all for anyone else to care. Except for this, the only Kanki Steakhouse in Durham stands about a mile from my first apartment in Durham. Do you know how often I would have eaten there if I knew that’s where Duke has its team dinners? I should have been there every week ordering something cheap, a bowl of broth or some rice, just seeing who might show up. As it is I ate there only once, with some friends for new year’s - when Duke wasn’t even in town. And what’s worse, Kanki is a Japanese-style steakhouse where accordance with an ancient marketing gimmick, they seat you next to total strangers. Imagine the scene: I sit at a table with Jennifer, coolly chatting up our cook for the night. I order the flying shrimp inferno, when a bevy of gentlemen in athletic shorts and polos fill the remaining seats at the table. I’m sitting next to Coach K, and all 43 of his assistant coaches. I acknowledge them, and turn back to Jennifer and my crustaceans del fuego. Then, as the coaches confer, I lean over to them and make an unassuming but deeply insightful comment on last night’s game. We begin talking, and soon Coach K is telling then-assistant Johnny Dawkins to find me a spot on the bench for the next game. I show up, in my suit as assistant coach #44. I devise the crucial inbounds play that wins us the game and go on to be the unsung hero of a magical season. I am so unsung, in fact, that for years afterwards people say, "You know who doesn’t get enough credit for that fourth championship banner, Michael Precht, that’s who." And then they wonder whatever happened to that plucky little guy whose story began with a chance encounter at a sizzling table of seafood and fried rice.
Some might accuse me of an overactive imagination. But I am not alone in seeing how a person’s habits can infuse a certain place with mystique and possibility. When my family moved to Orlando, the neighborhood welcome went beyond directions to the closest stores, restaurants and shortcuts. Wiithin a week, they’d already been told where in town Shaq usually shops for groceries and where Tiger woods likes to breakfast (incidentally, it’s a Perkins Family Restaurant. And yes, that information became more infamous in years to come). And what would romantic comedies (or for that matter, junior high) be without that moment where the guy or gall lingers in certain place, pretending to be surprised by the arrival of a secret crush, when really, they’d been hoping for such a moment all the time.
But all such fancies pale when compared with the hope of the place in today’s story. We don’t know exactly what to call the place -- some call it Bethesda, some Bethsaida -- the NRSV calls it Bethzatha, I think because that’s the hardest to pronounce. We know that it consisted of a natural spring, surrounded by about five hollowed out caves. We know that for ages, people had come to the spring for the curative effects of its water. At various times, the spring would bubble up and become cloudy with silt, and there would be a rush to the pool and the first person in, so the story went, would receive a miraculous cure of whatever ailed them. Some of you may have a note in your bible that the people of the day believed the bubbling was caused by an angel of God. And it was the hope of this place that caused, we are told, the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed to gather around the spring, filling the caves, waiting for their shot at salvation.
And among these was a particular man. We don’t have any name for him. We only know that he had been ill for a very long time, so long that he was too weak or too afflicted to walk with any strength. Somehow, he had made it to the pool, but the effort seemed useless. He would never be able to beat the crowd and reach the water first. And yet, he stuck around. It’s tough to imagine why he would pin himself in amongst the crowd, why not just give up and sit in the sunlight? Why not let go of the hope and live out his days without the flood of disappointment that swept over him with the crowd at every gurgle of the spring? I suppose he stayed because he believed that this, at least, was a place where God hung out. And if God could check in to stir a miraculous spring, what else might happen in that place?
As it turns out, our man was right. God was hanging about the place. But the twist, the gracious surprise, is that God did not swing by as an invisible hand, churning the waters. God walked into that place in the person of Jesus Christ.In that place so full of possibility, Jesus offered more than the man had dared to hope. Christ spoke: — Get up! Walk! — and it was done. No fight, no pool, no heroic effort for our man. Instead, a sudden, inexplicable reversal that was everything and nothing he had looked for.
As often happens, our man was too shocked to be polite. He didn’t think to ask the name of his deliverer. We don’t know that he even said “thanks.” He went on his way, carrying his mat for all to see, and when people demanded how he came be so bold and brash, he didn’t really have an answer, which I imagine was somewhat embarrassing. He didn’t understand what had happened well enough to even tell the story properly. Thankfully, though, he found himself in another of God’s haunts, the temple. And sure enough, God found him again. Jesus walked up and said in effect, "It doesn’t stop here. I gave you the power to walk, now take the power to really live. Throw away the sin that paralyzes you." This time, our man listened, he got Jesus’ name, and he began to share a story too big to be contained.
Since our beginning. Christians have insisted we cannot reach God on our own power. Instead we depend upon the gracious surprise of Jesus Christ, who enters our lives and makes us well. Sometimes, the surprise comes out of nowhere. Paul was on a mundane highway, going to hunt down Christians, when Christ took hold of him. Most of the time, however, the surprise is not where we find Jesus but how. We know Jesus that hangs out in certain places:
“Whenever you serve the least of these, you serve, me.” I don’t think Jesus cared a bit about bubbling water. But I’m sure God hung out at the spring, because it was surrounded by the lame, the blind, and the paralyzed. God hangs out with life’s underdogs.
“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also.” Jesus found our man the second time at the temple. And when he was 12 years old, Christ drove his parents crazy because he was hanging out there when they wanted to go home. As he said to them “Where else would I be?” God hangs out with God’s people, especially when they gather to worship.
Throughout Scripture we have promises that Christ is lingering in the breaking of the bread, in the waters of baptism, in the reading of Scripture, in the prisons, the poorhouses, and in prayer.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called all of these the “means of grace.” He likened them to channels or pipes that God uses to send his love and forgiveness and power. These are the ways and places God shows up. We talk all the time about wanting to know Jesus, to see Jesus, to hear Jesus. For Wesley, all of that was just talk unless we are actually willing to go where Jesus is gonna be.
So what do we do? How do we hang out where God does? Well, in this church, we have identified five particular habits, five particular means of grace, and whenever someone joins this church, they commit to cultivate these habits so that we can be where Christ is at work. Those habits are prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. We make that covenant when we join the church, and spend the rest of our lives living up to it. Your Grace Note is a means for offering God your prayers, and your presence, and your gifts. When you make a decision for Christ, the Grace Note is a sign of witness, and it is a means for announcing that you want to serve. So in a way, every week, our worship ends with us re-committing ourselves to prayer and presence, gifts, service and witness. But we don’t just renew our commitment weekly. Once a year, we take time to prayerfully look at our own lives and ask “how will I hang out with God”? For the next three weeks, I am asking you to prayerfully discern the ministry areas where God is calling you to hang out with God in the next twelve months. Then, on May 1, we will turn in our commitments together in a day of celebration. Between now and then, we are using each week to remind ourselves of our commitment, and to pray that God will make us faithful to it in the coming year.
Last week, we remembered our covenant of prayer. In this church, we ask everyone to develop a daily habit of prayer that is shaped by scripture. In particular, I asked us all to pray this last week that our church would be faithful to its mission: uniting the diversity of our community to the grace of Jesus Christ, by discipleship, worship and service. Our mission is all about uniting. It’s right there in our name – First United Methodist Church, and its right there in Ephesians 2:17, which says that when Christ came, he came "announcing the good news of peace, bringing together those who were far away from God and those who were near."
It is because we believe in the power of a uniting God, a God who makes peace, that we believe that God hangs out wherever the people of God are present to one another. The second covenant we make, after prayer, is a covenant of presence. In this church, we expect every person to belong to some small group where they can come to know their fellow Christians, and be known in return.
If you received my Friday email this week, you know that the idea small groups has been essential to the Methodist church since the very beginning. The Methodist church began as a revival movement, and when most people think of revivals they think of big preaching events and giant crowds. The Methodist revival, however, was driven by small groups. The early Methodist preachers refused to go to any city that didn’t already have a system of small groups active and waiting for them, because they found that whatever spiritual fire might start with a sermon would burn out in a very short time unless the people of God met together regularly in small groups to fan the flames. None of us was made to follow God on our own. Think of the man at the pool in Bethsaida, waiting and sitting so close to the power of God. Jesus asks “do you want to be made well?” and he says “Sir, I have no one to help me.”
Now in this church, we realize that groups come in different forms and serve different needs. In this church you will hear us talk about three kinds of groups: fellowship, study, and service. Service groups are groups that unite people with a common talent or interest that serves others. Last week, we blessed the offerings of our Yarn Ministry – that’s a service group that blesses each other by blessing the world around us. "The Yarnies" as Cathrin Owens calls them, know each other, and how to pray for one another because every week they gather to knit prayer shawls, and lapghans and all manner of gifts that go out to Covenant hospice and other community groups. Our choir, and praise band, and all our soup kitchen groups have all discovered the same thing. That sometimes God unites us by giving us something to do.
At other times, God unites us by giving us something to talk about. Our study groups meet for a short time, usually 8-9 weeks at a time to study a particular book or topic. Most of our study groups gather on Wednesday nights, or other times in the week. The centerpiece of the study group is the topic – whether that’s studying a book of the bible, or a particular theme or issue in modern life from a Christian perspective. Our study groups are the great melting pot of the church, uniting people from different worship services and backgrounds and giving them something in common as they read a book or watch a video study together.
Lastly, we have our fellowship groups – like our Sunday Schools and home groups, our United Methodist Men and Women. You know you’re in a fellowship group when you realize that it doesn’t matter what topic you’re talking about, or what you’re doing. What matters is each other.
I am absolutely convinced that the most life-changing thing that can happen to you is to find yourself in a group of people who will ask “How is it with your soul?” and listen with grace while you give an honest answer. This isn’t some new idea. It’s been embedded in our faith since the very beginning. Jesus preached to crowds, but also shared his life with 12 apostles who prayed with him. He never sent them off alone, but always in groups of two or three. Centuries later, when the Methodist revival was in full swing, the first two Methodist bishops summed up the power of Christian fellowship this way:
We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart.
- Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury
"Wherever two or more are gathered, I am there with them" – and if God is hanging out with us,, who knows what might happen? We’ll be looking at a spring, and he’ll show up as a person. A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a study group on evangelism, but we found ourselves talking about prayer. One member of the group asked if we could pray for her, and before you knew it, every hand in the room was on her shoulders, praying for healing from a persistent condition that had been plaguing her. The next day she sent us this message: “I awoke this morning somehow different; my symptoms are gone. God answered your prayers.”
It’s fun to imagine a chance encounter that could change your life. But it’s when we are willing to linger in God’s favorite places that life begins in all its wonder, depth, and shock. I pray that this will be a season to meet God, not just once, but in the caves, the temple and all the places he hangs out. There is so much grace, stirring the waters of the world – let us hang out where God does, and let us accept the help that we need.