Maybe it’s the mood I’m in these days, but does the guy whom Jesus heals in today’s Gospel [John 5.1-18] strike you as a bit of a whiner? When Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed, instead of saying, “Yes, indeedy, I sure do,” the man replies, ‘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.’ Again, maybe it’s just me, but I seem to hear a note of exasperation in Jesus’s response: ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ I’m not sure they had the phrase, “Get over it!” in Jesus’s day, but if they did, he might have used it here. When I get strung out, it is comforting to recall that even Jesus could be a bit short-tempered.
So not only does today’s Gospel begin with a psychodynamically bizarre interaction, it continues with what I find to be one of the most unintentionally funny lines in the New Testament. (Admittedly, the New Testament is not a lot of laughs, so you don’t have to go very far to be funnier than “O foolish Galatians!” or “Wives be subject to your husbands.”) Right after Jesus heals the man, the legalistic rule-abiders see the formerly lame man walking and carrying his mat, and they say to them, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ Now that strikes me as hilarious—trying to arrest a formerly lame man for carrying his mat. That’s like a cop walking into Lourdes and saying, “It’s illegal to mount your crutches on the wall.” “It is not lawful for you to carry your mat!?” Talk about missing the point.
As with last Sunday’s story about Jesus’s healing the man born blind, there seems to be a subplot in this passage, buried not very deep beneath the surface, about our tendency as human beings to cast our attention in the wrong direction. On Sunday, the Pharisees missed the point of the blind man’s restoration to sight and focused, instead, on the technical legal issues which surrounded it. And the dissonance, the disparity between the enormity of the miracle (restoring sight, curing a man lame for 38 years) and the legalistic response (you were doing miracles in a no-miracles zone) seems to be a product not only of religious fussiness but of something deep in human nature itself.
That disparity comes when we think about something like the Sabbath. In his little book on the subject [The Sabbath], Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath “a palace in time”. What he meant by that is that the God of Israel, who was not to be identified with a physical sanctuary, had hallowed a particular bit of time—one day of the week—as the meeting place of God and human beings. There has, we all know, been a rediscovery of the idea of Sabbath in recent Christian thinking, and the Jews have understood and honored this observance throughout their history. So we are not to take Jesus’s Sabbath healings as some kind of protest against a day of rest. There are plenty of New Testament places where we see Jesus seeking quiet and solitude. He’s not running an anti-Sabbath guerilla movement here. Something else is involved.
And that something else gets at that thing deep in human nature that wants to take that which is life-giving and wonderful and put rules and regulations around it. In some ways, the very idea of the institutional church itself is an attempt on the part of us human beings to codify and make regular and predictable that which is essentially wild and unpredictable and free. In “Holy the Firm” Annie Dillard talks about church as a “high wire act”, a dangerous thing we’re doing when we get together. And yet we treat it as if it’s regular and predictable and sensible. But there’s nothing at all sensible about it. We are messing with fire when we get together. And yet we think—with our canon law and our orders and our printed liturgies—that we can somehow contain it. More fools we.
I think one of the points of this reading is that God, as the Yahwist knew, is free. God will do what God will do, and the human codes and systems and structures that we have set up to contain God are all ultimately doomed to fail. That is what Jesus means when he says, later on in this passage, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ God will do what God will do. And if that means that blind people regain their sight and lame men walk on a day ritually set aside for rest, so be it. It’s not that the Sabbath doesn’t mean anything. Rather it’s that, even as beautiful and holy and blessed an ordinance as the Sabbath finally needs to stand aside in the face of something greater.
And that something greater, of course, is the kind of deep and compassionate love of God for all God’s suffering creatures exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were clear that holiness was not as important as charity: when a beggar made his way to your sacred cave, you were supposed to drop your breviary and give him some food. In the same way, it is important that we humans observe the Sabbath—and by extension the pious practices and rituals that enable us both to praise God and experience God’s presence in the here and now. But there is one thing that is more important: and that is responding to a fellow creature who suffers. “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” The sun shines and the grass grows even on the Sabbath. God may have rested on the seventh day of creation, but God is always somehow at work. And the work of God—not, please note, the work of the church—the work of God is always before us. The poor are still poor on the Sabbath, the oppressed still oppressed, the lonely, the sick, the outcast, the mourners are all still in their conditions even on the Sabbath. God rejoices when we keep the Sabbath. How much more does God rejoice when, even on the Sabbath, the teachings of Jesus in the Beatitudes come to life.
I don’t have any neat way to tie this to Seabury, its future, and the processes of discernment and change we are going through right now. But I will say this. My main responsibility as Dean and President of this school is to make sure that, in whatever form it comes to find expression going forward, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary continues to serve the ministries of the Episcopal Church for which it was founded and to which so many people have given their energies and resources over the years. But I am also deeply aware that what we are dealing with here are human realities. We all love this place, its life, its traditions, its role in the church. And we all love and feel for each other, especially in a time when so much is yet to be determined. None of us likes living with unanswered questions. But we would be less than faithful if we rushed to quick solutions in order to assuage our anxiety.
So I don’t know yet what Seabury will become. But I do know that it will become something coherent with the historic mission it has always enacted, and it will make that transition in ways that are deeply respectful of the people who love and serve God in this place. I know that because I know something else. I know that Jesus is to be both believed and trusted when he says, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” And it’s because, however confused and anxious we may be, that we can continue to proclaim that both Jesus and the One he calls his Father are still working, even when that work happens outside our structures and systems and usually out of our sight and hearing, that we can together gather at his table and give thanks. Amen.